Today, Abnormal Use continues its series, “Abnormal Interviews,” in which this site will conduct interviews with law professors, practitioners, and makers of legal-themed pop culture. For the latest installment, we turn to Heywood Gould, director and co-writer of the film Trial by Jury, which was released way, way back in 1994. Gould is well known in Hollywood, having directed Mistrial and written Cocktail. Any film depicting jury tampering at the hands of a mob boss captivates our attention. Further, today marks the 20th anniversary of the film’s release to theaters on September 9, 1994. Nothing slips past us. To commemorate this special event, we requested that Mr. Gould agree to an interview with us about the making of the film, and he was kind enough to grant that request. Without further ado, the interview is as follows.
NICK FARR: Looking back 20 years now, what are your thoughts on Trial By Jury and how it was received as a legal drama?
HEYWOOD GOULD: Well, I mean, it was received harshly. And I think the main reason was because of the premise of the movie being that a racketeer can buy himself or can buy a jury and corrupt a jury. People did not want to think that could happen . . . The movie is based on a real life occurrence in which [John] Gotti corrupted a jury in one of his jury trials which led to a mistrial. That’s how he got the name “Teflon Don.” One of the reasons in this case was because he had corrupted the jury. So people don’t want to entertain the idea that this can happen. So there was a lot of disbelief expressed that this could ever happen here and so forth and so on. The movie itself – the actual movie got a great response. But people felt – people were upset. They were disturbed by the idea that this could happen.
NF: What type of feedback have you received from lawyers, specifically, on how the film has resonated with them?
HG: Well, you know, that’s interesting because a lot of people didn’t know that I knew – it wasn’t a secret – but they didn’t know that I knew that this had happened during the Gotti trial. And so, I’ve gotten a lot of response from lawyers who say, well you really – how do you know the way the system really operates? This was more in response and reaction to the idea that the DA would use a criminal to testify on his behalf and that the DA would kind of trap another criminal to testify. They said, “How do you know how well the system works?” “This is how the system works,” they said, and “How do you know that?” And I’ve been a reporter, and I’ve covered a lot of trials, and I don’t know, it kind of comes by osmosis in a way. But they did react saying that I demonstrated a lot of inside knowledge of the way these trials really work.
NF: What about any kind of feedback from anybody that has ever experienced jury duty and how the film resonates from their own experience?
HG: Well, a lot of people – and I’ve been on jury duty twice – a lot of people could relate to the dynamics and the way some people take over a jury room and the way some people will get stubborn. A lot of people responded that this is the kind of experience that they had had.
NF: You co-wrote and directed the film. Can you tell us about that transition from putting pen to paper and then making it come to life on screen?
HG: Well, you kick the writer off the set. That’s it, get out of here. Stop arguing if it doesn’t work. We’re going to try to streamline the movie, and we’re going to be more responsive to the actors’ portrayal and what they bring to it and let them contribute because it’s their movie, as well, whether you like it or not. You kind of become – you put another hat on, and you kick the writer’s hat off, and you look at the script as objectively as you can. Not as something that you wrote.
NF: What efforts were taken to adequately depict the criminal process on set?
HG: I had a friend of mine who’s a lawyer. Other than that, I covered trials as a reporter for the New York Post. . . . I tried to be very scrupulous about the cross-examination technique of the lawyers and the general technique of a criminal trial [and] keep that as correct as possible so that it would reflect a real trial.
NF: What do you think makes a realistic courtroom as a good backdrop as a drama?
HG: Anybody who’s ever attended a trial, it’s the highest drama in the world. It’s the most dramatic kind of public spectacle that you can think of, and it covers really every aspect of human life. . . . It’s high drama. One of my favorite things to do as a reporter was to cover trials, and what I really liked to do the best when I didn’t have a particular trial to cover was just wander through the courts and just wander into a courtroom and see what was going on that day in that courtroom. . . . I’ve never been to a boring trial or a trial that wasn’t extremely dramatic to me because of what’s at stake.
NF: This movie came out at an interesting time. One of the most famous criminal trials at least in recent memory was the O.J. Simpson trial. That was obviously very well publicized. This movie came out a couple of months after the famous white Bronco chase and then maybe about a year before his trial. Did you see any following of people going back and re-watching a movie like this in the wake of this general population interest in the criminal process?
HG: Yeah, I did, and I also felt a little bit – and I hate to say this – I don’t mean to say it but it did happen – a little bit of vindication for some people when they saw how shaky the justice system could be. Because it was pretty shaky in that trial, that’s for sure. And people say, “Well gosh, maybe you were closer to the truth than we thought.” And I said, “Yeah, it can happen.” I said, “Yeah, I got a lot of response – positive responses for the picture to stick around all these years.” People are still watching it.
