Johnny Depp is quite popular anywhere he goes, but it seemed that he was beyond super-stardom when he walked the West of Memphis red carpet. With his appearance publicized at TIFF, Depp drew record crowds. But he was there to take care of business; he was there to defend the West Memphis three.
Over an hour before the documentary – which is an ongoing piece of investigative journalism on the West Memphis three – there was already hundreds of fans crammed around the Ryerson theatre. Not only were they all pressed against the barriers, but they had also lined up on the other side of Gerrard Street and climbed on top of lights and pillars, hoping to catch a glance of the blockbuster star.
Johnny Depp supported the crusading documentary film West of Memphis as a friend of the family, not as a celebrity advocate, the Hollywood superstar said Saturday.
“I don’t think of myself as a celebrity,” Depp told a Toronto film fest press conference just before TIFF screened West of Memphis.
The film documents a gross miscarriage of justice. It is serious stuff. But Depp mocked himself before getting down to business about West of Memphis. “You know, myself, I’m essentially a gas station attendant with a very strange job.”
But he knows people will listen when he talks about Damien Echols and two other Arkansas men wrongly convicted of the murder of three young boys. It was a sensationalized case that turned into what Depp calls “a witchhunt.” The three spent 18 years in prison. They are still looking to be exonerated because Arkansas officials forced them to plead guilty, despite proving their innocence, before releasing them.
“If there are people out there who will take a minute to listen to what I have to say,” Depp said, “and to what these guys have to say, I think they’ll learn a lot more about this case. I’m here to support my friends.”
West of Memphis is produced by New Zealand filmmakers Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh (of Lord of the Rings fame). Jackson said by Skype to Toronto that he wants the film to keep the controversial case alive, especially because Arkansas officials are refusing to deal with evidence that points to the real killer, who is identified in the film. “We thought a documentary film would be the perfect forum to get the evidence out.”
Depp befriended Echols and his wife Lorri Davis after seeing an earlier documentary about the case, Paradise Lost. “I just knew that this was a horrific lie,” Depp said of the convictions, “and that these boys were innocent.” When he met Echols, “there was some kind of brotherly love there that was instant.”
Echols and his wife visited Depp’s home after Echols got out of prison a year ago. “To finally see Damien arrive at my house on my doorstep was quite moving,” Depp said. “It was a celebration. It was beautiful. He and Lorri arrived at my house, we had Tater Tots and tacos, and then a natural course of events took place and we went straight to the tattoo parlour.”
Many came with their own art of the actor. There was even a little boy (maybe 5 years old) who was dressed as Captain Jack Sparrow and propped up on his father’s shoulders. All of this seemed a little strange since this isn’t a documentary about Johnny Depp. West of Memphis, directed by Amy Berg, searches for reasons why three men were falsely convicted of the gruesome deaths of three boys. The doc examines abuse of powers and inept policing and confronts the fact that there is still a child killer on the loose. It’s dark stuff, not exactly the setting for smiley photos and cheery autograph sessions.
But this didn’t stop the Depp-heads.
The moment Depp, who has been a long-time advocate of the now-freed West Memphis three, stepped out of the car, it was chaos. Shrill screams from the fans.
With only a few minutes before the documentary screening was set to begin, it reached a climax. Depp stepped away from media interviews and walked over the crowd to feverishly sign as many autographs as possible. Maybe two minutes into this, a woman came bursting through the media pit barriers. It was all kind of a blur but it’s clear that the young woman, who had long wavy black hair and a red and yellow scarf, got out onto the carpet and touched Depp before getting tackled by security and dragged off the carpet.
Before any media could get their cameras turned around (everyone was still interviewing other people in documentary), the woman was gone. No word on charges yet.
Damien Echols “went through hell” to get permission to come to Canada to join his pal and advocate Johnny Depp at TIFF for the premiere of the documentary about his case, West of Memphis.
“The U.S. still shows that I still have three counts of murder on my criminal record,” Echols told a TIFF press conference Saturday. “So I have to go through all of these extraordinary measures that the average person wouldn’t have to.”
West of Memphis chronicles how Echols and two other men were wrongly convicted. But they have yet to be fully cleared. “We’re going to keep going until we’re complete exonerated.”
That is exactly what they deserve, Depp said, adding that the film will help. “This is the road to total exoneration.”