Thank you for coming tonight. I see Judy here. You did some great pieces that
you wrote. Thank you.
I just want to maybe share a little bit with you about the making of the film
and the film is a miracle. Producers were not exactly knocking at my door
saying `hey, we want to do a film of this book. ` If you wanted to do a
Hollywood sensational movie and you're willing to have the nun have a little
romance with the death row inmate or maybe help him escape or if the guy was
really innocent and there'll be a last-minute intervention.... But somebody
guilty? [A]nd no romance between him and the nun? [W]hich is mostly gonna be
scenes where they're talking and encountering each other? Nah, they didn't.
Until Tim Robbins.
It's his genius and his way of crafting the story that has made the film. And
of course the first part of his genius is in the selection of the people to
play the parts. And Susan Sarandon. She initiated the whole thing. She was
filming "The Client" in Memphis and somebody had given her my book. And so she
called me. I was in the kitchen one night, and the call came and Susan
Sarandon--I heard of the lady, I had heard her name. And so she said look I'm
in Memphis, I've just begun to read your book. It looks really interesting to
me, I'm always looking for substantive characters, as she put it, to play.
And I'm coming into New Orleans for two days so could we meet and we could talk
about it. So I said sure, you know, and I said let's go to the Baltar
Restaurant. We have friends from Cutoff, Louisiana that have the Baltar on
Well I saw Wayne Pierce the other night at the Baltar and he said we're gettin'
all kind of business he said, they want to know where is the table where you
met Susan Sarandon -- 'cause I mentioned it on Oprah. The Times-Picayune
did a story. He said Oprah, 20 million people heard about the Baltar. And so
Susan and I met at the Baltar but before I went, I went to rent "Thelma and
Louise" so I could at least recognize, know what the lady look like, you know I
didn't wanna. And I don't know how it happened. Maybe plenty of you have read
the story by now. But I mean I just thought she was Geena Davis, the whole
thing, you know. And, I kept thinking wow I guess she could be me, but it was
a stretch you know, I wasn't enthusiastic. I liked that other one Louise, you
And so it was mainly relief I felt when she came into the Baltar and I saw she
was Louise, I was relieved. And then we met and she's just a real, really good
person, consistent, principled, doesn't do things just you know to get a name
for herself. She refuses to be in films that do violence to women or you know
she's just a very principled person. And so we started talking about things
and, so she said you know I'm gonna bring this to Tim -- to Tim Robbins. I
think he might be interested in doing the film.
So we trust them, because no matter what's put in the contract, you can do a
musical comedy with your stuff after you sign that contract. So I wasn't about
to let anybody do the film unless I knew I could really trust them. So I went
up to New York -- it was right when the paperback was coming out. Vintage
published the paperback. And I met with Tim and Susan at their house, met
their children, they have three, a number of whom are in the film, Eva in the
little possum scene, the scene of violence from our past where we beat up this
poor possum and Jack Henry, who's six, Eva's 10, Jack Henry is six and little
Miles was three. And he's saying I want to hit the possum too and they go well
Miles you're a little little, you get to sit on daddy's lap while he directs
the film you know.
And I liked it -- Tim Robbins, first of all, he read the book. Then I sent him
another book, Jesus Before Christianity by Albert Nolan. And he read
that book. He had read them both by the time I got there. I went ooh the man
reads. Ooh, the man thinks. Which was a good sign to me you know that he was
really a reflective person.
And then in the very first discussion we had about the film, Sam Cohn was
there, this very influential guy and he's a agent for many, many big stars and
he said you know maybe we ought to do this as a made-for-TV movie because
millions of people will see it in one night. And Tim said, "Yeah but we're
gonna bring them to some moral thresholds in this film. And we want them to be
thinking about that --and the next minute they're looking at Orville
Redenbacher popcorn or whatever on -- and it's so distracting to have it shown
on TV. But in the theater, in a darkened place, you can have a sustained
meditation without distraction, without interruption. And I went, mmmhm.....I
like this guy. And he says of course it's about the death penalty but this
film is really a film about our belief in God and Christianity and what our
deepest spiritual values are as a society.