NF: Trial By Jury’s protagonist, Valerie (Joanne Whalley), she gets summoned for jury duty, decides to fulfill her civic duty, and then finds herself getting blackmailed by the mob to return a not guilty verdict in the trial of the mob boss. So after going through this type of experience, how do you think Valerie would feel about the two schools of thought we always hear about jury duty: the first one is that it’s a civic responsibility and the second one that no one should be judged by twelve people who aren’t smart enough to get out of jury duty?
HG: Well, first of all, it is your civic duty, and I just completed a trial as a juror – my second time – and, of course, I don’t want to get out of it. I mean, I hope – this trial ran for a little bit more than I would have liked, but the truth is that I usually found juries make very good decisions. At least I can always say that the jury always makes the decision that I agree with so that might not be the best one, but I found that juries take the job very seriously and that they deliberate. The jury I was on was out for three days arguing about what defendants should get an equal – a sentence – because one had done more than the other. Stuff like that. I’m a big fan of the truth. . . . In New York state, I don’t know what the other rules are, but it’s pretty hard to get out of it. They promise you that it’ll be a short trial, and they show you a little video beforehand, and you kinda get a little inspired, and you want to go. People on my jury – they were very much involved with their lives, and they were on their cell phones before court convened. But once the trial started, they were into it. As a matter of fact one guy, a young guy, after all this yelling – we had some serious disputes in our jury – he got up and said, “Wow, this is great, this is the way the system works.”
NF: Why didn’t Valerie do more to let the judge or the district attorney, Daniel Graham (Gabriel Byrne), know what was going on?
HG: Why didn’t she? She’s frightened. . . . She can’t be convinced that the system will protect her. Somehow, she would cooperate, she would not be protected by the system. And that her kid will be killed or she’ll be killed. She believes this. And there was – and probably still is – there was a time when people thought, actually more so than before, that the government can’t protect them and that the system can’t protect them.
NF: The DA had a difficult task ahead of him, trying to prosecute a mob boss under these circumstances. What does the film say about kind of a job of a prosecutor in criminal matters?
HG: Well, you usually have to use a crook to catch a crook. You have to convince the jury that that’s a legitimate thing to do. And in order to convince the jury, your witness, although your witness might be a criminal on trial for himself, has to be plausible. You have to make his testimony plausible. That’s a real challenge. If you’re going to have a tainted witness, you have to somehow make that witness seem credible to the jury. That’s hard.
NF: What does the film say about the constitutional right to a trial by jury?
HG: I think the greatest document we have is our Constitution. I think that’s what makes us unique and even the protections that are given to the bad guy in this movie are necessary. I think people who have drawn other conclusions, by the way – interesting question that you ask – but a lot of people have said, “Are you saying that the Constitution gives too much protection to people?” and I’m saying, “Not if you’re on trial.” I think it’s – you’re going to have an occasional miscarriage of judgment that you have in this movie. That can’t be helped, but overall, you’re lucky to have a constitution to protect you.
NF: What are your thoughts on the comparisons between Trial By Jury and The Juror which was released two years later in 1996?
HG: That has continued to be a mystery to me. I don’t know how it happened or what happened. A lot of people have told me that one of the explanations is that people who had our script didn’t think the movie was going to be made so they felt free to use certain parts of it for their movie. I don’t know if that’s true or not. The Juror is almost a carbon copy with a couple of little variations of our movie. I don’t know how that came about. I really don’t. I want to be fair to the people. I want to say that they also thought they had the same idea that we did when they saw how the jury had been manipulated in the Gotti case. I don’t know how that happened.
NF: We are a bit premature in that Mistrial’s 20 year anniversary won’t take place until 2016. But I have to ask, what was the inspiration for the story and the frustrations of having good evidence and not being able to get it introduced?
HG: This was kind of a “what if” kinda situation. I felt that many times as a reporter watching trials guys have gotten off because of technicalities or because of a good lawyer or legal technicalities. I just tried to imagine what it would be like for a cop whose case was going up in smoke . . . I just tried to put myself in the place of a cop whose life has been destroyed by a series of events which he didn’t have that much control over. What would happen to him?
BONUS QUESTION: Looking back, can you think of a better job than that of Brian Flanagan (Tom Cruise) at the tiki bar in Jamaica from Cocktail?
HG: No, I can’t. I had that job for one year myself. I was a bartender. I used to bartend for eleven years before the movie. That’s pretty much my experience as a bartender. I worked – well I won’t tell you the name of the island – but I worked at a place very much like the Tiki Bar, and it was a fun time I have to say. It was great. It’s the greatest job ever. And you have some money in the bank as opposed to – when Brian Flanagan is 50 years old, well he’d get fired, most of my friends who were bartenders up here in New York got to be 50, 55 they were in bad shape in any way you can think of.
BIOGRAPHY: Born in the Bronx, New York, Heywood Gould is a screenwriter, journalist, novelist, and film director. He penned the screenplays for many films including Cocktail and directed such films as One Good Cop, Trial by Jury, Mistrial and Double Bang.