“Trial by Fire,” is based on the true story of a Cameron Todd Willingham, who was executed in Texas but may have been innocent. Willingham, played by Jack O’Connell, was convicted of murder when his three little girls were killed in a fire in their home. Laura Dern plays Elizabeth Gilbert, who corresponded with Willingham and then found experts to challenge the evidence and tried to re-open the case. Director/co-writer Edward Zwick spoke to RogerEbert.com about the film’s connection to his advocacy to abolish the death penalty, dreading the filming of the execution scene, and why this story was a “virtual catalog” of the issues he wanted to portray.
You have been active in advocating for an end to the death penalty. Why was this the story that best illustrated the issues?
When I read David Grann’s article almost 10 years ago, I felt that it was a virtual catalog of all of everything that was wrong and broken with the criminal justice system. It had the withholding of exculpatory evidence, it had jailhouse snitches exchanging false testimonies for reduced sentences, it had someone who was poor and therefore not entitled to a good defense and who got in fact a shit-poor defense, it had the demonization of someone wrongly indicted. Everything about it seemed to suggest the opportunity to talk about this system in a very particular way. But also it had at its center this very interesting relationship that I felt was so unexpected and to see it juxtaposed against this cruel irony, I felt that that had the makings of a very compelling movie story.
Certainly one of the most heartbreaking elements of this story is the idea that if this very improbable friendship had not come about we wouldn’t even know about it.
Well that’s true too, isn’t it? The idea of this almost random act of loving-kindness on her part that had a transformative effect on not just one of them, but both of them, I found to be very moving. I also think that if you’re going to tell a story about an institution that is really at the risk of being oddly sterile and unmoving but if you can find the lens of personal experience and if the audience can experience it that way, there’s the possibility of it digging in in a way that it might not if it had just been told differently. To me that seems very rich in possibility.
In the very first scene you really put us in the position of the witness, not the main characters. So you really go from taking the audience from the prejudices and assumptions that the jury might make or that the criminal justice system might make and then kind of peel those layers back.
That was entirely my intent. Obviously, society has this need to explain ills and often does that by demonizing someone and by stereotyping. I felt that it was very important to have the audience be complicit, that they would form the same judgment that the jury did that was out only 45 minutes before convicting him. Only by virtue of making the audience complicit could I then engage them in this more active experience in watching the movie as it unfolds so they realize their complicity and are therefore forced to endure its consequences. That to me was the narrative shape of telling the story that way. It’s seen one way and then seen another and seen another. The repetitions are conscious.
You did something very daring in a gritty, real-life story by creating a visual that is not always consistent with what’s really going on.
Well as directors or storytellers a lot of people have tried to reckon with what dreams look like but I’m not sure that people have given a lot of thought to what solitary is. It’s hard enough to sit alone by yourself for ten minutes without doing anything. Start thinking about ten years and what might happen to the brain, how might you try to create these adaptations to deal with this.
The funny thing is Todd in his letters talked about his daughters as if they were alive and he would celebrate their birthdays and he would make drawings as if for them or write poems for them. The idea of having him in some kind of communication was just I guess something Geoffrey Fletcher and I came up with. Even when Todd is transported into Elizabeth’s world as she is into his, that’s trying to dramatize negative capabilities as you picture yourself someplace else, or in some other experience. The funny thing is then when Todd’s parents talked to us after they saw the movie his mother said that Todd said that his daughters visited. Somehow we were led there by virtue of there being clues in what we had learned or intuited or that Elizabeth had suggested as we talked.
Todd was in solitary on Death Row but as we hear in his letters he underwent a pretty dramatic change in being more contemplative and more empathetic and having a larger perspective.
Well obviously he’s someone who had never really been exposed to books, he’d never been I imagined particularly contemplative in any way. It seems interesting now to talk about toxic masculinity and how that might find its redemption or find its transformation, I guess. It’s important though to say that at the end of the movie when he explodes at his ex-wife, those were his words too. It’s not as if he was a different person but he did have some insight and it was a very conscious choice to evoke Viktor Frankl. A prisoner actually he said to me once, “I make a choice every morning when I wake up and realize my circumstance: to despair and to surrender or to try to look for some kind of meaning.”
I hope that’s true for all of us.
I think that’s true. We are all under a certain kind of sentence. We have all been subjected to certain injustices and there will be more and whenever the end comes it will be too soon and we’ll have to reconcile ourselves to it. So, in essence, I think there is a more universal theme in his struggle.
Isn’t that really part of the purpose of stories, to provide us with that sense of meaning that we don’t get in the messiness and a sense of injustice of our lives?
I think that’s right. I think the first person that sat up in a cave and tried to explain why the saber-toothed tiger came and took that child away or what that eclipse meant and tried to organize their experience out of the chaos of that moment is no different now. It can be used in an attempt to ascribe moral lessons for better or for ill or in terms of psychological insight. It’s also used often to sell us things. That’s what a commercial is; it’s the use of narrative to a different end
What can a movie do that advocacy messaging and talking to legislators cannot do?
This movie could not have been made without [producer] Alex Soros, who was the involved with the California anti-death penalty proposition, especially the one that failed two years ago. He said he believes that this could reach people in a personal way that an election proposition might not.
I’m not Pollyannaish enough to believe that a single film can have any particular effect at least unto itself but I do think that it can add a very strong and different kind of voice to what becomes a chorus. How do we talk about paradigm shifts in society? We know they happen. We know that 150 years ago it was accepted in this country for a man to own another man, we know that before Mothers against Drunk Driving there were very different conceptions of how one should live one’s life and we also can’t even talk about support for same-sex marriage without thinking about episodic television. So, yes, I hope it’s part of the conversation. I hope that it becomes part of a rising tide that leads to change.
Your staging of the execution scene is both powerful and sensitive. I was thinking as I was watching it of “I Want to Live” and “Dead Man Walking.”
I consciously didn’t watch any others movies. I know I saw “Dead Man Walking” when it came out it. I didn’t remember the staging of the scene, though. For this film I just talked to people about what the procedure was. We had a technical advisor and he would tell us how it was done. As a director I do a lot of homework and I really try to visualize things and think about them but I found myself unable to think about this scene until we got there. I just didn’t want to. I dreaded it and I knew it was going to be very difficult and very painful. And then you get there and what they created was the exact replica of what that room was. People are just very upset all around you on the set as they would be, the actors particularly. Jack is in a state I can’t even describe and the actor playing the guard is in the same place. You just try to reconstruct it as best as you can. You don’t have to motivate anyone. Everybody knows what’s happening and what the feelings are.
I remember being in Lithuania with Daniel Craig doing “Defiance,” and he felt that half of the time his character’s motivation was just staying warm. And when we were describing the man being whipped in “Glory” and we were within a mile of the slave caves in Savannah, Georgia, nobody needed to talk about it; it was right there. That’s the best thing that a director can do, is try to create a circumstance where the truth is there and the actors can just be.