Director Atom Egoyan brought his new film, Devil’s Knot, to the Toronto International Film Festival this year. Telling the now almost legendary story of the West Memphis Three, the film serves as a dramatization of the events and boasts a star studded cast, with big Hollywood names like Colin Firth, Reese Witherspoon, Dane DeHaan, Stephen Moyer and more all showing up in roles.
For those who are unaware, Devil’s Knot tells the story of the heinous murder of three young boys in Arkansas in 1993 and the subsequent trial and conviction of 17 year old Jessie Misskelley, 16 year old Jason Baldwin and 18 year old Damien Echols, aka the West Memphis Three.
A couple days ago I was lucky enough to catch up with Mr. Egoyan for a lengthy, 1 on 1 discussion about his new film. Though I didn’t love Devil’s Knot, I very much enjoyed speaking with Atom as he had a lot of interesting insights to share on both the true story that inspired these events as well as the filmmaking process.
Check out the interview below, and enjoy!
We Got This Covered: How did the premiere go last night?
Atom Egoyan: It went well! During production, after we were done shooting for the day, we would retire to a bar in Atlanta and just sit around and discuss our theories and what we had learnt that day. Everyone had been in contact with the real people that they were representing and so there was this constant stream of information coming through everyday. So that was great. And then last night, it was like a big reunion and we were all back in that world again and talking about it again. Jason Baldwin was there too, and that was really amazing, and so was Joe Burlinger. It was all pretty crazy.
We Got This Covered: You mentioned Jason was at the premiere, was he on set with you too? And what about Damien and Jessie?
Atom Egoyan: Only Jason was on set. Jessie has sort of gone back to life as it was before and Damien didn’t support the film so he wouldn’t come. He read a draft and felt that the movie was re-victimizing him somehow. I’m not sure if he understood that what we were doing was dramatically necessary to tell our story but I understand his viewpoint completely and I respect it. He has his own story to tell obviously and he’ll tell his version. But Jason was really supportive.
We Got This Covered: Was it not important to you when making this film to get the support of all three boys since it’s their story you’re telling and they are the real victims here?
Atom Egoyan: Well, the real victims are also the three boys who died. But I think that the story of the West Memphis Three is certainly at the core of this. Devil’s Knot is a dramatic re-telling so we’re looking at the events from a number of different perspectives. So we needed to show the community and how this terrible tragedy affects the community. We also wanted to show how the community was able to zero in on these three teenagers. To tell the story entirely from the perspective of the West Memphis Three, it would not allow us to really understand why that particular series of actions was set in place. It would have been great to have the support of Jessie and Damien but I understand that they didn’t want to go back to the particular place. I really understand it. It means a ton to have Jason’s support though, it really does.
We Got This Covered: Did you meet with Damien in person?
Atom Egoyan: Nope, but we had an exchange. He asked me to stop making the film at one point, but I didn’t feel that would be right.Next
We Got This Covered: What about the support from the families of the boys who were murdered, were they ok with you making the film?
Atom Egoyan: Well, again, obviously Pam Hobbs was there and she was on set throughout the whole shoot. And Reese [Witherspoon] spent a lot of time with her. The Moore’s didn’t want anything to do with it because they still believe that the West Memphis Three are guilty and have situated themselves that way. And John Mark Byers was in touch with the producers a bit but he never came around the set.
Last night all of the cast members were talking about their relationship to the particular character that they were playing. It was very interesting because some of them had a close relationship and some of them just had a phone relationship, but each of them went on a particular journey.
For me as the director though, I didn’t feel like I had to go on a journey. My feeling watching the documentaries on the West Memphis Three was that there was something about the way the characters presented themselves that was very performative, because they knew they had a camera on them. I wanted to kind of tone that down and find a more levelled approach to it. I wanted to see them all not as characters but as human beings and understand each of them on their own terms. It was ambitious and risky, because the film is really asking us troubling questions like how can we live with doubt and how can we live not knowing?
We Got This Covered: You mentioned talking about theories as to who really committed the murders, do you have your own personal theory?
Atom Egoyan: I have a really strong theory but it’s not in the film. It’s just the result of spending so much time with Devil’s Knot. It doesn’t mean anything. I told Joe Burlinger about it last night and he was just like “oh, that’s not bad.” Everyone has a theory, right? What we’re presenting in the film is all documented. Some of it quite literally too. All the dialogue in the courtroom, that is all verbatim. It’s public record so we could use it.
We Got This Covered: When did you first hear about the story of the West Memphis Three?
Atom Egoyan: I saw the original documentary back in the 90s and thought it was great. I didn’t see the second or third ones though. But then the script for Devil’s Knot came my way and I was immediately seized by the possibilities of it as a film. Then I read Mara Leveritt’s novel and really loved that too, so the writers kind of wove strands from that into the script. So we finally emerged with the structure that we shot with. Then we spent almost a year in editing, it was a very difficult film to put together. I’ve never spent so much time in editing. I had to find the right balances. I was also tortured over the use of titles. I don’t like to do that but it became obvious that it was needed. So it took a long time.
We Got This Covered: Why do you feel the titles were needed? Was it that so the audience can easily follow the events that were unfolding?
Atom Egoyan: Well I like the fact that the story could be totally mysterious and you’d have to figure it all out for yourself, but it became clear that we needed a sense of what was going on. There were some things that the audience just wouldn’t know unless they was actually stated. There were other things that needed to be clarified too and that needed to be spelled out, for the sake of the story. It took me a long time to come to terms with that because I don’t like seeing titles. I never do it. I really felt more than any other movie I’ve made that with Devil’s Knot, I had to let go some of my stylistic obsessions. Even the look of the film, I usually have a more heightened palette, but that felt wrong for this movie. This is a very challenging movie for audiences and the titles give them something to hang their hat on.
We Got This Covered: Why are you telling this story again? We’ve already seen several documentaries on it, why do you feel the need to tell it again?
Atom Egoyan: It’s just such an amazing piece of mythology. I think it will continue to be re-told over and over again. I mean, you couldn’t even design a story like this. If you were to confabulate this, no one would believe it. It’s just almost supernatural. It’s the stuff of myth. So how does a community deal with that? That’s the story I wanted to tell. This is an act of evil and it’s just simply incomprehensible. And that’s my feeling towards all these theories. They are all incomprehensible. Not my theory though, mine is actually comprehensible. I’ll tell you it off the record. [laughs]
We Got This Covered: Speaking of theories, why did you choose to decide to end the film right after the initial conviction, why not explore some of those theories?
Atom Egoyan: Because there is nothing else after that.
We Got This Covered: Ok, maybe nothing concrete or proven, but why not explore some of the more plausible theories?
Atom Egoyan: I think all of the best theories go beyond what was actually explored at the time. There are some great theories, but they all came about later on. They didn’t formulate until 10, 15 years later, so we didn’t include them in the film.
That concludes our interview but we’d like to thank Atom for taking the time to talk with us. Be sure to check out Devil’s Knot when it hits theatres in 2014!Previous