Oscar-winning director Edward Zwick brings the life the tragic and controversial story of Cameron “Todd” Willingham, (Jack O’Connell), who was executed in Texas for the arson-related deaths of his three children after scientific evidence and expert testimony that bolstered his claims of innocence were suppressed.
This powerful true-life story shows the unlikely bond between Willingham, an imprisoned death row inmate, and Elizabeth Gilbert, a mother of two from Houston (Laura Dern), who, though facing staggering odds, fights for his freedom.
Willingham, a poor, uneducated heavy metal devotee with a violent streak and a criminal record, is convicted of the arson-related triple homicide of his three young children in 1992.
If he had pled guilty to the crime he could have spared his life, but he maintained his innocence from the time of his arrest, throughout his trial, and all of the ensuing years he was in prison.
During his 12 years on death row, Gilbert, an improbable ally, uncovers questionable methods and illogical conclusions in his case, and battles with the state to expose suppressed evidence that could save him.
Elizabeth’s efforts ultimately fail, and since Willingham’s execution, the disturbing question remains: “Did Texas execute an innocent man?”
Written by Geoffrey Fletcher, the movie is based on The New Yorker article Trial by Fire by David Grann and The Letters of Cameron Todd Willingham.
As a film director Zwick is best known for his movies, Glory, Legends of the Fall, About Last Night and The Last Samurai. His television work includes the shows, Thirtysomething, Once and Again, Quarterlife, Dream Street and A Marriage.I would call Trial By Fire, a very disturbing movie on several accounts. So, I have to know why did you want to make this movie?
Well, I read the article by David [Grann] in the New Yorker nine years ago and was obviously upset by it. I felt that here in a single instance was encapsulated kind of categorical denunciation of our criminal justice system, it was chapter and verse everything that needed to be addressed and that has to do with “junk science.”
What is “junk science?”
The withholding of exculpatory evidence by prosecuting attorneys, the use of snitches in exchange for reduced sentences and more than anything, it was about poverty and class, and how that inhibited him from having a proper defense. In fact, he kept him from having any kind of defense.
During your research, in this case, did you discover the criminal justice has gotten worse in that regard since that time.
You know, I’m not so up to speed on the most recent cases. I do know that you know, for the 10 years of [Texas Governor] Rick Perry’s administration, he abolished several committees that were formed to try to investigate this case and the forensics of it. Most recently, I know that in 2011 there was a man, I believe who was from Texas, who was exonerated based on new science. So, in that particular area, there may have been some improvement, but there are others who have not.
When I was watching your movie I wanted Elizabeth to have found this case earlier than she did.
So did she.
I also wanted Todd’s wife to tell her brother to buzz off.
So did Todd.So much about this story is upsetting because we want justice in life. We want bad people to be put away and I was 99 percent sure that Todd was innocent.
Well, of the reasons for making the movie now, is that we’re also living in a time in which there is clearly an unindicted predator at the top of the pyramid and there is a great injustice at which we are aware, whether we know it or not, so I think all of that somehow informs this story.
Is the moral of this story that if you’re poor and uneducated and don’t have an ally, you’re doomed?
That’s it. I mean, Bryan Stevenson, who writes wonderfully on all of this says, “it’s much better to be rich and guilty than to be poor and innocent.”
Did they ever get any justice for Todd Willingham?
Not yet. What Barry Scheck of the innocence projects says is that if the [presidential] election had gone a different way and we had the Justice Department that we used to have, they would have gone in and thrown out the case, but it hasn’t happened yet.
I mean, we go in there knowing the ending and still, you have us on the edge of our seats… And the performances were amazing.
Thank you. I’m very proud of what both of those actors did.Talk about Laura Dern in this movie. I heard that she came to you?
Yeah. She did. I mean, but look, it’s funny Laura’s having a moment that is well deserved because of the number of projects coming out for her at the same time; things Big Little Lies and The Tale, but those of us who’ve known her work for a long time first really paid attention to her during Rambling Rose, which is an amazing performance.
So you were extremely familiar with Laura’s work?
Yes, and she’s not a secret to those of us who do what I do. And what we also know about her is that she’s been very involved in activist causes and that she is a very empathic person, and a great listener and a real ally to a director. She also does an extraordinary amount of homework and reinvents herself.
She found things that we had written about Elizabeth that she was able to ennoble and make much richer and much more interesting than we had begun with and that’s what a great actress does, she pushes you. And it’s not just in her performance, but in her demand for authenticity and in her ability to just be present. I did something very deliberate which is to say I worked with Laura and Elizabeth and we went to prisons and did all that. I worked with Jack alone and I did the same thing, but I didn’t bring them together until those scenes. So. they really hadn’t met and I wanted those scenes to have a certain amount of electricity and a certain amount of discovery that they had and I think it lent something to the movie.What did you do with Jack at the prisons? What was that experience like?
The sound of a prison, the sound of a cacophony of voices, the sound of the slamming of the electronic doors, the smells, the lighting; all of it is unique.
I stayed overnight in a new prison once away from the inmates and it was a difficult experience, even though I knew I could go home. This is why guards often say that they feel like prisoners from spending so much time there.
