Check out the first photos from the set in our Gallery, and scroll on down this post for that interview with Egoyam plus a snippet about Reese’s time in Atlanta so far.
Atom Egoyan on the West Memphis Three and ‘Devil’s Knot’
Atom Egoyan is straddling the worlds of opera and film these days.
The director is bringing his Chinese opera, “Feng Yi Ting,” to the Lincoln Center Festival in New York next month, after it premiered to critical acclaim at the Spoleto Festival in Charleston earlier this summer. But he won’t actually be in New York when it comes: he’ll be on set for his new film, “Devil’s Knot,” about the West Memphis Three case, which begins production soon.
“I was just doing camera tests with Reese [Witherspoon] this morning and looking at all the locations and the last-minute casting. That swirl which is filmmaking,” Egoyan said recently in an interview. “I was doing ‘Salome’ around the time I was finishing ‘The Sweet Hereafter,’ so that was the last time the two worlds kind of collided, but that was a long time ago. Normally there’s some sort of a buffer.”
In “Devil’s Knot,” Egoyan will reinterpret the story of the West Memphis Three — the famous case of three Arkansas teenagers who were convicted in 1994 of killing three boys. They claimed innocence while spending 18 years in prison, but were set free last August after agreeing to an Alford Plea — when a party accepts a guilty verdict while maintaining innocence. The stunning turn-of-events came after new DNA evidence found at the crime scene excluded the three men as the source.
Egoyan says his film will be a work of fiction based on these true events, and that “Devil’s Knot” will focus on two other characters: the mother of one of the murdered boys, played by Reese Witherspoon, and the private investigator who worked for the teens’ defense team, played by Colin Firth.
There have been many recent documentaries on the extraordinary case, drawing support for the West Memphis Three from celebrities including Johnny Depp, Metallica, Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder and Natalie Maines of the Dixie Chicks. But Egoyan takes on the first feature film on the subject, calling the West Memphis Three “a piece of American mythology now.”
Speakeasy caught up with the director to discuss the film — his first since “Chloe” in 2009. Read the edited transcript below, then check back in soon for more on Egoyan’s opera, “Feng Yi Ting.”
You cast relative unknowns to play the teenagers in the West Memphis Three, compared with Colin Firth and Reese Witherspoon. Why?
It’ll be an interesting mix, right? I was looking at a lot of people in their 20s and there was just a really different feeling than actual teenagers. That was an important part of the choice, to preserve. It was an intense search.
Did you look at well-known actors to play the teens?
Yeah. And they’re really prized roles, we had the major agencies all presenting actors. There was sort of another way to go with the casting, but we made this decision and I’m excited about it.
Jessie Misskelley and Jason Baldwin (two of the real-life West Memphis Three) are co-producers. What will be their level of involvement?
I think it’s really just to give their blessing to it. They read the script and they’re prepared. I just think it’s a really important spiritual connection and also allows them to own some of their own story.
There have been documentaries about the West Memphis Three recently but this is the first feature film.
They’re part of the story. I mean what we’re focusing on is the two other characters – the mother of one of the boys who was killed, and this private investigator who was working for the boys’ defense team. It is a fiction based on reality of course, but I consider the West Memphis Three story a piece of American mythology now. After four documentaries and the way that story has persisted, it has become a story that I think will be looked at and reinterpreted because it is one of the most exhaustively examined pieces of crime and certainly a murder story outside of a celebrity of president. I can’t think of any other story that’s been unsolved, which remains at some level mysterious, and also which has been subject to such scrutiny. You go on the Internet, and it’s kind of amazing, these sites that are devoted to every piece of testimony, every piece of evidence. It has lingered in the American consciousness in a certain way, and I think it’s ripe for dramatic retelling, a reinvestigation that’s not bound by the orthodoxies of documentary.
It’s been a few years since your last feature film. Why have you stayed away?
It has been time with opera, theater. I’ve also written a new film of my own which I’m planning to shoot right after this. On a personal level, our son – it was our last year with him before he went to university, so I just wanted to have that time. When you plunge into a film, as I am now, you really do leave your life behind. I wanted to enjoy that last window with him.