Tim Disney comes from a well-known movie family—he’s the grandson of Roy O. Disney and the great-nephew of Walt, and his father Roy E. is credited with the company’s animation resurgence (as well as making some groundbreaking wildlife television films). But that didn’t lead him into the business—in fact, during a recent interview in Dallas he said, “You know, if I were a sensible person, I would have run in the other direction”—and in fact he did a variety of other things before taking the plunge. Even his becoming a director was an accident. “I guess more about it than I realized I did [from the family] because I had some other careers—I was in the software business for a long time—and then when I made my first movie about ten years ago, I originally was going to hire someone else to direct it, and at the last minute she pulled out, so I decided to do it. And I found that I knew more about it than I realized I did. I wish I’d gone to film school, because there’s a lot of technical stuff that I feel behind on still. But I realize that more was in there than I thought.”
And “American Violet,” the new picture he’s directed from a script by his producing partner Bill Haney, doesn’t fit into a “Disney” mold. It’s based on an actual incident that occurred in the small Texas town of Hearne, in which an African-American single mother named Regina Kelly was included in a drug roundup targeting blacks conducted by the local DA and given the choice of accepting a plea bargain or facing a long prison sentence. With the assistance of the ACLU, however, despite all the difficulties she challenged the charges against her and, in effect, fought City Hall—and racism within the entire law-enforcement establishment.
Disney explained that the idea came from a radio broadcast. “I have a production company with Bill Haney, who’s the writer and producer,” he said. “And he originally heard the story on NPR, about six years ago. And he called me up and described the general outline of the story, and when he described it to me, I thought, ‘Oh, this is a story from the 1930s.’ I was appalled to find out it was a contemporary case. We agreed it was a very strong story. We discussed should we make it a documentary or should we make it a feature film. And we made it a feature film because we thought we could the emotional aspect of it more effectively that way.”
The same idea was behind the decision to change the names of the locale and the characters, Disney said, “to give ourselves a little more freedom to tell the story in a compelling way. It’s based largely on the events that happened in Hearne, and we make no secret about that. But we drew on elements from other cases—we wanted to be expansive about it—and it’s a movie, not a documentary. So we changed the names, we compressed the time frame, we combined characters. And if we’d used all the real names…it would have restricted our ability to make a drama out of it.” He added, “In a way, it was so we could tell the story more accurately—from an emotional point of view.
“We worked on it together,” he added. “It took us about four years—not that we spent all day every day working on it, but it took about four years to pull it all together. Initially going down there and meeting the people, convincing them that we were going to tell their story in a responsible way, getting the ACLU to agree to work with us on it. And, you know, they’re rightly skeptical of movie guys. I don’t think we’re particularly movie-type movie guys, but I think people are rightly skeptical. And it took us a while to see that our hearts were in the right place. And then the big challenge was to take this mass of material, many potential storylines and characters, and try to distill it down to its essence. That was really tough. There were many other compelling potential storylines that we wanted to include, but movies are short—you don’t have a whole lot of time, and you have to find a way to epitomize the lessons of it in just a few scenes. That was really challenging.”
Once the script was finished, Disney and Haney began casting, and wound up with a strong cast that includes Tim Blake Nelson, Will Patton, Michael O’Keefe, Alfre Woodard and Charles S. Dutton. “I just feel so blessed with having gotten such an amazing cast,” Disney said. “This my third movie as a director, and I was frankly star-struck. Fortunately, I didn’t feel the need to tell them what to do. They know what they’re doing. We talked about it a lot in advance in rehearsal, and they you just try to clear the space [for them], let them do their thing.”
For the lead, however, they chose a relative newcomer, Nicole Beharie. “She’d had one movie part before this one, a part in a movie called ‘The Express,’ which came out six months ago or so,” Disney said. “But this is her first big role. There’s a lot of pressure to cast a star in your lead role, and it was a hard choice—feeling that pressure was a hard choice in that she’s not known. But we couldn’t have made a better choice. She’s just tremendous. And crucially she’s just twenty-two, which I thought was very important for this character who’s at once a daughter to her mother and a mother to her children, and she’s in that fragile place between youth and adulthood. We could have cast a more experienced person, in her thirties, someone with more life experience, and that could have been a successful movie too. But I think we would have lost some of that vulnerability.”
Disney acknowledged that issues as well as drama run through his films, but said, “It’s just turned out that way—it’s not my plan. And I feel good about that. You know, I’m forty-seven, and movies take so long to make, it better be about a subject that’s worth spending two years on. I’m not very old, but I’m not very young either, and I want to pack it all in now, now’s the time to do all the things I want to do. So if I’m going to take two years, it had better be worthwhile.”
And Disney emphasized that although the story is set in Texas, the story remains unhappily universal. “One of the downsides of having it set in Texas is that I hope people don’t think that these things only happen in Texas or that these problems are unique to Texas,” he said. “That’s not the case. What we saw in the movie happens all over the country. This is a particularly extreme example in that the District Attorney character is quite overt, and in most cases people are a little more politic about it, but the end result is the same. The numbers bear that out.” He brought up the example of Seattle—ordinarily considered a progressive place. “And yet if you go to the courthouse, the vast majority of the defendants are black. There’s no apparent racism in the police department…[and] the police chief is a good guy by all accounts, but these are the people who are being brought in disproportionate numbers to trial. It’s a systemic problem.”