The Devil’s Knot Diaries: Day Four
I arrive on location at the Georgia Archives Building in Atlanta, GA. It’s great to be shooting indoors again after two days in the sun.
In the building, I notice we are shooting on built sets. This marks the first time since my arrival that we are not shooting in actual buildings. The two sets that have been constructed are prison cells – the first is for Jessie and the second is for Damien, which also doubles as Jason’s cell. These are not elaborate sets. Jessie’s cell consists of two walls, but Phillip Barker’s work as a production designer and a great camera angle will make this space look authentic. Damien’s cell consists of four walls, but part of these walls are movable. I love the attention to detail in these constructed sets and the aging of the bricks.
Atom Egoyan approaches me, visibly exhausted, and claims yesterday was one of the “worst” days of shooting, in terms of weather. In his hands, later, is an iPad, and he calls me over and shows me dailies. The first dailies are from Tuesday’s shoot of Vicki’s house. Atom Egoyan is fascinated by technology. It’s a theme that is evident in the majority of his films – narratives are often constructed around video, media and these technological tools. The fact that he can now watch dailies on his iPad is exciting for him; he scrolls through different shooting days and jumps from one clip to another, like a child fascinated with a new toy. In his hands, these new technological tools help his workflow as a filmmaker.
The first shot of the day, which is of Jessie in prison, writing a letter to his father, is ready for filming. The camera dollies from behind him and moves to the side of him as he writes. The cell is filled with photographs, letters and cards that Jessie has received while in prison. The shot is filmed in several different ways – Jessie reading his letter aloud and Jessie writing in silence. It’s a scene that can be constructed in a number of ways in the editing process.
The second shot of the day consists of Jessie sitting in his cell with his hands on the side of his face as we see the back of a man. The camera moves in on Jessie’s face, as he is told about his arraignment in court.
The crew begins setting up the next shot, which is a scene between Colin Firth and James Hamrick, in Damien’s cell. The publicist for the film has scheduled for an EPK (electronic press kit) interview to take place with the cast and crew for today and tomorrow, and this is the perfect time for Atom Egoyan to step away for a few minutes.
In a chair, he sits, ready to begin talking about the film. The interviewer throws a question at him as Atom Egoyan answers, then stops… “I give really long answers,” he says, and asks if he should try cutting his answers shorter. The interviewer lets him answer as long as he wishes. The interview offers interesting insights about the film. Atom Egoyan discusses working with three generations of actors, from accomplished award-winning actors such as Colin Firth and Reese Witherspoon, to the up-and-coming class of actors that have begun making a name for themselves in television, such as Stephen Moyer and Mireille Enos, and the young, inexperienced actors, many of whom have a few credits under their belt, if that, such as James Hamrick and Seth Meriwether.
Atom Egoyan also discusses the process of turning a true story into a film, stating drama allows him the opportunity to make changes that are faithful to these actual events. The example he brings up is the courtroom in which the three boys were convicted in. The actual courtroom, he says, was a small, nondescript room, but a drama provides him with the creative license to “amplify” certain moments for the sake of a film. In the film, the courtroom is much more grander, but it’s done so to emphasize the importance of the moment in these boys’ lives. In addition, during pre-production in Arkansas, he says he was sitting in a cafe when one of the employees notified him that Paul Ford, Jason Baldwin’s defense attorney, was just outside in the street. Atom Egoyan explains that instead of meeting Paul Ford and getting a feel for who he was in real life, he skipped the opportunity. In his opinion, he had already imagined the kind of character Paul Ford was in relation to the film and meeting him would take away from the personality traits he had already imagined and created for him.
The interview is finished as he rushes back onto the set to start the next scene. The EPK interviewer also gets B-roll footage of the next few scenes. Colin Firth and James Hamrick are in position as we do a rehearsal. In the scene, Ron tells Damien that he has recently met with his probation officer, Jerry Driver, who has told him about Damien’s affiliations with the occult. The first shot that is filmed is through an open cell door, with James facing us and Colin sitting with his back to the camera.
The New York Times visits the production and interviews Atom Egoyan before the next shot is filmed.
