This is a series of occasional articles on my experiences writing "Devil's Knot."
As writers we need to always remember that any movie based on a true story has real people's lives behind it. Everyone surely knows and understands that. It's hard, though, to embrace that thought wholly when you're trying to fulfill story obligations and decisions, and when the story you are trying to tell is as complex as "Devil's Knot." This is a lesson I took from my work on my script for "Devil's Knot." It took me a while to fully "get it" but I did. I carry that lesson with me now and for always.
If you don't know, "Devil's Knot" is a non-fiction book by journalist Mara Leveritt that explores the truths and falsehoods behind the accusations of murder in Arkansas in 1993. It was made into a movie starring Reese Witherspoon and Colin Firth in 2005. Witherspoon played one of the mothers of one of the victims and Firth played a private investigator.
The background: In 1993, after a horrifying discovery that three eight-year-old boys were brutally killed, three teenage boys, Jessie Misskelley (16), Jason Baldwin (17) and Damien Echols (18) were then railroaded by a court and community panicked and hungry for closure.
What happened was terrible and frightening by anyone's standards. The mind boggles at how anyone can torture, mutilate and kill three eight-year-old innocents. Anyone responsible for that just doesn't seem human. The term demonic did and does easily come to mind and was used frequently by the residents of that area at the time.
I remember when the Night Stalker and the Hillside Strangler were victimizing Southern California. Doors and windows were closed and locked even in the summer heat. Kids couldn't play outside. Gun sales rose. Everyone was understandably frightened and looked askance at everyone else. I lived in a fairly dense population area so there was a bit of a buffer to all the terrible news. But imagine if you were in the tiny community of West Memphis, Arkansas where someone you knew, saw every day might be the killer or killers. Add to that that many people in this Mississippi river area are deeply religious and believe that the Devil is real and walks the Earth.
Superstitious or not, the idea of evil is strong in many of us. How can anyone who is considered human do such horrible things to anyone, let alone children? The murders had to be the work of Satan the consensus wisdom went in that region. Damien Echols was a known Devil worshiper. Never mind that he was exploring all religions. He was weird, had played with dead animals (ritual sacrifice, people thought - most likely; road kill) had a deep fascination with blood and carried around cat's skulls. And they (the teens) listened to heavy metal music that told terrible, dark tales of blood and mayhem. That was enough to indict Damien as demonic. And of course cult leaders have followers so...
Two plus two equals satanic ritual murder by three oddball teens.
And if you don't know what happened to those children, if you haven't seen the photos of them naked and hogtied with their shoelaces, brutalized and then buried alive in a muddy drainage channel, then you can't appreciate the true horror of the murders, so you can't also imagine what fear was moving the community at the time this happened or why people jumped to these conclusions. It is actually the basis of a phenomena known as Satanic Panic which I mention later in this article.
All of this is to say that when I was hired to write this story, based on the non-fiction book, my first inclinations weren't about the victims as much about the panic in the community and the injustices done to the West Memphis Three. My job was to write a movie based on Mara Leveritt's investigation which focused on the facts that lead to the conclusion that the teenagers were scapegoated to provide both the police department and the community some closure.
At the time I started my research in 2005, most (if not all) of the family members of the victims were also convinced that Damien, Jason and Jessie were guilty of satanic ritual murder. Period, end of story. The families' pain and grief was almost physical but the main story wasn't to be about them because their grief didn't allow for a narrative that had an arc. A book written during and right after the court case called "The Blood of Innocents" did focus on the horrifying but totally untrue nature of the case against the teens who everyone thought at the time were guilty of satanic ritual murder. Even HBO itself sent their film crew to West Memphis to film the first proven case of Satanic ritual murder by a "cult." The focus changed but at first blush, everyone was thinking in terms of satanic ritual murder.
The script I was hired to write in 2005 was to be about the second injustices done in West Memphis which had become the basis of Mara's book: the trial and convictions of teens who many felt were innocent. This had to be a major focus of the story because even if we had wanted to, we could not do much with the families of the murdered boys if they truly felt that the teens were guilty and deserved a death penalty. That was not the story we wanted to tell and actually couldn't tell because the legal rights to any of those life stories wasn't forthcoming. No family involved at the time would have given the production company permission to do that. They were all convinced, like most of the West Memphis community, like a lot of the world that the WM3 were guilty. Actually, more specifically, demonically guilty.
Add to all this that according to Leveritt's book, the West Memphis police at the time were under investigation for corruption by the state police and the WMPD would not allow (or were disinclined to allow) any state or federal agencies to help with the investigation. An FBI team on the ground in West Memphis, using modern investigative and lab techniques could have been helped unravel some of this terrible knot of pain and blood.
