In his latest film, American Violet, director Tim Disney explores the controversial issues of institutionalized racism and drug laws in the American legal system. The movie is based on the true story of a legal battle between Regina Kelly, a woman falsely accused of selling drugs, and a relentless district attorney with nearly unbounded control over the local criminal justice system. Engaging these complex issues of justice and racism, Tim Disney, whose other directorial credits include Tempesta (2004) and Blessed Art Thou (2000), seeks to send a powerful message to his audiences. In a phone interview, we discussed the broad implications of his film and the challenges of transforming a real story into a movie.
Ben Sigrist: How were you introduced to Dee Roberts's story, and what inspired you to turn her story into a film?
Tim Disney: The original story came from my partner Bill Haney, who is also the producer and writer of the movie, having heard a story about it on NPR-which I like to point out because there's a reason journalism exists and let's hope it continues-and we were both quite simultaneously inspired and outraged by the story that we heard about this young woman. And we had a conversation among ourselves then about whether it should be a documentary or should it be a feature. And based on the strength of her character and her heroic choice she made and the time-this was about six years ago, again with the backdrop of the Patriot Act and Alberto Gonzales-it seems like a very important story to tell, and we thought that in the form of a narrative feature, we could affect people the most.
BS: And do you see the movie as a docudrama?
TD: I don't think it's a docudrama, although maybe that really is a genre that it fits closely into. I think of it as a drama. It's based on a specific story but it's based on more than just that story. We drew on elements from similar things that happen all over the country. These events are not peculiar to Texas or to small towns; this kind of stuff goes on all over the place. So we tried to be expansive about it, although we did base it on what happened to her in Texas. So, I think of it as a drama.
BS: You mentioned that you were trying to expand her story and, along with that, the film shows news coverage of the 2000 presidential election throughout the movie. What connection did you envision between the election and the events depicted in the movie?
TD: Well, two- or threefold. First and foremost, we wanted to set it in time. When I heard the broad outline of the story, I thought it was 1920 or 1890 and I thought it was very important that we communicate that this is a contemporary story. These things happen everyday, everywhere. Secondly, it just seemed supremely ironic to us that while Roberts is in jail being pressured to plead guilty to a crime she didn't commit, George Bush is in the Supreme Court being given an election he didn't win. That's just wrong on every level and speaks to the "differential access to justice," around which I've put quotation marks, based on class, economics, race, and so on.
BS: With the problems that arose in that election, do you see the complacency of the American public as allowing these types of abuses?
TD: Well, yes. If you remember from that election cycle, there was a lot of talk about how it didn't really matter who we chose, that the two candidates were really pretty similar. That it was more a matter of style and appearance than substance. That was kind of "the end of history" moment where people were suggesting that the American form of capitalism and democracy had evolved to such perfect pitch that we just looking at minor fluctuations here and there-we're looking at unending prosperity into the future. I think in retrospect, we can see that it really matters who you choose and that change comes from the bottom-up when people like Dee Roberts make a choice. It also comes from the top-down. The ethos is set at the top comes down from that. George Bush was governor of Texas when these draconian drug laws were implemented and for the last eight years, we've had him as president.
BS: I remember in the movie, Dee Roberts asks an ACLU lawyer who is assisting her case "Will it help?" Do you think individual events like this story really do help create change?
TD: I think they do. Dee Roberts made a choice and stuck with her decision. She made a choice based on principle and that inspired first her pastor to do something about it and then he passed it along to the ACLU and then they passed it along to NPR and it reached a wider audience. We heard it on NPR and now we've made a movie and now we hand it off to the audience to be inspired by it and do something about it. This is how change occurs.
BS: I would like to talk a little about the process of translating this real life story into a movie. How did you research these events?
TD: My partner, Bill Haney, the writer, did most of that work. I worked with him all through the process but I kept a little bit of distance from the people because I didn't want to become beholden to the personalities and cloud my judgment about how to make a compelling movie. It was my job to make a compelling piece of dramatic entertainment. Bill went down there and he spent quite a bit of time with all the principals. The first job was to get them to trust us to tell their story in a responsible way and that took some time. They were rightfully skeptical of us, both the people in the town and the ACLU. But once we got passed that hurdle, we created lots of videotape interviews, we reviewed mountains and mountains of court documents, depositions, and the like. And it took about four years of work to sort through-but it was an immensely complicated situation with lots of personalities and it was very hard to sort through it all to try to figure how to epitomize all that, to distill it into its dramatic essence. Movies are short. You don't have a whole lot of time. The primary pressure is always for compression. It took a long time to sort through all of it to find the most compelling story in it.
