It’s hard to imagine just how surreal Damien Echols’ life must have been. In 1994, the teenager was sentenced to death for his alleged part, along with two others, in the gruesome 1993 murder of three boys in Arkansas. Convicted by state prosecutors riding a wave of public and media hysteria, the so-called West Memphis Three spent the next 18 years in prison — until an accumulation of new evidence raised doubts as to their guilt and, in 2011, they were finally set free.
Having spent most of his adult life incarcerated, Echols has since become something of a celebrity, drawing the support of people like Peter Jackson, Johnny Depp and Eddie Vedder, who lent their weight to the campaign to free the falsely-accused men and expose the miscarriage of justice. Jackson also co-produced an extensive new documentary about the case — Amy Berg’s West of Memphis — and with the film opening theatrically this week, we had the opportunity to sit down and talk with Echols recently.
“That’s the reason we’re doing this,” says Echols of the film, “just to get as many people to see this as possible, to try and get the word out. Cause in the end that’s all the state of Arkansas cares about, you know. They don’t care about justice or anything else: they only care about how many people are paying attention to what they’re doing. I mean, that’s what keeps them from getting away with stuff — how many people are watching.”
Behind tinted shades he occasionally removes for a rich, lively laugh, an understandably haunted Echols is also exhausted by the process of promoting a movie. “Burned out doesn’t even begin to describe it,” Echols sighs. “It gets to the point where you wanna start screaming and throwing sh*t through windows,” he laughs. “[I’m] not used to this at all. Even actors get burned out by this stuff. I’m not an actor. At least then, if you’re talking to an actor, they’re talking about a project they worked on, like a piece of art they created. But when you’re having to talk about this for hours — we’re not even talking about something we created, it’s more like we’re talking about some f**kin’ horrible tragedy that was dumped on us. So it’s not like you can really take pride in the work that you’ve done.”
Read on for more of the interview, in which Echols talks about life in prison, his admiration for Stephen King, how the support of those famous pals helped save him from death row, and his plans with Depp to produce a screen version of his memoir.
First up, he took a moment to talk about his five favorite films.
The Mothman Prophecies (Mark Pellington, 2001; 53% Tomatometer)
Normally if a movie doesn’t have a monster in it, I’m not interested. All I like are horror movies; but I don’t like slasher movies. To me, just seeing people getting hurt, that’s not entertaining to me. My favorite things of all time, they have to have a supernatural element to them, and there has to be a sense of romance to them, and an otherworldly quality that makes you feel like there’s more magic in life. So for me, my five favorite movies of all time are the ones I’ve watched over and over and over.
Number one, just first and foremost my favorite movie of all time — The Mothman Prophecies, with Richard Gere and Debra Messing. Have you ever seen that?
I haven’t seen it, no. It sounded interesting.
It’s great. It’s so subtle, but haunting at the same time. So that one…
Did you ever see a movie called The Fourth Kind?
You’ve got me there again. I don’t think so.
Milla Jovovich is in it. It’s another one of those ones that’s based on a true story, like The Mothman Prophecies. They use a lot of found footage in it — well not found footage, but like cop car cameras and things like that. This is one of those movies that, you know, it will make the hair stand up on the back of your neck. It’s horrifying.
Bram Stoker’s Dracula, that came out in 1992, with Gary Oldman.
Now that movie I love.
I love that movie. I watch that one over and over and over again. I love that one. The costumes, the people… even though the people… like Keanu Reeves, he may not be the greatest actor, but you don’t even realize that when you’re watching it — it’s like you’re so sucked into the world of the romance, and the visuals that are just so rich and decadent. And it makes you wanna live that life, you know. It makes you wanna live in a castle somewhere where you only use candles for lighting.
But no mirrors, of course.
I think Keanu’s fine in that film, by the way. He’s perfectly hammy, in an almost Hammer horror way.
I do too! But everybody else says he was terrible, that he was horrible in it.
Now I just said I don’t like slasher movies, but this is the exception to that rule — because it’s the exception to horror movies. The Rob Zombie remake of Halloween — that thing is f**king genius. It’s like he violates every rule of horror movie making and makes it work. Most horror movies are atmospheric, they’re really dark or they’re at night and they’re creepy; his is taking place in bright noon sunshine daylight, out in the yard. And the way he goes into the story of the Michael Myers character, you know, the reason why he’s making all these masks. That is a great movie.
I guess I also like it because of the outside scenes. You know, when they show people walking down the sidewalk or something — it feels like Autumn. You see leaves skitter across the sidewalk as the wind blows ’em, and you feel Halloween when you’re watching ’em. I remember the first time I saw that was when we were in prison. They’ll show movies on holidays just to take the tension out of the air a little bit — and that was the movie we got to see on Christmas. On Christmas they showed us Halloween. And when it was over — it was Christmas night, about 9 o’clock — as soon as it went off I went into such a deep state of mourning, because it was like my favorite time of year was gone. From the Equinox to Christmas morning, that is like the richest, most velvety, delicious time of year.
People always ask me, you know, they would say, “How would you describe heaven — in this perfect atmosphere where everything is exactly how you wanted it, how would it be?” And I say, “It would always be December.” So I realized that time of year was over, it was gone, and I was going to have to wait all the way around the will of the year to get back to Autumn and Halloween again. And seeing it in that movie, I just sat down and started crying when it was over, because I realized I was gonna have to make it through another long, hot, brutal summer, you know — prison guards torturing you, there’s nothing to look forward to. It was a horrible feeling. It feels like there’s a hole in you or something. But I can watch that movie now, and automatically feel that time of year again.
Next, find out what movies they won’t play in prison — and just how many times Echols has seen The Shawshank Redemption. Plus, his thoughts on writing, the support of Depp and Vedder, and playing laser tag with the cast and crew of The Hobbit.
