PANEL DISCUSSION WITH WRITER BILL HANEY
AND DIRECTOR TIM DISNEY
reported by William
published April 17, 2009
now playing in select
The new film American Violet, is
the true story of Regina Kelly, a woman who was wrongfully arrested and went through a harrowing ordeal to clear her
How are you related to Walt Disney?
Tim Disney: My father is Walt Disney’s brother.
And Bill, what is your
Bill Haney: I come from the world of documentary
Were you aware of the Tulia incident
before you heard about Regina Kelly’s case?
Tim Disney: That was in the news just a little before Regina’s case and
got more national attention. So, we were aware of the Tulia incident. Bill heard about Regina’s story while listening to NPR one day in his
car. He called me immediately and told me about her incredible story and suggested we try to make her story into a movie. And that started the
long seven-year journey to bring her story to film.
Bill Haney: Part of what drew us to this story is not just the systemic
blight that accompanies the war on drugs, but the amazing heroism of this principled young woman. We did not want to do a film about poor
locales rescued by a brilliant lawyer. American Violet is Regina Kelly’s story. She is the central
force behind this film.
Tim Disney: It is really about a point of view. There have been a number
of excellent films like Mississippi Burning, To Kill a
Mockingbird, and others that have had a big impact. But all of those films had a kind of paternalistic, white father figure who saves the
day. We didn’t want to make that type of film.
For me, another very important character in this movie is the Sam Conway character [played by Will Patton]. He is also from the wrong side of the tracks, but is a law and order, upright
type of guy. He is a career cop, but very principled. It was the combination of those two characters that made this film
Could you talk about the casting process?
Bill Haney: When we thought about the casting, we felt a real
responsibility to cast this film right because of the real-life stories of people who have sacrificed so much, and because the implications of
the story matter to a lot of people. That meant the work on the script was long and extensive. We did documentary-type interviews with many of
the main characters, and we read over a lot of the legal documents around Regina’s case. We did a lot of work to try to root this in the
authentic experience of this community. The casting was a part of that. That said, we wanted to absolutely cast the right actors. If that
meant that journalists were not going to be interested because we didn’t cast certain actors, so be it.
How did you come to cast Nicole Beharie
as the lead in American Violet?
Tim Disney: We had a fantastic casting agent in New York, Susan
Shopmaker, who became aware of Nicole through a showcase. For obvious reasons, there is a lot of pressure to cast stars. It is a sad fact that
there are very few leading parts written for young black women. We didn’t think we could make a successful movie with the current crop of very
talented African American actresses. When we met Nicole, she just blew us away. Plus, she was so age-appropriate for this role. We wanted an
actress that could evoke the vulnerability of a young woman who is barely an adult herself, but has children of her own.
Why did you fictionalize the names in
Bill Haney: We fictionalized the characters because we wanted to be true
to everyone, particularly the secondary characters. Some of the real-life characters are repellant and don’t deserve be protected at all. But,
we did morph some characters into composites. For example, two police officers become one. We
also decided to fictionalize the names because we didn’t want audiences to be drawn just to this one case. This is going on all over the
country. People are being wrongfully swept in drug raids and being accused in the hundreds of thousands. So we don’t want people to be able to
excuse this issue by thinking it happened in this one town because of one bad district attorney. We wanted more universality in the
How much of the film is
Tim Disney: Well, it is not slavishly accurate to the facts. This is a
movie, not a documentary. Someone once said that drama is real life with the boring parts taken out. Regina’s life and all the events are
accurately portrayed in American Violet.
This film details so many issues that
can bring up a range of emotions. How did you balance the emotions of the cast on the set?
Bill Haney: This is story could have been easily ghettoized. We knew that
critics would call it a melodrama, that a lot of folks would discredit it because of the storyline, and that foreign markets might not be
interested in American Violet. But Tim decided to trust the simple humanity of the story and go
from there without any of the fancy camera moves that some directors might have used.
What is the real message in American Violet?
Bill Haney: There are many messages in the movie and audiences can decide
what those messages are for themselves. But, what drew me to this story was the odyssey of a single mother of four, living in rural America,
who is as far from the seats of power as anyone can be, who made a choice to be a catalyst for real change.
What also drew me to this story and is one of the many messages in American
Violet is the outrage I felt as an American that this woman, who is just a much a part of this country as I am, is in jail away from
her kids on trumped up charges, and the system is leaning on her.
Tim Disney: And that this happened around the same time of the first
election of George Bush. It is a cruel irony that while Regina was in jail being pressured to confess to a crime that she didn’t commit,
George Bush, through the Supreme Court, is trying to lay claim to an election he didn’t win.
Is there a metaphor in the name of the
Bill Haney: The early, working title was American Inquisition because she is offered no choices. After we spent time with her, and through the
incredible performances of this gifted cast, we felt that the essence of this film is her courage. The metaphor of the violets is that after
she comes home from prison, all of her plants are dead. She throws all the dead plants out, except for the African violet she tries to breathe
life back into, just as she decides to try to breathe life back into her family and community.
williamgooch @ stageandcinema.com
read the panel discussion with Nicole Beharie and Regina Kelly
read William Gooch's review of American