LOS ANGELES — Documentary filmmakers Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky's campaign to help win the freedom of the so-called West Memphis Three ended in triumph Friday when the trio of Jason Baldwin, Damien Echols and Jessie Misskelley Jr. were set free after 18 years behind bars. Now, the directors are facing a new challenge: recutting their new film, "Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory," in time for the fall festival circuit.
Berlinger said he'd decided not to try to have a new version ready for the film's world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, which begins Sept. 8.
"It's not simply a matter of just tacking on a scene; there needs to be editing and scoring. It's a several-week process," he said of the movie, which chronicles the latest legal twists and turns in the case of the murder of three 8-year-old Arkansas boys. "We spent literally 18 years on this, and I want to make sure we do it right. I don't want to rush it."
The movie festival audiences will see in Toronto will end with an Arkansas Supreme Court evidentiary hearing last year that began to turn the tide in favor of the three men; Berlinger and Sinofsky will discuss the outcome of the case in person at the screening.
In the meantime, the filmmakers will work to have a new cut — what Berlinger calls "the definitive version" — for the New York Film Festival in mid-October. That cut, which will include an added scene or two from events Friday, when the trio was ordered released after entering guilty pleas in exchange for a sentence equal to time served.
That version of the documentary will air on HBO in January.
Reached by text message Friday, Toronto film fest co-director Cameron Bailey said he and festival organizers were working through their own plans. "We're still absorbing the news, so (it's) too soon to say if our plans for presenting the film will change," Bailey said, adding, "We're just glad people will get a chance to see the film in Toronto and to talk about these amazing developments."
Since they first chronicled the arrests and convictions of the West Memphis Three in the HBO-produced "Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills," Berlinger and Sinofsky have endeavored to bring ongoing national attention to the case. Essentially, they argued, the trio were the subject of a small-town witch hunt and were convicted on the basis of little direct evidence and possibly coerced confessions.
The pair's follow-up HBO film, 2000's "Paradise Lost 2: Revelations," continued to recruit a number of high-profile celebrities to the cause. On Friday, when the trio was ordered released, musicians Eddie Vedder and Natalie Maines were on hand.
Berlinger said he and Sinofsky had planned to continue their crusading filmmaking before Friday's events. "We're delighted we're not making a fourth film, which we were preparing to do," Berlinger said.
However, he said the moment was "bittersweet," in part because the three had to plead guilty instead of receiving the full exoneration he believed they deserved. Also, he noted, nearly two decades of their lives had been lost.
"My daughter is 17," he said. "And every time she went through a landmark — her first steps, middle school, high school, first boyfriend — I thought of Damien Echols rotting in prison."
Over the weekend, Canadian filmmaker Atom Egoyan announced plans to direct a feature film based on the case and adapted from the 2003 book "Devil's Knot: The True Story of the West Memphis Three."