“Trial by Fire” is the true-life Texas story of the unlikely bond between an imprisoned death row inmate Cameron Todd Willingham and Elizabeth Gilbert a mother of two from Houston who, though facing staggering odds, fights mightily for his freedom.
Cameron Todd Willingham, a poor, uneducated heavy metal devotee with a violent streak and a criminal record, is convicted of an arson-related triple homicide in 1992. During his 12 years on death row, Elizabeth 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. Her efforts ultimately fail, and since Willingham’s execution, the disturbing question remains: Did Texas execute an innocent man?
We sat down with legendary director Edward Zwick to talk working with stars Laura Dern, Jack O’Connell, the prison system and making a powerful movie with a message.
The Knockturnal: I love this film. You could have done anything. You’re such an iconic director. What about his story made you say, “This is for me?”
Edward Zwick: I was very, very moved by the relationship between Elizabeth and Todd. That this random act of kindness had really changed both their lives. Particularly, how he had to deal with this remarkable, cruel injustice and somehow find meaning in the middle of it. I found that very moving. I was also really incensed by the catalog of what it revealed of what was wrong with the criminal justice system in America, prosecutorial misconduct, junk science, but particularly poverty and how poverty and class essentially inhibits anyone from every getting proper representation in a capital case.
The Knockturnal: How have you changed since doing the story? What personal thing did you take away from working on it?
Edward Zwick: Well, I mean, I thought about activism. I’ve been involved in activism myself. The fact that it took 10 years for us really struck home — that time takes on a different meaning when you’re committed to something. I kept remembering the Obama quotes when he would use Dr. King’s quote about the arc of the moral universe bending toward justice. But that the whole quote is the arc of the moral universe is long and it bends towards justice. You have to just keep your head down and keep moving forward.
The Knockturnal: You’ve done all types of films, large scale, small scale. This is on more of a small scale. Talk about the joys of working on this.
Edward Zwick: Well, that’s a good question because when you’re making the big movie and it’s a corporate investment, there are a lot of cooks in that kitchen. Everybody’s got an opinion, and they should, because their lives and jobs and stock prices are on the line. When you’re making a small movie, why? Because I want to. Because I feel it’s right. It’s you. It’s Allan Stuart and I and Laura and Jack and Jeff Fletcher saying, “This is what we want to do,” and we just do it. It’s very intuitive and very visceral and very gratifying because of that.
The Knockturnal: The casting is so perfect on this. What was it about Laura, Jack, and Emily that made them perfect for these roles?
Edward Zwick: Well, look. I’m not a discoverer to suddenly say, “Laura Dern is a great idea,” because a lot of people have been making that decision. But, I know Laura’s work for 25 years. Laura in Rambling Rose and Laura in Citizen Ruth and all those extraordinary performances. As a director, they lodge in your mind. You remember all of them. So she was my first choice. She had heard about the script. We got a call from her staff as well. It was just easy. I knew her to be an activist. I knew her to be very empathic. Her kids knew my kids. It was natural. I do this research. I’d seen Jack’s work in England. I’d seen Starred Up and I’d seen ’71. I just knew he was going to be willing to go to the darker sides of the character and not try to be protective, that he would really be able to embrace the complexity of the character.