SXSW Bound with Directors Joe Bailey Jr. and Steve Mims of INCENDIARY: The Willingham Case

7 03 2011

Last week, I shared with you the interview with Director Steve Mims of Incendiary: The Willingham Case.  Here is Director Joe Bailey Jr.’s interview about the film.  Incendiary is SXSW Bound with its World Premiere this upcoming Saturday March 12th at the awesome Paramount Theatre.

I opened the interview with Steve and Joe asking about Steve’s extensive history in the film world.  Here is Joe’s shout out to his directing partner.

Thank God for Steve’s sense of humor–the occasional groan-inducing pun not withstanding.  There is no way I could have worked on this film, much less any feature film with all the tedious wrangling over details, and still come out happy–but for being able to joke almost all of the time.  Steve is very good at that.  It also made for a much more entertaining film, I hope, one that finds humor in places where people take themselves too seriously.

The guys quickly forged a friendship and then they decided to work together to tell the real story of Cameron Todd Willingham.

Steve and I were talking about the thought processes–or lack thereof–by Texas governors in reviewing clemency petitions.  I surmised that anyone with a conscience, politics aside, Governor Perry included, would take that duty very seriously.  Steve recommended the New Yorker piece, which had just come out.  I read it.  After finishing it, I immediately wrote Steve that we should make a film about the case, take our own stab at the mystery.  He started to write back how much work that would be, and why it wouldn’t be feasible, and by the end of the email basically resigned himself to: “let’s do it.”

Directors Joe Bailey Jr. and Steve Mims.  Photo by Shereen Ayub of the Daily Texan.

Joe talked about how the serious nature of the material did cause some apprehension.

Honestly it scared me a bit at first.  I’m not a very dark person.  But I quickly discovered so many lighter elements–things like the science, the political theatre and all of the humor in that, and the sense of mystery surrounding the case–which wouldn’t turn me loose.  And Steve’s humor also cut a little bit of the heavy stuff with lightness.

He expanded on how the film is not trying to make any statement but rather is a means to showcase the facts behind the case.

That struggle over capital punishment has defined the Willingham story in a way that  is unfortunate.  The story has so many facets.  Hopefully the film allows audiences to take in all the elements surrounding this lightning rod of a case–the knowns, the unknowns, the unknowables–and form their own reaction.  The movies afford you the space to really wrap your mind around something and see what you can make of it.  The film explores the dynamics of fire, the human dynamics of politics and governance.  But in the end, the mystery is what really haunts and animates all of it.

The process of editing the film was brought up and Joe gives his props to Steve.

Steve is a flat out genius in editorial.  And by genius, I mean that he has the discipline to listen to his intuition on what stays and what goes–quickly enough to then be able to let the real stuff grow into something. We’re lucky to live in an era when the technology is available for all of us to edit our own films.  I guess that makes it all the more confounding that most people have a hard time editing the films they’ve shot.  Steve cuts with an efficiency and a purpose I marvel at all the time.  That said, there is so much I would like to make use of someday that had no way of fitting into a nimble feature-length movie.

I asked the directors what their thoughts were about the government (in the form mainly of Governor Rick Perry) having an impact on the film itself?

Human beings are innately curious.  Films allow you to fully indulge that impulse.  I have a hard time jumping right on board to a knee-jerk critique of someone like, say, Governor Perry.  I find it much more interesting to put myself inside the mind of any given character or public figure.  So while I’m stuck trying to understand them, what motivates decisions and statements, many of my friends in law school would already be jeering at the injustice, or poor decision-making.  Which I guess is why I’m making films rather than practicing law.

With the Governor, in the end, I hope that I would have done things very differently–but that’s knowing what I personally know about the criminal justice process from years of law school–and more importantly two years of marriage to a criminal prosecutor!  But that doesn’t change my curiosity about what happened.  Our interest was in exploring the totality of the circumstances around this story that could be explored productively, avoiding mere conjecture or hearsay.  Our curiosity took us from our backyard in Austin interviewing Dr. Hurst, then all over the state documenting the public struggles surrounding known facts.  And they are very uncomfortable facts.

The title of Incendiary.  It easily can be looked at for its definition of a person who commits arson or a substance/weapon used to create fires.  But another definition of the word is “a person who excites factions, quarrels, or sedition”.  Now most folks would obviously think to the first set of definitions, but the trailer to your film really showcases the other definition.  I’m curious what do you guys feel your title conveys or what do you want it to convey to the audience?

There was some hesitation as to whether marquis operators would be able to spell it–but once we considered all of the synonyms and forms of the word, we knew that was it.  Just a matter of convincing ourselves that other people would accept it.  Or even appreciate it, which I’m so gracious that you have.

With the film being showcased at SXSW do you feel there will be a big following for the screenings, since it hits home?  Have the family, lawyers, or other individuals voiced their views on your film, is that part of the film?

The film belongs to the scientists and the people in it–family, attorneys, journalists, public officials–as much as it belongs to us.  So of course I hope all of them will be there, whatever side of the story they are coming from.  The Paramount is  right down the street from the legislature, so SXSW has really made it easy on those folks to check the film out.  I couldn’t be happier–it’s my favorite place in the world to watch movies.  The classic film series is a true blessing to Austin summer nights.





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