TORONTO — On a soap opera, the announcement might go something like this: "The role of Massachusetts is now being played by ... Michigan." That’s exactly what’s happening in "Conviction," opening Oct. 15. Director Tony Goldwyn brought his crew to eastern Michigan nearly two years ago to film what was then titled "Betty Ann Waters," a drama based on the true story of determined single mom and bartender Betty Ann Waters (Hilary Swank), who put herself through law school after her loosecannon brother, Kenny (Sam Rockwell), was convicted of murder and sentenced to life imprisonment.
During an interview Sunday morning at the Toronto International Film Festival, where the film premiered this week, Goldwyn admitted it was "the incredible tax incentive" that first drew him to Michigan: The state offers a 40 percent refundable tax credit against Michigan Business Tax liability for qualified filmmakers.
But once Goldwyn started scouting locations and meeting the residents, he was pleasantly surprised.
"We shot in Jackson, Ann Arbor, downtown Detroit, Chelsea and several other places,” he said. “There was absolutely great diversity."
There was some premium local talent, too. Williamston Theatre managing director John Lepard was hired to play a priest who is in the midst of delivering a eulogy when the police sweep into his church and arrest Kenny. "He did great work," Goldwyn said of Lepard.
Goldwyn made the film largely because he was hooked by the story’s brother and sister angle.
“One thing I could not imagine being able to survive would be losing my brother,” he said. When he learned more about the Waters case, he was moved by the bond between the siblings. “It’s almost mystical, that blood tie," he said.
Since "Conviction" includes scenes from an assortment of decades — the 1960s, the 1980s, the 1990s — the filmmakers had to be able to find the right kind of architecture and accessories for each era. It wasn’t a problem, according to Goldwyn.
"You can always go somewhere and save some money," Goldwyn said. But it’s not worth much in the long run if you don’t have what Goldwyn calls "depth of crew,” technicians who are able to handle complex jobs and multiple responsibilities.
"What we noticed is that the Michigan crew people are getting better and better, and growing more and more. The Chicago crews are, too. So that’s less people you have to bring from Los Angeles. Plus, (the Michiganders) were open and friendly people who seemed very grateful to have us there."
Goldwyn operated out of an apartment in Ann Arbor while he was here. "I really loved Ann Arbor," he said. "I was amazed at the quality of life there. Great people, great places to eat, great art — and you go 20 minutes outside the city, and you’re in the most beautiful country."
He’s hopeful Michigan will keep its tax credits in place.
"If you keep the 40 percent tax credit in place, people will come to shoot there," he said. "I know there are some politicians who are against it, but if you take out that tax credit, I can assure you filming will stop. I would hope (politicians) see the multiplier effect of these tax incentives is so clear. Look at how much is spent in hotels, restaurants, dry cleaners, lumber yards — so many places. You get millions from these tax credits, plus taxable revenue, too."