Roadside Attractions releases Trial by Fire on May 17th, 2019 in select theaters.
NYC MOVIE GURU: Whom do you think is ultimately responsible for opening the window into the soul of a character's heart, mind and soul?
Laura Dern: The responsibility begins with Liz Gilbert's bravery to make sure that her story was shared. It's one thing to be the person she was and really find a love story through within this shared experience that they had through the letters and in their visits. But to be brave enough to say, "I need my experience to be known because maybe I couldn't save this life, but we can save other lives with this new fire science and exonerate others on death row." Ultimately, she did that even weeks later with someone from another case that was not unsimilar, and he was exonerated. Then it's David Grann who wrote such a profound piece in the New Yorker. I think that in that piece, he really captured how Todd was typecast, what the criminal justice system does to people in terms of its profiling as well as what any given state must need to take care of its constituents versus consider human life. In this case, it's Edward Zwick and Allyn Stewart, his producing partner, not just wanting to make a film about Todd's case; they wanted also, in parallel to it, tell a story of a small act of kindness and what that can do to change law, culture and humanity. And then they asked an actor to come along for the ride. Within all of us, together, we hopefully get inside the heart and mind of her story and then Jack O'Connell, by just mere beauty, is just such a brilliant actor and does the same with his character.
NYC MOVIE GURU: Liz replies, "I don't know." at least twice throughout Trial by Fire. Do you think that there's an unfair stigma to the words, "I don't know."?
LD: That's gorgeous! It's one of the moments that made me most moved by President Obama. Whether it's my teacher or my partner or children or my President, to know you don't know and to be willing to learn is the sign of a great leader. Doris Kearns Goodwin's book on leadership, Leadership: In Turbulent Times, is such an amazing book. She speaks to that choosing 4 Presidents to follow, and speaks to their empathy, but also to their leadership skill in wanting to learn a new way and not needing to prove that their model is the best way. We have a lot to learn, and I think that this film addresses it.
NYC MOVIE GURU: I think that Liz did free Todd in a way because she freed him from his emotional prison through their friendship. Do you agree or disagree?
LD: He died tragically, and he died as a waste because not only was he innocent, but the state knew that he was innocent before he was killed. They certainly knew that there was more evidence. Between a witness testimony that was taken back with a letter from Johnny Webb and the lawyers proving her new fire science, it was very clear that his execution could have easily been postponed to look more into the case. So, it was a waste. But within the life that he have, I agree with you so completely, and I wish that Liz knew it in her heart. She was crying last night because of how hard the movie is for her, and it broke my heart. She felt like she could have done more. She did everything and was so incredible. She gave him an experience of unconditional love, she let him know before he died that others knew that he was innocent. He died knowing that others knew that he did not hurt his own children. She's a great writer and playwright herself, so her letters and so thoughtful, and you watch Todd's letters develop. She's sending him books like Man's Search for Meaning, so the elevated level of dialogue about soul and healing was incredible, so that's why, to me, it's such a love story embedded in this larger story about this system.
NYC MOVIE GURU: Do you think that there's something gained by writing a letter by hand as opposed to a printed letter? How do you think the advancement of modern technology is affecting the quality of human relationships?
LD: When I witnessed my son and his girlfriend choose to write love letters as a Christmas present this year, I was so touched. That expression of pen-to-paper to say why they were important to you holds a value that nothing else can. There's a tragedy going on. There's so much advancement in technology, but the lack of communication, the lack of human interactions---even at restaurants with families where everybody's on a device and no one's looking at each other for a shared moment---is horrifying. Cigarettes are illegal, and the French, I was holding out hope, because I loved that the French would scold me if they even would see a cellphone in a cafe. But the cellphone's winning now everywhere, and "swipe right" is winning now. Dating and hookup culture on apps is, literally, Orwellian.
NYC MOVIE GURU: According to the documentary What is Democracy?, democracy is not only freedom, but also justice. Would it be accurate to say that Liz is ultimately fighting for justice in Trial by Fire?