BS: In that compression, did you find any problems trying to be true to the story while at the same time presenting that kind of dramatic entertainment?
TD: Yes, it's always a struggle but we decided early on that we were telling primarily Dee Roberts' story. So whenever we started getting sucked off into the specifics of the legal case, having that primary purpose brought us back home. The case itself was interesting and there were many more aspects we could possibly show in the movie. I'm fascinated by all of that stuff personally. But an evidentiary hearing doesn't necessarily make dramatic entertainment. So, we had to show the essence of what the case was all about but stick with Dee's emotional story because that's what the audience hooks into, that's what's compelling.
BS: I would like to talk a little bit about Nicole Beharey, the actress who plays Dee Roberts. She's fairly new to film acting, I think she graduated from Julliard fairly recently-
TD: Yes, she graduated right as we were meeting her.
BS: Wow. I was very impressed by her performance and I was wondering why you were drawn to her for this leading role?
TD: She's fabulous. It's the sad truth that there are very few leading roles written for young African American women-those roles are few and far between. So while there are many, many, many wonderful black actresses, the list of stars is very short. It's just the sad truth about the way the movie business works and there's a lot of pressure to cast a star for all the obvious reasons. And, in the end, we cast Nicole because she was the best person that we saw. She just really blew us away in the auditions and we had her back quite a few times. We really put her through it. The second reason is her age. She's quite young-she was 22, I believe, when we shot the movie. And I thought that was important for this character. This character had four children at the age of 23 and occupied this very vulnerable place between childhood and motherhood. On one hand, she's a mother to her children, and on the other she's the daughter to her mother. So I thought that vulnerability was really critical to her character.
BS: How did you arrive at a balance between telling her personal story and telling the story of the political battle she was fighting?
TD: Wow. It was like I said, it was really hard. It took a lot of work and a lot of drafts of the script and a lot of editing and a lot of really gifted actors. Nicole and Alfre Woodard and Will Patton - all these people are just so amazing. They're the ones who bring the pathos to it. Some of it was a response to finally casting people in the roles and getting a feel for how they would come across, who are these people really, now that actors are inhabiting those roles and then making adjustments accordingly.
BS: You mentioned how these actors really came together and made the movie what it was. Could you talk a little more about that?
TD: Sure. In my limited experience, most people really want to do good work. They want to get paid too, but they really want to do good work. So, there was a lot of good will around this movie because it was a low-budget movie outside the mainstream. Its chances for success were always not great just because of its subject matter, and we were swimming upstream in all those regards. But the issues were important to people and people had read the script and saw that we were serious about doing it in a quality and responsible way. And so there was just a really good feeling about it from the very beginning. I really attribute all that to Regina Kelly, the woman on whom the story is based. People really wanted to tell her story in a good way. That's where it all came from. Beyond that, we just had a fantastic group of people. I feel so blessed by that. In particular, the bond between Nicole and Alfre, who plays her mother, and the four girls who played the daughters was just incredible. The four girls were cast in New Orleans, where we shot the movie, and they're all sisters. So we had this group of girls come in with their own family dynamic already intact and they kind of just adopted Nicole and Alfre as their surrogate mother and grandmother. They called Alfre "grandma" from the very first day they met her and they treated her like that. It's really a beautiful thing to see.
BS: I would like to talk a little bit about you as a director. This is your third film, so what do you think you've learned from making this third film?
TD: Patience and restraint, I guess. How we set about making the movie was in response to the subject matter and we thought in this case it was very important to keep the hand of the filmmakers very light. We wanted the story and the character to tell it to you directly and not indulge in any self-importance via camera moves or any other means you might draw attention to yourself. We didn't want any barrier between the characters and the audience, or as small a possible barrier as you could get. I wouldn't say that was so different from what I had done before. That seemed quite urgent in this case. It's fun when you have all the tools there and all the people and all the equipment and you want to do all the things that you've always dreamed of doing. And it isn't always appropriate to do those things. So restraint, I would say, would be the number one thing.
BS: Can you mention something specific that you wanted to do that didn't go along with that style?
TD: Maybe the raid scene at the beginning of the movie - it's an action sequence. I've never really done an action movie. (Laughs). I called my kids the two days we were doing it and said, "We've got helicopters with guns. It's so cool." You know, I like all kinds of movies, including action movies, and it would have been fun to go further with all of that, but would it have been appropriate? I don't think so. There was an example where all the toys were there and it would have been fun to play with them some more.
BS: Thank you very much for answering all my questions and I wish you the best of luck.
TD: Likewise, thank you.