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MINNEAPOLIS — It took Betty Anne Waters nearly two decades working as a single mother to put herself through law school so she could prove her jailed brother innocent of murder. It took filmmaker Tony Goldwyn nine years to find the financing to tell her compelling story.


“Conviction” will finally open at theaters nationwide Friday. Despite two-time Oscar winner Hilary Swank’s eagerness to play Waters, women-centered dramas are a hard sell in today’s film world.


Ultimately the delay was all for the good. Goldwyn, whose family is Hollywood royalty, and Waters, a blue-collar scrapper from tiny Ayer, Mass., used the time to get to know each other, developing a close friendship and deep rapport. On a recent publicity visit to the Twin Cities, their mutual respect was apparent.


“Betty Anne is extraordinary yet profoundly down to earth,” said Goldwyn. The grandson of movie mogul Samuel Goldwyn, he is both a director and an actor, whose credits range from the yuppie murderer in 1990’s “Ghost” to his current starring run in “Promises, Promises” on Broadway. He heard of Waters’ real-life drama when his wife saw it on “60 Minutes” and became part of a scrum of moviemakers vying for the film rights. He was the only one to win Waters’ trust with his vow to tell her story honestly, and to focus on her brother as much as on her.


In 1983 Kenny Waters was convicted of a murder his sister was sure he didn’t commit. A rowdy who had tangled with police on several occasions, he was questioned in 1980 in connection with the stabbing death of Katharina Brow. Some suspected that he carried a grudge against Brow, who had turned him in to authorities for breaking into her house. He was not charged until two years later, after a former girlfriend reported that Kenny had admitted to the crime. Blood found in Brow’s home was tested and determined to match Kenny’s blood type. He was sentenced to life.


Betty Anne, out of money or lawyers, decided to become one herself. She began by getting a high school GED, went to college, worked her way through law school and became her brother’s attorney. Despite delays and setbacks, she never lost faith in his innocence. She contacted the New York-based Innocence Project, which investigates questionable convictions, and learned of their work freeing wrongly convicted men with new DNA testing technology. Waters located the old blood samples in Kenny’s case and requested that it be tested against Kenny’s DNA. It didn’t match.


Goldwyn, 50, recognizing a courtroom David-and-Goliath case wrapped in a strong family drama, nurtured the project for years. Though the budget was a modest $20 million, he attracted a top-flight cast willing to take sizable pay cuts.


“Every person, every single department, had to make it work with such limited resources. But because everyone is so emotionally connected to this story, this love story between a brother and sister, we pulled together a great creative team.”


Sam Rockwell, tapped for the key role of the imprisoned Kenny, waited for years as the project inched through the development process. Melissa Leo and Minnie Driver signed on as Waters’ chief adversary and best friend, respectively. Juliette Lewis plays Kenny’s embittered ex-girlfriend.


The leading role originally went to Naomi Watts, who eventually moved on to other projects. That was fine with Waters — Swank’s hardscrabble origins, determination to prove herself and eventual success mirror Waters’ own extraordinary journey.


“They’re so similar,” the director said. “Hilary is an everywoman with a spine of steel. She grew up in a trailer. When her mom brought her to Hollywood at 15 to try to be an actress, they were living in a car. She has fought incredibly hard to realize her dream, so there’s a lot of similarity there.”


What Betty Anne did was “crazy,” Goldwyn said. “She spent 18 years of her life committed to something, yet she easily could have been wrong. She sacrificed her marriage, she had to struggle, her kids suffered. She went through hell to do what she had to do — save and protect someone she loves.”


Goldwyn, inspired by Waters’ tenacity, stuck with the project through his own decade-long uphill battle.


“The movie fell apart” time and again, he said. Two weeks before shooting was to start, the production was shut down when a portion of the independently raised financing evaporated. Difficulties plagued the filming, too. Key scenes had to be re-shot when an airport X-ray zapped an exhausting 16-hour shoot’s footage. The reshoots, he said, turned out better than the original.


While scenes were invented and characters reworked for dramatic effect, Waters said “the film is true to the spirit of the story.” A large part of that is the air of uncertainty shrouding much of the action. At times, Rockwell seems to be a very plausible murderer and Swank’s unswerving commitment to his cause seems fanatic.


“I didn’t think the movie would work, if it was just so clear this is a travesty of justice, and Kenny was a victim and Betty Anne was a saint,” Goldwyn said.


Kenny Waters died in a fall just months after his release. Betty Anne, at 56 a part-time lawyer, part-time pub manager, works pro bono with the Innocence Project to exonerate people who were wrongfully convicted. To date, she said, there have been 259 post-conviction DNA exonerations in the United States.

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Devotion, sacrifice, perseverance, justice, love, and hope are the themes that permeate this adaptation of a true story based on the fierce and lengthy battle Betty Anne Waters faced to free her older brother from a life sentence.
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