Atom Egoyan’s Devil’s Knot, which premiered at Toronto, is making the rounds of European festivals in San Sebastian and Zurich this week. In Zurich, Egoyan talked about the film at a press conference.
A lot of people in the film world know this West Memphis Three story from the documentaries. Why did you think it was worth a different kind of telling in a narrative feature?
We forget that so many people don’t know this story at all. It’s a little frustrating, especially in Toronto, when a lot of people asked that question. It only pertains to about 1% of people who watch films. Most people really don’t know this story and it’s an exceptional story.
It’s one of the most extraordinary pieces of mythology in contemporary American culture. How 20 years ago three eight year old boys vanished very mysteriously, almost supernaturally, in a forest in Arkansas. With no evidence – no footprints, no DNA, no blood. And a town grappling with this unresolvable sense of pain decides to sacrifice three teenagers in return. That to me is the stuff of Greek myth, and it bears retelling again and again.
I wanted to deal with this notion of powerlessness, how can something this awful happen, how can people deal with this sort of pain and ultimately have no recourse. It’s a very different point of view from the documentaries.
It’s not what you expect to see this story from the eyes of the investigator and one of the victim’s mothers. Why was that more interesting for you as a filmmaker than telling the boys’ story?
To me it’s about this idea of finding characters who were able to understand the badness of what was happening… The other thing that I find that’s radical about the film is that you have two stars but they are playing characters that have no agency. They don’t get to do what Hollywood stars normally do. They can’t take action.
That was very daring of the two of them (Colin Firth and Reese Witherspoon) knowing that they didn’t get to be the heroes. There are no heroes in this story.
What was it like working with Colin and Reese, did you talk to them a lot about how you wanted to tell this story?
Yes, that’s what directing is about. Talking is a big part of it, trying to convey why this is an exceptional opportunity, and it was. They aren’t roles that are traditional… if it wasn’t based on a true story, she would be the person that finds out the truth. And he would be too, as a private investigator.