Five Things About Conviction With Screenwriter Pamela Gray

Tony Goldwyn’s Conviction arrives in UK cinemas this Friday, the 14th of January. It marks the second collaboration between Goldwyn and screenwriter Pamela Gray after A Walk on the Moon. The film tells the true story of how Betty Anne Waters, a single mother with no legal education, worked for years to, first of all, get one, and then to quash her brother’s conviction for murder. Betty Anne and Kenny Waters are played by Hilary Swank and Sam Rockwell, both of whom have spoken in glowing terms about Gray’s screenplay.

I spoke to Ms. Gray, and here are Five Things she told me about the process of adapting this true story into a drama.

The Origins Of The Project

It really started when Tony Goldwyn’s wife saw Betty Waters and Kenny Waters on a news show on television. And she told Tony, and he told me. Tony acknowledges his wife’s input in every Q&A. Tony said “I’ve heard this amazing story about a working class woman who became a lawyer to get her brother out of prison” and then he went on to talk about how extraordinary Betty Anne was. He’d met with her before I’d met her.

I felt so passionate about telling the story and it was the kind of story that, as a writer, you couldn’t make it up. And it was unbelievable in so many places where I thought “No one will believe that I didn’t create this moment, they’ll think this was imagination here.”

The Real Betty Anne Waters

Before meeting Betty Anne, I had a different image of who she’d be. I didn’t expect the humility. I didn’t expect her to be “a real person”. She was like a superhero in my mind. And I also didn’t expect that she would have so much light and such a life-force, yet she still had rage about the injustice. But that is not how Betty Anne comes across. It’s not the first thing that she’s communicating. She has optimism and pride in what she did, even though, again, she doesn’t think it’s such a big deal. And she hasn’t become hardened by what has happened to her. That was all surprising to me.

What she did was so out of the ordinary but, to this day, she did not believe she did anything extraordinary. She believes that anyone would do this. And that was her whole attitude as she related these events, “I just did this, I’m not a hero, I’m not special”. Tony and I would sit there, so impacted by her.

Hilary spent time with Betty Anne prior to production. Then she had Betty Anne there to tell her the simplest details – such as which watch she would have worn on the first day of law school. And she had Betty Anne give her insights into some of the emotions she would be having at different points

[The image shows Pamela Gray, left, and Betty Anne Waters, right]

A Responsibility To Truth

Well, as a screenwriter I would know that the responsibility [of a screenwriter telling the story of my life] would be to tell the spirit of the truth, and that they are not obligated to recreate my life as if it were a documentary. But as someone who doesn’t participate in that creative process I would  probably want them to tell the exact story. Betty Anne had an intuitive understanding of the screenwriter’s responsibility, even though she knew nothing about Hollywood and the making of movies and the creating of screenplays. She had an understanding and she so trusted Tony and I after spending time with us, so she left it in our hands.

She was always available throughout the process, which took, as you know, years. She was there during production and she never turned to me and said ”This isn’t what happened”. In fact, there were moments where she turned to me and said “Is this what happened? I can’t remember anymore if this took place in my life or if you made it up” and a lot of times I’d say, “I don’t remember either. I wrote the scene seven years ago”.

As a writer in this situation I did feel very responsible. It was challenging to make changes in the order of events, the timing, to imagine scenes. Betty could tell me what happened but I wasn’t there and I had to keep giving myself permission to fictionalise or amend the truth, or just stick with the spirit of the truth, and when I couldn’t give myself permission, I would talk to Tony Goldwyn and he would give me permission.

Structuring A Screenplay That’s Based On Truth

The research was the first part of my creative process. It wasn’t really that creative. It meant reading through massive binders of court transcripts and all manner of documentation about this legal battle through all the years, meeting with Barry Scheck*, going to the Innocence project, and listening to tapes of all the interviews with Betty Anne and her family members. I had to read it all, hear it all, assimiliate it all, and then try to figure out how to structure a story which was, at the core of it, a 20 year journey, and the breadth of it, since I started in their childhood, was a 40 year story. Much different that sitting in front of a blank page and saying “Okay, I’m making this up.”

[The image shows Barry Scheck and Pamela Gray, seated]

I was afraid that I wouldn’t know how to show time passing. In particular, during the process from the time Betty Anne Waters found the DNA evidence til the time Kenny Waters was exonerated. There were so many obstacles, so many painful moments where it looked like all was lost and it was a real challenge to make sure the audience understood he had waited a year before they even agreed to test his DNA. How do you do that as a screenwriter? In the screenplay I could show the dates for the reader, but I had to find ways for the character to express that. And there were, throughout the story, there were more twists and turns, there were more obstacles than I could put in the film. I was worried during the screenwriting process “Oh god, I’m leaving out another witness who lied about him”. Again, I had the benefit of the collaboration with the director, another set of eyes. He knew enough to be able to say “We’ll be okay if you leave that out”.

I did spend enough time with Betty Anne and I had the tapes so as I created a version of her on the page, I always heard her. As a writer, you have to go inside your characters the same way actors do, so if I got stuck, I’d just try to be Betty Anne inside that moment.

Suspense And Surprise In Telling A True Story

I wasn’t concerned [about the audiences being ahead of the film] because I knew that the way the ending arrived was not a straight road. I knew that this was such a complex story, I knew that there was this very powerful, emotional story being told, that was unexpected.

We don’t see a lot of movies about the relationship between brother and sister, I’d never seen a relationship like this before, so I knew that there were all these levels to the storytelling that would impact an audience even if they walked in saying “I know what’s going to happen”. You really don’t know how it happens, and I really like hearing that there are members in the audience who are not sure if Kenny Waters is guilty or innocent until the final moment. That was really important to me and to Tony because it’s not a black and white story, he’s a character with shades of grey. He was not always likeable, he was not always easy to be around. He had a temper, but that’s different to being a murderer. It was important to show all sides of him. There are people who think “God – maybe he did it”. And I always ask, when I get to talk to people, “What did you think about that?” and it’s not everyone who sits there and says “I knew the truth so I knew what was going to happen.”

*Barry Scheck is an attorney who works for the Innocence Project, looking to quash the convictions of the wrongly convicted.

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