The Director's Chair Interviews

American Gothic
by Jennie Yabroff
Salon Magazine

Click here for Joe Berlinger films, books, and soundtracks


When documentary filmmakers Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky decided to record the events surrounding the trial of two West Memphis, Arkansas, teenagers accused of mutilating and murdering three young boys, they were shocked at how little evidence there was against the defendants other than their taste for heavy metal music and black clothing. Over nine months of filming, they gained an unprecedented level of access to both the trial and the personal lives of virtually every person involved in the case. The result, "Paradise Lost," which originally aired on HBO and opened in theatres Friday, paints an extremely disturbing portrait of small-town America and our current criminal justice system.

On a recent speaking tour, Berlinger spoke with Salon about emotional truth, the O.J. Simpson trial and how the experience of making "Brother's Keeper," the acclaimed 1992 documentary about an eccentric Munnsville, N.Y., man accused of murdering his brother, prepared him for what he describes as the "horribly dark, depressing experience" of making "Paradise Lost."

What was the biggest difference between making "Brother's Keeper" and "Paradise Lost"?

In many ways "Brother's Keeper" and "Paradise Lost" are the mirror images of each other. In "Brother's Keeper," the community represents core American values in rallying around one of their downtrodden members and refusing to accept the stereotype that the police were trying to push. The police were saying: "These smelly old brothers are subhuman; this is a "sex gone bad" murder; look at the way they live; Delbert's guilty." The community refused to believe them and rallied behind Delbert and tried to help him.

 In "Paradise Lost," the community showed terrible values. They refused to listen to any of the obvious holes in the case and instead of rejecting the stereotypes, as happened in "Brother's Keeper," they embraced the stereotypes. The police said: "These kids listen to heavy metal music; they dress in black; they read books on witchcraft; they must be the killers." And the community, instead of questioning that logic, embraced it and vilified them.

There's also a generational difference between the two communities the people in "Paradise Lost" were much more media-savvy. At times while watching "Paradise Lost," I was very disturbed by how it seemed the people were putting on a show for the cameras.

That's a good point. It's a sad fact that our society likes to be filmed. The media makes people who lead regular lives feel like the Nicole Kidman line in "To Die For" when she says, "You're not anybody unless you're on TV." People feel that you have no validity unless you're on TV, and that's a sad truth.

I think the presence of the camera does affect behavior, and you have to acknowledge that. So what we try to do in the editing room is to analyze the footage, and determine whether it's gratuitous mugging for the camera, or whether you're really learning something that's important to the film. Specifically, in the shoot-out scene with the pumpkins, Mark Byers [stepfather of one of the murdered children] is clearly performing for the camera. We didn't tell him to go out and shoot pumpkins in effigy. That was his idea. But he wouldn't be so hyperbolic if there wasn't a camera there. To us it's still a valid scene, because even though he has his own agenda of mugging to the camera, he's unwittingly revealing something to the viewer. So in the editing room, we looked at that scene and we decided this is valid you're learning something about Byers and his chameleon-like nature, and in the film it's still truthful; there's an emotional truth.

Were there moments that you felt like you saw the parents' real grief, that they weren't mugging for the cameras?

All of the grief was very real. There were moments when people have seen so much television that they behave in a way they think they're supposed to behave, but I think all of them had very real grief. It would be very cynical to assume that everything they did for us was for the sake of the camera. That one scene where Pam Hobbs, the mother in the red dress says "I'm on TV!" when she's interviewed by the local newscaster that's actually a very misunderstood scene. That scene was not so much about her wanting to be on TV as it was about the insensitivity of the media. Here was a woman who is obviously losing it, who is grieving, who has had a nervous breakdown. She is so clearly unbalanced, she's just falling out of her dress and losing her mind. We were so amazed that the media was preying on her like vultures, and to us that's what the scene is about. Most people think we were making a statement about how hard and cold the mother must be to be getting off on the fact she's on TV, but to me it's about how cold and calculating the local media was, because the local media played an awful role in this case.