And he said we will not make it as a polemic -- it's not -- some people are
disappointed in it, some of the defense attorneys want a lot more arguments
against the death penalty in it, some abolitionists with whom I've been working
to abolish the death penalty wanted a lot more in it to -- you know, so people
could get a lot of information about the death penalty. But as Tim said it's
not a polemic. It's a form of art and in art what you do is you bring people
to a place and present it to them in a way that their hearts can respond in a
way they never have before.
People bring themselves to this film. One of the sisters in Cincinnati was
saying that they took the class, a high school class to go see "Dead Man
Walking" and afterwards the kids wrote essays and one kid wrote, before I went
to see "Dead Man Walking", I believed in the death penalty. After I saw "Dead
Man Walking", I believed in the death penalty more. Because people bring stuff
to it and for some people it's seeing the terrible thing he did, yeah you're
showing a guy being executed, but you see the suffering of what the two
innocent teenagers went through and some people come out and say he got what he
Other people -- most people what they say is, 'it really makes me think and we
never had this kind of thinking going on about the death penalty before. ' We
never had a way of bringing it close to the American Public in a way that we
can think about it as a spiritual issue, as a moral issue. Mostly it's been
caught up in rhetoric. Mostly politicians' rhetoric saying look, we have these
terrible crimes, these people deserve to die but then when it comes to
executing a person like we're about to do to Antonio James on the night of
February 29th, it's the middle of the night, we hire basically 12 people from
the state of Louisiana whose job it is to kill the man. We all read about it
in the paper the next morning and now the media is not even too interested in
the stories. Maybe it will be buried back on page 10.
Not to condone what people do, but it's just to look at it as a society and
just say, 'is this something that we really do want to do?' And how can you
get it close to people so that they can be brought close to their own hearts
and take a look at it.
Well -so the way Tim talked about it was, he said now Helen he said, you're not
going to be a great hero in this, he said we can't show you as a super-nun,
just a saint coming in -- not exactly the light entertainment -- people like to
go to films to be entertained, how can we get them to go on this deep a journey
and this hard a journey ... and it's Tim, his genius in fashioning the story
was because he said the heart of this movie is about unconditional love and
redemption. The heart of this film is the encounter between this nun and this
very unsympathetic, unremorseful , guilty-as-the-Dickens killer, and the
encounter between these two and what's going to happen to the two of them in
the process of encountering each other. That's really where the heart of the
story lay. And as he did the editing process he honed out all the other things
out of the picture 'til he honed in on that relationship and that encounter and
that journey that they both made in the film and the way they encountered each
So finally Tim gets...the money. And the anxiety of it 'cause he -- at a point
they were jerking him around so much that finally he just said look here's my
bottomline on it, if I don't have it from you in writing, I'm gonna go shop the
film around somewhere else and he confides to me it's gonna be hard to shop it
around 'cause people are not knocking on our doors through this. They were all
scared of the film, they didn't think it could be a box office success. Now
that it is of course everybody goes yeah great film! You know... But boy when
you're out there like that and nobody thinks it can be done, that's when it's
faith. That's when you walk on water. That's when you say, "I believe in it
and so we're gonna do it." Well it was January just about a year ago and I
was on my way up to New York and I remember I called him from an airport and he
said, we got the money. Polygram is gonna do it he said, now we really got a
problem. I said what. He said now we gotta do the film. Now we gotta make
the movie. And he said I'm scared and I liked hearing that he was scared
because you know when you have excitement and fear together you know you're on
to something big. OK, it's just pure excitement, it's just fear but the two
together you know you -- you know you're onto something big. And so we began.
So I began to learn about films.
He says look we're coming down to Louisiana next week. And so he did. Came down
with John Killick, the producer, Richard Hoover, the set designer they built
that whole scene up ... it's a film about faith and spiritual values. The nuns
of this country are so happy about this film, I'm getting letters from people
all over the place. They said for the first time we don't have a flying nun or
a skatin' nun. You know they said they just -- they did us justice. You know
of what religious women in the Catholic Church are. And, so that
reverberation's going on all over the country and I'm glad about that too. So
the filming took place in nine weeks. Five weeks here, then four weeks up in
New York and of course his challenge as a filmmaker is you have so many
interior scenes of people ... just talking to each other.
