“My Mom was a Drug Runner” • An interview with writer director Shana Betz

Shana Betz recently wrote and directed her first feature film. “Free Ride” is a drama based on her life in the 1970s. Shana’s mother (named Christina for the film) is played by Anna Paquin. At the beginning of the movie Christina is in an abusive relationship. She wants to protect her daughters and make a better life for them.
One day, Christina surprises her kids after school. She shows up in the car with all of their bags packed and whisks them off to Florida to get a fresh start.
Having very few options, Cristina is easily seduced into transporting drugs. Her friend Sandy (Drea de Matteo) tells her how it’s done. Seven year old Shana is played by Ava Acres. Liana Liberato of “Stuck in Love“ plays MJ, Shana’s 15 year old sister.
Paquin is a producer and Stephen Moyer, Paquin’s husband and co-star on HBO’s “True Blood,” is executive producer.
Betz graciously agreed to an exclusive interview.
Dorri Olds: What inspired you to write “Free Ride”?
Shana Betz: There are several reasons I made this film. First, it’s a love letter to my sister. She was more like a mother than my mom was. My mother was more like a friend. Another reason was to put a face on the real drug dealers. They’re single mothers, not just the stereotypical hooded character on the corner selling crack cocaine. This film hopefully will shed light on what lengths women will go to when they need money to raise their kids. I wanted to put a face on single mothers with limited options. I’ve never seen a female drug runner as the main character in a film. My mom was desperate. She always had three jobs.
What other work did she do?
She was a private nurse. My grandmother had a private-duty nursing agency. You didn’t need a degree in those days. I spent a lot of my childhood with old people.
Was that scary for you?
No! I love old people. My grandmother was old and I loved her so I had a fascination with them. These days I work in prisons.
What is that like?
I go into women’s prisons. I work with the Actors’ Gang Theater, it’s Tim Robbins’ theater group, which participates in a prison program. We go into prisons and rehabilitate inmates. Acting is emotional work and teaching it reduces the recidivism rate tremendously. They’ve done all these studies. There’s a lot of data you can google. It’s a great, great program run through private contributions. You can read about it in The New York Times.
Did you have to “kill your darlings” in the script during editing?
I’m not really precious about things. I came out of producing and being an actress. If it works that’s all that matters. I have no sentimentality about it. But, there were so many stories we couldn’t fit in the movie.
Can you tell one?
Yes, there’s one when my mom jumped off a ship. There was a big storm scene. It was the first drug running trip that my mother ever did. It’s not the one we have in the film now. There was a storm that came on very quickly. She was in a little tiny boat, a 25-footer. She went into the hull in the ship, the worst place to go. It was filled with water and she got sick. There was a wave coming up over the ship. She threw up over the side of the boat. Engines had quit. They were stranded so they called the boss man. She could see the shore and they raced to the shore but almost drowned. She hadn’t realized how far it was to swim. This one guy saved her life in the water. We had low budget and couldn’t do that scene. It just wasn’t feasible. I had to cut it. I used a lot of my footage though. I had a split perspective from the girls and the mother. Then refocused on from the mother.
I’m not an actress anymore. But I am a passionate person. I have a lot of producer in me and know if it works or not. If it doesn’t make sense you have to get rid of it. I’m pretty even keeled. I like actors. I love being able to manipulate the scenes. I’m a very hands-on director. It’s the best part. I love being on set so much. I love working with the actors. That’s my sweet spot.
What’s next for you?
A supernatural thriller in the vein of an old school Kubrick thriller. I’m very excited about it. We should be finished come the first quarter in 2014. I’m also working on another project that takes place post civil war. It’s a mix between “Django” and “Hanna.” I love crossing those genres. Hanna is a great story about a young girl that ultimately kicks ass.
Free Ride” available On Demand. Unrated. 86 minutes.
Watch trailer: