The Devil’s Knot Diaries: Day Five
I arrive on location, once again at the Georgia Archives Building, which is where the film will be shooting for the remainder of its days.
I am wearing a Videodrome T-shirt, which I bought at the local independent rental store that Atom Egoyan had told me about over dinner. “They have a section on my films!” The director was so excited about that fact that I told him I’d go check out the store, but I had never had time to visit because of our hectic shooting schedule.
I remember him telling me that he had bought a shirt from them, and since he wore a shirt to show me a few days earlier, I figured I should wear this shirt to show him now.
I catch his eye as he curiously observes the shirt. “Hey, where’d you get that?” I tell him I loved the store, but his eyes are still on the shirt as he tells me he wishes he bought another one for himself. I tell him I can go grab him another one, but he says it’s not necessary.
I learn that he will be leaving for New York tomorrow to see the closing of his Chinese opera, Feng Yi Ting, with his family, who he hasn’t seen for two months.
Elis Koteas arrives as we are speaking and puts out his hand. Atom Egoyan quickly introduces us before he steps onto the set and readies for his scene. I’m a huge admirer of his work and I’m glad I’ll be seeing him perform on my final day.
Colin Firth arrives as he steps aside with Atom Egoyan and discusses the scene that is about to be filmed.
In the scene in question, Ron Lax speaks with Jerry Driver (Elias Koteas), Damien’s probation officer, who tells him about the occult. This scene precedes the prison scene between Ron Lax and Damien that we shot the previous day.
The shot goes up. It’s a lengthy scene in comparison to all the other ones we have shot this week. It’s so refreshing hear two great actors talk to each other and work off each other’s chemistry – a lot of the scenes we had shot earlier this week didn’t have as much dialogue and usually focused on a single character. This scene shows two actors at the top of their game really picking each other’s minds and thoughts.
The master is done as the crew prepares a closer shot of Colin Firth.
In one of these takes, Colin Firth does an improvised laugh as Jerry tells him about the occult. It’s the kind of chuckle that bursts out when you can’t believe what you’re hearing. Atom Egoyan likes how natural the laugh feels and encourages him to do it more often.
Elias Koteas does a great deal of improvisation of his own. I’m surprised how much of his performance is based on finding his character while performing. It’s all very natural and he really enjoys playing with different ideas.
In the scene, Jerry stands up and hands Ron a video camera. Ron holds the camera and looks into the viewfinder. The positioning of the camera (it’s looking directly at the audience) reminds me of a lot of Atom Egoyan’s past films, where character’s interactions are mediated through technology and forms of media. I can picture the scene now – Jerry hands Ron the camera, Ron looks inside and we cut to video-recorded footage, much like we see in The Sweet Hereafter, when Mitchell visits the bus. It’s assuring, because even though he didn’t write this film, he’s injecting his style into this film.
The closer shot of Elias Koteas goes up, and although it’s noisy because of an air conditioner that is part of the building, we wait for it to be turned off and continue on.
The scene is wrapped and the crew moves onto the other side of building. I run into Elias Koteas in the hallway as he leaves – he’s probably one of the nicest people I have ever spoken to in my life.
In this next scene, Ron Lax and Inspector Gary Gitchell speak about a knife that was found as part of evidence. The scene takes place in the West Memphis Police Department. The details of the set are exceptional. I walk around the entire set before filming begins and notice every little attention to detail. In the back, I see the mugshot signs that read the names of the West Memphis Three when they were photographed and printed. In the main room outside of Inspector Gary Gitchell’s office are desks and notes – post-it notes on computers, desk calendars, paperwork – all of which either have actual information on them that is relevant to the West Memphis Three case or humorous notes written by crew members. I observe maps on the wall, plaques hanging in the office that have names of actual officers from West Memphis in the 1990s and realize that it’s a complete recreation in perfect detail.
I’m speaking with Atom Egoyan who rests on his director’s chair. The set photographer somehow brings up Kim Kardashian, and although I had always been curious about his thoughts on her, his reaction says everything I need to know.
Atom Egoyan turns to me and asks, “Are you going to miss us?” I don’t think he knows just how much I’ll miss this experience.
Denny Mooradian, the only other Armenian on this film, is called over. I remark that we’re the West Memphis Three, which amuses Atom Egoyan. “That’s good. That’s a good line.”
The scene between Ron Lax and Inspector Gary Gitchell continues. Atom Egoyan asks Rex Linn, who plays the inspector, to “pitch it up a bit” and the scene visibily intensifies and there is more energy. The camera is then moved around and Atom Egoyan likes its placement and asks Paul Sarossy to grab a quick close-up of Rex Linn. This close-up shot is basically improvised.
Atom Egoyan tells Colin Firth to “look at him with a sense of anger.” The scene now is vastly different than the first few takes as the actors explore different tonal styles.
I notice someone walk onto the set, as members of the crew crowd around him. I can’t make out who it is. Atom Egoyan, excitedly, comes up and tells me, “That’s one of the boys. That’s Jason!”
Clark Peterson, one of the producers, introduces me to Jason Baldwin and his girlfriend, Holly, right before they all head out to lunch. I can’t believe I just met one of the West Memphis Three boys.
