Many years ago, even before I started writing for Ain't It Cool, I was just a plain old film enthusiast with a list of favorite directors both past and present, and a list of directors I still needed to discover. One of my earliest passions of the list of relatively new directors was the Canadian visionary Atom Egoyan, and right around the time his masterpiece THE SWEET HEREAFTER was released, the Art Institute of Chicago's Film Center played a few of his earlier works, including great films like THE ADJUSTER, EXOTICA, and one of my personal favorites of Egoyan, CALENDAR.
Since that time, he's released such provocative pieces as FELICIA'S JOURNEY, ARARAT, WHERE THE TRUTH LIES, ADORATION and CHLOE. Some of these films are journeys into the sensual and strange, while others are more ruthless and raw. A few are just batshit crazy, but the passion is evident. His latest film, THE CAPTIVE, starring Ryan Reynolds, Scott Speedman, Rosarios Dawson and Mireille Enos, is premiering at this year's Cannes Film Festival. But I got to speed with Egoyan recently about the film he made just before that, which premiered at last year's Toronto Film Festival, DEVIL'S KNOT, a feature film version of the events surrounding the killing of three young children in West Memphis, Arkansas, for which three teenagers (know collectively as the West Memphis 3) were accused, convicted and subsequently released.
The evidence- and witness-free conviction was brought down based largely on the prosecution's stirring up fear that the killings were part of a satanic ritual. As you probably know, the events surrounding the case were the subject of the three-part PARADISE LOST documentaries, as well as the Peter Jackson-produced doc WEST OF MEMPHIS from a couple of years ago. With DEVIL'S KNOT, Egoyan's great challenge (with writers Paul Harris Boardman and Scott Derrickson, working from Mara Leveritt's book of the same name) is to distill years with of details and stories into a two-hour film, which stars Colin Firth, Resse Witherspoon, Dane DeHaan, Elias Koteas, Alessandro Nivola, Amy Ryan, Stephen Moyer, Bruce Greenwood, and Mireille Enos.
It's an almost-impossible task to pull this material together and provide a sufficient dramatic arc that truly encapsulates the nuances of the case and how the trial placed a microscopic on the ugliest kinds of human and American behavior and prejudices, but Egoyan and his fellow artists do an admirable job nonetheless. Please enjoy my talk with Atom Egoyan…
Capone: Hi, Atom. How are you?
Atom Egoyan: Hi, Steve. How are you?
Capone: Great, great. I’ve been a great admirer of your work for so many years. So, it’s good to finally be able to talk to you.
AE: Oh, cool. Thank you. I’m dying for you to see the new movie, THE CAPTIVE.
Capone: Oh yeah, absolutely. That’s playing at Cannes like in a few weeks, right? I’m very excited to see that. With the particular case that’s presented in DEVIL’S KNOT, the West Memphis 3, did you follow this case much beyond the documentaries and the books that came out? When did you first become interested in this case?
AE: Yeah, I saw the original documentary, PARADISE LOST, when it came out in 1996, and that left an impression on me. Like many people, I was just so disturbed by the movie, but I didn’t read the books and I wasn’t really following the case beyond that until I was really presented with the script, and suddenly I plunged back into that world, and it’s an extraordinary world to plunge into. There are so many aspects that I felt could be further explored, and so many other avenues that could have been pursued by this system that were let go. I began to realize, it was the stuff of fiction and drama. What we saw in the documentary was just one aspect of what happened in that town.
There was a whole dimension, not only to the individual stories, the people involved, but in terms of the structure, this idea that there was a wealth of possibilities that only made the case more unresolved ultimately. That the documentary leaves you feeling "If only they had pursued that person they would have had a fair trial," or "That’s where the real culprit is." And, in fact, it’s not that easy. With this case, the further you go, the more unresolved it becomes, and it’s going to be a unique situation that way, where the crime scene itself was almost supernatural.
It was clearly such a meticulously executed crime that would have taken a lot of time to tie those knots and strip those bodies, but the fact that there was no evidence, there were no footprints or blood or DNA; branches hadn’t been touched. It was just rendered creepy and supernatural. And then seeing those videos of the bodies being found and how outrageous that felt, and for this to happen in the deep South, in a very, very religious community was so shocking and clearly an act of extreme evil. And clearly if demons weren't discovered, they’d have to be creative. So the process of that became really interesting to me as a dramatist. How that was done and how the courtroom was able to generate those demons, at the exclusion of all the other possible roots that were left unexplored.
I wanted to submerge the viewer into that place A lot of people don’t watch documentaries, and a lot of people aren’t aware of the case, so I think that this is an opportunity to introduce what is really the most troubling pieces of modern urban mythology.
Capone: You call it mythology, but in fact you have to keep reminding yourself that it’s real, that it’s not a made up story, because it just keeps getting more and more unbelievable the deeper into the story you go. But you do have to keep reminding yourself: this really happened; it’s actually not based on a book.
AE: Yeah, I think that was really one of the more challenging aspects of the film was how to do that in a way that was able to situate the viewer in all the different genres, if you will that the story itself seemed to float through. Between these moments of murder mystery or thriller or horror or courtroom procedural--almost like melodrama. It seemed like everything was swirling around in this town in that particular year. I wanted to make the lack of resolution the dramatic point. How do we live with doubt? How do we emerge from a situation like this without having answers? And I think that while the town seemed to come to this conclusion by the end of the trial, you’re left with these two individuals who are deeply troubled and left wondering. So the whole film is really structured around that meeting in the forest in the end.
