Shana Betz recently wrote and directed “Free Ride,” a drama based on her life in the 1970s when her mom (Anna Paquin), struggling to raise two daughters on her own, got seduced into transporting drugs. Shana (Ava Acres) is the younger daughter and is 7 in the film. Liana Liberato of “Stuck in Love“ plays MJ, Shana’s older sister who was 15 at the time. 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: Have you had therapy to deal with those rough childhood years?
Shana Betz: I probably need therapy, but no, not for that. When mom went to jail I was 11 and went to live with my grandmother. Up until that, my mom continued partying. She wasn’t running drugs anymore but she still drank and took hard drugs.
Heroin and cocaine?
Yes, she was doing heroin and coke before I was born, then started smoking a lot of pot and using a lot of alcohol. I have a lot of compassion for her, though. She was a girl who got pregnant in high school and didn’t graduate, and we were on welfare and food stamps. My mom was just not well equipped to be a parent.
How was it living with your grandmother?
Much better! With my mom we’d moved quite a bit with all of her various boyfriends. I didn’t want to be pulled around anymore and finally put my foot down. My grandmother is my angel. She saved my life. I still think of her every day. Having a crazy life and moving so much is detrimental to kids. That instability was much more difficult than the fact that my mom smoked pot and drank.
Do you get along with your mom now?
I have a great relationship with both my mother and sister. Growing up, my mother was more like a friend and my sister was more like a mom. I wrote “Free Ride” as a love letter to my sister.
Are you angry about your upbringing?
No, I don’t feel anger towards my mother. Growing up I knew she just didn’t have the right mental equipment to do any better. People have asked me, “How could you make a film that puts your mother in a positive light?” I think the film is a truthful depiction of our life. I wasn’t interested in demonizing her, and I even walked away from a lot of deals because they wanted to make a sensationalized version about the drugs, like making another “Blow.” That’s not the film I wanted to make.
Did your mom ever get sober?
She found God in her 50s, so she quit the drugs. She still drinks every once in a while.
Did she ever go to AA?
I think there was one short stint with it, but I was living with my grandmother at that time.
Did you ever have a drinking and drugging phase?
Yes. I’m still in it. [Laughs]
How about your sister?
She never did drugs or had a drinking issue, but she’s been married a couple of times and had relationship issues. My sister has a lot of resentment towards our mom. I’m really the one with relationship stuff, though. I’m 41 years old, divorced, and don’t have children. Maybe it’s because I’m selfishly driven to be creative. I’m hyper-focused on projects and an achiever with high goals. Maybe it’s because of the way I was raised, but relationships continue to be an issue.
OK, back to talking about “Free Ride,” how was it working with Drea de Matteo?
It was a love fest from the second we met. We’re birds of a feather. She’s got a lot of chutzpah and is a great and rare talent.
What about Liana Liberato and Ava Acres?
Those two are superstars. They’re amazing. Liana is so mature. Neither one of them have been affected by Hollywood. A lot of the kids that auditioned had a difficult time being genuine. Children are more truthful if they haven’t become affected yet. Liana grew up in Texas, not Hollywood, and Ava is just so talented. She was 7 when we filmed. Ava listens, she’s calm, and very aware of what’s going on around her. Her father is also an actor and he did such an amazing job letting her be normal and not putting her in the Hollywood box. For kids it can be tough. They come in to audition and they’re like programmed robots as if they have a tape telling them what to say and when to laugh. It’s sad.
Was it hard saying goodbye to the kids after the movie wrapped?
Yeah, but I used Ava in my next film. It’s a supernatural thriller in the vein of an old-school Kubrick thriller. I’m very excited about it. Ava spent most of the time underwater. The story is about a female scientist who goes out in the middle of the Bermuda triangle of that area. Right now it still has a working title.
When will it be released?
It should be ready in the first quarter of 2014.
“Free Ride” opens in limited release and will be available On Demand Jan. 10, 2014. Unrated. 86 minutes.