I’m downstairs as I see Atom Egoyan, rushing around, as he tells me that one of the hardest things about “all of this” is the “social aspect” of it – meeting people, talking to people – because it’s all very overwhelming. In fact, he tells me he sometimes likes to take his food and go sit in his trailer alone, zoning out of all the chaos. That’s precisely what he does.
I decide to make a trip to a local store.
I walk back onto the set and I immediately make eye contact with Jason Baldwin, who is standing beside his girlfriend. I begin talking to them, before she decides to go watch the scene that is being filmed. Jason and I sit down and began chatting. It’s one of the most memorable conversations I have ever had with another human being.
Jason was arrested and convicted when he was 16-years-old, and for the past 18 years, he has been sitting in a prison, sentenced to life imprisonment. Jason is now 35-years-old, but he looks like a teenager. There is an incredible sense of innocence in his eyes. I tell him, “You’ve been on quite a journey.” The only response I get is of him smiling and nodding.
I ask him, but don’t want to be too forward, about his time in prison. It’s a process of getting reacquainted with the world, he tells me. In the last 18 years, he has missed a lot of life – the invention and creation of DVDs, the popularly of cellphones, the election of several presidents, the attacks on September 11, 2001. In fact, he tells me he is now watching as many films as possible, to make up for what he has missed. “I drove a car for the first time,” he tells me, during a road trip he took with his girlfriend. I almost want to cry, it’s so sad, hearing about all that he has lost in life.
“Are you angry?,” I ask him. Jason tells me he isn’t and that he lives day-by-day, enjoying each single moment. The most important thing in his life right now is his girlfriend, Holly, and I can tell that he wants to go be with her, even though he is enjoying our conversation. Jason tells me that in prison, he would listen to System of a Down, who he knows are Armenian, and that he would often rewrite their lyrics and make up his own in his free time. I ask him what it’s like to be on set and watch a film being made about your life. It’s surreal for him. I somehow share his sentiments. Jason, then, can’t stand being apart from his girlfriend and excuses himself.
Atom Egoyan later tells me that the actor who is starring alongside Colin Firth in this scene that he is filming now is shocked and somewhat nervous that he is worked alongside an Oscar winner. Atom Egoyan says the actor has a large body of work, but that he just casts actors based on their auditions. The scene is going well and he tells me the actor is great.
I discover that this is Colin Firth’s last scene of the film and he will wrap after it is finished. I tell Atom Egoyan that I will head out after it’s finished.
Colin Firth wraps and there is loud applause. Colin Firth steps away, comes back and hands Atom Egoyan a gift. It’s a touching moment for the director and actor.
I begin saying goodbye to all the wonderful people that I have worked alongside for the past week. I begin with Denny Mooradian and make my way through the producers and the crew members. I approach Atom Egoyan and reveal the Videodrome T-shirt. “I thought you forgot about it!” I thank him for everything he has done for me throughout the entire visit and I leave the building, as the team prepares for the next scene that they are shooting.
I walk to the car and make my way to the airport. I’m gone just as soon as I have arrived.
What if I told you it’s possible that you could spend a week with your idol? Who would that person be? What would you say to that person?
Those are the questions I was faced with when I discovered I would be spending a week with Atom Egoyan.
I have spent the last several years of my life studying film, and more specifically, researching his films, both inside and outside of a classroom. This opportunity has, in some sense, stripped away the illusion I have had of him as a filmmaker, but has also provided me with a deeper understanding of his work methods. I learned a great deal from shadowing and observing him and I thank him for welcoming me into his creative process.
I hope this journey will continue on, in some form or another, because keeping a diary of the production process on one of his films, I hope, has been insightful to not just fans of his films, but to film scholars worldwide, who might find these insights useful when doing research on him in the future. These are, I believe, important and revealing documents that are essential in understanding how filmmakers exert their creative vision.
I would also like to thank Yerevan Magazine, who played an integral part in planning and organizing this opportunity. In addition, I would like to thank all the dedicated crew members, who offered – and last, but not least, I am extremely grateful to the producers of the film, Paul Harris Boardman, Elizabeth Fowler, Clark Peterson and Richard Saperstein, who welcomed me onto their production and made me feel like I was part of their team for a week.
I have spoken in detail about the creative process of Atom Egoyan – how he works, how he talks to his actors, and how he spends his time in between takes – but it’s the larger, more broader strokes that make him who he is. The entire crew, many of whom had never worked with him before, were all extremely excited to be working with such a noteworthy director. The team he was surrounded with had an enormous amount of respect for him, and he for them.
The set was always a welcoming environment with hardworking individuals. There was open communication among everyone and dialogue remained fluid between everyone on the team. The most important thing for me to witness was that there no egos – not from the producers, director or actors – because everyone on the crew came together and helped each other.
That’s probably why the entire experience feels so surreal. I feel like I stepped into another world for a week and spent time working alongside people that I have admired for years and years. That’s the great thing about having something extraordinary happen — when you’re back into the real world, you feel like you’ve been dreaming — but like I was once told, reality ends here.