This has been a long time coming for screenwriter Geoffrey Fletcher. Normally, winning an Academy Award for your first screenplay will lead to a deluge of offers for future work. After winning an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay (2009’s “Precious“) his first time out, Fletcher has seen many of his projects deferred. He followed up “Precious” with his directorial debut in “Violet & Daisy,” but since then, none of his scripts have made it to the screen. This week, that changes with “Trial by Fire,” a long time passion project for Edward Zwick.
Directed by Zwick and penned by Fletcher, the film tells the story of Cameron Todd Willingham, played by Jack O’Connell. Despite evidence that suggested his innocence, the state of Texas sentenced Willingham to death. Laura Dern co-stars as an advocate for Willingham’s life.
We recently spoke to Fletcher about “Trial by Fire,” and what it’s like to play the waiting game in Hollywood.
Joey Magidson/Awards Circuit: Congratulations on the movie. This must be exciting.
Geoffrey Fletcher: Oh it is. It’s always very cool when one gets made.
JM: How did this job come about and was it the project you wanted to dedicate so much time to?
GF: Sure. I got a call from my agent one day about it. At that point Ed (Zwick) was already attached and so was producer Allyn Stewart. I’d admired Ed’s work for many years and when I learned about the topic, I was also excited, because it’s so important. In many ways we have a remarkable justice system, but it’s one that still has a ways to go. Byron Stevenson, director of the Equal Justice Initiative wrote, we have a system of justice that treats you better if you’re rich than guilty than if you’re poor and innocent. In criminal law, Blackstone’s Ratio is the idea that it’s better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer. What you have with this subject matter is plenty of opportunities to make a compelling screenplay, with remarkable opportunities for roles and actors to really take us places. You look at the performances from Laura Dern and Jack O’Connell, Emily Meade – they are fully devoted. They use all of their extraordinary craft to chart a course and make us empathize with this situation, so that we really can feel the injustice but also ask ourselves questions. Oftentimes, on the nightly news you see a picture of someone accused of something, maybe even a mug shot, and I think there’s something inside of us that says they did it. But, here’s a situation where you have, yes, a flawed character, and all of us have flaws, but one who loved his family, loved his children particularly, very deeply. I think that’s a more interesting situation because, in life, there are so many grey areas. There are so many forces right now that would have us try to simplify something that is so complex, in life and certainly in justice.
JM: Your film makes that clear from the start, as the first act of the movie is on Cameron getting to death row, when another movie would have put him there within five minutes. Instead, you make the audience get to know him and sit with him. It’s a bold choice. What made that the route to take?
GF: Well, I’ll tell you, I think Roger Ebert once wrote that movies are empathy machines. I personally find that to be an extraordinary quality in a human being, and in an audience. I believe you can feel it. Two different filmmakers who have the same materials and the same crew, one has great empathy, you can feel it. So, two things I love in life are being proven right and being proven wrong. You know, when I learn about something that I was so sure I was right about, I feel giddy. This story presents an opportunity for all of us to examine our impulse to assume guilt, and the prejudices involved. I think that’s why this story will stay with viewers and hopefully make a real difference when they serve on juries, or vote, or consume news coverage of crimes.
JM: As much as it must have been frustrating to wait for this to get made, the timing has actually made audiences even more receptive to the message. What was the experience like of having written something and then just sit around waiting?
GF: Yeah. I often thought, you do your best on projects and you hope that it goes into production, but it’s funny, it feels like sometimes, when you move to another one, it seems like the one that didn’t go right away can sometimes jump forth. When you were hopeful for it but stepped away from it for a moment, sometimes steps forward. So, it’s something in the industry, almost every film has a long journey to the screen. A film like this, which is harder to make today perhaps than ever, is certainly one that has a particular jury. That said, it’s been helpful, additional information has come out. It’s always a waiting process, especially for the writer.
JM: You haven’t had the chance to direct again after your debut. Is that something on your mind?
GF: Oh yeah! I always have a number of ideas that I hope to direct. I’m writing a couple of those right now. I’m looking forward to doing that as well, along with meeting with producers on other projects too, so my hope is that you’ll be seeing some more work from me soon. Maybe it’s like Stanley Kubrick, you know? You don’t want to rush it! (Laughs)
JM: Is it also a different muscle? Writing something on spec as opposed to it being a gig or having it in the back of your mind that you might want to direct it?
GF: You’re absolutely right. There’s absolutely a difference between writing something on spec and writing something for hire. Now, what you hope is that you are inspired by and invested in every job that you do. You know, there is always certain additional qualities about something you write off meter, so to speak. However, with this project, I’ve been lucky. I struggled for a long time, but I have been lucky that all my projects have worked out. I’ve had great fortune.