Interview: Writer/Director Shana Betz on ‘Free Ride’, Her Acting Past and Directing Bad Actors
Shana Betz is a former actress who’s directorial debut, Free Ride, is based on her true-life story. Starring Anna Paquin, Drea de Matteo and Cam Gigandet, it’s about a mother, Christina (Paquin), struggling to raise her two daughters in 1970’s Florida. After a friend seduces her into running drugs, Christina soon learns that her new life isn’t what she expected or wanted.
Shana, who also wrote the film, recently talked with me about the film, how Paquin and Stephen Moyer got involved, working with Tim Robbins’ Actors Gang and directing bad actors.
Free Ride is available on DVD now.
So this is a true story?
Shana Betz: Yes.
Tell me about the it.
Shana Betz: Well, my mother was a drug runner in the 70s, so it’s based on my life story. My sister and I, she’s about 8 years older than me, and it’s about our lives in the wake of my mom’s arrest in Florida in the 1970s.
This is your debut film?
Shana Betz: Yes. I have done short films though and I was an actress, so I came off of shorts and short format stuff. And then theatre and then began writing and again directed a few shorts and then got into the directing lab and from there sort of things took off.
How did you get Anna Paquin and Stephen Moyer involved?
Shana Betz: The script had originally gone to Stephen for the Bossman character and I had a meeting with him through his manager, my casting director had contacted his manager and then we sat down. And he asked me straight out if Anna had seen it and I said she hadn’t because of the budgetary restraints. It wasn’t getting through the agency. So he offered to get it to her manager and agent through them and that’s when everything started rolling from there.
So when they were involved and I guess you knew that Anna was gonna be involved, did you do anything to the script? Like cater it more to her and her sensibilities? Did you guys talk about if she wants to change anything?
Shana Betz: Yeah, we talked about the script and what her concerns were if there were any concerns and hers was about how the mother character was gonna be portrayed and it was something that… she loved the script. She loved the character. It’s a really fascinating woman. And so she was able to just give me some things.
But I did another pass on the script based on her concerns, but there wasn’t anything big there. I didn’t remember doing any kind of a restructuring or anything like that based on her notes.
You started out as an actress?
Shana Betz: Yes. Yes.
I was reading an interview where you said that you weren’t a good actress?
Shana Betz: No.
I saw you worked with The Actor’s Gang, so that tells me that you might be lying.
Shana Betz: [laughs] I just don’t think it’s my strong suit. I think it’s very painful for me. I think it’s a painful process. I think that I got into it needing the process of acting in my life. I needed to understand the people around me and be able to stand in shoes that weren’t mine. And also to really understand myself because both my parents were in prison, I grew up on welfare, I’m very working class where acting is not considered something that’s an option.
So when I got into acting it was as a freedom. There was a freedom but it was also incredibly painful for me because it’s this how I grew up. It wasn’t something that came naturally.
I started out, to be clear, I started out in really shitty B films. B, C, D films. I mean, terrible, just horrible films. Because I’d just called myself an actor and just went and did it. I’d been modeling for a while and I was very comfortable in front of the camera, but I didn’t understand the process of acting at all. And so in that, when you’re a natural in front of the camera it only gets you so far. And that got me to a certain point and I realized that point wasn’t good enough for me because it was just a bunch of really shitty films and working with really sub-quality directors.
I was in New York at the time and then I came to LA to find process. And I ended up… I’ve been with the Actor’s Gang now for 10 years, but when I first got with them, one of the ways I got into that company was as a writer. I wrote the monologue that I had to do in order to get into the company and they saw me as someone who could write. The whole process for them is always the same. Doesn’t matter if you’re a writer or an actor, you’re still going through the same motions everybody else is. Look, I have my skills and though I’m not a great actor or it doesn’t come easy for me, I think that I have moments.
I toured with George Orwell’s 1984, Tim [Robbins] directed that, and I played Julia, which was just an amazing experience for me. But there was a moment when I walked off the stage and we had two thousand people in the audience and I walked off the stage and I realized it just wasn’t enough.
