Incendiary: The Willingham Case

Incendiary: The Willingham Case

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Incendiary: The Willingham Case (2011)

Opened: 09/23/2011 Limited

Violet Crown C...09/23/2011 - 09/29/20117 days
Washington, DC09/30/2011
IFC Center10/07/2011 - 10/13/20117 days
The Magnolia10/14/2011
Sunset 5/LA11/18/2011 - 11/24/20117 days

Trailer: Click for trailer

Websites: Home, Twitter, Facebook

Genre: Crime Documentary

Rated: Unrated


In 1991, Cameron Todd Willingham's three daughters died in a Corsicana, Texas house fire. Tried and convicted for their arson murders, Willingham was executed in February 2004 despite overwhelming expert criticism of the prosecution's arson evidence. Today, Willingham's name has become a call for reform in the field of forensics and a rallying cry for the anti-death penalty movement; yet he remains an indisputable "monster" in the eyes of Texas Governor Rick Perry, who ignored the science that could have saved Willingham's life. Equal parts murder mystery, forensic investigation and political drama, INCENDIARY documents the haunted legacy of a prosecution built on "folklore."

Director's Statement (Steve Mims)

David Grann's excellent NEW YORKER article, TRIAL BY FIRE, drew me to Willingham's story. An exhaustive piece, the Texas setting and the cast of characters seemed real and familiar, and the narrative's expose of junk science in the courtroom seemed extremely relevant during a time when, 152 years after publication, ORIGIN OF SPECIES remained controversial.

In October of 2009, a random, after class discussion with my student Joe Bailey led to my recommendation of Grann's story. Joe read it and proposed making a documentary about it. I've worked on many films, and the scope of this story seemed daunting, but I found myself suggesting that we go ahead and do it anyway and we started collecting interviews. By early December we'd shot chemist-inventor Gerald Hurst, writer Elizabeth Gilbert and fire scientist John Lentini. Thrilled by the material, we throughly committed ourselves to make the film. From there we shot for over a year, collecting interviews and documenting an on-going examination of the original fire investigation by the Texas Forensic Science Commission. As reflected in the film, those meetings took us all over Texas and would deliver to us an entirely new and controversial chapter in the Willingham story. Last October Willingham's family filed suit to have Cameron Todd exonerated posthumously, and many of our protagonists re-entered the film, under oath in a court of law. A godsend for us, we carved that into the climax of our film and it delivers gravity and closure to a story that remains in the headlines at the present time.

Independent film expert John Pierson agreed to watch an early cut of the movie and was intrigued enough to screen it for his advanced film producing class at the University of Texas. By then we had edited new material from the trial into the film and John took the film on as the class project. Subsequently we ran many more cuts and thanks to excellent class feedback made tremendous progress in a short period of time, eventually winding up with a very rough, but mostly complete version by early December. Editorial work continued right into early March to deliver the draft we're premiering at SXSW.

Joe and I own the gear we used to make the film and we paid our expenses and donated our time to get it done. (We also received a $3,000.00 grant from the Austin Film Society.) Once we started we never considered not doing the work. My original concerns about the scope of the project were borne out over and over, but the real delight in getting to see the film unfold before us made it all worth it. Joe and I wound up getting along very well. His sunny disposition and willingness to tolerate my 'old school' ways made the whole thing possible.

From the outset we viewed this film as a movie, not a piece of journalism. Our goal was a cinematic tale that plays out as a scientific murder mystery. We've worked to make the science in the film accessible and beautiful and the story a real brain-teaser. It is a film loaded with genuine drama and unexpected moments of hysterical comedy. It asks the audience to ponder puzzles large and small, and we hope that it will haunt them long after the final, disturbing shot. If I have a single ambition for the film, it is that it exist, long after the Willingham case is forgotten, as a genuinely entertaining film.

Since age twelve I've loved filmmaking. It's the most challenging work you can do and, at the same time, the most fun. INCENDIARY has been the most difficult documentary project I've undertaken and, at the same time, an absolute pleasure to make. We've learned a great deal and met and become friends with some of the smartest people in the world along the way. Who could ask for more than that?

-- Steve Mims

Director's Statement (Joe Bailey Jr.)

Steve and I set out making this film like anyone first confronted with the Willingham story--we had to get to the bottom of it, for ourselves. We knew we would wind up traversing the criminal justice system through to the aftermath of the case; but first, we had to start at the most elemental level, where we had the most to learn: understanding the dynamics of fire.

Gerald Hurst, then John Lentini, methodically led us through the history of arson investigation and the physical properties of fires. Both did so with humor, charm and wit, and a rapt curiosity about evidence that was infectious. Animating their words with Steve on set, deploying fire against water, glass and steel, was one of the most fun things I've done, ever.

What we couldn't have predicted was that the legal and political elements of the story would be reanimated before our lenses just as vividly. I'm thankful for the film's unpredictable turn into a comedy of errors; an unusual feast for connoisseurs of social awkwardness. It was just what I needed to keep me engaged and sane to the end.

Most of all, I'm thankful to have worked for a year and a half with Steve Mims, and to have met people like Gerald Hurst, John Lentini, David Martin, Stephen Saloom, Barry Scheck, Sam Basset, Elizabeth Gilbert and Eugenia Willingham. To be able to engage them in conversation, and at the end of the day call it work, is a beautiful life to me.

-- Joe Bailey Jr.