Filmmaker Shana Betz always knew her childhood was different than other kids she grew up with. Even the fondest memories she has spending time with her family coincide with other extracurricular activities her mother was doing at the time.
“I remember taking these boat trips to Nassau to go fishing,” Betz told me during an interview about her new film “Free Ride,” which chronicles the years during her childhood in the 1970s when her mother worked as a drug runner in Florida. “Little did I know these were [drug runs]. We would go out on the boat and pose as a family while this stuff was going on. If the Coast Guard came by, it just looked like we were a family hanging out. Even the memories I have that are the most nostalgic to me are memories of her working.”
In “Free Ride,” which stars Oscar-winning actress Anna Paquin as Betz’s mother, Betz (as a little girl), her older teenage sister and their mom escape an abusive home and move to Florida where drug running quickly becomes the easiest and most profitable way to raise a family.
During our interview, Betz talked to me about what it was like to revisit her childhood, why she wanted to make this movie for her sister and why it was important for her not to embellish the story of her family.
“Free Ride” was recently released on DVD and Blu-ray.
Was it difficult, emotionally, to revisit some of the issues in your past as you were writing this script or did you find it therapeutic to look back at everything?
I think it was therapeutic. I was very young at the time. Really, the catharsis came for me being able to write something for my sister. I wanted to give her something that she could watch and see herself in and emote. You know, blue-collar people will cry at commercials, but they won’t cry at funerals. I really wanted to make something my sister could watch and be able to feel for herself. I owe her a lot. She was more like my mother than my sister.
You were just a little girl when you moved with your mother and sister to Florida. What was going on in your mind when you just picked up and left? Did you understand what was happening being so young?
No, I didn’t. I think I was too young to understand. But it did feel like a new chapter. I remember that feeling very well. I remember going to Florida and it having this bright, Disney-fied feel. It was so different for me. There were oceans and beaches. It was so different from Ohio. Ohio is grey. I didn’t have a fear of moving. My sister might’ve felt those things, but I didn’t have those feelings. I just thought it was cool and fun. I wanted to be able to experience something new.
How did you come to learn the story about how your mother was part of a drug ring? Did you sit down and have a conversation with her about it when you got older?
It came to be because I started out as an actress and went to New York and when you are starting out people want to know all about you – where you came from, what your past was. When I tell people about my past – that my mother was a drug runner in the 70s and that both my parents were in prison and that I grew up on welfare – it’s a different kind of conversation. Those people were really fascinated with that story and told me I should write a book. So, I started asking my mom more questions. I did more research. I sat her down and asked, “How did this happen? What was this person like?”
How did you get her to open up? Is that not a part her life she is embarrassed to talk about?
That’s a misnomer. She’s not embarrassed at all. My mom is an old hippie. She loved that world. I think she feels like she did her time. She got pregnant in high school and dropped out. She didn’t have the tools and went out and did what she had to do. She was good at [drug running]. She found something she was good at. My mom had three jobs and we were still on welfare. It’s different when you’re in those shoes. I think she is very proud with how I came out. My mom is very proud of her girls and the fact that we’ve gone through so much. My mom is almost 70 years old. I just didn’t want to make her into something she wasn’t. I didn’t want to make her the “bad mom” who made the “bad decisions.” I just never felt that way.
So, your relationship with your mother and sister is a positive one today?
Oh, we’re best friends. There’s no embarrassment in any of this. It’s like, “Well, we got threw that one! Whew!” We all have different benchmarks. I remember my mom used to say, “Every person has a different road to hoe.” I definitely think that is the case with her.
Since this is your own story, how much creative liberty did you take in creating these characters and situations and events? Was it important for you not to embellish certain aspects of your story?
The bulk of the movie is truthful. I didn’t make up a whole lot. Truth is stranger than fiction and I couldn’t make up some of that shit. But there are certain characters I had to condense. The time frame of the movie is squished into a year where in reality it happened over several years. There were certain things we couldn’t put in the film for budgetary reasons that were really crazy stories. One of those stories happens on the boat in a storm. That, obviously, was one of the first things the producers wanted to cut. But I tried not to embellish much because it is so personal. I think the closer you get to the bone of the characters and motivations and themes, the more universal it is. I just wanted [the film] to reach as many people where I come from as it could. You don’t necessarily do that by creating something that is bigger than life. You just try to create normal people that make mistakes.
What did your mom think about the film when she saw it for the first time?
Well, her only note to me was that she didn’t do drugs when she was working. She said, “Shana. I was working. I didn’t drink and I didn’t do drugs.” Now, I had to condense that because that was definitely part of her life. So, I pushed her [drug addiction] into that as a catalyst of her bad decision making. But in reality, she wasn’t drinking or doing drugs when she was in Florida.
What does your mom think about all these changes happening in marijuana laws across the U.S.? I mean, your mom spent time in jail for moving pot and now it’s legal in some places. Does she have any thoughts about how the culture has changed on this issue?
She does. She is pro legalization for lots of reasons, but not because of the drug angle. She cannot get behind a system that demonizes a drug and puts single mothers behind bars. She is a product of that system. I work with the Actors’ Gang Theater out here in Los Angeles. It’s [actor] Tim Robbins’ company. Part of our theater program is that we go into prisons. So, I’ve worked in the women’s prison. You can’t believe all these little old ladies that have been in there for years for drug dealing. It just doesn’t make a lot of sense to treat marijuana like it’s cocaine. Today, the local drug dealer doesn’t look like what you’d think he would look like. It’s not a guy in a hoodie on the corner selling you crack. Now, you walk into a drug dealer’s home and it’s a single mom who has a bunch of kids running around.