Also, some people emerged during the course of the investigation by Mara (and the HBO documentaries about the case) as having more that a what-it-seemed connection to the murders.
Do you see how the predilection of storylines begins to converge around the various obfuscations of the case, and not really the victims or their families? I felt that the real story here (after reading and viewing all the case materials and talking to a few people I probably shouldn't have) was the coverup and honestly felt that the dead children were not being given their due as long as the real murderers still roamed the area. Unless the WM3 were shown to be innocent the real demons would never be found. Police tend to stop investigations when they arrest someone. Thank god for reporters like Mara Leveritt who continue asking the questions that need to be asked. Mara's book dug deep into what appeared to be an initial investigation and trial that was being driven by expediency and not a search for truth - and that book was my bible to the script I was to write.
In the re-write of my script - the one which ultimately became the movie - the focus changed because of circumstances few could have predicted. One of the parents of the dead children (Pamela Hobbs played by Reese Witherspoon) had subsequently gone on record as believing that the West Memphis Three teens were innocent. So while my version was about the entire weight of the world against the teens, the re-envisioning went more into the human toll of a parent losing a child because the filmmakers now had access to that storyline As stated, I could not have used that character in that fashion because legal issues and conflicts surfaced that could not be resolved at the time. In addition to Hobbs, they (filmmakers) added another character's perspective that I could also not have used at that time - the private investigator Ron Lax played in the movie by Colin Firth.
In all, it was a completely different storyline focus than mine although the structure and concepts I first put forth in my script like Satanic Panic still resonated in the re-write. If you want to explore this fascinating sociological concept read the book "Satanic Panic: The Creation of a Contemporary Legend" by Jeffrey S. Victor. It is eye-opening at how we can go from reasonable, loving people to a bloody mob based on a few half-truths. For those interested the McMartin Preschool Case here in Cali was also clearly driven by this sociological phenomenon.
I think if I wrote this script today I would be more likely to put in more of the human toll of the victim's families. People (audiences) relate to other people's pain instinctively, empathetically. Parents especially can feel the pain of the loss a child. I cannot imagine what is must be like to go to those places. It has to be darker and uglier than anywhere anyone can be. And the telling of any true story *has* to include the pebble-in-a-pond repercussions of violence, something I did cover in my script but which I mainly missed when it came to the parents' stories. Now I haven't actually read my script in years so it might be that I did include more of that impact than I'm remembering - I'd have to re-read it to be sure. But I know even if I did cover it, it wasn't much - for all the reasons already mentioned.
I was told in a tangential way that I was missing some of the insight I needed at the time. When it was discovered that I was writing the script for "Devil's Knot" by the WM3.org organization, a group of activists who railed for decades against the injustices of the case and raised money for legal fees for the teens, they came at me pretty hard. They felt, and I didn't/don't wholly disagree, that I was making money off the pain and misery of other people's lives. Yes, perhaps. Then again, that's what I do - write movies. And I argued that any film made would help the cause not hurt it since I knew the slant of the movie would be wholly positive toward the release of the teens which was also the WM3's goal.
I went back and forth for a long while with members of the WM3.org and eventually gave up. Nothing I said was going to convince them of my good intentions. But I take their point more finely now - think about the human toll that any true story involves. I do.
As a writer, I sometimes have to go to places that make me squirm, and support positions that make me uncomfortable. In order to write a character or situation successfully, I must be in that character and situation. It's a process that continues to amaze me because I am never confident that I can do any of it justice. Age and experience help. So does reflection. As I reflect on "Devil's Knot" I see many doors to be opened that I didn't fully embrace then.
I hope that in some ways, most ways, I've learned to be a better writer and person because I was put in a position to write about an event that still has terrible resonance today. After all, many still believe that the murderer(s) of those three innocent boys is out there, has escaped justice. Whoever did this destroyed so many lives; no one touched by this tragedy lives outside of it. Even more terrible is that there hasn't truly been justice for anyone. The West Memphis Three got out of jail finally on an Alford Plea which isn't exactly legal exoneration. The boys who were murdered had their futures ripped from them before they had a chance to do most of what we all consider a natural part of life. They would be in their thirties today and might have had children of their own. The parents are still living the nightmare, their children's images, both the good ones and bad, frozen forever in their minds.
All because human demons, for reasons only they understand (or maybe don't) decided one spring day to do the unthinkable.
I hope some day for justice for all these victims. For an eventual full and complete exoneration of Damien, Jason and Jessie. For true closure for the families of the victims. For a community to be able to finally put a human face on the devil.
And if I was a religious man I'd also hope that the murderer(s) burn in a hell so horrible that somehow, someway the scales will be balanced for the disgusting things they did.