Sean Penn says it's the hardest film he ever ... and then I said now Sean tell
me honestly now why did you do this film? Because I heard you weren't acting
any more. What made you -- you want to be in a film with Susan Sarandon, is
that why you're doing this film? Now tell me the truth. Tell me the truth. And
he said well I wasn't acting anymore. I was just going to direct. And then Tim
sent me this script he said. And when you read a script and you find your
tears falling on the page, you know it's something you got to do. Plus he said
I knew I could work with Tim Robbins because he's an actor. He understands
actors. I knew he would be a great director. And I wanted to be part of this
film because I just knew that it would be something substantiative that we
would be offering in this film and I want to be a part of it.
So that's how we got started. It was filmed. It was finished at the end of
June. Then they began editing and then because Tim knows people ... they go,
what are we gonna do about this crime? These people do these terrible things.
And they kind of get hooked into it and so the dead man is walking across this
land and in Europe, the Berlin Film Festival will go on next week and the
European Press has already begun to screen the film and they're responding very
And I have a lot of confidence now in the book because I know that the book can
really help people. And, so it's brought the book to the number on the New York
Times best-seller list. It's moving into it's second or third week
there. So people are coming out of the theaters going right over to the
bookstores and so they're reading the book. And I'm just real happy about
that. This to me is the work of the Gospel.
The last time I was in this chapel it was several -- many years ago it's when
I was in religious education. The work of the Gospel and the way we live
Christianity is very important. And the way Christianity is being lived in this
country-- sometimes I wonder what Jesus would say or do and if he would
recognize what he began, the fire he began on the earth of love and compassion
and not returning hate for hate. [A]nd what we've done to Jesus.
And I think it 's at the heart this film, I've been reading things like when
she says to me, I want the last face that you see to be a face of love. Is
that Christian? Is that compassion or is that unmarried to the sympathy to a
terrible murderer who does not deserve to live and who deserves to die. That's
the question that we're really faced with. Are some people so beyond
redemption by what they do that they really are disposable waste and we have a
right to kill them. That's a question raised by the movie. And then the movie
takes you into all the arenas. It takes you over to the murder victims'
families. It shows you one family, the Percys who are for revenge and you
understand why. It doesn't just show them as just wild-eyed crazy people, they
have suffered such a loss that the only thing they can think that will help
ease their pain is to see this man die. And it's understandable, but yet, you
see Earl De La Croix, another victim's family trying to get beyond or out of
the hatred that he feels to move on with his life.
And you see an unseen victim's family---the family of the one who's executed.
That scene in the death house with Little Troy and the two brothers of Matthew
Ponselett and his mother and what they go through and telling him good-bye
before the state kills him, is something nobody ever sees. They never see that
family that also now is going to have a funeral and somebody's being killed
just as really as if a lone gunman put a gun to his head and killed him. The
fact that it's the state killing him does it change, does it change the moral
lessons of it for Little Troy who's 10 years old and who's about to lose his
brother or for his mother? And what are we doing? What are we doing as a
society by doing that?
So anyway, that's the journey. That's the-- some things of the story of how it
But now we want to spend this time before I have to leave just hearing from you
and -- you know, feel free to ask questions, comments --
The Robert Lee Willie story. Faith Hathaway was brutally killed but there was
a young couple that was abducted. [S]he called me up after when the word came
out about the film and she said you will know me as the 16-year-old from
Madisonville. And this couple was abducted by Robert Lee Willie and Joe
Vaccaro. The boy was shot -- Mark Brewster was shot. He was partially
paralyzed. He's had to deal with this for the rest of his life now. His speech
is affected. She was raped. Took for two days and two nights, terrifying days
and nights sitting between Robert Willie and Joe Vaccarro with a gun to her
side and she -- they let her go at the end.
They let her go -- they brought her back to Madisonville. And I can remember
when I was writin' the book and I had heard about that, I said how in the world
did that ever happen, that they let her go? And I went over to visit with her.
