Documentary filmmaker Joe Berlinger went to Arkansas to investigate a brutal triple murder. He thought there was a trend in youth violence; what he found were three wrongfully incarcerated teenagers. Berlinger’s quest to advocate for the West Memphis Three took 18 years and three films. Alec spoke with Joe about the emotional toil of making his Paradise Lost documentaries, especially as his own children were coming into the world.
Alec Baldwin: I’m Alec Baldwin and you’re listening to Here’s The Thing. Joe Berlinger has been making documentaries for almost two decades, along with his directing partner, Bruce Sinofsky. Their first film, Brother’s Keeper, about a murder among brothers who were struggling dairy farmers in upstate New York, won the Sundance Film Festival in 1992.
Their most recent film is also about murder. Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory is the third film in a series of documentaries about a crime that took place 18 years ago. Three eight-year-old boys were murdered in rural Arkansas, and three teenagers were charged with the crime: Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin, and Jessie Misskelley.
The prosecution painted the teens who wore black, listened to heavy metal, and read Stephen King novels as Satan-worshipers participating in ritualistic killings. When Berlinger when down to investigate, he found very little physical evidence. What he did find was a modern-day witch-hunt.
News reporter1 : At a press conference, inspector Gary Gitchels said the case against the teens is very strong.
New reporter 2: Out of one to ten, how solid do you think the case is?
Alec Baldwin: That’s an excerpt from Berlinger’s first film about the case. His films brought a lot of attention to what was happening in Arkansas. Just last August, after 18 years in prison, Echols, Baldwin, and Misskelley were released.
This probably wouldn’t have happened without Berlinger’s films and support from celebrities like Johnny Depp, Eddie Vedder, and others who raised millions to fund appeals regarding DNA evidence. The fact that the three were ultimately released surprised no one more than Berlinger. When he first went down to Arkansas, he expected to find something very different.
Joe Berlinger: We went down thinking we were going to be making a film about guilty teenagers because we didn’t know at the time just how irresponsible the local press was in covering this story. This was right around the time of the Jamie Bulger case in the U.K., about a year and a half before that. A ten-year-old had lured a younger kid out onto the railroad tracks in Liverpool and just beat him to death. We thought there was an emerging trend of youth violence, so we went down thinking we were going to make a real-life River’s Edge. We got down there and one plus one was not equaling two.
Alec Baldwin: When did that occur to you?
Joe Berlinger: I can’t say immediately because it took about three months to negotiate access into their holding cells prior to the trial, but once Bruce and I met Damien, in particular, we just felt like, out of a 1 out of 10 in the film, he says it’s an 11. It was like a -1.
Alec Baldwin: And you started to base that thinking on conversations with the defendants themselves or evidence and discussions with their attorneys as well?
Joe Berlinger: All of the above. You look at Jason Baldwin, a 16-year-old, scrawny kid with arms that couldn’t be capable of the crime that was committed, and he just oozed credibility. Damien Echols, I mean, even though he was his own worst enemy in some ways because he kind of enjoyed the attention and was a little narcissistic about the whole thing, it just didn’t make sense.
And when you start looking at the forensic evidence, here you have allegedly a crime by three teens who are not professional killer, who brought, according to the prosecutor, three little boys out into the woods and slaughtered them to death in this savage beating, and yet there was no blood found at the crime scene. And then you look at the confession and the confession is riddled with inconsistencies and problems.
Alec Baldwin: And coaching.
Joe Berlinger: And coaching. So within months we knew that something was amiss.
Alec Baldwin: I found that Echols came across as a very unsympathetic person at times, and as you mention the word narcissism, he never seemed to really suffer. Where there times that you were convinced that Echols really was genuine, that he suffered off-camera – not that they needed him to break down and cry?
Joe Berlinger: That’s interesting because some people view Echols that way and some people view Echols very differently, very sympathetically.
Alec Baldwin: I think he’s ultimately sympathetic because he’s innocent, but I’m saying his demeanor as a character in the film.
Joe Berlinger: No, I think he didn’t do himself any favors when he took the stand.
Alec Baldwin: In what way?
Joe Berlinger: Well, I think he kind of enjoyed the attention, and as he explained to us in a subsequent film, he just never imagined he would be convicted for these rumors and ghost stories. He just believed that it would be made right. The interesting thing for me is just this worldwide explosion that these films created, and it was people both famous and not famous, regular people and people like Johnny Depp, who all said, “You know what? That guy could be me. I dressed a little different. I acted a little different. I was the other, and in the right circumstances I could’ve been that guy.” So I think he did evoke a lot of sympathetic feelings from people.
