With his latest film “Won’t Back Down,” writer-director Daniel Barnz (“Beastly”) takes on an issue that will hit many parents close to home: what to do when your local public school is failing your child, but is the only real option available?
The story centers on a committed but financially struggling mother (Maggie Gyllenhaal) whose daughter’s dyslexia is being ignored by her instructor. She teams with a skilled but disillusioned teacher (Viola Davis) hoping to reinvigorate the educational system by rallying parents and staff to overturn the under-performing school.
Barnz tells PopcornBiz how he landed a cast filled with Academy Award-nominated actors to tell a tale he believes will strike a chord with parents and educators across the country.
On his film’s exceptional leading ladies:
I still watch this movie and pinch myself. I can't believe that I was so blessed to work with some of these actors. I revered Viola as an actor for so many years, ever since I saw 'Antwone Fisher,' a movie with about four words. I wrote the role for her. I was thrilled when she said yes. I think she's practically a national treasure. And Maggie, I mean she's an actress that I could literally not imagine anyone more perfect playing this role of a fighter. Maggie has so much kind of fiery passion to her, and she also has this really kind of fundamental warmth and sort of optimism. She is an internal optimist, and so I think when you see this character with so many setbacks and she just keeps forging ahead, it's a very, very inspirational performance.
On building the story around real issues facing parents and public schools today:
As a filmmaker, I did always love the David and Goliath genre. It's something that's really spoken to me. I cried at 'Rudy,' but I also grew up on 'Norma Rae' and 'Silkwood' – 'Erin Brockovich' is one of my favorite movies. I've always wanted to make a movie kind of in that vein. My parents are both teachers. My grandmother is a public school teacher. My sister and brother-in-law are both public school teachers in New York City. So education has always been a part of my family. It's been a part of my blood. You put those two things together and you end up with 'Won't Back Down.'
The film is inspired by actual events. What I did was to look at all of these different kinds of stories and narratives and characters across the country, in cities everywhere, and drew together threads of all of them, to create this story. One of the things that we really tried to do was to make this feel like a story that everybody could relate to, that was unfolding in everybody's backyard, that it would feel universal. I wanted to tell a story that was fundamentally about people who feel powerless and they see that something is wrong in the world and they go out and they try to change it.
On tapping his stars’ protective parent instincts:
I think that every parent, no matter what circumstances you live, in understands that feeling, that you would sacrifice anything for your kids, that you will lie down on train tracks for them. Viola was in the process of adopting, so while her daughter was not actually yet living with her, she was in the process of becoming a parent. And Maggie was a parent, so they both brought that to their performance. In addition, Viola has a sister who's a public school teacher. She's very close with her, and so I think in her mind, when she was thinking about playing the role of a teacher, she was also really channeling her sister and her sister's life, who I was actually just fortunate enough to meet the other night at our premiere.
On rounding out the supporting cast with equally major players, including Rosie Perez, Marianne Jean-Baptiste and Holly Hunter:
I didn't even think that I could get some of these people. I never in a million years thought Rosie Perez was going to say yes to this role. In fact, I said to our casting director, 'Do you know who I really want for this role? Rosie Perez, but I'll never get her. So who is in that vein that we could get?' She said, 'Well, why not Rosie Perez?' I said, 'Really?' And I sat down with Rosie Perez, and Rosie Perez has her own education charity that she runs that's so important to her, and so this movie really spoke to her in a very profound level. I think you can actually see that in her performance, the way that she thinks about being a teacher, because she works with all these kids in inner city schools.