It didn’t use… it only used a piece of me. And directing, since I found it, uses everything. It uses every part of me. It uses my actor, it uses my fine arts person inside of me, it uses my person that loves architecture, it uses my knowledge of light, it uses my knowledge of all the technical world that I know a lot about with cameras and it uses my people skills with the crew. So it uses much more of me and that’s what I needed for myself.
But I love actors. I love the process of acting. Being with the Actor’s Gang not only taught me process, but at any given moment I’m on… I’m in a company with 50 other world class actors. And so to see all of their ways in and out of a character was very educational over the course of 10 years. I saw so many incredible, incredible actors and how they processed and how they needed to get into a character. And so it helps me when I’m working with actors, clearly, because I can really appreciate and respect everyone’s process but also be a little bit of the Gestapo in the whole thing and say, “Hey, look. Ok, time to work now. I don’t care… you need your little personal time over there for the next 5 minutes, but that’s all you fucking get. And now you get here, you perform.” Because I also know from being in a company like the Actor’s Gang, that there’s very little room for coddling that happens on sets of films with some actors. It just doesn’t happen in theatre. And you perform or you don’t.
At what point did you decide that you wanted to switch from acting to directing? Was there some sort of seminal moment?
Shana Betz: Yeah, it’s when I directed my first short film. I realized that it was all I wanted to do. There’s nothing like it. It’s a high. It is.
I think that there are incredible actors that do make great directors, obviously. But I also think there are very special actors that know that that is their position in the picture and they understand it and they want to perform. Those actors are the ones that are the best to work with.
Some actors, it’s funny, they come to the table with their entire toolbox and they know exactly what they want their character go and what they want them to do and that’s one style of acting. And then there’s another style where they come completely empty and you give them the direction to go where they need to go and then they fill up as they go through the project. And both are beautiful to work with. They’re just different kinds of actors. I just work with great actors.
Now, working with bad actors makes me wanna hate directing because there’ve been moments where I’ve met casts, not in these two projects. Not in my features but in my short films when I went through the process of learning sort of how to cast correctly. You work with a bad actor and it makes you feel like you’re a bad director. You know? “Why can’t I get this person to the place I need them to get to? Is it me?” I feel like I can get a wet noodle to do anything, to stand up if I need them to, and that’s… it does things to the ego. But I… you work with great actors and it’s just a high.
That’s hilarious. Yeah, I would’ve never thought to ask that question about directing bad actors. That’s gotta be maddening for you.
Shana Betz: It’s maddening. Yeah. It makes you wanna hurt things. Seriously, it does. It makes you wanna hurt things. You’re just like, “I cannot believe that this… what the fuck is the issue? Why can’t you do what I’m asking you to do because you don’t know how?” And it’s my problem for miscasting. There’s a miscast I go, “Fuck, man.”
When an actor walks into a room, you see their potential. At least I do.
And the first thing that I do, which I’ve learned to do on my features which I didn’t do on my short films, is go through a proper casting process. Casting doesn’t have to do with you proving anything. The actor has to prove themselves. It’s not like that at all. It’s like when I work with actors, my casting director, Jennifer Ricchiazzi can attest to this, I work with the actors in the room because I like to see what they come in with and then totally fuck them up and go with a different direction to see how they react. Because if they’re stuck on their own thing or they fight me in the room, that means that they’re not the right person for me.
But yet it takes total trust to know that even though I’m asking you to do something that maybe you didn’t think of or maybe wasn’t necessarily your choice, at least you’re willing to go there with me in the room and be able to do those things, whatever they may be. So you think you’re gonna walk in the room and you’re gonna, again, slam the door and you’re gonna have a fit in the room and the script says, “Oh, she has a rampage in the room and throw things around and break glass and all these things.” Right? So what I’ll do is I’ll say, “Ok, well, that’s ok. Now settle down. Now let’s go again. I want you to take that and I want you to completely take all that anger and you’re gonna put it into a finger. And you’re gonna walk in and you’re gonna pick up that letter and you’re gonna write a note. And I wanna see what that anger looks like then and holding it,” because I wanna know that they can do it.
Working with people that fight you all the time, it’s exhausting. I need to know that when they’re on set that they have complete trust of what I’m asking them to do because they don’t understand the whole picture. If you understand the scene it’s one thing, but you don’t understand the whole picture and how I’m gonna use it in the film and it’s important to trust the director.