New Podcast: Emmy- and Oscar-Award Winning Director Edward Zwick on His New Film, Trial By Fire

In the latest episode of the Discussions with DPIC podcast, Emmy- and Oscar-winner Edward Zwick speaks about his new movie, Trial By Fire. The film, which Zwick co-produced and directed, tells the story of Cameron Todd Willingham, who was convicted and sentenced to death in 1992 for the deaths of his three children in a house fire that prosecutors wrongly claimed had been intentionally set. As Willingham’s execution approached in 2004, evidence came to light that arson investigators had relied on flawed and outdated methods. The trial prosecutor also withheld evidence that a jailhouse informant who claimed that Willingham had confessed to him had been provided favorable treatment in exchange for implicating Willingham.

Willingham’s case featured what Zwick called a “catalog” of problems: “it had the withholding of exculpatory evidence, it had junk science, it had jailhouse snitches who would testify in exchange for reduced sentences, [and] it had a piss-poor public defender.” In an interview with DPIC’s Managing Director, Anne Holsinger, Zwick describes why he decided to tell Willingham’s story, what he learned from the experience, and how he hopes the film will affect audiences. Trial By Fire opens on May 17, 2019.

Trial By Fire is largely based on an investigative article of the same name written by David Grann and published in The New Yorker in 2009. Zwick called Grann’s account of the case a “categorical denunciation of everything that was wrong with the prosecutions in death-penalty cases.” The movie focuses on the relationship between Willingham (Jack O’Connell) and his penpal, Elizabeth Gilbert (Laura Dern). Gilbert worked with the filmmakers and offered them access to her correspondence with Willingham. Zwick said he chose to portray that relationship because it was a “beautiful juxtaposition to the horrors of the case.” He expressed gratitude to Gilbert for sharing the letters, which he said showed the “internal workings and the value of a man’s life, so he was more than just a statistic.” He also said that the friendship between Willingham and Gilbert humanized the story and helped the film avoid being didactic. “People go to the movies because they want to invest in the characters and in the relationships. They don’t go to the movies to learn about issues, but that doesn’t say that they can’t have both.”

Zwick characterized Willingham’s story as embodying the systemic problems in the way the death penalty is carried out in the United States. “In a system that cannot be guaranteed to be infallible, if a single innocent person has been put to death, that more than justifies getting rid of the death penalty,” he said. Capital punishment, he said, is emblematic of the inequities in the criminal justice system at large: “The death penalty sits on top of the pyramid of charging and sentencing and trials, and that if it is so flawed and revealed to be unjust and if its absurdities can be so accepted, how then can we reform the rest of the system, before dealing with it?” The interview concluded with a discussion of the filmmaker’s hopes for how the audience will respond to the movie. “I know that it’s a Pollyanna-ish notion that a single film can do anything that affects policy itself. What it can do is add a set of images and a warm-bloodedness and a personal understanding of something that an audience might have only understood in more philosophical or political terms.” Storytelling can be part of cultural “paradigm shifts,” he said, noting that pop culture depictions of same-sex relationships helped shape public opinion on same-sex marriage. “Change happens,” Zwick said, “but how it happens and when it happens, and the rate at which it happens is unpredictable, and all that one can do in any kind of activist cause is to keep your head down and keep doing the work that you do because you are committed to that change.”

(Discussions with DPIC, Interview with Trial By Fire Director Edward Zwick, May 17, 2019.) See Podcasts.