Director Edward Zwick is known for having a versatile, eclectic style. From action-oriented movies like Jack Reacher: Never Go Back and Blood Diamond to historical war films like Glory and The Last Samurai, Zwick has proven himself to be the type of director who can bring out the heart of characters, regardless of genre.
His latest film is Trial By Fire, a heart-wrenching drama based on the true story of Cameron Todd Willingham and Elizabeth Gilbert, played by Jack O'Connell and Laura Dern. Willingham was a Texan, sentenced to death for the murder of his children in a house fire. Gilbert believed Willingham never got the fair trial he deserved and advocated for him all the way to the bitter end.
In a recent press day for Trial By Fire, Screen Rant spoke to Edward Zwick about his character-focused approach to directing, as well as the responsibility inherent in making a film based on true – and recent – events. He also shares his opinion regarding former governor Rick Perry's culpability in the Willingham story and why Trial By Fire needed to be an independent film in order to fully articulate its important messages.
Trial By Fire is based on a true story. You are known for your historical epics like Glory and The Last Samurai, and so much... But you've also done smaller, more intimate films. Did you approach this like a historical epic, or did you approach it like an intimate, character-driven crime story?
Edward Zwick: The funny thing is, I think, when you look at a historical epic, it's really important to understand the intimate relationships within it. And when you do something intimate, it's also important to understand the context. In this case, the context may not have been epic, but it was historical in its import. It was about an idea, and it was about a moment in the culture in a particular place that was a very strong force in the story. I wanted to tell the story of these two people. I was very moved by the story of these two people. But inevitably, in telling that story, I think you're reflecting on their circumstance, and the circumstance of the state of America in relation to the death penalty, and the state of Texas, and a small town, and all those mitigating, surrounding, ambient factors.
When you're doing a movie based on real life, and when it's based on recent history, do you feel a greater obligation to be more factual?
Edward Zwick: I think that's a great question, because, for better and sometimes for worse, movies are now starting to be regarded as part of the permanent record, in the absence of people reading, you know, more complex, multiple-source history. First of all, David Grant is an extraordinary reporter, and we very much took his work to heart, but we also worked with Elizabeth Gilbert, who was the real person. She gave us Todd's letters and her letters, so we were basing it on those realities. And we had the trial transcript. We had people who were involved in the case, in the prison. There were a lot of sources for us to take advantage of, and I do feel an obligation. These are real lives, and we're just voyeurs who are presuming to tell them. I think it's more than... I think it's a responsibility.
The movie really does a fantastic job, I believe, of taking Governor Rick Perry to task.
Edward Zwick: Well, he deserves it. Someone's got to be held accountable, and I think he should be. It's his job to protect the system and to give fair review, not to do a think that he might not want to do, but in fact to let the system be. He did everything he could do to impede the system.
Did you feel like there was any kind of pushback, ever, of "Oh, maybe you shouldn't go this far?" that he might get upset?
Edward Zwick: Well, you know, it's nice, when you're making an independent movie, it's your decision, and that's one reason to do them. I also remember, when we started thinking about making the movie, we spoke to someone in the Texas Film Commission, who suggested we not go there, that we might not be as safe as we might like to be there.
Trial By Fire is in theaters now. For more on the true story, watch the 2011 documentary, Incendiary: The Willingham Case.