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Interview: Filmmaker Atom Egoyan talks ‘Devil’s Knot’

Devil’s Knot,” which releases to limited theaters and VOD on May 9, tells the true story of the West Memphis Three case. Back in 1993, in West Memphis, Ark., three boys were found dead, naked, and bound by their own shoelaces, and the crime scene had no evidence that pinpointed who was behind it.

The films of Atom Egoyan-slide0
RLJ Entertainment
Atom Egoyan
Courtesy of RLJ Entertainment

In an effort to quickly find and convict the killers, law enforcement come across three teenagers who are suspected in participating in devil worship. Pam Hobbs (Reese Witherspoon), the mother of one of the murdered boys, tries to come to grips with the her son’s death, and she believes the three teenagers are responsible. But investigator Ron Lax (Colin Firth) discovers that the evidence presented doesn’t quite add up, and the real killer or killers may still be in West Memphis.

The Chico Movie Examiner recently conducted an over-the-phone interview with “Devil’s Knot” director, Atom Egoyan, who is best known for films like “Exotica”; “The Sweet Hereafter”; “Where the Truth Lies”; and “Chloe.” During the interview, Egoyan discusses how this case would not have received national attention, if it weren’t for the “Paradise Lost” documentaries, and how his film, which dramatizes the case, presents new things that the documentaries didn’t explore.

David Wangberg: I know you were raised in Canada, and you didn’t hear about this case until the documentary, “Paradise Lost.” But I want to know, being raised in Canada and living in Canada, do you often hear about national cases in America as they happen, or do you not hear about them until after they have happened?

Atom Egoyan: All of the major cities are within 200 miles of the border, so we hear everything. I was raised in Victoria, on the West Coast of Canada. If you look at a map, basically, the city is below the border. Vancouver Island creeps below the border, and so we hear everything from Seattle. We’re totally exposed to U.S. media all the time. It’s actually one of the conditions of growing up Canadian. It’s that we’re trying to absorb that culture while maintaining our own. [laughs]

DW: Now, is this a case that didn’t get as much national attention as the Jodi Arias case or the Trayvon Martin case? I was only eight years old when this happened, so I don’t know much about it, unless it was from the documentaries.

AE: If it wasn’t for the documentaries that came out, this case would have been completely forgotten, I think. It was a horrific crime; it was the most supernatural crime scene imaginable – three boys found naked; bound; sexually mutilated; and tied by their own shoelaces in a swamp in Arkansas with absolutely no evidence. There was no blood, DNA, or footprints, and no branches were disturbed. It was really eerie and supernatural.

I don’t know if I can think of a crime scene quite like it. It happened in the South in a deeply religious community. It was an act of evil, so demons had to be found. Whether or not it made national news, I’m not sure. It certainly was a cataclysmic event to happen in this community. But the documentary, and the release of the documentary, really brought it to national attention, and showed that a mistrial and injustice had occurred.

I can’t really answer that. I’m aware of the local press of the time; I’m not sure that it received national attention until the documentaries had came out, and people had understood the full nature of what had happened in West Memphis and in that courtroom.

But now, it’s the stuff of urban mythology. Through the repeated examinations of various documentaries, various books, and now this feature, I think there’s a multitude of different ways to look at what happened there. It was a unique case; it was like a Salem witch trial happening 20 years ago.

DW: Now, with what we have today, like CNN; MSNBC; and the Internet having different outlets, if this case happened today, do you think it would get more attention?

AE: That’s also a really good question, because it was happening at a time when there were the beginnings of a lot more media. We weren’t into the Internet then. I think what would have happened now, and this tends to happen a lot with our new technology, is that things get attention and they slip out of consciousness as quickly, because there’s something that we move attention to. It’s harder for stories to stick and to stay, and this one has, and maybe because it was also a story that migrated from traditional media into new media.

If you look at the sites that are dedicated to the West Memphis Three case, and there are a couple of them that are really exceptional, you’ll find everything from that trial online now. All the pieces of evidence that were brought into the trial; all the pieces of police surveillance; all the interrogations; and all the video material is actually filed and is online on various sites by people who are obsessed with this case. It’s definitely something that has migrated from the old technology into the new. And I think one of the reasons that has happened is because there are an infinite number of perspectives you could bring to this trial, so it becomes almost like a weird, macabre video game for people who are obsessed by it. You could go through any sort of approach, and you could follow it through, and you will never come to an end.

