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One Day at a Time
by M. Faust
The real Betty Anne Waters talks about her Conviction to free her brother from jail
Note: this is a longer version of the feature that appeared in the print version of Artvoice. It may contain some spoilers.
In 1980, in a small town in rural Massachusetts, a woman was murdered in her trailer home, stabbed multiple times and robbed of $1,800 dollars. The local police questioned Kenny Waters, who was not only something of a local hellraiser but who also had a little bad history with the dead woman. Two years later the confessions of two ex-girlfriends, both of whom claimed he admitted to the crime, led to his conviction for murder despite no hard evidence. He was sentenced to life in prison with no possibility of parole.
His younger sister Betty Anne never asked her brother if he was guilty. The only question she asked was to herself, and that was, what can I do? Most people in her situation—a high school drop-out and single mother raising two sons on a waitress’s salary—wouldn’t see many options. But when Betty Anne pressed the local legal system to the limit and found its intricacies impossible to grasp, she took what seemed the only possible step: she set out to get a law degree so that she could fight the system with its own tools. It took her 18 years but she succeeded.
“You wouldn’t believe this if it were a movie,” says screenwriter Pamela Gray, who adapted Betty Anne Waters’ story for the film Conviction, which opens this weekend at the Amherst and Eastern Hills Mall theaters.
As director Tony Goldwyn puts it, “You could make five great films out of Betty Ann’s life, there were so many extraordinary characters and experiences. Our only problem was how to fit it all into one film.”
The film stars Hilary Swank (who else?) as Betty Anne and Sam Rockwell as Kenny. Co-starring are Minnie Driver, Juliette Lewis, Melissa Leo, and Peter Gallagher as Barry Scheck, co-founder of The Innocent Project, the organization that has used DNA evidence to overturn more than 250 murder convictions in recent years.
Goldwyn and Gray are speaking as part of a panel at the Toronto Film Festival that includes the not only the film’s principal cast but the real Betty Anne Waters, who having accomplished what she set out to do went back to work at the bar where she has been a waitress for most of her adult life. (She’s now the general manager.)
Although in retrospect she gave up much of her life to her cause, Waters says that “I didn’t think that was what I was doing. I just did what I did one day at a time—I didn’t know how long it was going to take. So I don’t think I sacrificed as much as people might think.”
How did she feel about seeing her story told on screen? “I started crying one minute into it, “ she admits in an untempered New England accent, “so I don’t remember most of it. It was for lack of a better word surreal.”
One person who is not around to talk about his part of the story is Kenny Waters. “He was free for six months,” his sister says, “and in those six months he had so much fun, he was on all kinds of tv shows, even Oprah. It was the happiest time of his life. And he died after six months [from injuries incurred in an accidental fall]. The most I can say is that he died a free person.”
Conviction details how Waters was able to find evidence that had been kept out of the original trial, but that wasn’t the end of the story. “The DNA evidence proved that Kenny was wrongfully convicted and innocent,” she explains. “But it didn’t prove what [was done to] to my brother to convict him, and that’s what the lawsuit did. It took 28 years to uncover fingerprints that we did not know about at the time of the crime, to show that they already knew he was innocent.” The real killer has never been found, and to the best of Waters knowledge, Massachusetts officials are no longer actively pursuing the case. As for Nancy Taylor, the policewoman who was apparently behind Kenny’s railroading, “She’s retired and living in a small town in Massachusetts and [no charges have been brought against] her, even though it’s been proved that she lied.”
Goldwyn admits that Taylor as played in the film is “sort of a composite person, but only in terms of events. She wasn’t the person who original arrested Kenny, for instance. But she was still the primary driving force once Kenny became the prime suspect, and went after him extremely aggressively.”
Taylor is played by Melissa Leo, who obviously did not have the ability to meet with the character she was playing. Gray thinks the Leo had one of the hardest jobs because “It’s very difficult to get inside someone who I think is inherently evil. [Melissa] kept asking, who is the person who would do this. And in fact Nancy Taylor was much worse than we portrayed her in the film.”
Juliette Lewis, an actress who has never been known to fade into the background, has the indelible role of one of Kenny’s ex girlfriends whose testimony helped send him to prison. When we meet her years after that event, she’s a psychologically damaged alcoholic.
Gray initially wrote the character based only on stories Betty Anne told her. But later, “Betty Anne managed to get me cassette tape of the real woman, And it was a humbling experience as a writer—I never have written this. When you see [Juliette’s] performance, you can’t put yourself in the mind of someone who speaks that way and thinks that way. So I got to incorporate all that into what I had written. Yet all these people believed what they were saying, and there was a truth to each character, even if that character was a little bit off balance.”
At this point, Goldwyn tries to put a brake on the issue of verisimilitude in a film based on real events. He believes that “You have to approach it like a piece of fiction. We have an obligation to honor the truth and sprit of what a movie is about, which honors Betty Ann and Kenny’s story, but it’s about something larger. It’s not a documentary.”
That said, reality has its place. The scenes where Betty Anne visits Kenny in prison were shot in a real prison. Goldwyn, who is an actor as well as a director (he’s currently starring in the Broadway revival of Promises, Promises) says, “As a modestly budgeted film we couldn’t afford to build a replica, but also the real environment was very important to me. I know as an actor myself a prison is a very powerful place to spend time in, it creates its own energy. It’s a very depressing place. It was critical to me in telling this story that everything in it be absolutely authentic, that it not feel theatrical. Our camera style was almost exclusively hand held, but in a subtle way that you might not perceive, there was a volatility to it.”
Although the ending of the film won’t surprise many viewers, Goldwyn and Gray found it was important to keep “a seed of doubt” in viewers’ minds— what if Kenny really did it, or what if Betty can’t get him out? Goldwyn explains that they wanted that there not simply to keep dramatic tension.. “I asked myself, if she had been unsuccessful, would that have made her act of faith in vain? The answer to me is very much no. It didn’t matter whether she succeeded or not, it was the fact of their love and the connection that the movie is about. So an audience may have an idea of where it is going plotwise, but more importantly there’s an emotional thing going on in the story that supersedes the plot.
“The thing I hope people take away from this film, is to look at those they love and think, what am I willing to do for the people I care about most? What made me want to tell this story was not Betty Anne’s extraordinary achievement, but what the bond between these two people and the love that they shared.. Betty never doubted for a moment that Kenny was innocent, and not for one moment did he have any doubt about her. And that’s what we crave in our own lives.”
Watch the trailer for Conviction
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