Q & A with Director Tim Disney about the making of American Violet

Director Tim Disney

Director Tim Disney

As part of ZAMM.com’s continuing series of conversations with independent filmmakers Martin Grove talks to Director Tim Disney about the making of “American Violet”, opening in limited release Apr. 17 via Samuel Goldwyn Films. Inspired by true events, it’s the story of a young African-American single mother caught up in a corrupt Texas district attorney’s politically and racially motivated anti-drug campaign.

An Uncommon Production directed by Tim Disney (“A Question of Faith”), “Violet” was written and produced by Bill Haney (“Crusade: A March Through Time”). It was executive produced by Peter Newman and co-executive produced by Jennifer Eplett, Sean Reilly and Tom R. Camp. Starring are Nicole Beharie, Tim Blake Nelson, Will Patton, Michael O’Keefe and Xzibit with Charles Dutton and Alfre Woodard.

Tim Disney, by the way, is part of the Disney family’s younger generation. His father is former Disney vice chairman Roy E. Disney and his great uncle is Walt Disney. The story he tells in “Violet” revolves around Dee Roberts (Beharie), who’s doing her best to support her four kids when she’s suddenly arrested for drug dealing. At first, she thinks the cops have come after her because she has a bunch of unpaid parking tickets. She may be a parking scofflaw, but she’s innocent of selling drugs.

Nonetheless, Dee’s locked up in a vile local jail and offered a plea bargain. If she pleads guilty as her mother (Alfre Woodard) wants her to do they’ll let her go home to her kids. But as a convicted felon she will no longer be eligible for things like public housing or food stamps. Of course, she desperately needs that kind of assistance since she’s out of work because of her having been wrongly arrested. If she fights the charges as the ACLU wants her to do and pleads not guilty she’ll remain in prison and will risk getting a long sentence if she’s convicted.

Q: How did “American Violet” come about?
A: This one started about six years ago when my partner Bill Haney, who was the producer of the movie and wrote the script, heard a story on NPR about this case from Texas and, more importantly, the young woman at the center of the case. He called me and said I just heard this most amazing story about a woman who showed tremendous personal courage. I think this is a fantastic story and we should look into it. I agreed and that started about a six year odyssey which brings us to this point.

(Haney went to Texas and) contacted the ACLU, who worked on the case, and he took quite a while to gain their trust (and get them) to trust us and tell their story. They were skeptical of movie types and rightly so, I would say. So it took a while to convince them that we wanted to tell the story in a direct and honest way, which we’ve done our best to do. Active production of the movie started a little bit less than two years ago. We were able to put together private financing for it and we started casting (then).
Q: This is the type of story that a lot of other filmmakers would probably have done as a documentary. Why didn’t you take that route?
A: We had a conversation about that right at the very beginning (asking), “Is this cinematic enough to carry a feature or should it be a documentary?” We looked around and we looked at other successful movies like “Norma Rae” or “Erin Brockovich” or “Silkwood” or other movies that are not dissimilar in form to this and thought that these movies are successful because the central character is a compelling one. It isn’t the scenario, the case, so much as it is the character.

We thought that Dee Roberts was a character of sufficient strength to base a feature on. And beyond that there was another character that really did it for me — Sam Conroy, who is played by Will Patton in the movie, who is a local guy who’s on the other side of the line and someone who puts himself at risk to do the right thing. For me, that really made it work in that there were multiple avenues of entry to the story for a wider audience.
Q: This is a true story, but did it happen exactly as it does in the movie?
A: We have movie-ized it to a certain degree. Somebody said that drama is real life with the boring parts taken out. So we’ve condensed characters and changed time frames. And particularly with the legal case, which was very complicated and protracted, we tried to summarize it. Not to change it, but to try to boil it down so that we could make it into a compelling movie and not an evidentiary hearing. We also wanted to kind of grow beyond this particular case because the events on which it's based are not unique to this town or to Texas. They happen all over the country.
Q: I thought Nicole Beharie, who plays Dee Roberts, was perfect casting. I know she’d only made one film prior to “Violet” (the 2008 bio-drama “The Express” with Dennis Quaid and Charles S. Dutton about college football hero Ernie Davis). How did you happen to find her?
A: Through our spectacular casting director Susan Shopmaker in New York, who is one of these people who doesn’t just call agents and have them send over their clients. She searches. She’s out there looking for people. She had seen Nicole, who was a recent Julliard graduate, in a showcase or some event in New York. The sad truth is that there are not many leading roles written for young black women in films so the list of known actresses to play those roles is fairly short. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t many, many wonderful (such) actresses. There certainly are, but there aren’t very many that have names that many people know.

