Anne Holsinger 0:01

Hello and welcome to Discussions with DPIC. My name is Anne Holsinger and I’m the Managing Director of the Death Penalty Information Center. In this episode, we are joined by Emmy and Oscar winner Edward Zwick, director and producer of the forthcoming film Trial by Fire. Trial by Fire tells the true story of Cameron Todd Willingham, a Texas death row prisoner who was executed in 2004 despite serious doubts about his guilt. Willingham was convicted of the arson-homicide of his three children in 1992, but the arson investigators who testified against him relied on discredited and outdated methods, and a jailhouse informant received undisclosed incentives from prosecutors in exchange for testifying that Willingham had confessed to him. In 2006, a report by five of the nation’s top fire science experts concluded that Willingham was executed based on junk science. The movie is largely based on a 2009 New Yorker article by David Grann. It stars Jack O’Connell as Willingham and Laura Dern as Elizabeth Gilbert, a writer and teacher who befriended Willingham and advocated for him to be exonerated. Mr. Zwick, thank you so much for joining us today.

Edward Zwick 1:07

Thanks for having me.

Anne Holsinger 1:08

So, what is it that drew you to Cameron Todd Willingham’s story?

Edward Zwick 1:12

Well, the article that David Grann wrote in The New Yorker was not only such a wonderful piece of investigative journalism that it won the Polk award that year, but it seemed to me to be a kind of categorical denunciation of everything that was wrong with the prosecutions in death penalty cases. It was like a catalog; it had the withholding of exculpatory evidence, it had junk science, it was jailhouse snitches who would testify in exchange for reduced sentences, it had just a piss poor public defender, who really believed his client innocent. Everything you could talk about the death penalty in terms of how someone without the means to be properly represented, would end up being given that sentence and then put to death. Not to mention the lack of judicial review by a parole board and even after the fact by the state.

Anne Holsinger 2:18

Your film focuses on the relationship between Willingham and his pen pal, Elizabeth Gilbert. Why did you choose that as the framing for the movie?

Edward Zwick 2:25

David talked about Elizabeth in his article, but the more that we came to know her and saw that that relationship was this very beautiful juxtaposition to the horrors of the case, it became as much a story about these two people trying to create meaning in the midst of what had to be the worst circumstance one could ever imagine. Elizabeth was exceedingly generous: she gave us not just her time and her insight, but also all of the correspondence that she had with Todd over the years, hers and his as well, which gave an extraordinary insight into the character and allowed for this to be a window into the internal workings and the value of a man’s life. So, he was more than a statistic. He was, in fact, this person who was enduring this.

Anne Holsinger 3:22

Wow, that’s really powerful to be able to include that. What challenges did you face in telling this story?

Edward Zwick 3:29

Well, inevitably, to describe the life of someone who spent a great deal of time in solitary presents a host of dramatic challenges. It’s also very hard to describe the emotional journey of a person who, in fact, had never really lived any kind of an examined life and, in many ways, a reprehensible one. It’s also very, very difficult to try to, without being didactic and without seeming to be doing something that was instructive, to talk about an institution such as the criminal justice system. I think that what we determined was through the personal — through her discoveries about how it works, and his, and those inmate and guards, and people within the system — that would be a way for an audience to come to understand some of its complexities rather than try to do what would have been a kind of instructive documentary.

Anne Holsinger 4:39

Yes, how do you balance those two things? Because in this story, of course, you’re telling a single person’s story, but you’re also imparting a social message about the death penalty in the criminal justice system. So, how do you balance that storytelling versus the policy advocacy and avoid being preachy in a story like this?

Edward Zwick 4:57

Yes, well, I think 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. You just have to be very, very mindful of serving both masters and being truthful to each. It has to be a story that has, intrinsically, the values of what drama asks of an audience. Which is to say real stakes, real insight into why people have done the things that they’ve done, and even a certain amount of suspense that is built into a story such as this, the outcome of which is unclear from the beginning.

Anne Holsinger 5:45

So, you obviously had to delve deep into the criminal justice system. What did you learn about that system as you made this movie and what surprised you?

