Commentary: 'Violet' is a Disney movie, but not what you think

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Disney drama: In a word association game, saying "Disney movie" would prompt responses like "animation" or "family film," but probably not "small, poignant, true-life drama."

That, however, is an apt description of Tim Disney's very moving social drama "American Violet," opening in limited release April 17 via Samuel Goldwyn Films. "Violet," inspired by true events during the 2000 election, is an Uncommon Production directed by Disney ("A Question of Faith") and 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 S. Dutton and Alfre Woodard.

In "Violet," Disney -- his father is former Disney vice chairman Roy E. Disney and he's Walt Disney's great nephew -- tells the story of Dee Roberts (Beharie), a young African-American single mother struggling to support her four kids. When Roberts is wrongly arrested for dealing drugs, she's thrown in jail and offered the choice of pleading guilty and being released as a convicted felon no longer eligible for things like welfare, food stamps and housing subsidies or remaining in prison and fighting the corrupt district attorney (O'Keefe) whose politically and racially motivated actions put her there. Despite being pressured by her mother (Woodard) to plead guilty just to get back home, Roberts agrees to risk spending years in prison by waging a legal battle with the help of an ACLU attorney (Nelson) and a former local narcotics officer (Patton).

While "Violet's" not the kind of film I usually seek out, I liked it much more than I anticipated and was happy to have an opportunity to talk to Disney about how it reached the screen. "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, (about) the young woman at the center of the case," Disney told me. "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 to meet the people involved. "He 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," Disney explained. "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)."

It's the type of material that other filmmakers might have turned into a documentary. Asked why he didn't go that route, he replied, "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 at other successful (social dramas) 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 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, 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."

While the film Is based on a true story, Disney observed, "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."

Nicole Beharie, who's outstanding as Roberts, had 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. Disney found Beharie, he recalled, "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 at 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."

Another key decision, he noted, was deciding "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 (when we spoke), because Louisiana offers some incentives to film here that are pretty hard to turn down. Plus, there are good crews because so many movies get made down here and 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."

Production took place over the course of six five-day weeks. "It's a low budget movie," he pointed out. "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 (and 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 (vacated) 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."

While some storyboarding was done, Disney wasn't tied down by it. "In a way, I think storyboards can be very helpful and in some cases (are) essential," he said. "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."

Disney's approach included rehearsing with his actors. It wasn't, he said, "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 -- 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."

Looking back at production's greatest challenges, Disney observed, "Anything involving children is (always challenging). 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, he added , that "Nicole and Alfre Woodard became like a surrogate mother and grandmother to them during 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."

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