Conviction Interviews – Part 2: Tony Goldwyn
The new film Conviction is based on a true story. Hillary Swank plays Betty Anne Waters, a High School dropout whose brother Kenny (played by Sam Rockwell) was wrongfully arrested for murder in 1983. The film portrays Betty Anne’s struggle to free her brother, going so far as to put herself through Law School so she could become his defender. With help from her best friend Abra and Barry Scheck of the Innocence Project, they are able to uncover DNA evidence to help exonerate Kenny. The film also features Minnie Driver, Peter Gallagher, Melissa Leo, and Juliette Lewis in supporting roles.
Recently in Seattle on a press junket, Joseph Dilworth from popculturezoo.com and I were granted some interviews in support of the film . Following is our second interview with Tony Goldwyn. Known to most people as an actor (most famously as Patrick Swayze’s murderous best friend in Ghost), he directed Conviction and sat down to talk with us:
Ed: We were just saying, this is probably your 50,000th one of these today.
Tony: Yeah, no it’s good.
Joe: To start out with, for a film like this that’s based on a true story, as director what process do you go through to make sure that you accurately depict everything.
Tony: Well, um, the first thing that I did was, I spent a lot of time with Betty Anne and just listening. And recording our conversations. Pamela Gray, our screenwriter, who spent a few days, 12 hours a day just talking, getting to know the whole fabric of the story. And then Pamela went through and did sort of exhaustive research reading all the legal transcripts and everything, all the material. So then we knew what we were talking about. And then Pam and I had to sit down and make a movie of it. You know, and say “What is the movie, what is it about for us, how do we focus it, what story do we want to tell?” as if it was a work of fiction. So then, in constructing the film, we had to treat it like it wasn’t a true story. People are going to want to come see this movie as a movie, …otherwise we should make a documentary. So I was constantly weighing those two things. She would turn in a draft of the script, and I would look at it, and say “Okay, but am I being truthful and honest here? Are we being overly melodramatic? …Thankfully in this story, the real truth, um, you couldn’t make it up. So there was so much that happened in Betty Anne’s life, we could’ve made 5 movies. So it was really more about taking stuff out and stripping stuff away to keep the story focused on what we wanted it to be about, which was this relationship between this brother and sister.
Ed: Oh, that’s what I was going to say. That’s one of the things I appreciated most about the movie was, the fact that, there didn’t seem to be a lot of melodrama or “Oscar Moments”.
Ed: Because the story has enough drama in it, you don’t need to add a bunch of extraneous stuff.
Tony: Exactly. And I think that’s what’s so great about Hillary Swank’s performance. You know she’s just not chewing the scenery. And you know it’s not “This is my third OScar”. I hope it goes there, but, you know a lot of times you see an actress go “Oh, this is my ROLE!” …I think her performance is so restrained and so, in a certain way, deferential to Sam Rockwell who’s so incredible in it.
Ed: And also, it seemed like you were able to show, …compact some of that characterization into a scene. For instance, I’m thinking of that scene in the bar, where he ends up in a fight, and then ends up dancing with his baby. The fact that he’s able to… it shows the charm of the character, but still he’s dangerous. Um, when you’re making choices like that, how early on is that?
Tony: Well, to me, I loved that scene. That’s one of my favorite scenes in the movie as a director because it was an opportunity to tell the whole story in one scene. It was like “This is the guy.” And you get it. So I was talking to Sam about that when we were doing it, saying we get the whole character is in this scene. …The way things evolve is, they start out a little bit more in broad strokes. Initially Pam and I created that scene because we wanted to show the contrast in Kenny. So, he’s the really fun guy who has the flash temper and creates a violent situation, and then needs to make it better by making everyone laugh and being the clown. So that was always in the context of the scene. But then, as we worked on the script, I would go “Well, one of the things that will really gain our heart about Kenny is, he loves that baby.” …In the original version, I think that Brenda was pretty much just holding the baby, and Kenny was not that connected to the baby. He was like, dancing for the baby. But then I thought, it quite late actually, I thought of rewriting that myself. And having him pick up the baby and take the baby and dance with it.
Ed: And it’s a good compact way to show the connection for later on for the emotional payoff.
Tony: Totally, and it pays off for everything. In fact, there was a pass at the script we did, where we said, “This is the Mandy pass. We need to get that relationship gently salted throughout the entire story because it’s so important.” So it’s one of the really fun parts about developing something. I’m sure you find it writing as well. Where you have something that peeks it’s head out, it’s a theme, and you have to dig it out. It’s there. But you just have to dig it out. And that happens right through until you finally lock the movie. You can’t do any more changing, because in the editing room that happens a lot too.
Joe: As opposed to fiction films, did this film give you any extra consideration or pause considering it is a pretty big true story?
Tony: It’s a really interesting challenge and a privilege. And at the same time there’s a constraint to it. I felt a great responsibility. This was not inspired by true events. This is a true story. And yet you have to take certain poetic license. You have to. So I just knew that, if I stayed true to the spirit of Betty Anne and Kenny, then I could take license. If I was being honest and truthful, you know, emotionally honest, then I could compress events or time. If I wasn’t being manipulative. So it was a very interesting challenge. It was sort of like a double edged sword in that way. I really appreciated the challenge. But the key for me was to always treat it as if it was a work of fiction dramatically. That way if something came up that said “Yeah, but it was true. I have to put that in.” It would be like, yeah, but it doesn’t work. Who cares. You know what I mean? It’s not dramatically interesting, so (hatchet noise), get it out of there.