There are all sorts of theories that are continually sought out, and I think one of the projects of this movie was to show how many avenues were not explored. We’re presenting stuff for the first time, like the Chris Morgan case, and the Bojangles guy, or various stories that are being told. We just get a sense of the complexity of it, and how unending it is, and how it doesn’t really resolve.

DW: I read in another interview you did that you have your own personal theory about the case. But the way you present this movie is with all of the documented facts that are out there. If you had the opportunity to show your own theory in a feature film format, would you do it?

AE: Ha! No one has asked me that. It would be a whole different film, and it would just be a theory. There’s nothing to back it up; it’s just a hunch. So whether or not it’s worth telling, I have no idea. I just sort of arrived at this, but I didn’t want to go there. I’m not trying to be purposefully vague, but it’s an interesting [theory]. Someone said I should come up with my own theory in the film, but that would have been really problematic, because there’s nothing to really substantiate it, and that’s not what the project of this film was. If someone gave me a lot of money to go out and explore it, sure. I think that would have been a cool film, but no one is offering that – unless you are. [laughs]

DW: [laughs] Nah! I don’t have the money. Do a Kickstarter or something. That’s what people are doing nowadays.

AE: [laughs] Sure.

DW: Now, in that same interview, you were talking about how the editing process for this film was tough. Was it because you didn’t want this to come out as a one-sided story, or was it because there was so much information about the case?

AE: There was just so much information. And we shot a lot of stuff. It had to be organized in a way that was true to what happened, so there were some constraints there. You can’t distort things, and yet, I wanted it to have a certain tone. It was a very long editing process with just finding the right balance and the right shape for it all.

DW: I had read that Jason was the only one of the three who actually got involved with this project, and there were some family members of the victims, like Pam Hobbs. Is there one particular person that, if he or she said no to getting involved with this project, you would have not done the film at all?

AE: That’s a really good question. I think since we decided… you know, that’s a really good question. I think there are people who would have been… I mean, If Pam Hobbs was very upset by it, by how we depicted her, or if Ron [Lax] was, I might have changed it completely. But they were on our side. But I think it was important that Pam felt that her story was being respected. I don’t know if we would have not made the film, but we would have not made it this way.

DW: Now, with this film coming out, for those who don’t know anything about this case, would you advise them to watch “Paradise Lost” and do some research on the case?

AE: No, no, no, no. I think they should watch [“Devil’s Knot”]. I think the film doesn’t need an explanation; they should just watch it. I think “Paradise Lost” would be a very cool thing to watch afterward, but not beforehand.

I think this film is serving almost as the primer, because it’s giving you the full view of everything. “Paradise Lost” has a very particular agenda, because true to its moment, it was only made a couple of years after the actual event. It’s not really irrelevant in terms of its actual conclusion, but what it’s showing, you’ll recognize from the movie. But you’ll also see that we’re trying to be much more evenhanded and not rush to judgment like that documentary was trying to do.

DW: This is my last question, and I wanted to make it a fun one. If someone was to make a biopic on your life, what points in your career would you like to have highlighted, and who would you like to play you?

AE: That’s a good question. Wow!

Probably, the thing that would have to be highlighted would be this extraordinary thing that happened to me in the 90s with a series of films that ended up with a film that got double Academy Award nominations, and the improbability of that, and what happened to me on the red carpet, where it was the most surreal evening of my life.

I can’t really go into details as to why or what happened, but I think I would have to have Seth Rogen play me and play what happened on the red carpet the night of the awards ceremony. I’ll just give you a hint; I was up against “Titanic.” It was kind of a surreal night.

DW: Yeah, that was “The Sweet Hereafter,” right?

AE: Yeah. James Cameron said we both ended up making films about large metal objects that crashed through ice, but you can’t think of two more different films beyond that.

This concludes the interview, but the Chico Movie Examiner would like to thank Atom Egoyan for taking the time to talk about “Devil’s Knot.”

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