Oscar nominee Juliette Lewis (Cape Fear) plays a small but pivotal role in Conviction, and has nothing but praise for what Goldwyn brought to the film as a director. "What was so beautiful about him is he wanted to play," explained Lewis in our exclusive interview. "He was great in every way. I was also excited by him visually because it's a visually very intimate story. It's not sterile. It lets you into the heart of the characters."
Exclusive Tony Goldwyn InterviewHow did you figure out a way to whittle Betty Anne Waters' story down into a two-hour film? How did you decide what part of her story to focus on?
Tony Goldwyn: "Well you know we first spent a lot of time with Betty Anne and just heard everything and literally, as you said, we felt, 'God, we could make five movies out of it.' So we really had to decide what the movie was about. I had to ask myself what the movie was about for me. And it is a love story between a brother and a sister, and at the bottom that's what it's always been for me. It's an exploration of what these two people shared in each other, and so that was always the guiding theme for me. That said, a lot of things fell by the wayside in what we chose to put in and not put in. We came up with kind of an efficient way to deal with the timespan by having these three different time periods that we kind of interwove. That enabled us to cut out lots of chunks of time that didn't serve our purposes. But really it kept coming down to that."
"There would be some incredible story that Betty Anne would tell us and then Pam [Gray] would write a great scene and I'd say, 'You know, but it's not what the movie's about. It's not contributing to the through-line of the film.' Even after we shot, you know I didn't cut out a lot of stuff but there were scenes that I did cut out or condensed or compressed because they just weren't part of the through-line. You have to be very disciplined about that. You pick your theme and then have to be faithful to that."
That said, was there an area you would have liked to have been able to explore a little bit more?
Tony Goldwyn: "Well, no, not necessarily. The one thing I tried really hard to put into the movie, it just did not work, was I don't know if you know it or not but Kenny died six months after he was released from prison. And I wanted to put that in the movie for a very long time and it was in the script, but I couldn't make it work exactly. A perfect example - it made the movie about something else. It made the movie a story about the futility of life. It was so tragic, I didn't want it to be like that. In trying to dramatize Kenny's death I wanted it to be yet another example of how the power of love transcends even the worst of what life throws at you. That, despite the fact that Kenny died, Betty Anne's love for him and his love for her transcended that. That is true in life, but when I had it in the film it didn't work. Everyone I gave it to got completely derailed by it. It was a very painful decision of mine. I had to say, 'You know what? It's making the movie about something that is not what it's about,' and so I took it out and suddenly the movie worked a lot better. But, that's an example of something that really affected me so emotionally that I wanted to try and bring it in the story, but it was not working."
It would have completely changed the tone of the movie.
Tony Goldwyn: "Exactly. I mean really then what it would have been about would have been a woman who, no matter what she did, she could not actually save her brother and the futility of that. That is not the movie I was trying to make, and it would not be honoring the truth. That's not the truth about Betty Anne."
With Betty Anne so involved, did that add a lot of extra weight on your shoulders knowing you were telling this woman's story and you absolutely had to get it right? How much pressure did you feel over the years as you were working on this?
Tony Goldwyn: "I felt a lot of pressure. Believe me, over the years I felt a lot of pressure on this movie. I felt a tremendous responsibility to her. She had entrusted me with telling her story. It took a long time, but she trusted me. I told her that we were going to do it and I never lost faith. I knew that the story would work and I knew how I wanted to tell it, and I just knew that movies like this need to find their moment - and it did."
It took you a long time to get this into production.
Tony Goldwyn: "Yeah, it took eight years to get it in front of the camera."
You never gave up hope?
Tony Goldwyn: "No, I didn't. Honestly, I never did. There were moments of tremendous frustration and anguish. No, I just knew that we were going to get it done. It was funny. It was like a small, tiny microcosm of what Betty Anne felt about Kenny. She knew her brother was innocent no matter what anybody else said. And I had faith in the story and I knew that this would work as a film. I did feel a tremendous emotional obligation to her."
Do you think that releasing it in 2010 is actually a good thing in the long run because of the state of the world right now?
