Interview: Tony Goldwyn and Sam Rockwell Go Subdued with ‘Conviction’

By  · Published on October 22nd, 2010

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.

And how was it acting in those prison scenes? It feels like a stage play.

Rockwell: That’s right. They are like a stage play and it did feel like a play, they were very intense. A lot of them were mid-conversations and we had to come in with the weight of the scene. Tony, Hilary, and I would talk about it and be very much in sync about what we wanted in those scenes. Coming in with what preceded that scene was very important.

The film really does avoid sugarcoating both Kenny and Betty Anne, can you talk about avoiding what most bio films do?

Goldwyn: Yeah, that’s the real trap in a story like this to sugarcoat or to get sentimental. I really wanted it to be honest and I was pretty honest with Betty Anne right from the beginning that I wanted, you know… Kenny was no boy scout. I wanted to be honest about all the sides of Kenny, because I found it interesting that he had all this darkness and light all at the same time. I wanted to go even further and cast serious doubt about his innocence in the experience of the story. Mainly, I just wanted to be honest about who he was. I felt that for this movie to have real emotional impact you’d have to take the sugarcoating off of it and to show the flaws.

With Betty Anne, I wanted to show that maybe she was obsessive and almost a little nuts, but no, she was really coming from a place of heart and love. I hate storytelling like that where someone has an agenda of showing how great someone is or making someone less than human. The most compelling drama is when you show someone’s humanity. Kenny was a very compassionate and devoted man, but at the same time, he was depressed, angry, and violent. He had impulse and control issues, he was a human being and that made me love him move.

And when it came to Kenny, did you at all worry about making him likable and not sugarcoating? In particular, the bar scene doesn’t shy away from his violent impulses and also his nicer side.

Rockwell: The bar scene was really fun. It was one of the first scenes we did, was it the first scene we did?

Goldwyn: It might have been your first scene.

Rockwell: It was really cool because it was a great setup for the character.

Goldwyn: That bar scene is a perfect example. In the script that scene was only a page and a half long, but to me, it told the audience exactly who Kenny is. You get the whole guy in one scene with the contrast. You get a guy in the beginning that is in love with this baby and obsessed with this kid.

Rockwell: I had to refer to him about how to hold this baby.

Goldwyn: (laughs) Sam doesn’t have kids.

Rockwell: I held babies in Joshua, but they were smaller. This was a bigger kid and I had to dance with it. I asked him, because he’s a dad, how to you hold him? Tony helped me with that.

Goldwyn: But the fact that you see this guy who’s in love with this child and loves his girlfriend, you see a real relationship there and his love towards his sister, but then in a heartbeat he’s got this guy on the ground with a bottle to his face. A minute later, he’s clowning around being an asshole, but you kind of love him. There were the extremes of Kenny, and that was the fun of it. If you didn’t have both then Kenny would be unlikable in the wrong way, and that’s where you don’t care about him. It was a really interesting contrast.

Rockwell: Tony has a really good bullshit meter, so we didn’t want to turn that dancing scene into, “Hey now! It’s a dance sequence!” In fact, I did do some pretty tricky dance moves, which I’m glad he cutout. I did the splits and it became too much, actually the splits was in the script (laughs). I’m a pretty good dancer, but it was too good and it was important not make it Dirty Dancing. It was for a purpose to entertain and to get his girlfriend and sister to forgive him for being a dick. We just wanted to keep it real.

A film like this is very tricky in that you could very easily tip over into being melodramatic. Could you talk about finding the right tone from the script process to shooting to editing?

Goldwyn: I guess it’s avoiding gushing things up or over empathizing things up. You want to be simple and real. To go to the end of the process, music was a big thing for me in this movie. I wanted it to be simple, but I found when we finished the movie a year ago and when Fox Searchlight bought it they said, “Well, is there anything you’d like to do to make it better?” We ended up doing a screening of inviting 25 really smart people and the note I kept getting said, “The movie is very powerful, but you’re not trusting Sam and Hilary enough,” and I asked what they meant and they responded, “A lot of the points you’re laying music empathizing on emotional moments.” There was also some editorial moments where I wanted to make sure the audience was getting what a big moment something was, but it was such a lesson.

Editorially, I just tightened up a few things, but I took out a bunch of music. I had our composer rewrite a couple of cues to make them more restrained. I could give you many examples, but the one where Sam freaks out with the guards is the one we get the closest to melodrama because it’s big, but I had this bombastic music there. There’s still music there, but I pulled a lot of the instrumentation out.

Also, at the very end of the movie I had this very swelling strings section saying it’s the end of the movie and I wanted to make sure the audience felt emotionally satisfied, but it was working against me. It’s a good question, because it was a constant challenge. We kept saying, “Just throw that out, just trust it,” and when you trust the reality and the actors you don’t need to lean on melodrama. Melodrama, for an intelligent person, can become, “Don’t tell me how to feel,” because that’s what melodrama does and it makes an audience stop feeling it.

With Kenny being this sort of larger than life figure with this unique persona, can you talk about trying to keep him grounded?

Rockwell: I was trying to find the simplest way of conveying what the moment was. Like you said, avoiding melodrama. I think Tony and I didn’t want to play it like a victim. Tony, Hilary, and I were always on the same page about how the characters were trying to help each other and not go for self-pity. That was important to make those scenes work.

Goldwyn: Sam was always very specific about what he’s doing. With the scenes with where he’s out of control, he’s after something specific. Here’s a perfect example of how Sam would work: the scene were he’s freaking out in his [jail] cell it looks like he’s losing his mind and barking at authority, but that wasn’t enough for Sam. He said he needed a reason and that he felt it was too theatrical, so he came up with the idea of them not letting him make a phone call as his justification. They told him he couldn’t make his one phone call and there’s the line in the movie about it, but being specific about what the motivation was isn’t melodramatic. Melodrama is when you’re creating a general emotional impression that’s not lifelike, because it’s vague and it’s serving up generalized moments. Basically, it’s moments of characters sad and it’s trying to tell you need to cry now. That’s one of the reasons why Sam is such a good actor; he couldn’t do it, unless it was rooted in something very specific.

What was the idea behind not vilifying Brenda and Roseanna and being almost sympathetic to them?

Goldwyn: Whoa, that’s interesting to say…

Rockwell: Oh, yeah?

You don’t think you were sympathetic to them?

Goldwyn: Well, they did what they did. But again, it’s all about making them human beings. Everyone has reasons for what they do and we may really loathe their choices, but the facts were Nancy Taylor did threaten them and say they could lose their kids and they could go to jail. They’re both rather pathetic individuals, but you feel kind of sad [for them]. I just hate easy villains. With Nancy Taylor, I even took it easier on her because she was actually much darker in person. I didn’t want easy scapegoats, because life is gray and you’re never quite sure. To write someone off as just being a bad person, it’s not usually like that.

Conviction is now in theaters.

Related Topics:

Longtime FSR contributor Jack Giroux likes movies. He thinks they're swell.