In 1983, Betty Anne Waters’ brother, Kenny, was convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison. So, Betty Anne did what any sister would do, she put herself through law school, became a lawyer and, with the assistance of the Innocence Project and newly-instituted DNA testing, finally got her brother exonerated after serving 18 years. Betty Anne knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that Kenny was innocent and never gave up hope that he would finally be freed. And she was right, DNA testing proved that none of the blood found at the murder scene was his. Betty Anne’s remarkable story has been turned into an inspiring and profound motion picture called Conviction.
The director of Conviction is Tony Goldwyn and I, along with Ed Davidson from the MacGuffin Podcast, met with Goldwyn in downtown Seattle for a chat about the film. Goldwyn comes from a prestigous line of filmmakers, his grandfather, Samuel Goldwyn, was an American film producer, and founding contributor executive of several motion picture studios. His father, Samuel Goldwyn Jr., followed closely in the Sr.’s footsteps. Both his grandmothers were prominent actresses. However, Hollywood originally had no appeal for Tony. “When I was a kid I didn’t want to get into show business because it was the Family Business,” He told us.
“But then I got the acting bug in High School, and when that bites you, if that’s what you’re meant to do, you just can’t say no. That caused some consternation in my family. My Dad wanted me to be in the business, but not an actor! It’s in my genes I suppose. I became an actor. I was an actor for 10 years exclusively. Never wanted to be a Director, but fell into it, because I wanted to do more, be more involved in the process. In terms of being part of this sort of ‘Goldwyn Legacy,’ now sort of mid-career, I really feel like I’m a part of something beautiful and I’m making my little contribution to it.”
Bringing a true story to life on the screen is not necessarily an easy task, especially to someone who’s just started directing. I asked Goldwyn what process he went through to make sure he accurately depicted events. “The first thing that I did was, I spent a lot of time with Betty Anne and just listening and recording our conversations. Pamela Gray, our screenwriter, spent a few days, 12 hours a day just talking, getting to know the whole fabric of the story. And then Pamela went through and did sort of exhaustive research reading all the legal transcripts and everything, all the material. So then we knew what we were talking about.”
Next came the difficult part. “Then Pam and I had to sit down and make a movie of it and say ‘What is the movie, what is it about for us, how do we focus it, what story do we want to tell?’ as if it was a work of fiction. So then, in constructing the film, we had to treat it like it wasn’t a true story. People are going to want to come see this movie as a movie otherwise we should make a documentary. I was constantly weighing those two things. She would turn in a draft of the script, and I would look at it, and say ‘Okay, but am I being truthful and honest here? Are we being overly melodramatic?’ Thankfully in this story, the real truth, you couldn’t make it up. There was so much that happened in Betty Anne’s life, we could’ve made 5 movies. It was really more about taking stuff out and stripping stuff away to keep the story focused on what we wanted it to be about, which was this relationship between this brother and sister.”
Continuing, Goldwyn enthusiastically praised the performances of his main actors. “I think that’s what’s so great about Hillary Swank’s performance. You know she’s just not chewing the scenery. And you know it’s not ‘This is my third Oscar.’ I hope it goes there, but, you know a lot of times you see an actress go ‘Oh, this is my role!’ I think her performance is so restrained and so, in a certain way, deferential to Sam Rockwell who’s so incredible in it.”
In particular, Goldwyn cited a scene early on where Sam Rockwell as Kenny Waters gets into a fist fight in a bar and then serenely dances with his young daughter. “I loved that scene. That’s one of my favorite scenes in the movie as a director because it was an opportunity to tell the whole story in one scene. It was like ‘This is the guy.’ And you get it. So I was talking to Sam about that when we were doing it, saying we get the whole character is in this scene. Initially Pam and I created that scene because we wanted to show the contrast in Kenny. So, he’s the really fun guy who has the flash temper and creates a violent situation, and then needs to make it better by making everyone laugh and being the clown. That was always in the context of the scene, but then, as we worked on the script, I would go ‘Well, one of the things that will really gain our heart about Kenny is, he loves that baby.’ In the original version, I think that Brenda was pretty much just holding the baby, and Kenny was not that connected to the baby. Then I thought, quite late actually, I thought of rewriting that myself and having him pick up the baby and take the baby and dance with her.”
“It’s a really interesting challenge and a privilege,” said Goldwyn, returning to the subject of the responsibility of bringing a true story to the screen. “At the same time there’s a constraint to it. I felt a great responsibility. This was not ‘inspired by true events,’ this is a true story. And yet you have to take certain poetic license. You have to. I just knew that, if I stayed true to the spirit of Betty Anne and Kenny, then I could take license. If I was being honest and truthful, you know, emotionally honest, then I could compress events or time, if I wasn’t being manipulative. It was a very interesting challenge. It was sort of like a double edged sword in that way. I really appreciated the challenge. The key for me was to always treat it as if it was a work of fiction, dramatically. That way if something came up that said ‘Yeah, but it was true. I have to put that in.’ It would be like, yeah, but it doesn’t work. Who cares. You know what I mean? It’s not dramatically interesting, so (hatchet noise), get it out of there.”
Along those lines, Ed wondered how those who were portrayed in the film, and those who were not, reacted when they saw it. “That was a little difficult, because there were more siblings in the family and we really had to focus the story on Betty Anne. We make mention of them, but they’re never characters on the screen. I’ve talked to all of them, they’re cool with it. Martha Cokely saw the movie, I think, last week. Barry Scheck set up a screening for her and they spoke. Martha released a statement saying there are fictional aspects to the story, which is true but slightly misleading. But you know, she got it, and certainly didn’t kick up a fuss. Who else? I have not had any contact with Nancy Taylor or Roseanna Perry or even Brenda. Although Mandy, the daughter, has seen the movie and was at our premiere in Toronto and it was a very big thing for her, very emotional. Obviously Abra has been very involved with it and Barry Scheck. But you know, the negative characters, you know we haven’t, but it’s all based on fact. There’s no legal threat because it’s all true, it’s all public record. I had to be careful with that because I was worried.”
One of the key persons in the second half of the film, and perhaps the most key to getting Kenny released, is Barry Scheck, portrayed by Peter Gallagher. Scheck co-founded the Innocence Project, an organization dedicated to the utilization of DNA evidence as a means to exculpate individuals of crimes for which they were wrongfully convicted. Sheck has exonerated or defended such people as Louise Woodward, O. J. Simpson, Reade Seligmann, Dennis Fritz and Ron Williamson.
“Barry has really been a de facto producer for the entire time,” Goldwyn said of the lawyer. “He is the person who guided Betty Anne to us really. My partner Andy Karsch, who hired me to come aboard, he is a close friend of Barry’s and loved the story and he entrusted the project really with Andy. He told Betty Anne, he was her guide in that and I was persuing it. Andy and I met and liked each other, so we decided to team up on it. But, Barry’s really been the Godfather of the project the whole time.”
I asked Goldwyn what, as a Director and filmmaker, he learned from making Conviction. He paused for a moment before saying, “I learned a lot about faith. It took 9 years to bring this to the screen. And I learned from Betty Anne’s faith in Kenny, and I had this tremendous faith in her and her story. There’s a responsibility. When you just hang in there, and believe in something, it finds it’s moment. That was, in a way, the biggest lesson to me. There are lots of things I learned, of course, about our justice system, about the fact that there are many, many, many, people like Kenny languishing in prison for crimes they didn’t commit. And subsequently many people who are walking the streets who commit heinous crimes that they’re not being punished for. But, at the heart of it, faith is what I really came away from it with.”
Thank you to Ed Davidson from the MacGuffin Podcast for doing the transcribing on these interviews.