PARK CITY, UTAH — Peter Jackson despises bullies. So when he saw an HBO documentary entitled Paradise Lost, which is about three Arkansas teens jailed on thin-at-best evidence for murder, including one on death row, he got involved. So what do mammoth-budget film directors do in their time off? This one seeks social justice.
While taking a holiday break from filming The Hobbit in two parts, Mr. Jackson brought the film West of Memphis, as a producer, to Sundance — the result of his seven years of involvement trying to prove the trio innocent with funding and support.
Jackson appears in the film as well. And while the man loves to do cameos in his own blockbusters (be sure to look for him in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey this December and in The Hobbit: There And Back Again in 2013) this time it was serious stuff. Director Amy Berg is a big time documentarian, with a previous film, Deliver Us From Evil, that tackled child sexual abuse by clergy. Jackson signed her on and turned her loose on the case of the West Memphis Three.
Friday marked the film’s world premiere and beyond-crowded after-party, while Saturday was a big media day for Berg, Jackson and now ex-death-row inmate Damien Echols, all of whom spoke at a press conference.
“It made us angry and it made us sad and we called and asked if there was anything we could do,” Jackson said at the premiere. They were working on King Kong at the time.
That meant Jackson and wife Fran Walsh became involved as financial and emotional supporters of Echols and his wife Lori Davis. They funded new DNA testing and a private investigator in West Memphis, Arkansas, to look into the evidence. They also brought in forensic experts to re-examine the case. Each reached independent decisions about the evidence — all unanimous and different from the original prosecution’s findings.
“Fran was on email to Lori all night long and I was making movies to pay for the defense,” Jackson cracked at the premiere.
The gathered evidence, especially finding that absolutely no DNA found at the crime scene matched Echols or either of the other two men serving life sentences for the crime (Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley) opened the door for a retrial. Before that could happen, the trio were given freedom. Echols was with Jackson in Park City where he revealed he spent two months in New Zealand. In order to walk free all three men had to agree to enter an Alford plea, where they maintain innocence but enter a guilty plea.
The Jackson investigations, and the film, point strongly to the step-father of one of the victims, who was never originally investigated by police: Terry Hobbs.
Hobbs previously sued singer Natalie Maines for defamation and because of that lawsuit, where he was ordered to pay $18,000 in legal fees, he was deposed about his actions around the time of the murders. That deposition footage is part of the documentary and Hobbs evades questions and laughs off evidence and witnesses refuting his conflicting story.
The opening of the film gives viewers an glimpse of how committed the community was to convicting the trio, calling it the first "crowd sourced" case. Footage shows parents of the victims condemning the convicted teens in strong language in historic news footage. They were also in the audience for the first screening and have changed their view of the trail and of the trio.
But with all of the attention and media gathered in the Utah ski town that hosts the international film spotlight for 10 days each January, Jackson fielded plenty of questions about “The Hobbit,” and he let some of the details slip about just what he is up to next on The Hobbit:
The reportedly $500 million production took a break before Christmas and will resume shooting in February, about two weeks after Sundance
About 100 days of filming remain which puts the production on pace to shoot, with some weekends and small breaks, until July
Jackson has already been cutting the first film and told The Hollywood Reporter, “On the day I arrive, I'm going back into the cutting room.”
He agreed with Elijah Wood, the film is like a big family reunion.
But Hobbits aside, it's tough not to have a lot of respect for Peter Jackson's current film project. More on West of Memphis in future updates!
Larry D. Curtis, as part of the team at TheOneRing.net, has been comprehensively covering the works and adaptations of J.R.R. Tolkien for more than a decade, making the not-for-profit site the leading source about The Hobbit and The Lord of The Rings for fans and film makers world wide. Curtis is one of the lead content producers for the site and represents it at conventions and press functions. You can read his The Hobbit Countdown here at Movies.com every other week. You can reach him at MrCere@TheOneRing.net.