Alec Baldwin: At the culmination of this long, two-decade process during which you made three films, these men walked out of prison for time served in exchange for copping this plea.
Joe Berlinger: Yeah. The state of Arkansas let them out under what’s called an Alford Plea. It’s a rarely used legal maneuver. It’s incredibly bizarre. It’s disheartening that this was the resolution. On the one hand, of course, we’re all delighted these guys are out of prison –
Alec Baldwin: But not exonerated.
Joe Berlinger: -- but not exonerated, and that’s the problem. The Alford Plea is where you profess your innocence but for legal purposes you plead guilty to lesser charges, so the charges were reduced from capital murder, which is the death penalty or life without parole, to first-degree murder, and because they had spent 18 years in prison they were sentenced to time served. Also, there’s a suspended sentence hanging over their heads, that if they ever violate a crime they will have to serve more time for these murders.
Alec Baldwin: Are you planning on a fourth movie?
Joe Berlinger: You know, people keep asking that. We made these three movies as acts of advocacy. A fourth movie feels like we would be kind of milking it, and I’m not sure I want to go down that road.
Alec Baldwin: I honestly don’t agree with that.
Joe Berlinger: Really?
Alec Baldwin: To me, the last chapter of this is, what did wrongful conviction and wrongful incarceration do to them? Life for them freezes there as young men, and their bodies keeps aging, but you wonder what kind of development they have, and then you release them out into the world. I mean, God knows the state of Arkansas had the least generous public defender approach toward this case. Was their counsel a public defender at first?
Joe Berlinger: Some of them were public defenders and some of them wanted to take the case on, but they did not get the kind of representation that you would expect. In fact, one of the great tragedies and what people should focus on with this story is that it has taken 18 years, millions and millions of dollars provided by people like Peter Jackson, and then Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam, and Johnny Depp.
Alec Baldwin: And Natalie Maines.
Joe Berlinger: Natalie Maines. Three very relatively expensive documentaries from HBO. There’s something wrong with our legal system where this is what it takes to get somebody out of prison and why don’t they have that kind of defense right from the get-go? Maybe there is a Paradise Lost 4 if we want to exonerate these guys, because the Alford Plea is deeply disturbing.
You have three guys who are wrongfully convicted, spent their entire adult life up until now in prison for a crime they didn’t commit, and the state of Arkansas is making them plead guilty so that (a) they won’t be sued for wrongful conviction, so they’re not going to get any compensation, and (b) that means that the state of Arkansas is not looking for the real killers.
Alec Baldwin: The people of the state of Arkansas should be disgusted.
Joe Berlinger: And just how slowly the wheels of justice grind forward. The simplest things, like this DNA action. In 2001, Arkansas passed a DNA statute which allows you to go test new evidence, and they argued for several years whether they could even do the testing, and then the state wanted a particular crime lab. I mean, literally six years it took to get these DNA results out.
However, when it came time craft this Alford Plea, when they were fearing the HBO broadcast, and when they were fearing this evidentiary hearing that was coming up in December, literally in six or seven days or two weeks, something like that, they banged out this Alford Plea. So when it’s in their interest they can make it happen pretty damn quickly.
Alec Baldwin: Why didn’t you abandon it after the first film? What made you come back?
Joe Berlinger: That’s a great question. Both Bruce and I were just absolutely tortured at the idea these guys were still rotting in prison and, you know, the case was ’93-’94 but the movie didn’t come out until ’96. Those guys had been in prison already for four years. It just haunted us. On the other hand, going back and revisiting, this is a depressing story. I feel like I’d lost, like, my fatherly innocence by covering this story, and what I mean by that is, my first kid was born while we were editing this film and I would be sitting at the editing bay, looking at the most horrific autopsy photos and crime scene footage.
I would go home at night after having these imagines emblazoned on your brain and I would drop the door of the crib and pick up my new infant, who had just arrived a few months ago, and holding my child and thinking about these eight-year-olds and thinking about the gross autopsy footage that I had looked at. I mean, it was just an emotionally draining experience, making these films. So it was a very considered decision to go back and to do it a second time and a third time, and during the second film I had my second kid.
Alec Baldwin: Your life’s going on and theirs isn’t.
Joe Berlinger: I mean, it just tortured me. Every hallmark that my child would go through – kindergarten, middle school, high school – I’d think, “My God, these guys are still rotting in prison.” I just felt we had a moral obligation to keep telling the story.
