As the summer winds down, the last of the blockbuster Titans battle for final glory. While some bemoan the clog of tent-pole superhero and monster films that dominate at this time of the year, I saw something positive happening in the film industry. Concentration on storytelling in genre films like Disney’s ‘Maleficent’, Fox’s ‘Dawn of the Planet of the Apes’ and the summer surprise, Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy could be signaling America’s return to storytelling as it once was. These movies, despite their sensory overload of explosions and CGI effects, still harbor something resembling a soul. This was also the summer of Richard Linklater’s ‘Boyhood’. a lyrical and cinematic gem, shot over a twelve year period, about a young man’s growth to manhood. For me story is paramount, but so is diversity of subject matter and voice.
One such voice is Actor/Writer/Director, Shana Betz. Her latest film, ‘Free Ride,’ took me back to my favorite period of American films: the 70s. And while this true story is a tender tale of a mother’s love and young girl’s coming of age, it is also a gritty story about the Florida drug trade in the 1970s. I was privileged to get to ask this burgeoning up and comer about her fascinating life story, battling the male dominated film industry, and working with Anna Paquin and Drea de Matteo.
Kristen: Thank you for your time. You have worn many hats throughout your career, from actress to writer/director and even producer. What brought you to acting and are the many hats a symptom of your growing love for the medium of film as a whole or the new necessity for the modern artist?
Shana Betz: Firstly, thank you so much for your kind introduction. I’m a sucker for peer approval.
On the subject of acting, I found my way through modeling. I loved creating characters. I got to shoot nutsy, eccentric characters for talented photographers and I was addicted to the freedom. Acting was the next painful step, mainly because I wasn’t very good at it, but more importantly, because I had so much baggage from my childhood to get through. I loved learning how to create an emotional catharsis that I very much needed in my twenties. I wrote a monologue to perform as entry into The Actors Gang in L.A. and got the writing bug. While playing incredible characters on stage, I was also auditioning for the banal ones: the sister, daughter, mother, girlfriend, etc. in film and TV. After a while, it was no longer satisfying my creative libido. I needed to use more of myself, creatively so I began writing/directing short films to submit to festivals and directing programs. I shot a short for a non-profit called the Girls! Girls! Girls! Project based around the themes of women and strength and haven’t stopped directing since. On the subject of hats, I have seen brilliant directors who could barely tie their shoes, make amazing films. I have also seen directors who have worked in every crew position on the set, make shitty ones. I don’t really have an opinion on how much you need to know about everything to be a great director. I do believe it has helped me tremendously. I’ve approached my career like a mosaic. All the pieces I learn make me more whole as a creative person because I now have learned the language of that position and can get what I want. I don’t know how I would express myself otherwise except with a very strong assistant director. Ha!
Kristen: Every now and again someone will make a statement about diversity in Hollywood. It gets some lip service, some things may change, but then it tends to settle back to status quo. Growing up in the late 70s and early 80s, television and film were populated with strong, female characters. These characters seemed to drift away and then had a slight resurgence in the 90s. Do you see a light anywhere at the end of the tunnel now for females in the film industry?
Shana Betz: If I didn’t, I would shoot myself.
Kristen: ‘Free Ride’ is an amazing film. It feels like a distant relative of ‘Easy Rider’ and is made that much more fascinating because it is based on events in your life. When did you start writing and when did you conceptualize the idea to make this incredible part of your life into a film?
Shana Betz: Again, thank you so much. I began writing the script after I had worked with another writer to tell the story. It was an unsatisfying fit in many ways (four years of trying to get something that worked) before I decided to scrap the direction we had gone in and write it myself. I had friends who pushed and supported me writing my own life story.
Kristen: Clueless politicians constantly make uninformed commentary on single mothers and poverty, while supporting a system that constantly pushes folks to make desperate choices to survive. What message would you like to share with people who may not understand the challenges that continue to face single mothers?
Drug dealers aren’t who you think they are. Desperate people do desperate things. I worked inside the prison system in California with The Actors Gang Prison Program to rehabilitate inmates through the arts and what I found was exactly what I had already experienced in my own life–an inordinate percentage of women in prison are mothers convicted of drug dealing. Single moms doing what they had to do with what they had. I think Orwell said it best in Animal Farm, “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.” Shana Betz
Kristen: Anna Paquin and Drea de Matteo are in your movie. I love these two actors because, for lack of better terminology, they possess a veneer of pure rock ‘n’ roll bravery once championed by actors like Dennis Hopper and early Robert De Niro. To me, this kind of quality seems rare in contemporary actors, both male and female. How did Paquin and de Matteo get involved in your project and what was it like to work with them?
Shana Betz: Anna was also a producer on the project with her husband Stephen Moyer. They came on after I had approached Stephen to play the Bossman. He suggested Anna. She had been on my short list but was a difficult actress to get to because of the industry gate-keepers. Stephen was a huge fan of the project and was the catalyst for her involvement. Drea on the other hand, was always in my sights. I’m an enormous fan of her tough, broken characters and I knew she could pull off the 70’s cool that I remember so well. The moment we met, it was love.
Kristen: I wanted to ask you about how music plays a part in your creative process? Could you name a few of your favorite movie soundtracks? How did you go about choosing the music for ‘Free Ride’?
Shana Betz: I pull music for a scene while I’m writing it (on repeat), or I pull music once I have a script to set tone and pacing. Those songs rarely stay, but it gives me a universal language to share with the actors, editor, etc to lock into; the subtext. Music is essential.
Kristen: So what’s next for you? What are you presently working on?
Shana Betz: I’m currently in post on a second feature, a thriller and am attached to several films in development. I don’t like to talk about projects until I’m locked into production.
On another hand, I formed a non-profit called The Chimaera Project (formerly the Girls! Girls! Girls! Project) based on spotlighting visionary female filmmakers in the industry. 2015 is going to be a terrific year.
“Free Ride” is is on all Video On Demand platforms except Netflix and will be on HBO in September.