EXCLUSIVE: Jack O’Connell and Laura Dern have been set to star in Trial by Fire, a fact-based drama that Ed Zwick will direct. Oscar-winning Precious scribe Geoffrey Fletcher wrote the script, adapted from the 2009 article in The New Yorker that won David Grann the Polk Award. Zwick will produce through his Bedford Falls banner with Flashlight Films’ Allyn Stewart & Kipp Nelson, and Alex Soros, the latter of whom is financing. Production is set to begin October 2 in Atlanta. Kathryn Dean and Marshall Herskovitz are exec producing and film sales will be represented by Cinetic Media and CAA.
O’Connell stars as Cameron Todd Willingham, a poor, uneducated heavy metal devotee with a violent streak and a criminal record. Convicted of triple homicide in the arson deaths of his three small children, Willingham spent 12 years on death row. Dern co-stars as Elizabeth Gilbert, a Texas housewife who forms an unlikely bond with Willingham and, though facing staggering odds, fights magnificently for his freedom on the basis he was wrongly convicted.
Zwick said he and Stewart separately chased Grann’s story when it was published eight years ago and decided to team. It has been an uphill battle to get this one made, but a number of elements came together all at the right time. “From the moment I read David’s brilliant reporting eight years ago, I have been possessed by this deeply moving, true story of injustice,” Zwick told Deadline. “David Grann has been one of these caught-in-the-roller-of-his-typewriter guys, quietly doing great work, and now all these wonderful things are happening with his stories being made into movies, from Killers of the Flower Moon to the Robert Redford piece Old Man and the Gun. The story was all there, with these two compelling characters. It is a remarkable story about people. Not just capital punishment but justice, which is a very important word right now. It has to have that pull to keep you pushing it up the hill this many years.”
I asked Zwick why it took so long. “You’ve heard the story at the end of the year from everyone who gets up on that podium and talks about how hard it is,” he said. “The good ones just take longer. I’ve been lucky enough to make movies I care about, and they become increasingly smaller targets that you hit at greater distances. Every year a couple manage to get through that crucible, but it’s harder and harder. We got close a couple of times, but it came down to not being able to get the right actor or financier. Ten years ago, after I completed Blood Diamond, I got involved with Global Witness, an organization that was very good to me. They asked would I go on the board, and it was there that I met Alex Soros. We sat working together for this organization for 10 years; he’s not in the film business, but he followed my travails in trying to get this movie made. Finally, he said maybe I could get involved with you to do this.”
Stewart, who with Nelson produced Sully, called Trial by Fire “more than a provocative account of prosecutorial abuse, an incredibly emotional story about how a single act of kindness can change two lives forever.”
Soros is the founder of The Alexander Soros Foundation, which promotes civil rights, social justice and education by making grants to organizations in the U.S. and overseas. He sits on the boards of the Open Society Foundations, International Crisis Group, Global Witness and Libraries Without Borders. Trial by Fire is the first film he has fully funded, and he was moved to do it by a passion for criminal justice reform.
Said Soros: “Justice Scalia, a staunch defender of the death penalty, famously said, ‘Not a single defendant in America has ever been erroneously executed. If such an event had occurred … the innocent’s name would be shouted from the rooftops.’ This is that shout.”
O’Connell is repped by CAA and Conway van Gelder Grant, Dern by CAA, Untitled and Gang Tyre, Zwick and Fletcher by CAA.