From director Edward Zwick and screenwriter Geoffrey Fletcher, the indie drama Trial by Fire tells the true-life story of Cameron Todd Willingham (Jack O’Connell), a poor, uneducated man with a violent streak and a criminal record who found himself on death row in Texas in 1992, after being convicted of the arson-related homicide of his three young children. While in prison, he unexpectedly finds an ally in Elizabeth Gilbert (Laura Dern), who realizes that his sentence was a result of questionable methods and inaccurate conclusions, and sets out to attempt to save him before his execution.
During this 1-on-1 phone interview with Collider, filmmaker Edward Zwick talked about his reaction when he first found out about Cameron Todd Willingham, why Geoffrey Fletcher was the right person to adapt this story for the screen, what made Laura Dern and Jack O’Connell the actors to inhabit these characters, and the challenges of shooting the execution scene. He also talked about how he came to direct the first episode of the upcoming Netflix series Away, about the first human mission to Mars and starring Academy Award winner Hilary Swank, and how long he’s known executive producers Jason Katims and Matt Reeves.
Collider: When you first heard about this story, did you personally believe that Texas had executed an innocent man, or did you find yourself needing to dig deeper?
EDWARD ZWICK: It’s funny, we began this over 10 years ago and yet we find ourselves now being released at a time when people are finally paying attention to the reform of the criminal justice system, and maybe we can be a part of that conversation. I read David Grann’s piece, when it came out in The New Yorker. I’ve known David’s work for a long time. He used to write for The Republic before The New Yorker, and I knew him to be a scrupulous journalist. I also called him, and what he told me was that he went down to Texas with no preconceptions. He had heard about the case, and he wanted to investigate it as a reporter would, without bias. The conclusion he came to seemed irrefutable, so I did begin with some assumptions that he had drawn, but the deeper that I got into it, the more those seemed to be borne out.
This case reminded me a bit of the case of the West Memphis Three, who were young guys that had their music, the books they read, and their own personal tastes brought into the case, with really no connection to the crime. That kind of thing really makes you start to wonder just how often a state could try to execute someone who’s innocent.
ZWICK: When you evoke the West Memphis Three, that kind of demonization is also at play here. In this case, I just felt it was a catalog of the abuses. It was junk science. It was prosecutorial misconduct. It was the use of jailhouse snitches. And particularly, it was about poverty. It always seems to be about class and race. The people who cannot afford proper representation have so little chance of surviving any kind of capital crime.
Because you were involved with this project so early on, you had a hand in selecting the screenwriter. What was it about Geoffrey Fletcher that made him the right person for the job?
ZWICK: I’d known Geoffrey a little bit. I’d met him, over the years. I knew him to be someone of great intelligence. I also knew that he was going to be a diligent researcher, and that he’d be a great collaborator because he had directed himself, since he’d written Precious, and he knew the issues of being a director, as well. We spent many, many weeks trying to come up with a way to best tell the story, and it was really together that we came up with a notion of having the audience’s experience of the movie to be the same as the jurors, who condemned him quickly. And then, if we could then create that experience for an audience, their participation in the rest of the movie would be active because they would be complicit in his fate.
There are some interesting storytelling devices in this film, especially when we see Todd as an observer in certain moments. Were those things in the script, or were those things that you came up with, once you started shooting it? How did those devices come about?
ZWICK: Those devices were very much my intention, from the beginning, and Geoffrey and I talked a lot about how to present them, how to keep changing that point of view, and how to have those things revealed, in different ways.