Writer, director, and producer Edward Zwick‘s filmography may not be as abundant as some of his industry peers. However, his breadth of work is characteristically dense, exalted, and versatile. “Glory,” “Legends of the Fall,” “Courage Under Fire,” “Shakespeare in Love,” and “Traffic” are but a handful of the many celebrated films from the veteran filmmaker. His latest directorial effort, “Trial by Fire,” penned by “Precious” scribe Geoffrey Fletcher and adapted from David Grann‘s New Yorker article, explores a true story of corruption at the highest level within the prison industrial complex.
“Trial by Fire” follows Cameron Todd Willingham (Jack O’Connell) from his wrongful conviction of murdering his three children, to his desperate fight against time to prove his innocence, his relationship with playwright Elizabeth Gilbert (Laura Dern), who fought equally as hard to earn him an appeal with The United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, the mounds of evidence proving his innocence, former Texas governor Rick Perry’s (now the United States Secretary of Energy under the Cabinet of Donald Trump) astoundingly unscrupulous dismissal of said evidence to serve his sinister political agenda, and, ultimately, the tragic end of the saga. The film is a fascinating, but somber, look at the harsh realities of the antiquated state of the U.S. criminal justice system.
At the recent San Francisco International Film Festival, I sat down with Zwick to discuss the lengthy process of producing films, his tried and true strategy for creating that paramount bond between director and actor, O’Connell’s tenacity, his passion for criminal justice reform, and more.
In choosing your films, you’re somebody who emphasizes quality over quantity. What do you look for in a project?
It’s a very personal response. You have a response to a piece of material, whether it’s a script or, in this case, a magazine article. And it evokes [a] feeling that you has to be strong enough to sustain you for, certainly the two years of making it, but often for the years that precede that when you’re hustling to try to get the money to do it. And nobody these days is guaranteed of doing a thing they wanna do.
So, you have to believe, based on your past experience, that certain things will get there. And I’ve had that experience enough times, now, to know. “Shakespeare in Love” took seven years. “Legends of the Fall” took five. “Traffic” took four or five years. They’re not commercial. So, you have a harder time to convince people to risk a lot of money to do these things. You have to feel this personal connection to the material. And I know it sounds odd when talking about a story about death row, but I was very drawn to this notion of someone being objectified and dehumanized as the other by a town. I had a different instance in my life – very young – seeing that happen. And I’m also interested in the cruelty and the brokenness of the criminal justice system. This seemed to be a perfect opportunity and very small story to talk about a very big issue.
As a director, how does your approach differ from interpreting another screenwriter’s work to building a project from something that you wrote?
I’ve worked with great writers. I think that, obviously, the screenwriter is central to that creation. But what is remarkable to me is how much effect various actors have had on that actual storytelling; how much a cinematographer will also be affecting you; I’ve worked with extraordinary costumers who are telling that story with you at the same moment. Everybody is trying to tell that story. And it is influenced by everybody. It’s not just a single person, or at least not with me
Speaking of which, the cast is incredible. I interviewed Emily Meade for Season 2 of “The Deuce.” She told me how excited she was about this project and how great it was to work with the cast and crew. What is your philosophy for working with actors?
That decision is so formative. When they say “cast,” it means it’s like cast in bronze [laughs]. You are committing to something, and you have to accept having made that choice. You have to really be willing to endow that person and not try to over-determine what’s gonna happen. On the other hand, I always feel that it’s my job to create some ambiance in which the default is truth and authenticity. And that means what the words are, the kind of staging you’re asking an actor to do, what the set feels like, what the props are, what the costumes are. If you can create that edifice of truth, then they can be within it and they can just have a kind of profound relaxation that opens them to invention and experience. If I can create a safe place where they know they can try [and] discover things, it’s reflected in the film. And too many times, you see people having been nailed into a situation, performance, or a kind of dialogue.
I have always tried to be open to contributions. I was working with Laura Dern, who’s a brilliant actress, but also, she’s been making movies since she was seven years old. She has some real thoughts as to how to try to make them work. And she’s not insisting that one listen. She’s not that kind of person. But you don’t [listen] at your own peril [laughs].
There are a lot of similarities between Jack O’Connell’s “Starred Up” character and Willingham. Were you familiar with some of his early work before he came on board this film?
I’d seen him in “Skins” and I’d seen “’71“. I had not seen “Starred Up” until we were working together. I went to England and he was doing a play. He was doing “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” with Sienna Miller there. His willingness, his bravery to go into any kind of situation and reveal darker and less-attractive aspects of a character rather than trying to insist on something that was obviously heroic or somehow prettified wasn’t interesting to him, and obviously not interesting to me, either.
And the funny thing is when you show this movie – we’ve done a couple Q&As after it – we did Telluride, he steps out there with his Darby accent, and you say, “How is this, possibly, the same person?”
Even the secondary cast is immensely committed. Chris Coy, who also worked with Meade in “The Deuce.” His turn as Daniels is impressive. It’s an archetype that typically is portrayed as one-note in films. But he has a vast transformation from ruthless bully to empathetic bystander and friend.
He’s a composite. I met a lot of guards. And somebody had said to me, “You have to realize, the guard spends their life in jail, too.” That was key. A lot of them are ex-military. Some are ex-law enforcement. Some are just guys who needed a job and it has good healthcare benefits. After the trial, after the end of Todd’s story, there was a commission formed to try to examine the forensic evidence and verdict. And Rick Perry abolished the commission. So, the reason we include Rick Perry in the story is that he is accountable.
I would imagine that this character, even though he’s a composite, probably wouldn’t want to return to the job after experiencing what he did.
No. I spoke on the phone to two guards who had been executing guards. It’s a revolving system, often, where it’s not always the same guy who has to end up having to push that button. Sometimes two push it at the same time not to know who’s actually the one accountable. But nonetheless, there was a man from Arkansas who finally could not do it, and he has become a militant activist against the death penalty having had that experience. And that was in my mind.