That’s the point. The guards said to me that they literally spend their life in jail or prison. The amazing thing about shooting digital that I couldn’t have done with the film is that I could sit there with Jack in that cell in the dark for an hour at a time and say, “we’ll just see what happens. You don’t have to do anything for me. You can discover, you can sit in your thoughts, you could just be there and we’re just going to take those moments that are indicative of who he is.” And so it was almost like a very long improvisation. Sometimes it went on for hours with the different phases of what he was doing in there and it gave him an enormous experience of what Todd must have gone through.
What’s the takeaway? What do you want our readers to leave the movie thinking about because there are a lot of messages there?
It’s not about a political agenda, it’s about an experience of a man’s life and the value of a man’s life and the internal experience of someone who struggles to find meaning given the cruelest and most horrible circumstance. There’s something about the dignity of that, to me, which is very beautiful.
Do you also think or want it to start a conversation about these issues?
Sure. I want to be part of the conversation. I think there are conversations of this going on all the time. [California Gov.] Gavin Newsom just issued a moratorium on the death penalty in California and there’s talk of it in Colorado and other states. I think this is an inevitability, I just don’t know how long it’s going to take. People are very fond of the Martin Luther King quote that goes, “the arc of history is long, but it bends toward justice, so you just keep pushing at a rock until the rock breaks.”
Is there a pattern or a theme or something you know, that reflects you?
I know that I’m as interested in relationships as I am in ideas, but I’m very interested in the kind of confluence of those two things together.
You recently mentioned that your movie Glory is being celebrated this summer.
They’re bringing it out again. TCM does these things where they put the movie, we did a 4K restoration of the movie and it’s going to be in 600 theaters for a couple of days in July, which is great. My kids have never seen it in a theater, so now they will get the opportunity.
What was the biggest challenge in making Trial By Fire?
I would say it was trying to not sentimentalize a man who was, in many ways, disreputable because they say that bad things happen to good people, but bad things happen to bad people, too. Yet, it doesn’t mean they deserve the fate that he got and so, that was an interesting balance to try to maintain.
I appreciated when Laura’s character picked apart his juvenile record which was so minor and I wondered if the outcome of his trial had been the same if he was not known in the community for having a violent temper.
Yes, he was demonized by those in his community, in that jury. That jury was out for only 45 minutes. So, I think it’s very possible that if he hadn’t been regarded as the other, as the thing that society wants to get rid of, he might have had a better chance. But maybe not. Ins small towns, there’s a certain fundamentalist belief about good and evil and that when bad things happen, it really helps to have a cause and a culprit because the existential meaninglessness of things that happen in life, is the hardest thing for anybody to reconcile, and that includes disease and accidents and fire and everything else.
You are right many people have concrete opinions about good and bad.
There’s a line that I have Laura say in the movie which I said to my kid, “I’m sorry that you have to learn such a shitty truth about the world.”
What were the kids like to work with? They were so adorable.
They’re lovely. One of them, the young boy, is a boy that Laura had worked with very briefly in Atlanta, she introduced me to, and the girl is a very talented, very trained actress who’s actually starting to get some attention, she’s going to do more and more very good work, I’m sure.
Do you know what’s next for you?
I do not. I’m so bad at that. I’m so bad at that. I just don’t. There are a couple of things, I think, I’ve been asked by Jason Katims, who’s my friend, to direct a pilot for Netflix with Hilary Swank, and I might do that in Vancouver this summer.
Were there surprises in the story or the filming or the performances as you went along?
I take great delight in the supporting parts. I’m so pleased by the work that people like Chris Coy did as the guard and by McKinley Belcher as the guy in the cell next to Todd, Emily Meade as Todd’s wife and David Wilson Barnes as the public defender. I really like Lewis as the snitch. A lot of these actors are not very well known and hadn’t done much. I take real pleasure in working with these actors for whom this is a big moment and just seeing them shine. It is a delightful surprise.
We liked Todd in this movie a lot, despite the fact he was an inmate on death row. We fell for him. So that made the execution scene especially difficult to watch.
And it was difficult to film. I walked in that room it’s if you could smell it and everyone who had come to work that day did so with a very different attitude and people are going through it. Particularly, Jack who’s about to go through this kind of crucible, it’s a gauntlet of acting and it was just hard, it was hard for all of us. Even though we know it’s fake, we give ourselves over to the suspension of disbelief, too, as it’s happening, just the same as the audience does, and so it was as if we were witnessing this, but with some distance, I suppose.
Was it difficult it is for you when you are working on emotional scenes?
Yes and no. I like to think that at a certain point you acquire what I would call a kind of Zen detachment. You work as hard as you possibly can, but you “don’t eat your liver.” I used to eat my liver with every day and every sense of failure that I had and think that my whole self-esteem was all caught up in how well my work did or didn’t do. Fortunately, I had other things in my life and that’s maybe where the family comes in that you find that there are things that are more important. Not that that makes this less important, but there are things that are more.
When you have the time how do chill out?
I go to the Colorado mountains. I sit in a cabin at 9,000 feet and play gin rummy at the kitchen table. We have our phones up there now, but we tend to get away and just go for long walks.
From Roadside Attractions, Trial By Fire is playing in theaters around the nation.
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