Director Tony Goldwyn sees a lot of himself in the real-life Betty Anne Waters, the woman portrayed by actress Hilary Swank in his film “Conviction,” who spends 18 years working toward a law degree in hopes of proving her brother Kenny (Sam Rockwell) has been wrongfully imprisoned for murder.
“If you have faith in something and believe in it hard enough it will manifest itself,” Goldwyn told me, relating the sentiment to his own 9-year struggle to find funding for the film. “There is power in passion.”
During our interview, Goldwyn, who is also an actor (best known for getting a chest full of jagged glass in 1990’s “Ghost”), talked about sidestepping sappiness and explained why he decided to exclude a heartbreaking truth of the story.
There are so many emotional aspects to this story. How do you feel you were able to avoid making a film like this become over-sentimental?
You know, the trick really is to keep balance – showing both the darkness and the light of something. There also needs to be some humor about it. You can’t let it get too earnest. Over-sentimentality comes when you lean too hard on the emotional moments and gloss over things. I was always trying to find the contrast with this story. For example, with Sam Rockwell’s character, we have to fall in love with him, but at the same time we have to believe that he’s a murderer. Betty Anne doesn’t always necessarily come off as a do-go crusader. She’s also a woman who, to some degree, is obsessed. There are dark aspects of that. With that contrast we avoid that kind of saccharine-type of treatment this story could have easily had
What did it mean to you to have Betty Anne Waters available during production?
It means everything. We spent hours and hours before we wrote the script hearing her stories and getting to know her. The material we were drawing from was authentic and had so much detail to it. There was no generalizing on anything. It was a real inspiration to everyone involved to have her there as a resource while we were shooting and to talk about the undercurrents and little nuances of what was going on.
Because this is a true story and because Betty was so involved in the process, did that put added pressure on you as a director to do the story justice?
Yes, I felt a lot of emotional responsibility to Betty to a) get it done and b) get it done right and be honest and truthful about it. As I said before, I wasn’t going to shy away from the dark aspects of the story and I was very honest with her about that. I didn’t want it to be a Pollyanna-version of Betty Anne Waters. She wanted that. I knew that being honest would be the most emotionally affecting story to show the relationship she had with her brother.
How much creative liberty did you actually take in the script and how do you justify making decisions that change the real-life narrative?
Well, I compressed time and combined events. Anytime I changed anything it was always in the spirit of the truth and enhancing the deeper truths of what this movie is about. Betty Anne would look at some of the scenes and say, “Well, that’s not exactly how it happened, but that’s exactly how it felt.”
The real-life family of the woman who was murdered in this story (Katharina Brow) has come forward to voice their disappointment that no one consulted them about the making of this film. It’s not mandatory for anyone to actually get permission from the family or even talk to them, but do you think someone should have anyway?
All I can say about the Brow family is that I have tremendous compassion for them. It was a terrible tragedy they suffered. But the film wasn’t about Mrs. Brow or that family, it was about Kenny and Betty Anne and their struggle. We see the aftermath of the heinous crime, but the family wasn’t really involved in the story, so there was really no reason to contact them. But as soon as they raised objection, we set up a screening for them immediately.
The real story of Kenny Waters is a bittersweet one because of what happens to him six months after he is released from prison. What is the reason you end the film with a strong sense of hope instead of including the tragic reality?
I tried really hard to put Kenny’s death in the film, but what I found was it made the movie about something else. The fact is, even in Kenny’s death the love that Kenny and Betty shared and the power of her faith in him was not diminished. But I couldn’t find a way to have that in the story. It was in the script for a number of years and people kept running up against it saying, “Oh my god, I was so moved and affected by the story but then there is this left turn and I couldn’t recover from it.” With some difficultly, I decided to take it out.
You’re credited for being an “actor’s director.” Other than the fact that you are an actor yourself what do you think gives you that distinction?
Being an actor you just have tremendous empathy for other actors. When I directed my first film I asked myself, “What would my dream director be like?” That’s what I tried to be. Part of it is being very collaborative because I know that whatever idea I have can only be made exponentially better by seeking out actors’ thoughts. I always want to make actors feel like they are free to explore and bring in whatever ideas they may have and create an environment where people can feel like they are contributing. As an actor I know what it’s like when a director sits on your head and tries to over-micromanage you. I don’t like to work that way.
A portion of this interview was first published in the San Antonio Current on Oct. 27, 2010.