Conviction, the story of a man falsely accused of murder and the sister that puts herself through law school to defend him, is one of those fall films that will inevitably be labeled as “Oscar bait.” That’s as unfair as it is with most cases.
This isn’t the overwrought drama that it may seem or the one that those hilarious parody trailers poke fun at. In fact, it’s fairly subdued and strays away from sugarcoating. Betty Anne Waters isn’t portrayed as a total hero, but instead, almost obsessive and delusional. Kenny Waters isn’t shown as a boy scout and you could buy him actually killing someone in the film. They’re shown as good people, but not without their not-so-appealing flaws.
This could’ve been a Hallmark film through and through, but thankfully, most of it isn’t played with the subtlety of a jackhammer. It’s not heavy and it’s not schmaltzy. It’s always a surprise to see small (female driven, especially) dramas like this get made, and from what director Tony Goldwyn says about the hardship of getting financing, it’s a shock this even made it to the screen.
Here’s what Goldwyn and star Sam Rockwell had to say about the long process of getting the film made, avoiding melodrama, and keeping things raw:
When you make a film like this you obviously don’t want to make a documentary, but how important was it for you to stick to what Kenny was like in real life and his persona?
Rockwell: Well, I didn’t meet the real Kenny, but I heard his voice on tapes from him talking to his lawyer, I heard a lot of stories from Betty Anne and her relatives, and talked to a lot of people about him. I was able to get enough of him to go with it, but I wasn’t too worried about imitating him. I mean, I look so different from the real guy.
Is it easier or comfortable not going for an impersonation or trying to be exactly like him?
Rockwell: You don’t want to get stuck in doing an imitation, but it’s fun to have something to cling to a little bit.
Was this process any different from Confessions of a Dangerous Mind or Frost/Nixon?
Rockwell: It was different. With Frost/Nixon and Confessions, I really hung out with the real people – with Chuck Barris and James Reston, Jr. It was actually here in DC, me hanging out with Jim Reston. It’s different when you’re not with the real person; you have a little more freedom to do your own thing. You want to capture them as much as you can. Either way it’s good, it’s just different.
Would you say you got to have freer reign with Confessions of a Dangerous Mind since it’s a very heightened movie?
Rockwell: Yeah, although Chuck Barris was around a lot. I did imitate Chuck and some people remember The Gong Show, which was kind of an amazing show. They don’t really have anything like that anymore. He was the creator of reality TV…
Being a female-driven drama, how difficult was it for you to get financing?
Goldwyn: How did you know that (laughs)? It was fucking hard, man. This was originally a financed film at Universal, so they financed the development of it and they just wouldn’t commit. They said they liked it, but we just couldn’t get them to greenlight it. I asked them to give it back to us in turnaround and a producer, Andrew Sugerman, came on board and loved the project. He loved the project and said he’d help raise the money. I had never gone for independent financing, so I didn’t know anything about it nor did my other partner, Andrew Karsch. We said knock yourself out, dude (laughs). Andrew just went out and beat the bushes, which took 18 months.
We’d find one group after another, we had no shortage of people wanting to do it, but finding someone that actually has the money they say they have… you can’t believe how many liars and thieves there are in the world of independent financing. We ran into a couple of things. Number one, we ran into someone who said they have a fund and they love it and sometimes it would go all the way down to legal work and contracts, but when it came time to show the money they would suddenly evaporate. Another thing, as soon as we’d be involved with a bona fide financing crew, they would want to renegotiate the deal at the last second. We’d come to terms and then they’d say, “We’re not going to give you x-million, we’re going to give you y-million,” or that they’d want this or that.
Finally, Andrew found this grew called Omega and one of our executive producers, Markus Barmettler, had this group of investors. Markus is this Swiss attorney who had put together this group of investors who put together the seed money, which is the “x” amount of money to fund pre-production. He organized the bank financing to put in the bulk of the budget, which was three or four different banks.
It was very tough, because at the time this all happened the financial markets had collapsed. That led to people reducing their commitments, dropping out, and finding replacements. Everything got delayed and it was extremely difficult, two weeks before we started shooting it looked like everything was going down the drain. Somehow, we kept hammering away.
Rockwell: What would you say to an actor, not me, but someone close to me who’s a good actor and wants to direct? What do you think it takes?
Goldwyn: Get the script right, man. It was the same with this. First of all, you cant get financing if you don’t have a financeable talent attached. The only way to attract actors is to have a great script. I think the mistake first time filmmakers make so often is that they’re in love with a piece of material and there are things about it that are great; they’re in love with a great character, really great writing, or just something that they love.
But I’ve seen it too many times, and I’m sure you have too, but when I’ve acted there’s been times where it was a great part and great people to work with, but it doesn’t really work. The script isn’t ready and they try so hard and talk somebody into putting up the money. You get one shot as a director and it better be your best shot, that is my advice. It’s like when they say, “We got a great part for Sam Rockwell and we got him. We’re going to finance this movie,” but the script is not there.
When it came to the script, was your collaboration with Pamela Gray any different than it was on A Walk on the Moon?
Goldwyn: It was different that, on A Walk on the Moon, Pamela had written script as her thesis in film school. When I got involved with that I thought the script was brilliant, but it needed a lot of work. It was great, but it was a student project. We spent 2 years rewriting her script to get to what the movie was. In many ways, it was similar because we did the same thing on this, but here we started from scratch with a compelling news story to then meeting Betty Anne. You could have made 5 movies from Betty Anne’s life, so it was a very hard film to structure and to figure out how to tell it. It was different in that way, but we had a very close and creative shorthand. Pam and I know how to communicate with each other.
We talked a lot and we came up with an outline, but Pam went off and wrote her own draft. I don’t particularly like reading pages, I’ll write her notes about what I want, but I’ll usually just say, “Just go ahead and finish.” They sent me the first act where I realized we were on the right track, but when the script’s done you go way back to the beginning and start working through it.
Sam, what’s it like for you coming onto a film like Conviction where there is a solid script in hand versus something like Iron Man 2 where there’s constant rewriting?
Rockwell: We did have Justin Theroux for Iron Man 2, who wrote a really great script, but we did tweak it a lot (laughs). There was a solid script there, but we did keep tweaking it. Yeah, it’s different. This felt like we were doing a Sam Shepard play, it felt intimate. Tony, Hilary, and I with the prison scenes felt like this safe little bubble. Iron Man was great too, but in a different way. There’s obviously more waiting around on a big movie, but this was an intense process. We were in the shit everyday, so to speak.
I mean, is there comfort having a script that’s really going to be stuck to whereas with Iron Man 2 there was constant rewriting and you having to memorize whole new speeches before a scene?
Rockwell: Oh, absolutely. We wrote a speech at lunch and I had to use an earwig, and I had to do that on Moon. It was for a different reason on Moon, but I had experience with it. Downey was using it a lot and I only used it for particular speeches when they changed it on the day. Like, there’s that scene with all the weapons, which was very technical. They added new weapons on the day, so I had no choice. It was either that or cue cards.