EXCLUSIVE: Among the high-profile awards-hopeful premieres at this year’s Telluride Film Festival, from The Old Man and the Gun to The Front Runner to First Man — all coming here for many reasons, including to get a boost in the Oscar race — one new movie from an Oscar-winning producer-director has something more basic in mind: getting a distributor.

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That is the case for Ed Zwick and his powerful, humane and important drama Trial By Firewhich stars Jack O’Connell as a Texas man facing the death penalty for the arson killing of his three young daughters, and Laura Dern as a determined woman trying to save his life after lawyers botched his case and put him on Death Row. The emotional and complicated story of Cameron Todd Willingham, as detailed in David Grann’s 2009 New Yorker article that became an obsession for Zwick and the basis for his film, makes for strong cinema, and the Telluride programmers clearly recognized it.

What is unusual is that Zwick is not taking the film to any other fest (at least for now), most notably Toronto, which is usually where acquisition titles go to be sold. Instead he and another producing partner, Allyn Stewart, with whom he teamed on the project, are here in the Rockies hoping to draw attention to Trial By Fire through via debut at Tellruide (first screening is Friday night). It is a rare move to focus a sales strategy strictly on Telluride, not exactly known as a bustling sales market, but it is indicative of the respect and belief Zwick has in this festival.

Trial By Fire
“Trial By Fire”
Telluride Film Festival

The Last Station in 2009 was one movie I recall using a similar Telluride-only idea and it was picked up by Sony Pictures Classics — it went on to win Oscar nominations for its stars Helen Mirren and Christopher Plummer.  Dern and O’Connell also give award-worthy performances here that could be attractive to any potential distributor, and Zwick had on the highest praise for both when I spoke to him earlier in the week after seeing the film.

Zwick, who’d been to this fest once before, was proud to be a part of this year’s 45th Telluride and hoping for the best.

“Well, first of all, I was thrilled that they would ask us because to me, the way that they have curated films over the last number of years has really been extraordinary. They really try to gear themselves over to what they passionately believe in in terms of choice of movies, so they saw in this something that they really believed in, and that meant a lot,” he said. “And the audience at Telluride is an audience that just so deeply loves movies, and they love movies for movies and not for their commercial potential or their awards potential or anything except the belief in the form, and I’d had the experience only once of showing this movie to 300 people in Pasadena.

“But it is a movie that deserves a movie-loving audience, and I went, OK, there will be people at this festival who will be able to decide to distribute the movie if they so choose, and if they don’t, maybe they will then talk about it, and others will then hear about it in order to do it, but I wanted this movie seen with a great audience, and not in a distributor’s screening or something if I could avoid it.”

The movie was largely independently financed by the Soros Foundation’s Alex Soros, whom Zwick had gotten to know around the time he did Blood Diamond and became involved when he joined the board of Global Witness, a board Soros also sat on. It turned out the Soros Foundation was involved in criminal justice reform, a major theme of Trial By Fire. In his relationship with Soros over the years that would be a key connection between the two, to the point where Soros finally wrote a check to get the movie made.

“So many of these very interesting movies are only happening because of the willingness of people who can afford to support movies whose commerciality isn’t at the forefront.” Zwick said. “Not that it doesn’t become a legitimate proposition, but you know what I mean, and you know who those people are, and they’ve been a boon to serious filmmaking and filmmakers, and so that’s sort of how it came to be.”

So is that kind of compassion and commitment also what he is looking for in a distributor, whether a Netflix-type of deal or more traditional theatrical route?

Jack O'Connell Laura Dern Ed Zwick
Associated Press; Rex/Shutterstock

“Oh gosh, you know I only hope I get the chance, I mean, to make a decision,” he said. “You want someone who believes in the movie, and their passion for it is the most important thing, that they give it the treatment that it deserves. As the world has changed, I’ve made independent movies now in addition to studio movies, and if this were a conventional conversation about a studio release, I’d consider myself a little bit more learned and able to talk about it. But I’m also perfectly willing to admit that this is a bit of a new world for me, I mean with a movie that doesn’t yet have a distributor, and so it’s going to be a learning curve.”

“Obviously every director when he’s made a movie believes that there’s something about that experience of sitting in the dark and having their personal experience of it. You want it to have some real impact out there as an experience, so I don’t know. I think I’ll know a lot more afterwards. So ask me after I’ve gone through this.”

As for the film itself, it was that New Yorker article by Grann that Zwick couldn’t get out of his mind and was a driving force for him to make this film. Coincidentally, another New Yorker article by Grann was the basis for yet another world premiere here in Telluride this weekend: the Robert Redford-starring drama The Old Man and the Gun. When I ran into Grann on Main Street this morning, he was clearly savoring the experience of being responsible for the existence of two major new movies. (Oscar winner Geoffrey Fletcher (Precious) adapted Trial By Fire for the screen.)

For Zwick, the attraction was partly the many possibilities of a film that also hit on the emotional and human aspects of this story.

“I read David’s article in the New Yorker, and it’s a great, great piece of journalism, and in fact, he won the Polk Award for it, so I’m not the only one who thought so,” he said. “But it was remarkable in that it told a story that was obviously about a grievous miscarriage of justice and was a story about prosecutorial misconduct, and then certainly a story about the state of the death penalty in Texas and in America, but it went much further than that. It suggested to me this opportunity to talk about how this random act of kindness created this extraordinary relationship between these two people, and how finally, it changed both of their lives, even in the worst of circumstances, and I was just very moved by that, and I couldn’t get it out of my mind.

“So I, as one does, I inquired as to the rights, and it turned out that someone else had inquired to the rights, and that was Allyn Stewart, whom I’ve known since I made my first movie. She was a young executive, and we’ve been friends, although we’ve never worked together since. I don’t even remember who called the other and said, ‘Hey, you’re trying to get this and so am I, and let’s partner,’ and we did,” he recalled.

Beyond any theatrical prospects, Zwick hopes the movie can make a real difference, and notes that even years after Willingham’s case, The Innocence Project is still actively on the state of Texas to admit wrongdoing in this case.

“The District Attorney had to stand trial recently for prosecutorial misconduct, and there’s more that I believe yet to come,” Zwick said. “In the last number of years over 150 people have been absolved or exonerated based on DNA evidence just within moments or days or weeks of execution, so that really suggests how many innocent people have had to be unjustly executed.

“Obviously it’s a true story, but to me there’s also a metaphor about a single life and the complexity and the value of a life, even a life that you might have initially imagined to be not worth it, or in some way that we judge to be not worth it,” Zwick adds says about the ambiguity presented in the first half of this film over whether Willingham actually committed the crime.

“That became the best argument for making this movie: If he had been a saint then it wouldn’t challenge our beliefs as much as this does.”