Edward Zwick 5:53

You know, I had always had a kind of set of casual liberal values when it comes to the death penalty and the criminal justice system. Obviously, I knew a certain amount about how trials worked and how people were prosecuted and, and I knew a certain amount about incarceration and various subjects, but never had I really put myself deeply into such a situation, and neither had I really come to understand the issues of prosecutorial misconduct that plague the system and how the system itself is so broken by virtue of needing to serve the statutes that are unfair, that oblige prosecutors who are in search of wins to overcharge, and to do all that they need to do in order to win. Because if there were indeed legitimate and fair trials of every person who’s been indicted, the system would collapse in a single day. So, there exists this horribly flawed set of adaptations and compromises that people have accepted as being normative. And what people tell me, who are very involved in criminal justice reform, is that 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 injust, and if those absurdities can be so accepted, how then can we then reform the rest of the system before dealing with it?

Anne Holsinger 7:43

In the movie, one of the characters comes right out and says the death penalty system is broken. So, what do you think that this case shows about the broader system of the death penalty?

Edward Zwick 7:53

Obviously, one is so advantaged if you have means. I think the inequity of race and class is revealed every time that you look through any number of cases, how disparate the treatment is of one prisoner compared to another based on the quality of representation and their ability to actually pay for a proper defense. That’s certainly part of it. But there are other parts that I’ve come to think about a lot. I thought a lot about the power of the state and how, when one grants the state extraordinary power, the state tends to abuse that power. Whether you’re talking about surveillance, or whether you’re talking about drone strikes, or any number of other things, the idea that we grant the state the power to essentially premeditatedly kill someone, I think over endows the state with a power that it should not have. I think that’s something that I had never really thought about in terms of the death penalty as well. Obviously, the patent realization that in a system that cannot be guaranteed to be infallible, that if a single innocent person has been put to death, that more than justifies the act of getting rid of the death penalty because life in prison, from what one knows about incarceration, is a horrible fate. It is a fate that has been determined to have every bit as much or as little deterrence as does the death penalty. So, everything seemed to add up for me to be a much more nuanced understanding of all that was wrong with it, not to mention the notion of revenge being this antiquated concept of an Old Testament kind of justice, that in no way can be continenced and nor can it exist in a civil society that has to exist in a rule of laws.

Anne Holsinger 10:32

How do you hope that this film will affect the audience? What do you want them to feel when they leave the theater, and what do you hope that they’ll do with those feelings?

Edward Zwick 10:40

Well, it’s a combination because as a movie, it oddly has two different resonances. There’s outrage and and there’s a certain amount that is, I hope, understood by audiences about a system that they’ve never really examined. But there’s also something oddly uplifting and beautiful in this depiction of a relationship of these two people who, in the least likely of circumstances, end up creating real meaning for each other. It was important for me that the audience have a participatory role in the movie. That, like the jury in Corsicana, Texas, they look at Todd Willingham and they condemn him with a kind of knee-jerk reaction. He’s the other, he’s disreputable. And therefore, as you watch what unfolds, they become complicit in that verdict. And it was important for me to for the audience to feel that complicity, that they had rushed to an unfair judgment themselves.

Anne Holsinger 11:50

Is there anything that you hope that audience members will act on after they see this film?

Edward Zwick 11:54

I’ve done other films that have some kind of a pro-social agenda, and I know that it’s kind of a pollyannish notion that a single film can do anything that affects policy itself. But 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. And it’s very hard to talk about how change happens in society. We know that there are paradigm shifts. We know that 150 years ago that a man could own another man, we know that before Mothers Against Drunk Driving, there was a very different attitude toward that, and we know that it’s very hard to talk about same-sex marriage without understanding the role of television and the normalization of certain relationships. So, change happens. But how it happens, and when it happens, and the rate at which it happens, is unpredictable. 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. People are very fond of talking about that quote about the arc of history bending toward justice, but the other part of that quote is that the arc of history is long and it bends toward justice.

Anne Holsinger 13:32

Thank you for that. Is there anything else you’d like to share?

Edward Zwick 13:35

Well, no, I mean, I think people go to the movies for several reasons. They go to the movies to see things that they’ve never seen before, to be taken to a place they’ve never been taken before, and to be taken up to a place in their emotions that they’ve never been taken before. This movie is a difficult subject, but it’s not a bitter pill. It’s, in fact, a very — at least, I have been told by those who’ve seen it—that it provides a very cathartic and oddly uplifting experience as well. So, I think it’s important to not just to be preaching to the choir of those who are already convinced of the ills of a system that we know is flawed, but rather to come to understand it in a deeper, more personal, and emotional way, and I think that’s a reason to see the movie.

Anne Holsinger 14:29

Wonderful. Well, we look forward to seeing it. Trial by Fire will open on May 17, 2019. Thank you so much for taking the time to join us today.

Edward Zwick 14:38

My pleasure. Thank you.

Anne Holsinger 14:39

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