Johnny Depp claimed “brotherly love” for his friend, the wrongly convicted Damien Echols, ahead of a screening on Saturday that the Arkansas ex-jailbird nearly missed because of a visa denial to the Toronto Film Festival.
Echols, who was released from 18 years of prison in Arkansas in 2011, received a visa to Canada only late on Friday after appeals by the Toronto Film Festival director Piers Handling and others.
The two-day visa request to attend a screening of "West of Memphis" had been denied by the Canadian government, according to Ken Kamins, Peter Jackson’s agent.
Peter Jackson appeared by Skype at the press conference on Saturday, Depp appeared in person but it was Echols who barely made it. (Photo from left: director Amy Berg, producer Lorri Davis, Echols and Depp)
The visa problem was only the latest indignity endured by Echols who spent 18 years in prison – most of it in solitary confinement – after being convicted of murdering three young boys with the help of two friends, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley.
Said Depp of his friendship with Echols that has thrived over nearly two decades:
“There was an instant connection, some brotherly kind of love there. It was instant,” he said. “To finally see Damien arrive at my house, on my doorstep, was moving and it was a celebration. It was beautiful. We had Tator Tots and tacos. And things took their natural course and we ended up at the tattoo parlor.”
The murder case and wrongful conviction is the subject of “West of Memphis,” a documentary directed by Amy Berg screening at the festival. The three were released last year in a deal with the Arkansas justice system but not exonerated.
The story has been told in a three-part series of “Paradise Lost” documentaries, but Echols said he was not thrilled with his portrayal in those acclaimed films by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky, especially the final one released last year.
“The last ‘Paradise Lost’ film was one of the most stressful times of my life,” he said. “(Wife) Lorri and I look like hell. We were crawling, cracking, at the end of our ropes. It’s not fun to have the world see you at your lowest point.” (See video in which Echols describes his prison ordeal.)
He said he got to “participate more” in Berg’s film.
“I felt like I was seen as nothing but a victim, over and over, and I don’t want to be seen that way for the rest of my life.”
The “West Memphis 3” have been championed by celebrities including Depp and Jackson and human rights activists. Depp said he would consider making a feature film about the story.
Echols said he could not have survived without them.
“If it weren’t for Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh, or Johnny helping us – we were homeless, we left Arkansas like refugees. They were there to catch us. Without them we’d have nothing.”
Echols has a book coming out this month about his sage, “Life After Death.”