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TSR Exclusive: 'Conviction' interview with director Tony Goldwyn

Life gave Betty Anne Waters some unique directions of her own. The mother of two worked her way to law school in hope of exonerating her convicted brother, in a story that is now being told by director Tony Goldwyn and a cast that includes Hilary Swank, Sam Rockwell, Minnie Driver, Juliette Lewis, and Melissa Leo.

Goldwyn discussed with me in a roundtable interview the making of the film, why he wanted to take on this story, and more. Conviction opens this Friday in limited release. I think it’s so interesting the way the movie was told. You were very focused on the emotions in the story and on the relationships between people, [even though] this could be some kind of story about the legal process through and through. Talk a little bit about that.

Well when I first heard the story many years ago, I’ve been working on this for nine years, it was when Kenny was released and my wife saw a piece on 60 Minutes about it. She said, “Oh, this would make a great movie,” and I thought, “Yeah, sure.” Another Erin Brockovich type story, what a great story, but what actually grabbed me, what fascinated me, was the relationship between the brother and sister, and I thought, “This woman spent eighteen years of her life committed to something that she could have easily, easily have been wrong.” And I thought if she was wrong, would that invalidate what she did? For me the answer was a big no that her faith in her brother and that love for another person, and obviously the mutual connection there, was the thing that itself in what life is about, what we all kind of craves in our lives. So that’s what drew me to the story and what I wanted to explore. The fact that it was in this fabulous and socially relevant structure, story, plot was a bonus. But the thing that connected me to it was that. Ultimately it’s a story about love more than it’s a story about the criminal justice system, a court room drama, or a woman trying to figure out the system. It’s really a love story between a brother and a sister.

What challenged you especially with telling a true story like this? Obviously one that had a lot of different perspectives. What challenges did you have making that into a drama that would be entertaining?

Well there’s a couple things. I found in telling a true story you’re faced with. The first thing is it has stand on its own as a drama, it might as well not be true, otherwise you should make a documentary. So I had to be really sure that this thing stood on its own as a piece of storytelling that was worth putting up on a big screen. So once I decided that it was, or at least I thought it was (laughs), then I thought it worked as a piece of drama then I really felt that I had a responsibility to Betty Anne to be true to the spirit of the story and to the feeling of it and what it’s about. You had to compress time, restructure things. Obviously we created scenes that didn’t happen but the through line of the facts are true. So it’s a delicate balance that you walk; if you stay too far from the facts then you get into the thing that “inspired like a true story” or whatever.

And then frankly I felt there was enough great true stuff in the true story of Betty Anne that I didn’t need to make anything up, but of course eighteen years is such a long period of time. But the biggest challenge was for Pamela Gray and I to structure this in a way that had real narrative drive to it, something that’s not just over eighteen years but including the childhood and all that. That was a lot of fabric to try to distill in the movie, and when you distill it you have to make sure you’re not just skimming over things, that it actually lands emotionally and that you get it—so that was a real challenge. It took a lot of drafts of the screenplay, even in the editing room, a lot of exploration of how to make that work.

There were a lot of great performances bringing these people to life in the film. I was wondering how do you as a director stay true to these performances with both editing and cinematography? Do you have a certain style of how to shoot them or a way of capturing it visually?

Well, everything stems from the actor really. You know I spend a lot of time talking to the actors before I shoot so we’re very clear on what we’re trying to achieve and what it’s about. Then when we’re shooting I try to create an environment where an actor feels very, very free to explore a scene and so the trick is to edit and I shoot a lot of film. I often will have two cameras going and I will not cut between takes, so I just get the actors on a role and we just do it. Particularly something like Sam’s performance, in the prison in some of these scenes it was almost needed to be very improvisational. You wanted it to feel very real, organic and not “performy” or written because I wanted the whole film to feel very real. I didn’t want fancy camera work and the whole movie was pretty much handheld. Just simple, but what happened with Sam for example we would get going in 20 different directions to explore something and then in the editing room, Sam and I had talked about what we wanted to achieve, so when we’d be shooting I’d go, “I just know we got it.” That was after like 30 takes (laughs) but I knew it was in there. I have to listen to that feeling in myself and in the actor as well. Then in the cutting room then you distill it down, and find those bits and shape a scene once again in the cutting room.

Yes, time was always a challenge but one of the great things about having such accomplished actors is they work fast. When you’re making a movie of this nature you have to hire people who like to work that way. You know there’s some actors who work great but just say, “I can’t work under this pressure!” and they need to go into their trailer or do whatever, they’re just not accustomed to it. This kind of work everyone has to be, it’s a very exciting way to work and everyone has to be on their toes all the time like, “Let’s go, let’s go!” and when you do that you have actually plenty of time to shoot because everyone’s ready to go all the time and you’re not sitting around wasting time waiting. So…gosh I’m trying to think…what I always try to do is whatever challenges logistically that you’re faced with try and make them a plus. Like for example, Hilary and Sam had all these scenes in the prison. These very intense scenes of them in this visiting room. Cinematically that’s a tough challenge but there’s two people sitting, talking for like six or seven scenes and everyone was like, “How are you going to make that interesting?” and I thought, “Well, their relationship is very powerful. I have two world-class actors, you know a great story, just trust that.” So my cinematographer and I decided to keep it simple and one of the ways we dealt with the time factor was most of those scenes I shot with two cameras going at the same time. Normally, as you may know, you’ll do one side then you’ll re-light and then do the other side. I knew that would take me an inordinate amount of time that I was not spending on performance and it would be harder for Hilary and Sam because whatever they’ve got going on one side then they have to go, “Ok, what did Sam do? I have to know” and remember what that was. We all wanted it to feel very immediate and organic and emotionally fresh. So we sacrificed some lighting. The DP had to really work hard to make sure, especially Hilary, because women are, you know, are a little more work to light, looked as beautiful as we wanted her to look with the lights going in both directions. That was hard and limited our ability to move the camera because if you have two cameras shooting shoot like this (demonstrates) you know you move a little bit and see the other camera.

