As you're reading this, Steve Mims and Joe Bailey Jr. are putting the finishing touches on Incendiary, a new documentary about the Cameron Todd Willingham case that focuses almost entirely on forensics — on the science behind arson investigations like the one that led to the Corsicana man's arrest, conviction and execution following the death of his three small children in a 1991 house fire.
Mims and Bailey aren't political activists; the former lectures in the University of Texas' Department of Radio-Television-Film, while the latter is a graduate of UT's law school. But they were so moved by an article about the Willingham case in The New Yorker that they decided to tackle one of the most controversial topics in the modern era of state's criminal justice system.
Featured in the film are two arson science experts, Gerald Hurst and John Lentini, talking about the case and about forensics in general. Willingham's original defense attorney, David Martin, also gets a lot of screen time — although, given his skepticism about any wrongdoing by the authorities, he could easily be mistaken for a prosecutor. Barry Scheck, co-director of the New York-based Innocence Project (and best known as a member of O.J. Simpson's criminal defense team), plays a leading role as well.
But the breakout performance is that of Williamson County District Attorney John Bradley, who was appointed by Rick Perry to chair the Texas Forensic Science Commission just as the commission and its previous chair were inconveniently set to weigh in on the Willingham case during the gubernatorial campaign. Bradley is combative, bordering on hostile, from the moment he appears in Incendiary, both in his dealings with the press and with his fellow commissioners.
Early this month, Mims and Bailey were kind enough to show me a rough cut of the film. Even more kind, well in advance of its release, they agreed to carve an excerpt of about eight minutes to be posted exclusively on the Tribune site. A brief Q&A will the filmmakers follows.
TT: As filmmakers, what about the Willingham case appealed to you?
Mims: The story is interesting on so many levels. It’s a murder mystery that connects law, science and politics in a way that’s completely contemporary. It has everything.
Bailey: Big, interesting questions were being animated in a series of real-time public struggles: the right to uphold forensic standards, the wrestling over a dead man’s reputation, the seeming unwillingness of public officials to allow for a more thorough, transparent analysis of the evidence. Once we recognized the opportunity to document this, we couldn’t live with letting it pass.
TT: You’ve very deliberately made a movie about forensic science rather than the death penalty.
Mims: The death penalty is a component of the film, but we always knew it wasn’t the focus. For us, the real story was about science and the law and the astonishing way they don’t mix so well, even in 2010. Texas is a scientific powerhouse in many areas — economically, science is valued. The use of it in defense of Willingham or in his exoneration is somehow controversial. The film illustrates that to a degree rarely seen.
Bailey: We were completely uninterested in making a movie that we had already seen, or that would resonate only as an “issue” film.
TT: What reaction are you trying to elicit from people?
Mims: That due process in cases like this one requires objective science. And that science can’t be politicized.
Bailey: I hope people will ask tough questions of our institutions and celebrate the fact that we live in a society where we’re encouraged to do that. If we don’t exercise that political muscle, it will atrophy. In Texas, I’m afraid, that has happened.
TT: Was there anyone you wanted to interview who wouldn’t agree to talk to you?
Mims: We got everyone we wanted except [John] Jackson, the D.A. in the case [and now a Navarro County judge]. He wouldn’t call Joe back.
Bailey: I would have liked to have talked to the Texas fire marshal. Of course, a direct interview with Gov. Perry’s office would have been interesting.
TT: Who’s paying for the production?
Mims: We own our own gear, and over the course of the year we absorbed the costs of travel and editing.
Bailey: We got a $3,000 Texas Filmmakers’ Production Fund grant from the Austin Film Society. We were really honored to receive that — it was a nice vote of confidence for the film early on.
TT: Now that the film is finished, what happens? Where will we be able to see it?
Mims: We’re screening it in festivals in 2011. Beyond that, it’s one step at a time.
Bailey: We’re hoping for as broad a distribution as possible. One of the biggest thrills I’ve had since we locked the picture was showing the first 20 minutes to Dr. Hurst and his saying that he had never seen scientific principles illustrated so vividly — that the film will save lives and needs to be shown to every new fire investigator. That would really be an honor for us as filmmakers.