In many ways, the new movie Trial By Fire, out now, is a film about the perils of a criminal justice system that has, in numerous cases, used the death penalty against wrongfully convicted felons. Trial By Fire tells the true story of Cameron Todd Willingham, who was accused and convicted of murdering his daughters by lighting a fire in their home. But when playwright Elizabeth Gilbert (Laura Dern) — not to be confused with the Eat, Pray, Love author — encountered his story, she discovered that his constant pleas of innocence might actually be correct, and that the justice system, his lawyer, and the state of Texas may have failed him. She got to work and proved his innocence, but she eventually lost the fight and he was executed. Willingham's possible innocence and Gilbert's story became a New Yorker article that eventually inspired Trial By Fire and more scrutiny of the death penalty as a viable punishment. Now, the real Elizabeth Gilbert (pictured above) says she's overwhelmed at how far the story has come.
"When I went to the festival in Telluride [where the film first premiered], and I actually saw the movie for the first time sitting in a theater with an audience, I got really caught up in the emotion of it," she tells Refinery29 via phone. That emotion was partially because of the scale, and also due to the fact that the movie helped her process her loss, years after Willingham was executed.
"I had a tremendous amount of grief and guilt that I had failed him," she explains. "The [process of] making of the movie and rereading his letters and actually hearing the real words from his last letter to me [made me realize] I was the right person at the right time. Even though we didn't have the success we wanted."
In the film, Gilbert misses Willingham's final moments because of a car crash. In real life, Gilbert's crash happened long before Willingham's execution, but she was stuck in the hospital when he died. And while the timing was ramped up for dramatic effect in the movie, she says the incident did directly affect how she processed Willingham's execution at the time.
"I had a traumatic spinal cord injury, so it took seven years before I could even function on my own. I hadn't really talked about the grief. When [Willingham's] last letter was read to me in the hospital by my daughter, my mind didn't take any information because my body was demanding so much," she explains. Luckily, the film has been the therapy Gilbert so desperately needed. She says speaking to Dern and the film's creators "became an opportunity for me to do the grieving and I hadn't been able to do."
She's also done some physical healing to match her emotional recovery. As the New Yorker reported in 2010, Gilbert was able to walk with help from a walker thanks to extensive rehabilitation, but now, she mostly gets around via wheelchair. While she is no longer investigating wrongful convictions, she does hope to keep writing, even though her injuries have changed the process a bit.
"I started being able to write again using a voice-activated software. And right now I'm with one of my plays, I'm trying to turn it into a screenplay, but the process of writing is very different because I used to type quickly and I can't do that now with my hands," she explains. Still, new process and all, she hopes to continue her craft.
But beyond her personal recovery, Gilbert says she's grateful that her overall goal — after getting Willingham off death row — has been accomplished thanks to Trial By Fire.
"When the movie's over, I'm very grateful because my whole point when I met Todd and I became convinced that there was something wrong with his trial, my goal was to write a play and get the attention to his case."
While she wasn't the one to pen the script or make the movie (her play about Willingham never quite got off the ground), she's just happy that a filmmaker with a loud enough voice took the time to tell Willingham's story.