“American Violet,” the fine new film about the real-life woman who took on corrupt and racist law enforcement officials in 2000, was written by Bill Haney. It was a very great pleasure to get to talk to him about the film.
Tell me a little about your background and about what made you want to write this story.
I grew up in a Benedictine monastery in Rhode Island. My dad was a teacher there and I went to school there and left to go to college. It was there I got the general idea that the goal of life isn’t to get something from the world but to give something to the world. The purpose of storytelling is to illuminate and express something useful about the human condition, sometimes joyful, sometimes distracting, but in an ideal world, constructive. I like stories about an ordinary person called upon to do something extraordinary. I heard Wade Goodman on NPR talking about this case in Texas. His storytelling was classic NPR expositional context so that I felt compelled and moved, and that was what launched the journey to find the people and write the story.
It seems to me to be a essentially American story — an underdog seeking justice.
It is a systemically frustrating view of American justice, and the way they fought to get justice. We’ve been doing these word-of-mouth screenings with really interesting discussions. One woman said she was really pleased to see the message that we can get change through the system, that if we are educated and stand up it can work.
I am often of critical of films that set the lighting for the white characters and do not to justice to black skin tones but this film lights the black characters beautifully.
That was important to us, too. It is challenging to make sure the visual beauty is equally spread.
What has happened to the real-life woman who is called Dee in the movie?
In a lot of ways she is doing great. At one level this has been a marathon experience for her. She stayed in the community until four weeks ago. She’s gone through a lot of struggles including some serious health problems. She’s still there and he’s still there so it hasn’t ended, but it has been cathartic for her to get this experience out there. She’s a bright, charismatic woman. But her community is blighted. In the local high school, 169 entered as freshmen, but only three graduated and none went to college. There are these inherent limitations and she pierced right through that. She’s out giving talks, finding a voice and a place in society. Her children have found this process hugely validating and inspiring. Telling her story this way helped them respect and admire her. She is articulate and persuasive. It has left some marks on her but she is stronger and a person with a bigger voice in her world as a result.
What are some of the movies you saw when you were young that inspired you to want to make films?
At the all boys school we had no television but we had these screenings on Saturday nights. I saw “Guns of Navarone” and was completely smitten. I love Peter Weir movies, especially “The Year of Living Dangerously” — a magical story for me.
What are you working on next?
I’ve outlined three movies and a documentary about endangered species. Half my work is connected to something around the environment and food will be at the core of the next movie. Food is a great subject because it is about love, health, appreciation, beauty, soulfulness, and humor.
What makes you laugh?
PG Wodehouse. My wife has me on a Wodehouse allocation. She will only let me read for like 15 minutes at a time. I love dry humor, fish out of water stories. My own three kids make me laugh — kids know how to surf your waves. If you’re not laughing at them you’re laughing with them. I love Abbott and Costello and Charlie Chaplin’s “The Great Dictator” and Jim Jarmusch’s “Night on Earth.”
“Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room” (2005). Must viewing for an almost operatic rise-and-fall story of greed and hubris.
“The Solid Gold Cadillac” (1956). Add a couple of zeros to the numbers and this classic comedy about a small shareholder who takes on a big conglomerate could have been filmed this year. Ripe for a remake!
“The Hudsucker Proxy” (1994). The Coen Brothers’ take on corporations is both spoof and satire, making some shrewd points about success and corruption.
“Roger & Me” (1989). Must viewing in the era of the bailout. Watch for the many indicators of poor business judgment, including a “Me and My Buddy” exhibit with a mechanized worker singing to the machine that put him out of a job.
“Startup.com” (2001). The go-go madness of the dot-com era amplifies the challenge of finding that fine line between vision and hubris. Unforgettable characters.
“Boiler Room” (2000). Set in an illegal pump-and-dump brokerage, this movie perfectly captures the adrenaline rush of money-making.
“Executive Suite” (1954). A rare movie that focuses on the boardroom with a post-World War II C.E.O. succession struggle between the green-eyeshade C.F.O. Fredric March and the stakeholder proponent William Holden. See also the terrific animated movie “Robots” (2005) for a similar struggle.
“Owning Mahowny” (2003). This fact-based film stars Philip Seymour Hoffman as a Canadian bank executive who embezzled millions of dollars and lost every penny in gambling casinos. What is fascinating is the way that every single person in the film, from the bank loan officers to the auditors and investigators and casino managers to the embezzler himself, are constantly assessing risk.
“The Corporation” (2003). A provocative documentary that measures corporate behavior against the standard diagnostics for human behavior and concludes that it fits the profile of a sociopath.
“How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying” (1967). This outrageous musical comedy about a mail clerk’s rise to the top of a corporation is less of an exaggeration than it appears.
“Office Space” (1999). A cult classic about a Dilbert-ized world of workers oppressed by an endless series of management fads.
“Tucker: The Man and His Dream” (1988). A fact-based cautionary tale about corporations subverting the market. See also the documentary “Who Killed the Electric Car?” (2006) for an updated version.
“Sabrina” (1954). This elegant confection of a love triangle, with Audrey Hepburn, Humphrey Bogart and William Holden, also includes one of the most stirring defenses of the public corporation as a force for opportunity and creativity that has ever been put on film.
What is is about the story of Grey Gardens that has been so enduringly fascinating? They have inspired a documentary film, a Broadway musical, endless articles, even a song by Rufus Wainwright.
Some people think it is because the two women who lived in splendid squalor were the aunt and cousin of one of the world’s most famous and glamorous women, Jacqueline Kennedy. And some think it is because of the schadenfreude effect — seeing two women born to wealth and power fall into helpless poverty. Both are certainly a part of it, but I believe the reason that the story of the two Edith Beales is so enthralling is because of something central to the lives of all of us. It is about family ties that both sustain and constrain. It is about the line between function and dysfunction. It is about devotion. It is about love. It is about control. And it is about the way that the route to madness is much more slippery and treacherous than we would like it to be.
Edith Beale and her daughter “Little Edie” lived in a mansion in East Hampton called Grey Gardens. At one time they were at the heart of high society and Little Edie, a debutante, was known as “Body Beautiful Beale.” Their lives seemed filled with luxury and promise. But by the time a documentary film crew arrived in the early 1970’s the mansion had fallen into filth and disrepair. The two women shared the house with more than fifty cats and other animals. They had almost no electricity or plumbing. The women’s behavior was outlandish, even delusional, but their resilience and ferocious passion for survival were inspiring. They were not just willing to defy convention; they seemed to relish it. The film was a sensation. It led to a Tony-award-winning Broadway musical starring Christine Ebersole. Tonight, the latest version of the story premieres in HBO, starring Drew Barrymore and Jessica Lange.
Here is a clip from the original documentary with Little Edie explaining her “revolutionary” attire, followed by Ebersole in a scene from the musical based on that monologue and a trailer for the HBO movie.
You can hear me defending aliens against Mad Movie Man A.J. Hakeri on Movie Addict Headquarters with Betty Jo Tucker. I had a blast! Thanks to those of you who participated by chat.
And I appeared last night on BDK’s movie show talking about this week’s releases.