We considered all of the people that you would put on your list for that and they're all wonderful actresses and we ended up casting Nicole because she was the best person that we saw, first and foremost, and also because she was quite young and the significant thing about this character is that she’s a child with children. You know, at the age of 23 she has four children already. She had her first child at the age of 14. I just can’t even imagine that. It seemed to me that that was a really important thing that we wanted to get in that character — the vulnerability of that and that strange middle ground between being a mother and being a daughter to her mother.

(Casting didn’t begin) until we knew that we had the money to do it. Now it doesn’t always work that way. Some times there’s a sort of chicken-and-egg thing that happens, but we were very fortunate that we were able to put the financing together and then proceed.
Q: Was it difficult to get financing to make a film like this?
A: Yes. Any movie is (tough to finance). I’ve been in other businesses before and know a little bit about venture capital and all of that. Every movie is a venture capital investment. It’s a high risk investment and it’s just a crazy undertaking. Sensible people should probably not go into the movie business. But we were able to find people who cared about the issues and were moved by the story so we were able to finance it entirely outside of the normal channels and that gave us a lot of flexibility.

We (then) had to decide where to do it and how to do it and on what scale to do it. We ended up filming in New Orleans, where I am right now, because the State of Louisiana offers some incentives to film here that are pretty hard to turn down. Plus, there are good crews here because so many movies get made down here. And because it reasonably passes as East Texas if you get outside of the city, itself. And it's not a terrible place to ask people to come and not get paid (a lot of money) for four weeks or six weeks or however long. You know, ‘Would you like to spend four weeks in New Orleans?’ That doesn't sound so bad. The food is good. So we came down here and were able to hire a great crew and found great locations and, really, it was just a great experience. My mother is from New Orleans so I feel a connection to the place.
Q: I understand that you shot on a very tight schedule of six five-day weeks.
A: It’s a low budget movie. That’s enough time to do it, but there’s no luxury in that schedule. There were a few complicated things (that we shot). There’s the (police) raid sequence at the beginning that involved a helicopter and lots of extras (that was shot using two cameras). But for the most part, it’s a pretty straightforward movie and that really is by intent. We thought that our job was to be transparent to the viewer as the filmmakers. We wanted to present the story in the simplest possible way and let it tell itself.

So the coverage and just the entire feel of it was designed to be very straightforward and realistic. We shot almost entirely on locations around here and benefited from the sort of post-Katrina thing in that the housing complex that (Roberts) lives in was an abandoned apartment complex on the west bank that had been abandoned the day of the storm and was just sitting there. It had this broken down feel that was real. That was not production design. That was the real thing.
Q: Did you storyboard?
A: I think storyboards can be very helpful and in some cases (are) essential. I think they can be misleading and maybe tie you down in certain ways so we did not slavishly storyboard it and try to just simply replicate storyboards when we were filming. But we had a very clear plan on what we were doing all the way through. I have too nervous a disposition to wing it when the meter is running so I like to have a clear idea of what we're doing. And then we can always change things when we're there and on the spot and see what we see. But we always have an idea of what we're doing when we go into it.
Q: Did you rehearse with your actors?
A: It wasn’t as much as I would like. I think everybody would probably say it would be great to have weeks of rehearsal in advance of filming, but I don't know how many people get that luxury. What we were able to do is — I had a hotel suite and everybody just came up in mix and match groups. We’d have the key characters who spend a lot of time together in the story — like the lawyers. They would come as a group and we would work together on it. And then the ladies and the daughters would come and we would do that. But then there was a lot of overlapping that took place, as well, so that people could see what everybody else was doing. We didn’t entirely separate these characters so there was a good awareness on everybody’s part about what was happening in other parts of the script that they were not in, which I think is important. And then at the end we did the traditional kind of table reading, also, with everybody.
Q: What about blocking-out scenes?
A: I was working with some tremendous actors and I felt why do you hire people like this and then tell them exactly what to do? I tried to allow them to develop stuff as we went along. I think you have to find a middle ground where you do not allow it to become chaotic and unfocused, but at the same time be collaborative about it with them.
Q: Looking back, what were the greatest challenges of production?
A: Anything involving children is (a challenge). The little one (of Roberts’ daughters) is only two years old and there’s no directing a two year old. She’s just going to do what she’s going to do. Another stroke of genius on the part of the casting director was that she found these girls who are four sisters. That was fantastic because they came with their own dynamic already built in. They just were a unit. The oldest daughter was nine and was a pretty good director of her younger sisters. So she did a lot of sub-directing and translating for me to them and told them where to be and kept them in line.

It also helped that Nicole and Alfre Woodard became like surrogate mother and grandmother to them during the filming. They called Alfre “Grandma” really from the beginning and through to the end and treated her like a grandma. You can see scenes where she’s essentially telling them what to do in the context of the written scene. She would just depart from the script because she could see that the little one was wandering off. She’d say, “Come over here. Stand over here.” It was just fantastic but it was nerve wracking as the director because you just don’t know what’s going to happen.