Five Favorite Films with West Memphis Three's Damien Echols
With the documentary West of Memphis in theaters, we talk to wrongly-convicted death row inmate -- and now free man -- Damien Wayne Echols about his favorite films, life on the inside, and the strange process of becoming a celebrity.
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.
(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...
...and M. Night Shyamalan's The Sixth Sense. That's another one, it's just got that -- it's like the otherworldly and the mundane just clash, and blend together in this way that you can't tell where one ends and the other starts. I love that movie.
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.
(Francis Ford Coppola, 1992; 80% Tomatometer)
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.
Halloween (Rob Zombie, 2007; 24% Tomatometer)
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.