Alec Baldwin: Was there ever a moment where you and your principal staff, your real cadre of people you did this film with, even in your mind you just raised a glass to each other and said, “We got these guys out of prison”?
Joe Berlinger: Oh yeah. We did some pretty hard partying. We did some pretty hard partying in Toronto and really felt good about what we did.
Alec Baldwin: You must feel amazing.
Joe Berlinger: No. Look. We’re filmmakers. We make films. We’re paid to make films. We deserve some credit. The people who really deserve the credit are the tens of thousands of people, both regular and the Johnny Depps, who have given big sums of money or little sums of money, who selflessly have advocated for decades for their release.
Lorri Davis knew nothing about this crime or this case, saw the movie. She was living in Brooklyn as an architect, and just couldn’t get it out of her mind, started writing to Damien, went to visit Damien, fell in love, married him, and they’ve been married for 14 years. Most of that time, obviously, he’s been on Death Row and she has been a tireless advocate for his release. She’s a big reason he’s out of prison.
Alec Baldwin: That must be so bizarre. I can’t imagine.
Joe Berlinger: Yeah, I can’t imagine either. Look, she’s a wonderful person. It’s just one of those bizarre things you could never script.
Alec Baldwin: I’m Alec Baldwin. More from my conversation with Joe Berlinger is coming up in a minute. You are listening to Here’s The Thing. Here’s The Thing is supported by Stitcher SmartRadio. With Stitcher’s free app for mobile phones, listeners can get the latest episodes of Here’s The Thing, Radiolab, This American Life, and thousands of other podcasts on demand, without downloading or syncing. The free Stitcher SmartRadio mobile app can be found in the iPhone or Android app stores or at stitcher.com/heresthething.
There’s a quote I have from you where you said there’s a fine line between being a storyteller and being a manipulator. Where, in this film, or in any of the three films involved, did you feel that you did a little bit of manipulation?
Joe Berlinger: I believe the audience should be treated like a jury. You give them the information, you weigh both sides, and you let them come to their own conclusion, but with each passing film we felt like we were moving away from pure storytelling and more and more into advocacy, and we certainly wanted to get people riled up about this. I’m not sure we are manipulating people but we clearly have a point of view that there is a huge injustice. It’s interesting.
The first film, a good 20 percent of the people who walked away from the original film thought that they were guilty, and we let both sides have their say, and I think there’s just been a progression toward more overt advocacy, which is kind of in conflict with my overall filmmaking philosophy which is to treat the audience member like a jury member and let them make the decision about the events they’re seeing.
Alec Baldwin: Where did your career begin? You were in advertising originally?
Joe Berlinger: I had a brief stint at the very beginning of my career working in advertising, and actually, I was a language major in college and spoke fluent German, but I worked in the Frankfurt, Germany office of Ogilvy & Mather. That’s when I got the film bug, because I started producing television commercials there, and the first time I walked on a film set and saw cameras and lights and action, I was like, “Oh, this is kind of cool.”
Alec Baldwin: And then what happened?
Joe Berlinger: So I came back to New York with Ogilvy and was on an American Express campaign, as a producer, and we hired these guys called the Maysles Brothers, who did Gimme Shelter and Grey Gardens. We hired them to do some television commercials, to do some unscripted, documentary-style TV commercials.
Alec Baldwin: Who were they for?
Joe Berlinger: For American Express.
Alec Baldwin: What were those commercials like?
Joe Berlinger: It’s actually a campaign that I think ended up not airing. It was kind of an [crosstalk].
Alec Baldwin: I’ll bet.
Joe Berlinger: No. They did a lot of commercials, actually, and quite good ones, but kind of documentary style. Anyway, I kind of hit it off with David Maysles. He’s the brother who passed away quite a few years ago. They were looking for somebody to market their services to Madison Avenue and I was looking to get into the film business, and now I was a guy who had a couple of years of Madison Avenue. So just over lunch we kind of cooked up the idea of, okay, let me come work for you, I’ll get you more commercial business.
Alec Baldwin: And did you?
Joe Berlinger: Oh, I got them a lot of commercial business.
Alec Baldwin: How long were you with them?
Joe Berlinger: I did that for about five years.
Alec Baldwin: What did you learn from them?
Joe Berlinger: The act of faith about making a film about real life as it’s unfolding, which sounds like, “Well, what’s the big deal?” I mean, the idea of capturing human drama, in all its ambiguous glory, as it unfolds before the camera is, first of all, an incredible way to make a film, and secondly, to have faith. I think we take that cinema verite movement a little bit for granted today.