In the next shot, the crew moves part of the wall as we move in for a closer shot of Colin Firth. I ask Atom Egoyan about the scene and he says he isn’t satisfied with the way Damien is being introduced in the scene. In the screenplay, at this point in the film, the audience hasn’t seen Damien for quite some time, and Atom Egoyan explains that he doesn’t want the audience to see him so soon and that he needs a more “mysterious” entrance. “You’ll see what I mean,” he tells me.
I ask him if the shot worked as planned and he tells me it’s a much better opening to the scene now. The different shots he talks about and their order makes me realize that he is actually editing this film in his head. I ask him about that and he replies back, “You have to. I don’t know how people don’t do it.” In doing so, he completely understands how the scene will be structured and this allows him to get the coverage he needs. The early films of his, he says, lacked this editing in his mind and he tells me that he “didn’t understand film grammar” with his first few films, such as Next of Kin. That’s why, he says, the film has so many long shots.
It’s during the filming of this scene that I realize how talented both Atom Egoyan and Colin Firth are. Atom Egoyan makes a quick directorial suggestion to Colin Firth for this scene, reminding him of the “mountain of work” he has ahead of him in Damien’s case. Colin Firth processes this information and communicates the overwhelming feeling and burden that his character feels. It’s amazing to see this unfold in front of me – a director communicating just what he wants and a talented actor being able to deliver that emotion. I look around to the producers and they all nod in agreement; this is the shot they’re keeping in the film.
The crew break for lunch.
The next few shots are of Damien sitting in his prison cell alone.
Seth Meriwether arrives in his prison uniform and steps in the cell. The scene in question is between Paul Ford and Jason Baldwin. Paul Ford tells him that if he agrees to testify against Damien, he could receive a lesser sentence of 10-20 years rather than life or death. Jason refuses because he knows Damien is innocent. It’s one of the few times I’ve seen Seth Meriwether perform – everything else up to this point during our shooting revolved around James Hamrick in the scene – but this scene shows me just how talented he is and how seamlessly he transitions into his character. Matt Letscher, who plays Paul Ford, is picture wrapped as the scene is finished.
In the building on the floor we are shooting in, the crew ushers in a podium. There are dozens of extras that show up wearing police uniforms. The scene that we are now working on is the press conference Chief Inspector Gary Gitchell of the West Memphis Police Department gives after Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley, Jr. are arrested.
The most interesting thing about this scene is that it’s also shot on a Betamax camera, which will later be inserted into the film to make the press conference look as if it’s the actual press conference from 1993. Phillip Barker, the production designer, brings out his MacBook with a picture of Gary Gitchell during the press conference as Paul Sarossy adjusts to capture the right angle; he shoots both the scene and the Betamax footage himself.
The crew moves down into the basement for the next few scenes, which consist of Damien and Aaron (Vicki Hutcheson’s son) taking a polygraph. It’s dark and hot in the basement, but it’s the ideal location for these scenes. The grip takes down the dolly tracks for the scene, but Atom Egoyan realizes the radius of the dolly is too much – he needs a dolly track of 15 degrees rather than 45 degrees. There are no 15 degree dolly tracks available in Atlanta, apparently, so he opts for a straight track, which he places diagonally.
In the shot, the camera moves past a column, which is retouched and repainted dark green at the authority of Phillip Barker. In the distance, a wall is in the shot and rather than readjusted the positing of the camera, he authorizes for that wall to be painted as well. Paul Sarossy does a test run of the scene, with Damien hooked up to a polygraph, and during this run, I notice that when the camera moves past the column, the screen is almost entirely black for a brief moment. I think to myself it’ll be really great to either end the scene on the black caused by the column or use that black as a transition. Atom Egoyan spots this too and calls out to Paul Sarossy. Atom Egoyan asks if he can either zoom in or get closer so the entire screen can be black. I can see the mechanics of his brain working – he sees something interesting and he is trying to figure out what to do with it – and after the shot works, he reimagines the entire scene. In an almost excited way of speaking, he tells Paul Sarossy, the shot of Damien will have the camera move into black, which will transition into Aaron taking the polygraph. I smile. That’s what I was thinking.
The shot wraps and we’re done for the night. I’m a little sad when I’m reminded this is the last time I’ll be with the crew during one of their nightly wraps. I’ll be on an airplane back to Los Angeles the next time they wrap for the night.