by Carrie Harris (@carrharr)
This week, I had the opportunity to take in an advance screening of Miss Virginia and sit down for a chat with director R.J. Daniel Hanna. Miss Virginia is based on the life of Virginia Walden Ford and stars Uzo Aduba, Matthew Modine, Aunjanue Ellis, and Niles Fitch. The screenplay was written by Erin O’Connor.
Based on a true story, Miss Virginia follows an impoverished single mother who is losing her fifteen-year-old son to the rough streets of Washington D.C. Unwilling to see him drop out, she places him in a private school, but when she can’t afford tuition, she launches a movement to change the system that is destroying him and thousands like him. Virginia must stand against opponents from corrupt politicians to the local drug lord and discover the strength she never knew she had.
As a screenwriter, I’ve always found films about social issues challenging to write. It’s so easy to veer off into melodrama or preachiness. But Miss Virginia didn’t do that at all. Throughout the film, this felt like a very real problem, one that wasn’t solved easily with a stirring speech while the soundtrack swelled in the background. So I went into my conversation with director R.J. Daniel Hanna wanting to understand how to do that.
Daniel pointed out that it needs to be a deliberate choice from the beginning—not only the story you’re going to tell, but how you’re going to tell it. From the moment he entered the project, they were having these discussions, and the consensus was that they wanted to stay grounded in the moment as much as possible. That they wanted the audience to go on this difficult emotional journey with Virginia.
Sounds great, right? But how do you do that? Daniel suggests that it’s about knowing what you want each scene to accomplish. They identified significant moments and deliberately approached them depending on how they wanted that scene to play out.
You can see these different approaches as you watch the film. Some deeply emotional moments are left to breathe, with only Uzo Abuba’s excellent acting skills to communicate what feels like a punch to the gut. These moments aren’t crammed with dialogue or soundtrack that tell us how to feel about them.
In contrast, Daniel pointed out the scene where Virginia first speaks publicly at the community Q&A session. There, the pace slows and she does a lot of talking as her emotional journey takes a very visible turn. It’s another hugely emotional moment, but the approach is different, because the goal of the scene is different.
The real key is knowing what you’re trying to accomplish with the written scene and then being very deliberate in the filmmaking process. Daniel also noted that having amazing actors like Uzo Aduba helps, too!
Of course, this process becomes more complicated when trying to condense an extensive real-life story down into a cohesive script. Erin O’Connor had already created an excellent draft when Daniel came on board this project, but he had this to say about the revision process: “The emotional core is key.”
Daniel suggests that once you identify the core of what your film is about—what the character’s journey is from a storytelling perspective—then you can select events from their real-life story to help tell that specific arc. This helps whittle down your subject matter and makes the difference between a verbatim retelling and a crafted story.
I asked Daniel what this experience taught him about making films, because there’s something to be learned from every project. He suggests that as filmmakers, we should be careful about scenes that take us away from our main character. In Miss Virginia, he went into filming thinking that many scenes were necessary to fuel the B and C plots. But as they made and edited the film, he realized this wasn’t the case. “I realized that it’s Virginia’s story, and we needed to stay with her and go on an emotional journey with her.”
He admits that it’s a struggle to let go of some of those scenes, especially with such a talented cast and crew, but necessary to produce the best movie possible.
Lastly, Daniel recommends enjoying the experience! Making films and being on set is tough, he says, but the opportunity to work with wonderful, talented people while making good art is something to be savored.
Ultimately, we tell stories because we love them, and I think you can feel that with Miss Virginia.
Miss Virginia will be in select theaters, on Digital, and On Demand on October 18, 2019.
Carrie Harris is a published novelist, game designer, and aspiring screenwriter. She lives in Utah with her husband and kids and is probably drinking caffeine right now. Learn more about her work at carrieharrisbooks.com.