‘Trial by Fire’ Director Edward Zwick on a ‘Tipping Point’ in the Politics of the Death Penalty

WASHINGTON — Edward Zwick’s new movie, “Trial By Fire,” which will screen in D.C. next week before its May 17 release, is coming out amid a potential shift in the politics surrounding the death penalty.

California Governor Gavin Newsom put a moratorium on the state’s death penalty in March, suspending executions for the more than 700 people on death row. Lawmakers in New Hampshire and Washington state have introduced bills repealing capital punishment.

“Trial by Fire” is the true story of the relationship between a Texas death row inmate, Cameron Todd Willingham (Jack O’Connell), and Elizabeth Gilbert (Laura Dern), who helps lead the effort to try to secure his freedom. Willingham was convicted of the arson-related triple homicide of his children in 1992 and then executed in 2004, despite appeals to then Gov. Rick Perry that investigators used flawed methods to determine that it was a case of arson. Those doubts of Willingham’s guilt were furthered in a 2009 New Yorker article by David Grann.

Zwick and producer Allyn Stewart acquired the rights to Grann’s piece shortly after it was published, but it took years to develop a script and then secure financing. That changed when Alex Soros, the son of George Soros, agreed to fund the project, seeing it as an opportunity to present the issue of capital punishment through the narrative of Willingham’s story.

The director sees a cultural shift in the perceptions of the criminal justice system, citing the success of the “Serial” podcast and true-crime documentaries on Netflix and HBO.

“The trope used to be about crime and punishment,” Zwick says. “I think there now is an interest in crime and innocence. I think we have an awareness in the fallibility and the problems in the criminal justice system.”

Variety recently chatted with Zwick about the making of the movie, how it fits into the politics of criminal justice reform and why he thinks the death penalty may become a major issue in the 2020 presidential race.

You and Alexander Soros are on the board of Global Witness. How did he agree to finance the project?
When I would talk about this story, it struck a chord with him, because the Soros Foundation has been very, very involved in criminal justice reform. There was a quote, an epigram at the beginning of the script from Justice Scalia, saying that no person had ever been erroneously executed, and if there were such a thing [the innocent’s name] would be shouted on the rooftops. In fact, Alex used to say, “How is your Scalia movie going?” That is all it was. And over time Allyn and I were looking for financing for the movie, and as you can imagine it is not an obvious commercial proposition to make a movie about the death penalty and about death row, and we were having some trouble. It literally was about two years ago when Alex … said maybe I can help. I said, “Don’t say it if you don’t mean it.” And he said, “No, it is something I can see myself very much involved with.” He said the Soros Foundation invested an enormous amount of money in the [California] proposition to try to repeal the death penalty [in 2016], and it lost by a very little bit, but it lost. He said [they] invested a lot of money in that, and he said I think to invest in a movie like this may have as much meaning or more for the sake of this issue. And so he financed it.

With the focus on criminal justice reform on the left and the right, do you see the political environment changing for the death penalty?
Well, those people who are activists believe that we are reaching a tipping point in terms of public perception of the death penalty. Obviously you saw what Gavin Newsom just did. At the same time you probably read about Neil Gorsuch’s opinion about the Eighth Amendment about cruel and unusual punishment that they passed in the Supreme Court about the man who was put to death, and refused to allow a more merciful death. Those who analyze these things believe that this will lead to many other implications about the Eighth Amendment, such as allowing life sentences to juveniles and various other hardening of the statutes about the death penalty. So clearly what is happening is the polarization is going to grow even stronger, and may become an issue in the presidential race. I would like nothing more. Kamala Harris has come out against the death penalty. We know that Donald Trump wanted to have the death penalty for the Central Park Five before they were even indicted and proven innocent. He wants to put drug dealers to death. So maybe it is more timely now than it would have been then. I don’t know.

So even though Trump signed a criminal justice reform bill, that doesn’t necessarily mean that Republicans will be changing their positions about capital punishment?
Right. It is a movie about a man’s life and his journey, and it is not a political screed. But the death penalty has often been used as a political football by candidates in their elections so as to demonstrate that they are tough on crime and to enhance their appeal to a certain kind of voter.

What was the first meeting with the real Elizabeth Gilbert like?
Elizabeth was always in support of the project, but initially she was less willing to dive into her personal experience of it because that is a very painful set of memories for her, obviously. But what was really remarkable was how in the process of making the movie, of her talking to us, talking to Laura, seeing the movie, seeing people’s reaction to the movie at Telluride … it actually became part of her own healing process, and it was a very moving experience to be with this person. Those of us who make movies, we are one step removed from the actual experience, and I suppose that is necessary, but you always want to feel like you are honoring that experience of the real person. When you can get that kind of response, that kind of validation, it is important to the artists too.

What surprised you most in talking to her about her relationship with Todd Willingham?
Elizabeth gave us all of their letters, so it was all of their letters and all of Todd’s letters. So to have insight into his growth and change in his incarceration, that was really remarkable. And that had an effect on what we ended up writing. That was undeniable. I think also just the idea of a single act of loving kindness, a connection between two people, both of whom were in their way a bit adrift. If they in their relationship found some meaning, it is a larger statement to me than just a movie about death row.

What about other members of Todd’s family? Did you speak to them, or even to his wife, Stacy Willingham?
Todd’s family have all seen the movie now. They were obviously very moved by it. There were things that they said — “Well, how did you even know that about him?” — and there are certain things that we couldn’t have known. … We did not talk to Stacy. All of her statements were very much on the record and part of his letters and that.

The movie ends with Rick Perry at one of the Republican presidential debates defending the death penalty. Why finish that way?
I think that it was the juxtaposition of objectifying a man’s life, and using it as an issue of a bit of political grandstanding, was really important to put the story in context, that this was a man’s life destroyed without any kind of concern or remorse. What I have read since then is that there were so many opportunities, particularly by Rick Perry, to give considered review to the science that came upon his desk in the 11th hour. Even in the aftermath he dissolved committees that were formed to try to explore what had happened. He deserves to have a light shown [on this particular incident] and have it hung around his neck.

Have you gotten the opportunity to speak to Governor Gavin Newsom about this?
We know for sure that he is going to see it. It is going to be very soon, too. We know that Kamala Harris has voiced her support of Newsom’s position. I wonder if other candidates are going to be asked that. We hope they are.

What do you hope people come away with after this?
You are wrong to think that any single movie can affect change, but you are not wrong to think that it can become an unexpected additional element that finally leads to a tipping point. And I believe we will reach a tipping point with this issue. We just want to be part of the conversation.

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