And that's an incredible story. It's just an incredible story. She engaged
them personally the whole time, she talked to them, she -- and I think that
Robert Lee Willie was so starved for any kind of real relationships in his life
actually thought he had a personal relationship with her because he had nothing
to judge it against and he -- and of course they let her out and she had said
oh no I won't tell the police and he believed her because he thought oh well
she won't do that to me. We have a relationship. And-- in fact he even told
the FBI, oh no she wouldn't, she wouldn't have said that about us because she
said she wouldn't and the FBI was so amazed that somebody who had done the
things Robert Lee Willie had done would have believed her. And so she, her
whole family has gone to see the film and she feels the film is just really
helpful to the whole film, to help them to work through. Now she's at at a
place in her life now where she can talk about it and where she's been healed
of the hatred and all that she once felt. [A]nd is now -- I said you know
really the more you can tell your story, because the way she engaged them at a
personal level saved her life. And sometimes people who have been victims they
get very passive and so scared that it really works against them.
I mean she was thinking the whole time and kept talking to them. Kept
engaging them on a personal level and it saved her life. Even when they were
about to let her go, they had a bunch of tapes in the car, she said well look
you can keep this one, I'm gonna take that one, I want the seashell out of the
-- like -- well we're breaking up our personal relationship now but you keep
those ... he said I want my mama to know I didn't kill Faith Hathaway. And of
course he failed the lie detector test, it registered stress and I go this is
the day of your death. You would have to [be] a robot not to register stress.
And I never knew really if he was telling the truth or not about that. I
suspected that maybe, that he was involved for sure and that he was guilty of
first degree murder because he assisted, I didn't know how much. I mean
definitely he was guilty of all kinds of things. He had been involved with the
killing other people too.
-- But I mean Lloyd LeBlas is one of the most extraordinary people I've ever
met in my life. His son was murdered, I go to pray with him in this little
chapel in St. Martinville and he has forgiven. And he has moved on in his
life. I mean he knelt by the body of his boy when he identified him and said
the Our Father and he had been taught the Our Father, and when he came to the
part of the Our Father that said and forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive
those who trespass against us, he forgave the people who had killed his son.
It's incredible, not that you ever do it and it's done forever. Every day of
his life he has to deal with it. See people tend to think that forgiveness is
a kind of weakness, that it's kind of condoning -- oh it doesn't matter that he
killed my son. What it really is, is a spiritual strength that the hatred is
not gonna overcome you.
--I say of course, you know the system is so -- people have no idea how
inhuman and imperfect and frail and biased and you know the whole thing is. I
think it's worse in that the rhetoric about the death penalty is that it's
reserved only for the most heinous crimes and the most terrible crimes and that
we know for a fact -- I don't know how many people we -- we've executed 22
people here in Louisiana. Pat Sonnier, I do not believe of first degree murder.
A real question about Timothy Baldwin's innocence.
Now Antonio James. I mean they have affidavits from people -- of course he
had not defense. He had no attorney who investigated this at the time of the
trial. Now they're trying to present it in the courts and it's too late, and
all they've got is the pardon board. The politically-appointed pardon board to
show all these affidavits because the evidence against Antonio James was the
two people with him who said yeah, Antonio did the killing. And now they have
statements from these two people that they've made to numerous people
since--and it's been 14 years --who's saying Antonio really didn't do the
killing. You know I did it or he did it or whatever.
How do you go in court and prove that now? You have no way of proving that.
What we have is the pardon board. Politically- appointed pardon board. And if
you've read my book and had Howard Marsellis's confession of what goes on in
pardon boards ,you know. And in the Herrera decision the US Supreme Court
said you do not have a constitutional right to a hearing in a federal court
when you have evidence of innocence. Innocence and evidence of innocence is
not in and of itself -- does not give you a right to a hearing in a federal
court. They said the proper forum for it are the state pardon boards. That's
supposed to be your hearing for innocence. And so I mean I'm hoping against
hoping we're really doing, we're taking steps, as many steps as we possibly can
take to try to deal with this.
You know I don't want to say at this point. But I'm really afraid that
they're going to kill him. The thing about Antonio James is, that he's so
spiritually free, I mean the man can step across the line tomorrow night if he
needs to because he's a loving healed man. And he's not afraid of death. He's
got a very deep faith. [S]o if he dies ...