Tony Goldwyn: "Yes, I think it's a better thing. I mean I'm grateful that we didn't make it five years ago, because it was almost off the ground five years ago. We had it greenlit at the studio and it was all set to go, and then forces conspired and it collapsed. But I'm very glad that it's now, for a number of reasons. I think this is a story people are hungry for right now. We are living in a very uncertain time in our world right now and people are, you know, having a bit of crisis in faith in our system and what we can actually hold onto in life and what we can believe in. And this movie's about belief in family and in the human connection of people who are close to us. And when you really commit to those people, that's what life's all about. That's a theme that people are really responding to, I think. It's more necessary now than perhaps it was five years ago."
"And in terms of the whole notion of wrongful conviction, there's a real wave that's happening. The Innocence Project has made tremendous strides in recent years. I feel like hopefully this movie, if it gets out there, will raise people's consciousness about that and alter people's thinking that just because someone's in prison doesn't mean they belong there. When you put the wrong person in prison, the person who actually committed the heinous crime is free to do so again."
How much input did you get from The Innocence Project when you were working on this?
Tony Goldwyn: "A lot. They made themselves completely available to us. Barry Scheck was almost a de-facto producer on the film. I really ran everything by him, including my casting choices. A) because he's very bright and B) just out of respect for him. I wanted him to know what we were doing. He didn't insist on anything, but I just wanted to keep him apprised of everything. He was just - the whole group - was just a tremendous resource for us."
When Betty Anne watched the film for the first time what was her reaction? Do you remember?
Tony Goldwyn: "Oh, it was extraordinary. I screened the movie for her and Abra [Rice], and the three of us sat alone in the screening room. From about the first 10 seconds of the movie she started crying and didn't stop until the end. It was a very surreal experience for both of them. They couldn't really see it as a movie. I think their reaction was they were very happy because they thought it was emotionally honest, and they could tell that the performances were great. She said she felt that it was her life up there on the screen and, most importantly, that Sam [Rockwell] had really embodied Kenny in a very honest and loving way. But she had to see it three times before she could kind of take it in as a film."
Can you tell me about casting Hilary Swank to play Betty Anne?
Tony Goldwyn: "You know, casting is everything. When I saw Million Dollar Baby I had already been working on the movie for about four years. And I saw Million Dollar Baby and realized she was the only actress to play this part. She had everything that I needed in Betty Anne, and she's so like Betty Anne in her inner spirit. I sent her the script and at first she wanted to wait a year because she'd been playing two or three real life characters in a row and wasn't sure she wanted to do it again. I called her a year later, because I was making another film, and we met. She said, 'I realized I was put on this earth to play certain kinds of people and this is one of them.' So, she was a lynchpin for me."
After going through this lengthy, nearly a decade-long process in getting the film to the screen, would you do it all over again?
Tony Goldwyn: "Yes, I would. I would because it's a very rare thing as a creative artist to have the privilege of working on a project that's so from your heart and is all about something so important. And the fact that what ended up on the screen is what I had in my heart, that's success. So, I would. Some things are easier than others and if you shy away from the hard ones, then you're not going to do very interesting work."
How are you dealing with the awards buzz around it?
Tony Goldwyn: "I don't pay much attention to it. I'm grateful for it. I'm grateful because I really feel, particularly with the acting, that they really deserve acknowledgment. You know, I'm thrilled for Sam Rockwell because I think he's been so under-appreciated in the past and everyone's wanted to acknowledge him, and this is a role where he really just shines in such an extraordinary way."
"Look, I hope it continues. Of course it's exciting, but we're taking one step at a time. Mainly I really hope that the audiences find this movie, because I see how people react when they see it. I want to get Betty Anne's story out there because I think it's an important one. So many people come out of this film and they say to me, 'The first thing I did was I called my brother,' or, 'I called my sister.' You know, when I hear that I know it's working. That's what's important to me."
Was there a time in the script process where you were going to show a little bit more, focus a little bit more on the murder itself?
Tony Goldwyn: "No. Never. I wanted to show the murder at the beginning because the reason I had that as the opening scene is because for every person that's in prison where there's a brutal, heinous act committed by one person onto another, I didn't want to forget that. Yes, this is the story about somebody who suffered terribly in prison, but it also was kicked off by something terrible and inhuman happening to a woman. I didn't want to forget that. It's like this is the rock that is thrown into the pool and it created a ripple effect, an effect that then destroyed so many people's lives. So that's why I did that, but I didn't want to dwell on it. This isn't CSI and it isn't a crime drama; it's a family story."