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Since it first appeared in 2003, "Devil's Knot" — the book by Arkansas Times contributing editor Mara Leveritt — has served as a kind of primer to the West Memphis Three case. Encyclopedic, exhaustive, scouring every corner of the case where evidence of the guilt or innocence of Echols, Misskelley and Baldwin might hide, it's easily one of the most popular and best-selling non-fiction books produced by an Arkansas author.
A project to make the book into a movie has long been in the works, but with the release of the WM3 on Aug. 19, that effort is sure to pick up steam. Atom Egoyan, Oscar-nominated director of 1997's "The Sweet Hereafter," is attached now. He hopes to start shooting — on a $20 million dollar budget — beginning this spring, with the goal of a late 2012 release.
Egoyan was reportedly traveling in Europe and couldn't be reached by press time, but he told the Hollywood Reporter last week that the "Devil's Knot" film will focus on the "rush to justice" before and during the trials, which he called "a contemporary Salem witchhunt." Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley won't be the protagonists of the film, Egoyan said, with screenwriters instead focusing on others in the community to create an ensemble drama giving the big picture of what happened and why. Asked if the script will have to be changed now that Echols, Baldwin and Misskelley have been released, he said that the film will "absorb" those facts.
Producer Elizabeth Fowler first read Leveritt's book eight years ago, and optioned it for a film soon after. She said she always starts any conversation about the book by telling people the case is "a modern-day 'To Kill a Mockingbird'," though she said the courtroom drama in the completed movie is likely to be minimal.
"I felt that this was a story worthy from both an emotional point of view and a substantive point of view that the entire world should know about," Fowler said. "I know first hand the power of film and what a voice it gives to stories, so I became committed to getting 'Devil's Knot' the movie made, and telling this story in a way that people could understand. That's what Mara's book so beautifully and powerfully does."
Fowler said the story is perfect for film because it "organically operates" on so many levels. She said that the project has been in several different forms with several different artists attached over the years, but things always got put on hold. When they did, Fowler said, she'd always tell Leveritt "there's a reason it hasn't gotten made yet. We have to keep going." With Egoyan agreeing to direct, Fowler said, they finally have the right team in place to do the story justice.
Seeing "Devil's Knot" on the big screen has been a long time coming for Mara Leveritt as well. She said she heard Egoyan had agreed to direct the day after Echols, Baldwin and Misskelley were released, and got the news from the director of a documentary who was interviewing her about the case. Leveritt won't say how much she was paid to option the film for Hollywood, but hopes it will pay off in other ways.
"I'll tell you that, all things considered, it wasn't a lot," she said. "Where I hope that this will really repay me is that it will awaken a lot of people to the problems in the justice system, not just in Arkansas, but everywhere. That will be great."
Leveritt said she thinks Egoyan will be able to do well with the material in her book, given the film-noir style seen in "The Sweet Hereafter."
"I think it'll make a very good movie. I've seen a few drafts of the script, and they keep getting better. I think that, in his hands, I'm really happy."
Right now, Leveritt is working on a follow-up to "Devil's Knot" called "Justice Knot," which she said should hit the shelves about the same time as the film. Eventually, our interview gets around to the question that's been on my mind since I first heard they were making a film of her book: Who will play her in the movie?
Leveritt's answer is surprising at first, but undeniably the right one in hindsight: No one, she hopes.
"I was in one [draft of the script] early on that everyone rejected, and that's absolutely fine with me. I prefer it that way," she said. "I'm a reporter, and I liked writing 'Devil's Knot' as a reporter. I didn't have a role anywhere in that story, except being the storyteller, and that's exactly where I should be. Now it's in the hands of other storytellers, and, I think, good hands."