LD: A million percent. Totally, which is also so beautiful. I think she, like the Innocence Project and so many deep and amazing activists I've gotten to know, particularly in the last few years, are fighting for democracy. When we realize how foolish our mantras are. When we as individuals consider ourselves Christian and use the motto which we hold so deeply in our hearts staying, "Thou shalt not kill." And with that breath, many choose to decide that, after six weeks, a woman who perhaps has been sexually assaulted as a teenager, buried in shame, unable to go to the police yet, with a pregnancy test that can't show yet that she's pregnant, is going to be potentially charged with murder or, in the case of one state, interestingly, Texas, could even be up for the death penalty if she chooses to not have that baby. And yet, simultaneously, often, that same individual, "Kill! How dare you even abolish the death penalty! We have to kill! We have to kill! We have to kill!" We have to kill people when we know we have killed hundreds of innocent people. We've exonerated over 200 people just through the Innocent Project's work. How do those stories work together? Get your story straight, people! Let's get our story straight if we're going to be moralists in the way that we vote and in the way that we fight for democracy and justice. Let's get clear what we're fighting for. If it's about human life, then we really need to work together to have backstop bills and to make sure that guns are never in schools. This is insane. I don't want to hear anyone shouting, "Thou shalt not kill!" unless they're fighting for gun safety, they're supporting women's reproductive rights, and they're wanting to abolish the death penalty. I'm happy to have the conversation about what is moral. People are dying. Innocent people are dying every day. It's gone insane. We're having school shootings every week since the beginning of January after Parkland? After Newtown?
NYC MOVIE GURU: In the book by Susan Forward, Toxic Parents, Forward observes that society pressures men to avoid crying while pressuring women to avoid expressing anger. Do you agree with that observation? What's wrong with getting angry and crying?
LD: I am in such agreement, and it's one of the many reasons why I love being an actor. It's one of the reasons why I developed Enlightened, the show on HBO, which is about a rager. The moral of the story of that series is that she's off the charts in her reactivity, she doesn't have self-control, it has fractured many relationships for her, and in a state of cultural apathy, she's one of the few who will get in the streets and affect change in the world. I wanted to go like, "Who's going to actually take down corporate sickness?" Of course, it would be that kind of character. I wanted Renata in Big Little Lies to express rage. The minute I heard someone in an interview talk about a pretty, lovely, heartfelt character I played and said, "Oh, it's so refreshing seeing a real lady in a movie!", and was like, "I'm going to play ugly women. If that's what you think is pretty, that means you think that ugly is angry, then we have to play a lot of angry women because we have to get used to emotional men and angry women looking fierce and sexy and inspiring and scary and complicated and beautiful." Actors get to help do that because we're raising kids who need to have a paradigm shift from those norms.
NYC MOVIE GURU: Would it be a stretch to compare the friendship between Liz and Todd to the friendship between Harold and Maude?
LD: No, not in it's own way. Anything that's seemingly, from norms, shifts the story of what love is is healthy because love is found in so many different ways. I think that she was adult enough and detached enough and didn't have enough scars from Todd that she was able to love him unconditionally, and he was able to be amazed by her as she deserved because she was a woman who was taken for granted in her life. Those are remarkable stories to tell like Harold and Maude, too. They could see each other like no one else could see them.
NYC MOVIE GURU: If justice were served and Todd were set free before his execution, what advice would you give him if he wanted to know how to heal from his past traumas and pain?
LD: I have no answer to that. I wish I did. The only thing I can share as a parallel posibility is that I know 2 of the Memphis 3, and watching them having spent years on death row and with life sentences that they did not commit of the murder of young children, and the tragedy of somebody who would kill a child---that's a very specific horror. I'm very moved by not only them sharing their story, but, more importantly, the healing that they found by talking to young potential lawyers and going to law schools around the country and talking to people who are serving and judges, to look at their case and to consider what went wrong and what's happening that gets it so wrong. Todd would heal so many, and he might be a huge inspiration to young lawyers to really consider how to defend and protect human life to police and to investigators. Just to take contradictory science. Think about how much he could offer, and how much he could offer visiting inmate in jail. So, that would be my only advice in witnessing what others and what exonerees do, and how they found healing by getting their lives back by healing and supporting others. It seems to work for all of us in any case, but I think it would've been a very fruitful blessing for the planet if he had lived and been able to be of service in that way.
NYC MOVIE GURU: Can you detect your own charisma?
LD: I don't think any of us can detect it, can we? I think we detect connection, like we're having a connected conversation---it's so great! But I don't think we know what we're putting off, but we know what we feel between another person.