American Violet: Interview with Writer-Producer Bill Haney

How did the real events and people on which American Violet is based initially come to your attention?
I worked on this story for almost six years. I live in Boston and was driving home during rush hour, listening to NPR.  A story came on air about a young woman in Texas and the terrible effect that the local judicial system was having on her life.   Hearing the story made me start to cry.  I hate bullies – especially when it’s the judicial system preying upon the most vulnerable people in our community.  I began thinking about the effect on this woman’s children as she had to undergo this kind of ordeal at the hands of the local district attorney.  I pulled my car over on the side of the road, called the ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union) and asked who was the attorney representing this woman.
At what point was it clear to you that her story was one you would bring to the screen?
I knew pretty quickly that I was willing to spend a significant period of time researching the story and that Tim (Disney) and I both felt that it was worth pursuing with as much passion as we could bring to bear.  It took the ACLU a little while to let us speak with the woman on whom the story is based.  At the time, she was in the midst of a lawsuit with the state, and, from a legal standpoint, it was best for her to wait to speak to us until her case was further along in the legal process.  We were also sensitive to the fact that this was a young 24 year-old woman – a single mother with four children who was under a tremendous amount of strain. We wanted to wait until the timing made the most sense for her.
When did you connect with the woman on whom the story in the film is based?
 It was probably a year and a half before I actually got to spend any significant amount of time speaking with her and another six months or so before I went down to Texas and spent some time with her in her own community.  Going down there and visiting her in her home environment was very powerful for me.  I think that first visit down to Texas made clear both the dramatic potential and the importance of the story.  I’m very fortunate in that Tim and I have very similar values.  We’re interested in telling stories for the same reasons and we quickly committed to telling this one.  
Why tell this woman’s story as a narrative rather than a documentary?
Tim and I make narrative films and documentaries.  The standard for us is the way in which the story can be revealed in the most dramatically compelling and enlightening way possible.  We decided to make it as a feature because the story that took place was so heartrending, so extraordinary and so deeply emotional that by the time we were in a position of capturing it, a significant part of the actual events were in the past.  We would have had to do a series of dramatic recreations to go, find and reconstruct the ordeal that the young woman at the core of our story had been through.  We thought that it would be psychologically demanding on her.  She had already lived this trauma once.  To ask her to do it again seemed inappropriate.  To really get the rich character of the story’s drama and the kind of heroism this young woman and the people around her exhibited, it was clear that we weren’t going to capture it in the past very effectively.  However, we could rebuild it as a dramatic creation that would offer the opportunity for more people to see her story on the screen.  

Challenges and advantages that you experienced in writing the screenplay?
This one involved a magnitude of more time, as there was a sense of responsibility to be as accurate as possible.  In preparation, we went and filmed extensive interviews with all of the real life characters involved in the story on whom this film is based.  That proved to be a wonderful tool for me as a writer, a wonderful tool for Tim as the director and for the rest of the key creative team.  It also allowed the actors, each of whom were very interested in seeing the real life characters on which their roles were built, the ability to see six hours of videotaped interviews.
So, in one sense, having much of the dramatic creation constructed and some of the richness of the characters and their interactions to draw from the real life story was wonderful.  On the other hand, there were 50,000 pages of legal documents and depositions and all the court history and all the social web of tales to kind of unravel and distill.  In order to try to do so in a really responsible way that was fair-minded to the people who did heroic things and even fair-minded to the people who did things that I personally found somewhat despicable, was a very involved process as I was writing the screenplay.
Did this true story on which the film is based seem to be an isolated situation?
Once I discovered this particular story and began to research the field, it became clear that the predatory effects of the criminal justice system on the poor in this one town in Texas, was not an isolated phenomenon.  In fact, this was a national shame.  It’s a national trend, disastrous in many ways in its effect on some of the poorest members of our community.  This tale from one Texas town we’re drawing is repeated throughout that state and most others.
The effects of the justice system were the same: the economic incentives to arrest people and convict them and put them in federally funded or state funded prisons that are for profit are the same everywhere. 
Casting Nicole Beharie as Dee Roberts? 
We are unbelievably grateful to have Nicole Beharie playing the lead.  I felt that way before we started filming because, of course, we wouldn’t have cast her if we didn’t think she was breathtaking.  But, having worked with her everyday and having seen her performance, she has truly revealed this person in as complete, dynamic and impassioned way as human possible.  I feel like I’m watching a star be born.  Because this is a small budget independent feature, we were in the position that let us cast people we thought would be best dramatica
lly for the part and the story.  This gave us the opportunity to find an undiscovered gem like Nicole and cast her in the lead.  As the character is based on a young woman who was only 13 when she had her first child, it pushed us away from actors who were deeply experienced in the real world.  It was important that we convey the idea that a young woman, barely out of childhood herself, had these children and was having to simultaneously fight the judicial system while nurturing her family.  Many of the actors whose work we admired and considered were a little older. We thought that Nicole possessed both the maturity and sophistication to handle the role and yet was still so young herself that she would be perfect.  Our wonderful casting director Susan Shopmaker based in New York, was really impressed by Nicole and when we saw her taped audition, we brought her in.  Tim met with her and he was further impressed.   It was a big decision because a film like this relies heavily on the lead.