Tony Goldwyn knows what you think Conviction is-- a by-the-numbers story about a tough woman and her amazing story that could just as easily find a home on the Lifetime Channel. And it's true, the actual story of Betty Anne Waters fits that bill. She had never even graduated from high school when her older brother Kenny was convicted of a murder he didn't commit, but Betty Anne got her GED, put herself through college and law school, passed the bar and eventually managed to free him after 18 years in prison.
Goldwyn saw Waters interviewed on 20/20 and immediately sparked to her story, but not in the way you might expect. As he told me when we talked in Manhattan on Wednesday, he wanted to tell the kind of love story you rarely see onscreen, the one between a brother and a sister. Not only that, but he recognized what Betty Anne's amazing journey looked like from the outside, before anyone knew she would succeed-- she looked like a lunatic. Check out my conversation with Goldwyn below, in which we talk about the difference between sentimentality and emotion, how to find the right actors for what he was going for, and why everyone is glad to see Juliette Lewis, even for just a few minutes, in his movie. Conviction is out in theaters now.
A story this earnest and straightforward is hard to do, and hard to get people interested in, because it feels like it's been done before.
I had no interest in the earnest story of it. When I first heard the story I thought, "Yeah, sure, it's a great, triumphant story." But the thing that grabbed me about it was the complicatedness, the idea that a person spent 18 and half years of her life in an act of faith in a man who could have easily been guilty. Kenny was no boy scout. What is that obsession, what is that love, what is that faith and commitment in another human being. What if he were guilty, would that have invalidated her struggle? Would that have rendered her faith in vain? And the answer is no, and that is the expression of love between these people is what life is all about. I'm also perversely attracted to material that could be done badly, I don't know why.
Yeah, there's a real tightrope to walk in this movie, because it could be really awful done the wrong way.
Yeah, and I often find that a really interesting challenge, both as an actor and a director. But mainly it was this sibling love story that I wanted to tell. To make it at all saccharine or sentimental would be to violate what was truly movie about the story. Betty Anne does this extraordinary heroic thing, but when people do heroic things they seem insane. They're irrational, and often people have a problem with it.
But you also don't shy away from some of the true emotional moments of the story.
Yeah, but the definition of sentimentality is unearned emotion. You don't back away from emotion. Life is a very emotional experience. When you've earned it, then you can be in that moment. Nothing's wrong with honest emotion. It when, we don't want to show the darker side, or we what to keep it palatable, that drives me crazy.
Is that why you opened with the crime scene?
It's related, I suppose. This is a story about a guy who was convicted of a crime, and his sister believed he was innocent. But I don't want to forget the victim. For every wrongfully convicted person, there is a guilty person who committed an unspeakable act on another human being. Let's not forget that. And it set off a chain of events that affected so many peoples' lives, and we're going to focus on these two people. I wanted to shock the audience [in the beginning] I wanted it to be graphic and confronting in that way.
The first 40 minutes, too, are fairly non-linear, until she goes to law school, telling all the flashbacks from their childhood and from the time of the trial up until she enrolls in law school.
I wanted to not tell this story in a conventional linear fashion. Being that there's so much time that we're dealing with, I don't know how to do it if I did it in a straightforward, linear way. Pamela Gray and I came up with this concept of interweaving three different time periods. I never wanted to over-spoonfeed the audience, using hackneyed techniques of vastly different film stocks [for different time periods]. If it keeps the audience slightly off balance, I feel there's emotional continuity. I hoped if there's an emotional logic, the audience has to work to put that together. I feel audiences are not given enough credit for their intelligence.
Why did you specifically want to tell this story as a brother and sister love story?
When I was 6 or 7, I remember doing a morbid analysis of my life and thinking, "What could I live without? What if my parents died, what if this person died. What if I didn't have any money, what if I didn't have this or what." The one thing I thought I couldn't survive without is my brother. If he died, I though, I don't think I could make it. It was a scary moment. So I was always moved by that sibling connection. What are those bonds of love? Whatever that thing is that's forged in early life is a beautiful thing.
And it's interesting that it's not about brothers or sisters-- Hilary Swank and Sam Rockwell could easily play husband and wife in a movie. Seeing a male and female actor go together as siblings in love, and have that sibling relationship--
That's it. The male-female dynamic is wonderful, because it's a male-female love story but about a brother and sister, which is so different than sister-sister or brother-brother, or man-woman lovers. It has that male-female component, because they are partners. Believe me, I sat in a lot of rooms with people where they were ilk, "Yeah, it's great, but what makes this different?" I kept saying, "This is different. Believe me, this is unique." Then we got people who got it. Certainly the actors did, and my producing partners and ultimately Fox Searchlight. They saw the finished film, but they got it.
Did that make casting more difficult?
Casting is always difficult, because it's so critical. It was absolutely critical that every single person in this movie understand that, intuitively understand it. It was so funny auditioning actors for this. So few people understood really what I was after.
Juliette Lewis is really interesting to see in this, because it's a small part, but you're really glad to see her.
Juliette was the only person I offered to. I said, "I have a feeling Juliette Lewis will get this." I auditioned some people-- again, a lot of good actors doing bad auditions, chewing the scenery, not getting it. I remember going, "It's a small part, it's only three days of work, but please show this to her, it's a really good part. " She's come back into her career in a way of real passion and love. She wants to dig into the creative process again, and she loves being an actor, and she's amazing to work with and so committed. She's getting a lot of recognition. She's really into this, and she was from day one. I was amazed, the hours she spent in the makeup trailer. It's just an example of the hackneyed adage, there are no small parts, only small actors.