Alec Baldwin: I think people are better actors today than they ever were 40 years ago. This is where reality shows are awful because they are not unscripted. It’s like the staged predation in nature documentaries. They get these people all wound up and then they throw them in a room together. But where you can get unvarnished and real verite insights into people, it’s often only, I find, where those stakes are that high, like in a courtroom.
Joe Berlinger: Yes, exactly.
Alec Baldwin: It’s the last Serengeti. You know what I mean?
Joe Berlinger: Absolutely. It’s our dirty little secret, and no coincidence that many of the films I’ve worked on are about legal cases. The first big feature doc that Bruce and I did was Brother’s Keeper.
Alec Baldwin: Tell people about Brother’s Keeper.
Joe Berlinger: Brother’s Keeper was the story of four brothers who lived in a shack and lived in a way that people might have lived 200 years ago – no running water – and a little more eccentric than how people might have lived 200 years ago.
Alec Baldwin: Where were they located?
Joe Berlinger: Central New York State, and we had read in The New York Times that this guy had been arrested for this murder. He allegedly suffocated his bedmate brother – these guys were in their late 60s – and the state police had gotten a confession out of him. The local community, however, felt he was innocent, that he was semi-literate, semi-retarded, and this incredible display, this old-fashioned Americana display of support ensued.
Alec Baldwin: So the local equivalent of Eddie Vedder and Natalie Maines?
Joe Berlinger: Exactly.
Alec Baldwin: What’s amazing, obviously, is the polarity of it. I’d love you to comment on this. You’ve witnessed the worst of self-aggrandizing and self-serving human behavior, especially from public officials, and then you’ve seen the best of people coming to the aid of their fellow man.
Joe Berlinger: I used those words exactly when I was talking about this film up in Toronto, where the film premiered. I have seen not just the dichotomy between Brother’s Keeper and Paradise Lost, where in Brother’s Keeper the town assumed the best of their citizens and came to their defense, and in Paradise Lost they assumed the worst and it became a witch hunt.
Alec Baldwin: So when you look at your biography, Brother’s Keeper and three versions of Paradise Lost, and other documentary films you’ve done are pepper in between a lot of other disparate kind of work you’ve done in television with Oprah Winfrey specials and ICONOCLASTS for –
Joe Berlinger: The Sundance Channel. We love ICONOCLASTS.
Alec Baldwin: And Blair Witch 2?
Joe Berlinger: Well, that’s something we’d like to forget about, Blair Witch 2.
Alec Baldwin: Tell us about Blair Witch 2.
Joe Berlinger: My whole idea was to make fun of the whole idea, and everyone was excited about the movie. We thought it was funny and scary and clever, and literally, at the 12th hour, a new marketing person was hired. They decided that the movie needed to be scarier and to have more blood. The whole point of the scares in the original Blair Witch was that it was all psychological, and I kept saying, “Why do you want to show these things?” So they literally recut the movie, reshot some pieces, and the movie that was released bears very little resemblance to the movie I shot.
That’s been my one and only experience making a Hollywood movie, and I guess you could say that’s why I make documentaries. You know what? I’d love another opportunity to do a feature at some point, but, you know, I’m just used to being the author of my own work, being totally in control. Obviously you have people you report to and people you collaborate with.
Alec Baldwin: We’re all working for somebody.
Joe Berlinger: But I just find the creative freedom of what I do, and I mix it up. I do TV commercials and television series.
Alec Baldwin: So that’s how you do the “one for them, one for me” kind of switch?
Joe Berlinger: Commercials. Yes. My bread and butter are TV commercials and kind of Web content, and I always have a few things cooking. A couple of commercials, a couple of TV shows.
Alec Baldwin: Got to pay the bills and things like that [crosstalk] another trial for nine years.
Joe Berlinger: Exactly. My daughter’s going to college next year so I’ve got to start paying for that.
Alec Baldwin: You’re like Atticus Finch with a camera and a lab set.
Joe Berlinger: Oh, I like that. Can I use that?
Alec Baldwin: No, don’t, because then you’re going to have to set up an 800-number for all the requests from people.
I’m talking with Joe Berlinger about his film, Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory. I’m Alec Baldwin. Here’s The Thing is produced by WNYC Radio. Let me know what you think. E-mail me at HeresTheThing.org.
[End of Audio]