Capone: Why do you think it is that we have such trouble as a society dealing with unresolved questions like this? Why is it that when we don’t have a clear answer, we’re literally willing to fabricate suspects or blame to satisfy that need for some sort of resolution?
SG: I think it’s because we are so bombarded with answers to everything. And I think that’s only become more acute in the 20 years since the West Memphis 3 trial. We expect that there’s an answer somewhere. We expect that there’s somewhere a piece of surveillance tape, or there’s some witness or there’s some explanation that will give us some concrete answer. I think what’s happened here--and the reason why I choose to think of it as a piece of mythology--is that it’s an endearing tale of something that will never be resolved. Something that can be so horrifying, so meticulously executed will never really have a resolution.
Let’s be clear: for all of these theories and documentaries and books and conjectures, none of it has ever actually been represented. And we’re still the same place that we were 20 years ago. We’re no closer to an answer, and that’s shocking really, and I wanted the viewer to understand that, yes, there are a number of different possibilities. There’s the bloody man at Bojangles, there’s Chris Morgan, there's the story of the knife [that was given to the PARADISE LOST filmmakers by the father of one of the boys]. All of these might have been smoking guns, or they may not have been smoking guns. And unlike the documentaries, which seem to go "If only this had been followed, there would have been justice," I’m not sure it’s as simple as that. As a matter of fact, I’m pretty sure it’s not. I’m pretty sure that this was a case that was as much about trying to deal with real justice as it was dealing with an absolute panic of the unknown. That’s really what this town couldn’t live with.
Capone: Yeah, there's a line in the film that Reese Witherspoon says to Colin Firth "Just don’t forget about us.” And I think that applies to the families, obviously as well as the dead boys. But there did seem to be a sense that the actual crime became secondary at a certain point. Uncovering a satanic cult in this town that became the the primary focus here. But she’s right to say that, and it's the running message of the film.
AE: Yeah, this is about three young boys who went to play in a forest and never came back, and about parents who experienced the worst nightmare that any parent could ever imagine. It’s also about this heroic turn around where this woman who has every reason to believe, and she did, that these boys were capable of this, and we see that. That was one of the moments that was meticulously reconstructed from the media footage of the time, Pam in a red dress saying “Just look at them.” It’s about a woman who actually had the courage to say what happened in that court room was a sham, and that she’s still looking.
I think that ultimately, justice is not necessarily served in these very organized, social procedures that we have developed--courtrooms or police investigations. Very often it’s about an understanding between two individuals in front of that pipe in the deep of night, looking at each other and saying, “We don’t know. We may never know.” It's really what the whole film was structured around. How do we live with uncertainty? How at a human level can we actually continue to grieve when it doesn’t seem there’s any resolution. It’s a very unusual film that way.
I think I’ve come to understand that it’s a bit perverse to have Colin Firth in a suit in a Southern courtroom. You think he’s going to be the knight in shining white armor coming to save the day with an answer, but he doesn't. In fact, this man who is at the top of his professional game is told by one of the lawyers he should have gone to law school. He's forced out of the courtroom and he’s watching though a window. It’s not what a Hollywood actor normally gets to do. I came to realize that how generous these two Academy Award winners were in playing these very risky roles. Like, they’re not doing what they would normally be doing. Yet, they really understood what the tone of this whole movie was about, which is this community of people who are left unresolved, unsatisfied by a conclusion, and yet need to steer to continue looking as Ron and Pam did.
Capone: I noticed that two of the convicted men are listed as producers on the film, and I know that Damien has been vocal about expressing his feelings about the movie and distancing himself from this. What is the situation there, and do you still feel like the film represents him well?
AE: Well, yeah. Damien has his own story to tell, and I completely respect that. That become really clear really early on. I think it’s frustrating in some ways that this film is really located in that place 20 years ago. His story is certainly about what happened in prison, and he wrote it in his book, and I totally understand that. He want’s that story to be told, and I respect it. He felt that this film was really not the story he wanted to tell, and from pretty early on we understood that that was the case, and he should tell his own version of what happened.
But I do think that the film is also representing him and all three of them, showing the travesty of injustice that they all experienced. I don’t think it’s in the mission of the film to show what happened in the ensuing 20 years, and yet I think that this can be instantly explored. I think that this material is open to so many different sort of ways of being examined.
Capone: In a couple of moments, you show variations on what happened or didn’t happen just based on different peoples accounts or testimony. In a case that’s already so bogged down with confusion and conflict in terms of what people remember or what people are saying they remember, why did you choose to actually visualize a few of those different versions of stories?
AE: Because I could. I think that’s what drama can do. And I think that there are important things to show. I think they heighten a sense of what was left unexplored. But that being said, with the exception of Bojangles--the Chris Morgan interview is on tape; you can see that online. You actually see a lot of, you know, that material has been recorded, it just hasn’t been in the documentaries before.
Capone: Atom, best of luck at Cannes with the new film, and hopefully we get to do this again sometime. Thanks a lot.