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‘Conviction’ Filmmakers Find Art in Reality

By Alex C. Nunnelly, Crimson Staff Writer

In “Conviction,” director Tony Goldwyn and actor Sam Rockwell tell the incredible true story of Betty Anne Waters, who fought to free her brother, Kenny, after he was wrongfully accused of murder. But to create a streamlined narrative befitting a major release, some adherence to historical fact must be sacrificed. However, despite this artistic license, Goldwyn’s independent cinematic endeavors to hew close to reality.

“It’s a love story between brother and sister,” Rockwell states, “and we wanted to get as close to it as we could.”

Even Waters (portrayed in the film by Hilary Swank) feels that the film succeeds in capturing the essence of her story. “The movie is very accurate as far as feelings, how everything went,” Betty Anne says. “But the sequence was different, because it’s not a documentary.”

The film omits Kenny’s death a mere six months after being exonerated; Betty Anne’s nine siblings become two. “It was just my choice as a storyteller,” Goldwyn explains. “I had to do that. And there were many other extraordinary aspects of Betty Anne’s story that I either couldn’t include or cut out of the script because they robbed the story of its focus.”

Additionally, several elements of the plot are rearranged, such as the timing of Betty Anne’s depression, and the fact that it was originally Kenny Water’s idea for the exoneration plan.

“That was my choice,” Goldwyn states. “As a storyteller, it was very important that the character of Betty Anne be the driving force behind this… It was important, for dramatic purposes, to have our heroine. It just wouldn’t have worked as well.”

For Goldwyn, “Conviction” represents much more than another project on his resume. Goldwyn worked alongside Betty Anne for years in order to produce a film worthy of the Waters’ story. “It took me nine years to get it made. It was very difficult,” Goldwyn says. “Dramas in general are hard to get made.”

This proved true, as “Conviction” sat in development hell, without a producer, for years. After a long give-and-take process with Universal Studios, Goldwyn fought to take on the project himself.

“They just wouldn’t green light the movie,” Goldwyn says. “They had money, but they were nervous about it… Finally, they gave us the rights back in ‘turn-around’ [a deal involving the transfer of film rights from one studio to another] and we went and raised the money independently.”

As a result, Goldwyn was forced to cut production costs from an original $25 million budget to $12.5 million. Despite cost cuts, Goldwyn, Betty Anne, and the cast worked to produce the best film they could.

“Just like Hilary [Swank] does, I have high standards. There’s always a way to make it better,” Rockwell says. “You think you’ve reached a plateau, but you sort of bust through to the next plateau… I always believe that there’s another level you can get to.”

Indeed, Rockwell’s high standards even satisfied Betty Anne. “He really nailed it,” Betty Anne says.

For Rockwell, the part of Kenny was also an opportunity to experiment with a truly multi-dimensional character. “It’s an incredible story, and it’s a great part for an actor,” Rockwell describes. “It’s a very classical part, like Mercutio from ‘Romeo and Juliet’ or Johnny Boy in ‘Mean Streets.’ He’s a charming, dangerous, complicated guy… The thing that was important to me was to have this kind of very concrete gravitas that only comes from somebody who’s been through something like that.”

Rockwell and Swank worked hand-in-hand to produce believable characters that stayed true to Betty Anne and Kenny. Their believable chemistry as brother and sister is a key aspect of the film. “It’s war when I’m ready to do a role,” Rockwell explains. “We both go with this sort of no-rock-unturned kind of approach to our preparation. [Swank] is a force of nature. It was kind of like two pretty good boxers, or two great tennis players batting it. I felt we were both on our A-game.”

With such players on her team, the production of “Conviction” became a very emotional and fulfilling experience for Betty Anne. And Waters did not just sit on the sideline; this was her story, and she helped to tell it. Goldwyn explains, “Betty Anne was on set the large percentage of the time. We leaned on her heavily, and she was very involved.”

“I felt like it was two years of therapy,” Betty Anne says. “It was very emotional.”

Perhaps more importantly, Betty Anne believes her brother would be proud of the film. “Kenny would be so excited right now,” Waters states. “Kenny would be king. He would be thrilled. He would have loved this movie.”

—Staff writer Alex C. Nunnelly can be reached at alexandernunnelly@college.harvard.edu.

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