Was there a moment in making this film that you realized this case was a lot different than what you had expected?

There was a moment when I had insight into how the community could be so blind and jump to the conclusion that Damien was guilty. Before we actually met Damien in person, there was a pre-trial hearing we went to, and we hadn't met Damien before; we hadn't met the families of the accused; we had only been on the victims' side. We were of the opinion we were making a film about guilty kids. And we were pretty far away from Damien at the hearing, across a pretty big room. He was brought out in shackles and an orange prison suit, and we were in back with the press, and at one point he cranes his neck and looks around. And Bruce and I jabbed each other like, "oh god, he's so evil, did you see that look he gave everybody?" and we just felt all this evil. There was this murmur through the crowd, "Oooh look at Damien, he's so evil, ooooh." And then later I sat down and met him, and within five minutes of talking to him, not only did I feel he was innocent, but all that evil that I had projected on him washed away. And I was embarrassed that I had fallen for the trap. I had read stuff and I had heard stuff, and I got caught up in this hysteria, and then when I met this guy, after I walked away from that first hour-long interview, I was convinced of his innocence. And it was such a lesson for me, and I saw how the whole community had bought into the media hype.

Did you feel conflicted or pressured by the families to take sides?

Handling our emotions and going between sides was really difficult. Everyone handled it really well until that first day at the trial, when everybody was all in the same room together. I hate to use the analogy, but it was almost like a wedding with the different families on each side. Here we are all in the same room together, and I'd go shake hands with (convicted accomplice) Jessie Misskelley's grandfather, and then out of the corner of my eye I'd see Mark Byers or some other member of the victims' families looking like, "I know you have to film him, but do you have to shake his hand?" Or we'd say hello to a prosecutor, and then five minutes later we'd be walking over to the defense, and we'd see the prosecutor sort of looking askance, like, "Gee, I hope they're not passing information along." And people got paranoid for the first couple of days of the trial, because we really did know everybody. To me that was a sign that we had done our jobs really well, and had gotten total access.

You were editing this film around the time of the O.J. Simpson trial. How did that affect you?

While we were editing it, we couldn't help noticing the parallels. I feel he's guilty, and I feel there was an abundance of evidence, and I feel the trial was a mockery. "Paradise Lost" is the flip-side to O.J. it's poor man's justice, when you can't afford a dream team. There was a ton of evidence to convict O.J. and he walked, and in this case three poor teens had a mountain of reasonable doubt and they were convicted. The problem with many indigent death penalty cases is that when you cannot afford a dream team, when you're poor, in a lot of southern states there is no active public defender; it is the court's discretion to assign a regular duty attorney. And they picked lawyers who were not up to the challenge, and that happens a lot. In death penalty cases where the prosecution wants to win, they pick out lawyers who don't have the requisite experience, and with the exception of the guy with the blond ponytail, who volunteered and will openly tell you he did it for the media attention, he still wasn't a very good lawyer. None of these guys were ready for this.

You were in a position where you could have been privy to evidence that pushed the case in one direction or another.

The knife that Byers gave us was the closest we came to that. It was an incredibly challenging moral and ethical dilemma. On a professional level we were crossing that line you don't want to cross, which is to change the outcome of your story, and on a selfish level, we felt we would shut the film down because our whole style of filmmaking is predicated on relationship building, and we thought no one would talk to us after that. On a moral level, we had no hard evidence that Byers was involved with the crime, so here we might be adding tremendous insult and injury to a man who has just gone through the loss of a stepson. But ultimately we felt we had a civic responsibility that was more important than any ethics of journalism.

The scene with the knife is one of the few times that we are reminded of your presence as filmmakers, because we learn you turned it in as evidence. In "Brother's Keeper" the audience is far more aware of your presence. Why did you remove yourselves so much more from "Paradise Lost"?