So we committed to that idea and a lot of those scenes are very simple. They’re just on them and we trusted that but what it enabled us to do is to just keep rolling. Hilary and Sam knew that everything on film was usable. So anything that happened for her, when it was his close-up it was also her close-up. So that gave them a sense of real excitement and immediacy. So it was like a net gain, so you try and turn your limitations into a positive if that makes sense.

You began your career as an actor. Would you call yourself an actor’s director, the way we look at women in this film. You have a particular way of handling women in this film, the working class women could have easily been very blunt but not so. Any thoughts on that?

Well, I guess I’m often drawn to stories about women. I don’t know how to answer the woman thing because as an actor I have a way of dealing with actors that is common to both men and women and children too. As an actor/director you have a tremendous amount of empathy for the actor and the actor becomes the priority. What often happens in movie sets is there’s so much time pressure that that pressure can leak into a set and a director is often very concerned about the shot. As an actor I don’t want to know about that, that’s not my problem. When the camera’s rolling it’s my time to feel relaxed. And a lot of directors don’t appreciate that, even brilliant directors, so then as an actor you’re like, “Okay, I’ve just got to shut that out.” So when you have an actor/director who can create that space for you, you feel very free. So it’s very helpful. The other question you asked about people being broad, being an actor myself and I think any good director is like that, you really pay attention to detail and specificity so that any time an actor’s making a general choice or overplaying an accent or a characteristic it’s because they’re just not being specific about who that person is and what they’re doing. A good actor needs sometimes to be reminded you don’t need to do that. Just do what you’re doing, so a lot of times if someone is getting that way it’s helpful to have an actor go, “You don’t need to do that.” I’m very sensitized to that. That’s what I’m really trying to do, particularly if it’s a period piece or there’s a dialect. A lot of actors want to do that so you’re always going, “Just trust yourself.”

What were some of the strengths of the film? We talked to Betty Anne about this too, how she had this unshakable believe that he was innocent. In the film, I think the way Sam Rockwell plays him there are certain points where we’re not quite sure.

Yeah that was very important to me. I didn’t think the movie would work, or it certainly wouldn’t as well as I wanted it to. I remember the very first draft we did it was just so clear this is a travesty of justice, and Kenny was a victim and Betty-Anne was a saint, and it was like (snoring sound), “Ugh, boring!” Like something you see in a movie of the week. We really worked hard without over laboring it so it’s manipulative to sow in this doubt for several reasons. Number one I think it makes it more dramatically interesting so you’re like, “Whoa! Wait! I know where this is going…but where’s it going?” More importantly, it was very important to me to show that Betty-Anne might be out of her mind. People who do extraordinary things, heroic things, generally seem insane when they’re doing it. Because they’re out liars, they’re not we would do. Anybody who’s rational would not have done what she did, someone who was trying to hold her marriage together, was trying to be as good a mom she wanted to be, was trying to earn a living, the whole system was saying he was guilty. As upset as she must have bee, for her to do what she did was slightly insane. And I want the audience to at times think, “Maybe she’s just obsessed. He husband…I kind of see what he’s saying.” Maybe he doesn’t get her, but it was very important for me to show the other side so when she’s triumphant because A) it’s somewhat more of a surprise but more I feel, “Oh my god. I wasn’t sure.” Whereas when you’re sure the whole time it’s a different kind of a ride.

Isn’t there a moment in the film where she looks in his eyes where they’re talking and she also questions him just for a second?

If you ask Betty Anne or Hilary they would say no, but that’s up to the audience really. For me at that moment I don’t think it goes as far her questioning herself but it’s more like, “Am I going to question myself?” (laughs). It’s more of when he says, “The DNA test is going to test positive.” She’s so shocked by what he’s saying because he’s saying I’m guilty. He happens to be in a paranoid state of mind so in fact he’s not, but it sure sounds like he’s saying that. And she’s like, “Am I going to hear that? No, I’m not going to hear that. I’m going to kill you if you don’t do this!” So I think you’re quite right but I think she doesn’t even go there she’s like, “I’m not hearing that!” In my mind, it’s up to each viewer, but I don’t think she has a moment of exact doubt. It’s more of, “Am I going to let that thought it? She doesn’t even allow it to drop in, she just immediately goes into battle mode.

TSR Exclusive: 'Conviction' interview with Betty Anne Waters

TSR Exclusive: 'Conviction' interview with Juliette Lewis