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Film Independent Thu 1.16.2014

How the Daughter of a Drug Smuggling Mom Turned Her Story Into a Successful Feature

You have your script – first step taken. Only a few thousand more steps to go before your film might be available to the masses. And good, bad or ugly, there’s no path to follow. Every single filmmaker needs to blaze her own path to that Holy Grail, a theatrical release.

Last Friday, two Film Independent Fellows—writer/director Shana Betz and producer Susan Dynner—reached that destination. They premiered their film Free Ride in New York and Los Angeles. The VOD release will be across all platforms, including cable (Time Warner, etc), satellite (Dish, DirecTV, etc.), Amazon, iTunes, Netflix and Redbox. Starring Oscar winner Anna Paquin, Free Ride is the story of a single woman who works as a drug smuggler in late-70s Florida while raising two daughters. Here, they share some of their milestones of developing, producing and landing the coveted distribution deal.

Film Independent:

At what point did you decide that you wanted to tell this particular story based on your life? (Shana’s mother was the smuggler.)

Shana Betz:

I didn’t think my story was all that interesting, honestly. It didn’t occur to me until I went to New York and in getting to know people there, people always asked, “Hey, where are you from, what’s your story?” I realized that maybe my background wasn’t as normal as everybody else’s. I started interviewing my mom and my sister because I was really young when all of this happened.

Film Independent:

How was your experience working on Free Ride in Film Independent’s artist development programs?

Betz:

Susan went through the Producing Lab with it and I went through the Directing Lab. Keith Gordon was my mentor. So you know how the program works, we shot scenes from the film. And when we watched the film, Susan and I realized that the character was not sympathetic at all. If I hadn’t gone though this Film Independent program and really gone through the motions of actually casting and seeing how it read in that way, I would have had a very different movie and I don’t even know I would have got it made.

Susan Dynner:

From my perspective, we worked with different types of producers. So we worked with a development producer, we worked with a line producer; we worked with Ron Yerxa, who is just an amazing producer. Hearing their comments and their thoughts was really helpful in some of the development of it.

Film Independent:

The film has an amazing cast. Can you talk about the casting and working with the actors?

Dynner:

Early on we got Jennifer Ricchiazzi—our casting director, the script, and she fell in love with the project. She was a real force behind it. She started getting it out to different actors, agents and managers. Jennifer got it to Stephen Moyer’s manager, originally for him to play the part of Boss Man. Shana and I met with Steve, he loved the project and said, “Hey, have you thought about my Anna [Paquin]?” And Shana and I both said, “We love her!” She read it and loved it.

Betz:

I come out of theater and one of the things that is—to me—part of the process, is really a rehearsal process. Well, obviously if it’s a low budget film, you don’t get that at all. So you’re lucky to get a couple of hours with the actor before they show up. Also, I think you encourage actors to work on their own with their partners. Or at least meet them… that’s one thing we did with Anna and the kids. They went and spent the day and hung out. The two sisters from the movie, Ava Acres and Liana Liberato, we all went up to the Observatory here in Los Angeles. That’s important, those types of moments, because they build connectivity between the characters.

Film Independent:

What was your greatest challenge getting this film made?

Dynner:

Getting it financed. It really took us about three years of a lot of door slamming in our faces. Shana was very steadfast in her vision. A lot of people that read it loved it, but wanted to change it and make it more commercial, or more of a thriller, or more masculine and Shana stood her ground. It’s hard to do when people are offering you deals and it’s not the movie you want to make, so you turn them down. But eventually we ended up getting the financing through private equity.

Film Independent:

Once completed, how did you get the film out there?

Betz:

There’s a general consensus; you make a film, you go to festivals, it gets picked up, the people fight for the rights for it. We did not go through normal channels. Don’t listen to people about how it has to be sold. Every single film has its own path. We didn’t do much on the festival front. In fact, we just did two festivals and that was after we had been picked up for distribution. We did the Hamptons Film Festival and the Fort Lauderdale Film Festival. We ended up doing private screenings for distributors. And I think that’s where our tipping point changed. We got a Producers Rep, Nick LoPiccolo at Paradigm. Just get passionate people around you. Susan Dynner is the most passionate person I’ve ever met in my life. And this film wouldn’t have been made if it weren’t for her. So you have to find people who are passionate about your script, your project.

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