Initially we were very troubled in "Brother's Keeper" by having to include our voices so much, and then we realized that you couldn't understand the Ward brothers without including it, and we felt subtitling them would be insulting, and then also the film became much more about our relationship with the Ward brothers. That's one of the central themes we took this journey with them where at first we viewed them very stereotypically, as these smelly old guys on the hill, and by the end of the film we loved these guys. The journey of getting to know these guys is much more the central theme of the film, whereas the murder trial is much more in the background, it serves as the narrative glue that holds the film together. In "Paradise Lost," because it's such a horrible crime, it's so unresolved, the murder trial is much more weighty and important in the film, and our relationship with our subjects is almost irrelevant. There is no story of Joe and Bruce getting to know these people.

But it gives the film much more of an illusion of objectivity yet you definitely had as much, if not more, of an agenda making "Paradise Lost" than you did making "Brother's Keeper."

I totally acknowledge that this film is very subjective. Hopefully what the film is doing, and why I feel OK about the subjectivity, is that we're going for a higher emotional truth. We're revealing stuff about the human condition that provokes thoughts about life that's the truth we're going for. We're trying to present to you our subjective journey of what we experienced. You see Mark Byers singing in church with his snakeskin boots, and then we cut to him at the shooting range. That is a manipulation of chronology, because a month passed between those two events. It's subjective, it's manipulative, but it's emotionally truthful. Because what we're trying to convey is that the image Mark Byers presents to his congregation and the image he presents to the jury when he's on the stand sounding like Li'l Abner is much different than the Mark Byers the filmmakers are getting to know.

Are you still in touch with the people from "Paradise Lost"?

Uhhh, yeah. I thought everyone would hate us after seeing the film. But strangely enough, the film is ambiguous enough that those who are directly involved look at the film and see confirmation of their own viewpoints. Which is both a strength and a weakness of the film. Actually, on a personal level I think it's a weakness, because it's too ambiguous to have whipped up the groundswell of support for Damien [Echols] that I hoped it would. Young hip people look at the film and find it shocking, but the powers that be look at the film and do exactly what the community did. They say, "Look how weird Damien is; he probably did do the crime." Young, intellectually aware people like us are very disturbed when they see the film, but not everybody feels that way.

Frankly, [the people of West Memphis] are not my favorite people. That was another difficult part of making the film. With "Brother's Keeper," it was a joy to go up there, the people were charming. We couldn't leave Munnsville without three people bringing us a tin of brownies or a loaf of bread to take home with us. HBO just asked us to go down and do an update on West Memphis, and if it wasn't for that, I don't think I'd ever go back.

If they get another trial, will you cover it?

Yes, as much as I don't want to, I feel like we have a responsibility.

If this was a fiction film, I think you'd get a lot of flak about the "characters" being offensively stereotypical of "white trash": They're uneducated; their grammar is poor; they're missing teeth they fill just about every cliché. The writer Dorothy Allison, who comes from a similar background, has said something about this segment of society being the last group it's really socially acceptable to express prejudice against. Are you worried about this film giving "people like us" license to stereotype these people even further?

I think that's what makes this a strong film it challenged your stereotypes. I hope it makes you set your stereotypes aside and not fall into the same traps as the people in the movie. A handful of people hate this film because they think we are making fun of our subjects. I don't think we ratcheted up the level of "hickness" people are reacting to. And if people look at this film and have that gut-level reaction of dislike, I think it's partially justified, but it's your own prejudice speaking. We don't overtly try to reinforce that prejudice. I think if there was a computer program to take all of our footage and spit out a film that was totally fair to all of the people, I don't think the film would be any different.

But would you be the subject of a documentary?

I think we are responsible, likable, non-ambush filmmakers. Some filmmakers really have a very adversarial relationship with their subjects. I respect Michael Moore tremendously, but I think he's an ambush filmmaker, and I think he was unfair to some of his subjects in "Roger and Me," for example. Still, I wouldn't want to open my personal tragedy to cameras. It's not something I'd want to document. I would never allow a film to be made about my problems, and the fact that I ask people for that permission makes me uncomfortable.

Top of page

Back  Home