So, do they have a policy in prison about any movies they won’t show you?
Damien Echols: Yeah. They won’t show anything — this is the weirdest thing, they’re so paranoid — like, for example, they shut all magazines out of prison, except for TV Guide and Entertainment Weekly. All other magazines, like Rolling Stone, GQ, Esquire, Playboy — they said they promote homosexuality. So they block ’em out of the prison and say they’re not coming in. Which I always thought was kinda weird when you take into consideration that this is an institution that forces hundreds of men to shower together every day. But that was like their movie policy, too: They wouldn’t show anything like, say Brokeback Mountain. Doesn’t matter how many awards it wins, or how great it is, they just say, “No. It promotes homosexuality. It’s not in.” But they’ll turn around and show Rob Zombie movies, you know, on Christmas Day.
Do they ever show prison escape movies? Did they show The Shawshank Redemption?
DE: They showed The Shawshank Redemption, I’d say, 20 times in the time I was there.
Was that just to torture you? You know, “This guy escaped but you’re stuck in here.”
DE: [Laughs] I don’t know. [Laughs] I have no idea what their reasoning behind that was. There was another one that they would show over and over and over, too. What was it? The Shawshank Redemption and, oh, The Green Mile.
You’re a Stephen King fan, aren’t you? There’s that scene in West of Memphis where they’re collecting your books and there’s a lot of his stuff in the box. Is that your kind of genre to write in?
DE: Oh yeah. Well people say — I mean, I have a ninth-grade education, I never even graduated high school…
But from what I’ve seen, you’re a good writer.
DE: Well that’s what people say: “How did you learn to write?” And I learned to write by reading Stephen King novels. I started reading them when I was somewhere between 10 and 12 years old. Some of them now I’ve read in the double digits, because the characters feel like old friends that I like to go back and visit sometimes. And that’s how I learned how to write.
One of the first things I did when I got out was — I’d self-published a memoir when I was in prison called Almost Home — and I looked it up online just to see what the reviews of it were, what people were saying about it. And I saw this one by this one woman that said, “The whole time I was reading this book I kept having this nagging sensation that I’ve heard this voice before, and about three-fourths of the way through I realized it’s Stephen King.” To me that was about the greatest compliment she could have given me.
We’re writing about different things: He’s writing fiction and I’m writing non-fiction; he’s writing stories about monsters and the end of the world and I’m writing about daily prison life — but at the same time I tried to write to the beat. Like when you listen to music, you hear a beat, and you could write a new song to the beat of the old song — well it’s the same thing for me when I’m reading. It’s like I feel a beat to the writing style. So whenever I sat down to write, I guess I’d just read so many of his books, so many times, that I automatically started trying to match that beat while I was writing. And that’s where I learned how to write from.
Now that Johnny Depp’s picked up the rights to your new memoir, Life After Death, what are the plans for it?
DE: Well we’re still in the very early stages of it. We’re still sort of kicking around ideas now about who we would want to do it, but one of the things we’re really strongly considering — and it’s probably the direction we’re gonna go in — is, instead of making like a big theatrical movie, do something like a mini-series. Pitch it to someone, you know, like HBO and see if they would be interested in it. It gives you more time to tell the story. You could do it in a shorter time period — you know, it takes like two years to get a movie into theaters, and you could do this in a year. So it gives you more time to tell the story and it reaches a wider audience. And you can get really quality directors and actors and writers. I mean, you’ve got people like Martin Scorsese directing Boardwalk Empire.
Is it weird to be in this position now? I mean, you were in prison for 18 years, and now you’re out and you’ve got people like Johnny Depp and Eddie Vedder by your side, supporting your cause.
DE: You know, there were people that over the years that became such good friends with us that I have no idea what we would have done without them. Johnny’s become like a brother to me. I absolutely love him dearly. Eddie too, you know. The first place I went when I got out was to Eddie’s house in Seattle. When we left Arkansas I didn’t have a single penny in my pocket; I didn’t have a suit of clothes to change into and I had nowhere to go. We went to Eddie’s house and immediately his wife takes me out and buys me all new clothes, and Eddie walks up and hands me a wallet with money in it, and I had no idea what in the hell we would have done without these guys. Eddie, Johnny, Henry Rollins, Peter [Jackson] and Fran [Walsh] — they saved my life.
One of my favorite moments in the film was when Eddie Vedder was reading from your diary, and I think it was that quote about time — it was really affecting.
DE: I was always afraid it would come across as a little flaky.
No, not at all. It really got to me. So has Peter shown you The Hobbit yet?
DE: No, but I was on the set while they were filming it for a whole three months, so it feels like I’ve seen it, because I saw them go through each scene, you know.
You must have seen Gollum in person, with his motion-capture suit.
DE: I didn’t see Gollum, but I did see a lot of the other guys wearing them. I’m trying to remember the guy’s name.. the guy in Spartacus, he plays this, was it a troll?
An orc? The Goblin King?
DE: He wasn’t the Goblin King. The Goblin King was Dame Edna. That was really weird. We went to Peter’s place out in the country one time, and there was about 30 of us: me, [Echols’ wife] Lorri [Davis], Peter and Fran, Barry Humphries, Ian McKellen, Elijah Wood. All of us are out there playing paintball, and we’re all dressed in our camouflage — wait, not paintball, laser tag — and we’re all running through the woods and shooting each other, and that was an insane day. I think Barry Humphries ended up being a casualty of friendly fire.
See, what’s funny about that is Barry Humphries plays laser tag. Did he do the Dame Edna voice? “I’ve got you now, possums.”
Alright, I think I’m getting thrown out now. Thanks for hanging in there, you’ve been great.
DE: Thank you so much. And thanks for helping to get the word out.
West of Memphis opens theatrically in select locations this week.