'Paradise Lost' at 20: How West Memphis Three Doc Influenced the True-Crime Boom

"It could have been a great, eight-part binge-watch series," filmmaker Joe Berlinger says about groundbreaking documentary

How 'Paradise Lost' laid the groundwork for today's true-crime-doc boom – and why, 20 years later, it's still as vital and timely as ever. Credit: Courtesy of Third Eye Motion Picture Company, Inc.

When filmmakers Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky arrived in West Memphis, Arkansas in June 1993, they came with an agenda: to document what looked like a new wave of alienated youth-turned-murderers. A few months earlier, two 10-year-olds in the U.K. had made headlines when they abducted, tortured and murdered a two-year-old, and now the filmmakers had read about the brutal murders of three eight-year-old boys ostensibly committed by teenage Satanists. It seemed like a trend. "We went down to make a film about guilty teenagers, like a real Rivers Edge," Berlinger says, referencing a 1987 Keanu Reeves movie about a metal-loving teen who murders his girlfriend. "How could three teenagers become so disaffected with life that they could do such a horrible thing?"

For months, the documentarians met with the victims' families and talked to the accused. But something wasn't adding up. Berlinger recalls looking at defendant Jason Baldwin's "skinny little wrists" and thinking he would be incapable of using a hunting knife to mutilate and murder anyone; after an interview with the boy and another seemingly innocent defendant, Damien Echols, the filmmakers believed they had a bigger story on their hands. "When we saw Damien and Jason being chained up and taken off, it was just so emotional, 'cause we felt the wrong guys were being carted off," Berlinger says. It was then that the film that would become the influential documentary Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills changed course.

After it aired on HBO in June 1996, Paradise Lost became one of the most catalytic documentaries ever produced. It presented the story objectively, showing the trial and reactions from the victims' family members, allowing viewers to make up their own minds about what happened. And it subsequently inspired a movement among viewers who concluded that the accused – who went on to become known as the West Memphis Three – had, in fact, been wrongly convicted.

Moreover, the film's legacy would span decades, inspiring not only two sequels but a hands-off storytelling style that can be seen in docuseries like Making a Murderer and scripted dramas like Rectify. It's a film that changed the lives of all involved – including the filmmakers themselves. Berlinger and Echols will be reflecting on its significance tonight at a special 35-mm, 20th anniversary screening at Brooklyn's Alamo Drafthouse (Sinofsky died of diabetes-related complications last year). It is sponsored by the International Documentary Association.

Perhaps the most striking aspect of Paradise Lost some two decades later is how plainly it presents the story. It opens with the parents of the victims condemning the teens and includes footage of a press conference where the West Memphis chief inspector claimed his case against the teens was, on a scale of one to 10, a solid 11. One of the mothers says she figured the teens worshipped Satan: "Just look at the freaks," she said. But by the time the accused – Baldwin, Echols and Jessie Miskelley, Jr., the last of whom has an IQ of 72 and implicated the others in a confession – appear onscreen, every aspect of the case against them seems highly questionable.

"We were the obvious choice because we stood out from everybody else," Echols said in the film. At one point, his sister said he wanted to become a priest until he became interested in Wicca – and the music of Metallica, Slayer, Megadeth and U2. Later in the film, he declared that "West Memphis is pretty much like second Salem, because any crime that happens there is blamed on Satanism."

The frailer-looking Baldwin made the case seem even less plausible. "I can see where they might think I was in a cult because I wear Metallica T-shirts and stuff like that ... but I'm not a nothing like that," he said, adding that he is a Christian. "I couldn't kill an animal or person."

Between scenes of the families wishing harm on the the accused and the teens making sense of their predicament – Echols' son was born while he was behind bars – trial footage shows how each teen is convicted. At the end of the film, Echols said he felt like the "West Memphis boogeyman." Throughout, the filmmakers guided viewers with facts and storytelling cues, much like Making a Murderer would years later.

"Our filmmaking philosophy was to treat the audience like a jury," Berlinger says, adding that they had initially adopted that approach with Brother's Keeper, their 1992 doc about one of four elderly brothers charged with murder. "You don't answer every question. The best way to persuade somebody to your point of view is to have this unbiased approach, where you let the audience weigh the information. There's a lot in the film that makes you question [Echols'] guilt ... so if you're in the audience, you can come to your own conclusion that these guys did not get a fair trial or must be innocent. It's a much more powerful and persuasive filmmaking experience ... more emotional and much more active."

"Our filmmaking philosophy was to treat the audience like a jury. You can come to your own conclusion. It's a much more powerful and persuasive experience."

Berlinger and Sinofsky had both previously worked for the Maysles Brothers, who'd made the influential vérité-style documentaries Gimme Shelter and Grey Gardens, and wanted to continue the tradition of their former employers. But the duo had slowly begun to heighten the drama of their approach in a manner similar to feature films, from using music by Metallica as Paradise Lost's score (which led to them doing the landmark 2004 rock doc Some Kind of Monster) to giving it the visual presentation of a narrative movie. It came a time when documentaries were beginning to attract more mainstream attention – especially Errol Morris' The Thin Blue Line, Jennie Livingston's Paris Is Burning and Michael Moore's Roger & Me – and Berlinger and Sinofsky would go on to inspire a wave of younger documentarians like Morgan Spurlock (Super Size Me) and Brett Morgen (Cobain: Montage of Heck).

The only time their filmmaking ideals were challenged was when one of the stepfathers, the hulking Mark John Byers, gifted a cameraman working on the production a weapon for Christmas. "We were at the Byers' home, and one of our cameramen took a nap," Berlinger recalls. "Mark woke him up, rubbing his arm, and said, 'I think you and I are kindred spirits. I have a present for you. Don't tell Joe or Bruce. This may save your life one day.' He told us the story later, which we all thought was very odd ... and when we opened the knife, there was blood in the hinge.

