In August of 1992, the state of Texas found Cameron Todd Willingham guilty in the triple-murder of his children. According to the state, Willingham had set fire to his house and blocked all paths of escape so that the three children would be trapped and incinerated. The charges were heinous, and the jury deliberated for a mere 45 minutes before rendering its verdict.
In the city of Corsicana, Texas, a little under an hour south of Dallas, Willingham had been known as a hard-drinking, philandering troublemaker. At his trial, Willingham was called an irredeemable sociopath, and possibly a demonist: Testifying for the prosecution, one psychologist suggested that Willingham’s Led Zeppelin and Iron Maiden posters indicated Satanic or occult motives. The arson investigators were equally sure of Willingham’s guilt. “Fire doesn’t lie,” said a deputy fire marshal who had evaluated the evidence in the house. On February 17th, 2004, Cameron Todd Willingham was executed by lethal injection in Huntsville.
For Americans enthusiastic about the death penalty, this version of events might sound like justice. But as early as Willingham’s trial, there were indications that the case against him was not entirely sound. Neighbors who had seen him trying to save his children from the fire suddenly changed their testimony in the courtroom; an incarcerated man with whom Willingham had shared a jail cell offered a suspiciously convenient account of how Willingham had confessed the crime to him. Then there was Dr. James P. Grigson, one of the forensic psychologists for the prosecution, well known at the time as “Dr. Death” for his reliable cooperation with prosecutors in capital cases; Grigson was later kicked out of the American Psychiatric Association for ethical violations in his court testimonies. On later scrutiny, the evidence of the arson experts started to fall apart. It looked more and more as though Texas was getting ready to execute an innocent man.
In 1999, as groups like the Innocence Project were helping Willingham through his ultimately fruitless appeals, Willingham struck up a correspondence and then friendship with Elizabeth Gilbert, a playwright, French teacher, and single mother from Houston. Gilbert eventually became one of Willingham’s fiercest advocates, taking an active role in his appeals and trying to persuade someone—anyone—in the office of then-Governor Rick Perry to consider new and potentially exculpatory evidence.
This unlikely friendship between Gilbert and Willingham provides the heartbeat of Trial by Fire, the new film from director Edward Zwick. The movie is based heavily on David Grann’s 2009 New Yorker feature about the case—down to the title—and Laura Dern and Jack O’Connell turn in powerful, precise performances as Gilbert and Willingham, respectively. Zwick allows himself a handful of baldly didactic flourishes, but many viewers will likely feel such visceral fury at his dramatization of injustice that they might not mind the occasional sermonizing.
Over the past 15 years, the execution of Cameron Todd Willingham has stood as an indictment of Texas, of Rick Perry, and of the American criminal justice system. Last week, Zwick sat down with Pacific Standard in Washington, D.C., to discuss criminal justice reform, the importance of investigative journalism, and why movies bear an increasing historical burden.
I’d known David since his work for The New Republic a long time ago, and I don’t have to sing his praises because the whole culture now seems to be doing that with his books. He’s just remarkable as a researcher and had gained the real trust of his subjects, meaning Elizabeth [Gilbert] and some of the people from the Innocence Project, so he was invaluable as a sort of Beatrice into the world of it. I think he believed our intentions were honorable and has since seen the movie and become a real advocate of it.
I’ve done things that are based on fact before, and I feel an obligation to serve them because, for better or worse, movies are now more than ever becoming part of the permanent record. And it means finding stories where the facts don’t have to be bowdlerized, don’t have to be perverted, for the sake of narrative shape. And this story had that. Obviously you’re going to do things that involve a certain amount of reduction as to compression of time, and often compositing of characters, and assumptions about internal processes of mind, although in this case we had Elizabeth available to us, who was extraordinary, and she gave us all of Todd’s letters. So we had a window into that character as well.
Did Grann help you establish trust with Elizabeth Gilbert?
Oh yes. He introduced us to her, and then we took it from there. She’s a remarkable person, and this [film] was a process for her too. I think initially Elizabeth was a little bit tentative, not of us, but just of reliving some of the things that were so painful. And she said—I’m quoting her because she was at Telluride with us—that this had been a healing process for her too. She still suffered enormous guilt that she hadn’t actually been able to save him.
You say you’ve been following Grann since his days at The New Republic; what spoke to you about this particular New Yorker article in 2009, the one about Willingham?
It engendered all sorts of feelings of impotent rage. It also seemed to me to be a catalog of everything wrong and broken in the criminal justice system. It had the withholding of exculpatory evidence by prosecution; it had the use of jailhouse snitches in exchange for reduced sentences; it had experts with junk science; it had a man unable to afford a proper defense; and it had a jury that was out for 45 minutes. It literally was a catalog. So that, to me, seemed an opportunity to write about something very important.
