Trial by Fire
by director Edward Zwick
The reasons you set out to make a movie are often mysterious, and sometimes they change as the movie tells you what it wants to be. Most of all, you hope there is something unshakable in its DNA that sustains you through the setbacks and heartbreaks you’ve learned to expect. I first read David Grann’s article, “Trial by Fire,” in The New Yorker nine years ago. I couldn’t stop talking about it to friends and soon realized I had to try to make it as a film. I was appalled by the iniquity of Todd Willingham’s trial, infuriated by the miscarriage of justice that led to his imprisonment, and undone by his execution. At the time I was facing a serious health crisis—the prognosis was still unclear—so thoughts of death were more vivid to me than they might ordinarily be. As I lay there during treatment I tried to imagine Todd alone in his cell, isolated from all who loved him, left to contemplate the unfairness of his fate.
As we prepped the film I studied the trial transcripts, talked to the lawyers, met the guards, spent time in prisons and got to know men and women who had been on death row. But it wasn’t until I read Todd’s correspondence with Elizabeth Gilbert that I came to understand the depth and complexity of their relationship. More than anything, I was struck by her passion and how its intensity fueled Todd’s courage in the face of such cruel injustice. A movie that, for me, had begun as an indictment of Texas’ unholy fascination with the death penalty was slowly becoming a richer and more complex meditation on the resilience of a man’s spirit, and the story of how a single, extraordinary act of kindness had changed not just one life, but two. Eventually I came to realize its real subject was transcendence.
I don’t believe any single film can alter consciousness. At best it becomes one of many voices in a rising chorus that hopefully leads to change. But when I think of this movie being watched by each person alone in the dark, when I think of Todd and his years in the dark, I’d like to believe it might change how we think about the preciousness of life.