"It was a tremendous moral dilemma," he continues. "What do you do? We've built relationships and trust with people. Turning over a knife that is potentially evidence would destroy that relationship. How do we handle that without killing the film project? For me, it was a big philosophical issue. We didn't want to gratuitously point suspicion toward the father of a victim. But it was a moral obligation to turn the knife over, even if it damns the film."



Ultimately, the test results on the knife were inconclusive and Byers was no longer a suspect. They then very carefully rebuilt his trust in them. "He was very hurt and angry initially but he ultimately understood," Berlinger says. "I don't think it would be revelatory for me to say I think he enjoyed the process of being filmed. He took what we had to say, he digested it, processed it and we moved on."

Another notable reason why Paradise Lost struck a chord was that it came out five years after the launch of Court TV, and two years after the O.J. Simpson trial captivated TV audiences across the nation. By the time the movie had premiered on HBO, the premium-cable channel had become a go-to source for original documentaries. It quickly became the channel's most-watched doc at the time.

"I've done 13 or 14 feature documentaries, and no film has generated more intense and emotionally laden Q&A's after screenings as Paradise Lost," Berlinger says. "When it got its screening at new film series at the Museum of Modern Art, a Brooklyn architect named Lorri Davis reluctantly attended at the insistence of her friends. She became so mesmerized that she came up to me after and asked many more questions. Then she decided to reach out to Damien on death row and they fell in love; she ended up marrying him. Lorri worked tirelessly on his appeal and one of the main reasons Echols' case was not forgotten was because she took up the cause."

One person who did not feel so effusively about the film was Barry Scheck, a cofounder of the Innocence Project, an organization that seeks to overturn wrongful convictions through DNA testing and criminal justice system reform. "At the end of one screening, he stood up and said Paradise Lost was a dangerous film," Berlinger says. "He felt that by allowing filmmakers in on the legal process and compromising client-attorney privilege, the film would be very damaging because the footage could be subpoenaed. He and I have since made nice in recent years and have a good relationship. He [now] sees the value of the film."

Nevertheless, in the years after its premiere, Paradise Lost's story continued to grow, as advocacy groups began looking into the West Memphis Three case. Meanwhile, it won an Emmy for Outstanding Informational Programming in 1997, and it earned nominations for awards at Sundance and the Independent Spirit Awards. But something didn't sit well with the filmmakers – they thought they should do more.

"It's a very bizarre experience winning an Emmy while the guys the film is about are still in prison and one is on death row," Berlinger says. "We were haunted by the fact that the film was not moving the needle on the case so we decided to keep going. And we made a fundamental shift, philosophically."

In 2000, they released Paradise Lost 2: Revelations, which showed the trio in prison and presented theories by several West Memphis Three advocacy groups, targeting stepfather Mark Byers as a suspect in the children's murder. He agreed to take a lie detector test on camera – and passed. "I look at Paradise Lost 2 sometimes and I cringe," Berlinger says. "I think we were too hard on Mark." But by this time, the story gained the support and interest of celebrities such as Johnny Depp, Eddie Vedder, Peter Jackson and Henry Rollins.


It would take more than a decade from the premiere of that film, though, before the Three would be released. On August 19th, after numerous appeals, Echols, Baldwin and Miskelley agreed to an Alford Plea, wherein a defendant asserts his or her innocence while pleading guilty. Paradise 3: Purgatory traces the path to this moment, showing how Byers had become a supporter of the Three, as well as presenting speculation that one of the other stepfathers could have been involved in the murders and alleging jury misconduct. It was nominated for an Oscar.

"There should be no doubt in anybody's mind about their innocence, otherwise they never would have let them out of prison," Berlinger says. "Why would the state of Arkansas allow a convicted child killer, including one on death row, to leave if they had a deep and abiding belief that these people actually took three eight-year-olds into the woods and sacrificed them to the devil. They didn't want to admit culpability or pay for wrongful conviction."

In the years since the last Paradise Lost installment came out, there has been a proliferation in similarly themed media. In addition to Making a Murderer,  docuseries such as The Jinx and The Staircase have presented compelling narrative documentaries about reasonable doubt and the criminal-justice system, while dramas such as The Night Of and Conviction have focused on wrongful convictions. "Had there been Netflix when we made Paradise Lost, it could have been chopped into a great, eight-part binge-watch series," Berlinger says.

He thinks the reason why documentaries like these have become so prevalent in recent years has a lot to do with the traditional box office. "As Hollywood becomes more about $200 million tent pole comic-book sequels and the kind of movie that came out of the original Miramax in the Nineties that we all love has died, the independent documentary has been able to step into the void," he says. "Movies like The Crying Game have been replaced with documentaries; they're the art films of today. Secondly, there is just a proliferation of outlets, because of the digital revolution – so Amazon, Netflix, Hulu and Spotify have inspired an explosion in nonfiction programming. And in the past five years, the cheesy reality competition shows and housewives shows are on the way out. The pendulum has swung back toward quality nonfiction." Berlinger, who has four crime series in the works right now, says he's never been busier.

One thing he won't be doing anytime soon, though, is making a fourth Paradise Lost. The West Memphis Three deserve their privacy now, he says, but he continues to monitor their story. There is only one situation that would bring him back to West Memphis. "The state of Arkansas was incredibly cowardly to do an Alford plea," he says. "I would only make another film if I thought it would result in their exoneration. That's what they deserve."