At the same time, it had this remarkable relationship, which humanized it. It put a human face on it, it gave us a beating heart. It wasn’t gonna necessarily have to be an “issue” movie; it’s a man’s story. It’s a man dealing with the most profound kind of injustice and trying to still find meaning in his life. That struck me as a very moving thing.
That brings me to my next question, which is about “issue” movies. With a movie that does have a clear social message, or at least a clear moral energy at its core, like this one, I’m wondering if there are different challenges in balancing that with dramatic momentum.
In some ways you’re almost held to a higher standard, because there’s a suspicion, I think, of something that just seems to be medicinal. And I don’t go to the movies for that purpose, but I do believe that that purpose can be combined with a very dramatic and moving movie experience. And that’s a higher bar, and sometimes you reach it, and sometimes you don’t. But it’s worth reaching for.
How long have you been invested in capital punishment and criminal justice reform more broadly?
I would describe myself as being casually invested, as some sort of typical knee-jerk liberal view, before I dove into the nuances of the issue, and I think I’ve become obviously much more knowledgeable and therefore more passionate. And I’ve been thinking about the fact that we have a president who took out a full-page ad about the Central Park Five, before they were even tried—and [eventually] proven innocent. And that [the president] most recently said that we should put drug dealers to death.
So I think the context of that was unexpected, because we began this process nine years ago, and it was a very different administration, and a very different set of years that we were in the middle of.
I believe it was at Telluride where you spoke about a tipping point in the movement to end capital punishment. But at the close of your movie, we see footage of Rick Perry at a 2011 GOP debate, and when Brian Williams asks Perry about having executed 234 Texans, the audience cheers before the question is even over. Now we’ve seen two new Supreme Court justices under Trump….
And I’m sure you know about the Gorsuch opinion about the Eighth Amendment and cruel and unusual punishment, which not only had to do with injection but also is gonna potentially expand the notion of life sentences for juveniles.
Yes. And that all makes me wonder what kind of realistic hope you see for the movement against capital punishment.
Listen, I am not at the center of it because I’ve been making a movie; I’ve talked to people who are in the center of it. I mean, Barry Scheck at the Innocence Project believes that there is an inevitability, I’ve heard talk that [Senator] Cory Gardner in Colorado is contemplating something like what [California Governor] Gavin Newsom did [by placing a moratorium on the death penalty in California].
It feels like a movement that indeed still has life in it, and it could become part of the 2020 conversation because all the Democratic candidates have lined up behind Gavin Newsom. There’s that quote that [President Barack] Obama used from Martin Luther King Jr. about how the arc of the universe is long; long is the important word in that one. [Change] happens, but in any kind of activist causes, and I’ve been involved in a few, time is a very different—it is understood differently. It’s not measured in weeks and months; it’s just measured in this kind of continuing effort.
For the really intense prison scenes, how did you get Jack O’Connell prepped to play Willingham in those moments? Did you lock him in solitary for a bit?
Yeah we did, in fact, and without digital filmmaking I’m not sure he would’ve gotten to some of those places. Because I was able to sit in there with a camera with him for an hour and say: “You don’t have to do anything. Let things happen.” And if an actor had to be presentational there, where you have a 400-foot magazine and you have literally three minutes and 30 seconds to make something happen, that’s different from simply letting him be there, just with available light, and I’ll just use the little camera over here and see what happens.
You mentioned that movies increasingly bear the burden of expressing the permanent record. Why do you think that’s the case?
I think because our schools are failing to do it themselves. In the absence of critical thinking, in the absence of being taught critical thinking, people are looking at single sources, and those sources are often designed to mislead them or they’re serving a very particular agenda, and so to have the opportunity to do something that is complex and measured in some way and yet has its own agenda, I think is really necessary.
And to give it to people as a story.
As a story! Because look, we learn things through narrative, let’s face it. And some things we learn that are good through narrative, and some things we learn that are bad. It’s used to teach a certain amount of utterly, I think, destructive fundamentalist belief at times; it’s used to sell us things as products; it’s used as a psychological means of understanding behavior. But it also is a means of making sense out of a chaotic experience, which is life.
You mention that you’ve given a copy of the film to Gavin Newsom.
Yeah, he’s gonna host a screening for us.
I wondered if you’d sent one to Rick Perry? That could be fun.
[Laughs] It’s a good idea. I have to imagine that somebody is gonna tell him, although who knows if these people live in an echo chamber where no one tells them anything? I don’t know, it’s a really good question. I know someone who knows him.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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