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Director Tim Disney Talks “American Violet”

by Erin Darling 15 May 2009 7,505 views 2 Comments E-mail Erin Darling
Tim Disney on the set of American Violet. Image via Americanviolet.com

Tim Disney on the set of American Violet. Image via Americanviolet.com

Tim Disney wears jeans and a white button down shirt sliced by skinny, blue stripes. He sits down casually, no holds barred, to talk about his new film, American Violet. Without even a caramel-caffeinated-confection from Starbucks or a beeping Blackberry to distract him, Disney dissects the challenges that come with making an “issue” film.

“The hardest thing abut this movie was trying to keep it from being melodramatic without being afraid of the drama that was in it,” said Disney, the great nephew of iconic cartoonist, Walt Disney. “Everything as a filmmaker draws you to try and make things as strong as you can.”


Disney strived to elude cliches that rely on close up shots teeming with tears, followed by incarceration, ruined families and more tears (presumably from children). “There’s a risk that an ‘issue’ movie may turn into a ‘lifetime’ movie,” Disney admits. For American Violet Disney hoped to preserve the integrity of the story while relating it to the bigger issues of racism, government corruption, and finding the strength to seek justice even when it requires great sacrifice.

Disney was inspired to make American Violet after hearing a story on NPR about law-enforcement raids that resulted in the arrest of many members in predominately black, low-income communities in Hearne, Texas. Regina Kelly was a victim of one of these raids and was arrested on charges of selling drugs. But Kelly was innocent, and decided to fight the system, challenging the area’s District Attorney with the help of lawyers from the American Civil Liberties Union.

Disney found Kelly’s story so compelling that he began research for a film about her heroic acts. Disney even chose to continue working on the film although a rival movie starring Halle Berry and Billy Bob Thornton was rumored to be in production.

“We had momentum, we had things going, we hast a cast that was interested and we thought we were a few months ahead,” said Disney, comfortably leaning back into his chair. The competing project, Tulia, was put on hold when Berry became pregnant; it’s now currently in production, according to IMDB.

American Violet was filmed by Disney’s company, Uncommon Productions, over a 30-day period. However, Disney said the real work started in the casting office six years before filming wrapped.

“Casting was the most important decision we had to make,” said Disney, who explained there is a lot of pressure to cast a star which can be difficult considering agents, mangers and money. Finally, they picked newcomer and Juilliard graduate, Nicole Beharie in the lead role of Dee Roberts because of her age and organic talent.

Nicole Beharie. Image via AmericanViolet.com

Nicole Beharie. Image via AmericanViolet.com

American Violet was one of the two American films accepted into the Telluride Film Festival in 2008. Disney also had the honor of having Regina Kelly and her four daughters in attendance for the film’s premiere at the festival.

“No matter what happens with this movie, I can feel good about that experience. She thought it really caught the spirit of what she went through,” said the 47-year-old, sandy-haired director.

Disney began making movies almost accidentally, but his famous last name didn’t hurt either. After graduating from Harvard, Disney began to work for The Walt Disney Company but left after he realized it would be years until he’d be able to have creative freedom.

From there he experimented in a few different industries, until he owned the rights to a short story, Blessed Art Thou, which he hoped to turn into a film,

“We had a director who decided last minute not to do it. We had everything in place and no director, so I decided to do it.” said Disney. That capricious decision, a choice he described as “a leap of faith,” launched his film career.

Disney speaks with unusual honesty about his work. He answers questions with a dose of reality so genuine that it could provoke a jaded entertainment journalist to ask, “wait…didn’t you just direct a movie?”

He’s currently in the process of getting American Violet out to distributors and is working on a new film about the leading lady of sixties rock, Janis Joplin. Coincidentally, another production company is making the same movie, with a different script about the same singer.

But Disney doesn’t seem to care about the trivialities of Hollywood politics. He’s a down to earth guy with a humbling philosophy, a rarity in this industry; “It’s about getting lots of people to move in the right direction at the right time. I just want to make sure we’re all making the same movie.”

Watch the American Violet trailer below:

Hear Tim Disney on KCRW’s “The Treatment.”

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  • Yuri said:

    Looks like a good flick.

  • Chris said:

    This movie is very good.

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