Alice (Keke Palmer) yearns for freedom as an enslaved person on a rural Georgia plantation under its brutal and disturbed owner Paul (Jonny Lee Miller). After a violent clash with Paul, she flees through the neighboring woods and stumbles onto the unfamiliar sight of a highway, soon discovering the year is actually 1973. Rescued on the roadside by a disillusioned political activist named Frank (Common), Alice quickly comprehends the lies that have kept her in bondage and the promise of Black liberation. Inspired by true events, Alice is a modern empowerment story tracing Alice’s journey through the post-Civil Rights Era American South.
I feel certain that Alice will be required in all film school curricula, and rightly so. Writer and director Krystin Ver Linden pulls no punches - she's as authentic off-screen as her words and visual eye are on screen. From the opening shot to the poignant last scene, you'll be on the edge of your seat, fully immersed and in disbelief all the while rooting for titular character Alice along the way.
I had the great honor of speaking candidly with filmmaker Krystin Ver Linden about how she created this world and characters based on true events, character development, and world-building through the eye of the lens, her filmmaking influences, and why she writes to direct. I eagerly and excitedly await Krystin's next slate of films - and look forward to hearing your name mentioned in the same breath as the filmmaking auteurs that have come before her.
This interview has been edited for content and clarity.
Sadie Dean: With this story being inspired by true events - where did the idea come from interweaving these two very specific period timelines and setting it around this very self-aware character that is Alice?
Krystin Ver Linden: The story came from a series of articles, probably like twelve different articles of twelve different cases of African Americans coming out in the 60s that were born into slavery. And they were finally coming out and making it public. And every story was so compelling, but the most compelling thing for me that made me want to write it was every story wasn't a story about victimization, it was a story of how they were able to ground themselves, and actually become incredible people that led incredible lives afterward. And that to me is amazing and really, really cool. It made me sit back in my own life and think, ‘Wow, if someone can look at a negative situation and actually turn it into a moment to become an even more empowered person, then I have nothing to complain about in my life.’
Sadie: It’s interesting that you approach it in that way, because you could have made it about a character that is victimized - which we've seen.
Krystin: Yeah! ‘Poor Alice, this is so sad,’ but it was more like, ‘Oh, no, Alice is going to have an amazing life and be a president one day.’ [laughs]
Sadie: [laughs] Yes! Were you writing this with the intention to direct it as well?
Krystin: Yeah. So, after I read those articles within 48 hours, and I remember it was a Friday, and by Sunday, I was playing around with the idea, because in my head, when you read something that moves you, a lot of times I will just open Final Draft and play around with, ‘What would it look like if I were to…?’ Or to even get out how you feel about it. And then it just started; the characters started to talk to me - like the opening scene is the opening scene you see there, and they started to just have a life of their own as crazy as that sounds. And the switch didn't turn off. It felt like I was channeling because I wrote that script in seven days. Once the faucet was on, there was no stopping.
I always wanted to be a director, and screenwriting was a means to directing it. Every filmmaker that I looked up to started as a screenwriter, and so you can kind of see how their voice changed, like Sam Peckinpah wrote a Western TV show. So, that's how I started my career. But as time went on you become sick of becoming the surrogate mother, and you want to actually raise your kid. [laughs] By the time Alice came along, it was just the right thing that felt cathartic enough to live in for two years and dedicate your life to but also, it was the right size, because the movies I was writing were way bigger than anything they would let a first-time director do I would imagine. It just felt like, OK, this could be done for a certain budget and if it's meant to be, the movie Gods will let me direct it. [laughs]
Sadie: Thank God they did! In terms of the character development for Alice, assuming that she inhabits the spirit of a lot of people, were there any specific figures in history that you're drawing from or personal to you?
Krystin: Yeah, there's a lot of catharsis in Alice, because I grew up in a small town that was primarily white, and my mom's black, my dad's white, so my sisters and I were the only mixed kids and you feel like an outsider, because it's super racist, and you feel like you don't have a voice. And I really was a quiet, introverted person until I moved and felt empowered to be myself. And so, if I didn't have that life experience growing up, I don't think I could have written Alice the same way and had it feel so personal to me and feel so emotional. There are moments even in the movie where I was crying [laughs] as I was directing. I think that was the biggest thing, but also there are women in history obviously. And all the women that influenced me; whether it's on the political side or the film side, and specifically, as a movie lover, Pam Grier was someone that I looked up to, because if you boil a movie like Coffy, ultimately, it's a really amazing drama about a woman that overcomes adversity in a small town, that takes matters into her own hands, because no one will listen to her. And then she has to deal with betrayal and heartbreak. I love characters like that, and characters that are women, but they're not defined on their sex. It's not like, ‘Oh, wow, isn't it amazing that this is a really powerful woman?’ It's more like, ‘No, this is a human that's done taking bullshit.’ [laughs] And she has her own masculinity in that sense.
Sadie: I hate to say it, but why do we have to have that stigma around that? Why can’t we just be strong powerful women all the time?
Krystin: Yeah! Like, 'Wow, this story and this woman is really strong.' It's like, 'We're all usually really strong.' [laughs]
Sadie: Let's just normalize, it's OK.
Sadie: And speaking of characters, these two different and very specific worlds – you have characters on both spectrums of being outright terrible to characters like Frank played by Common. As a writer, how were you able to flesh these worlds out and interweave them, and being able to just make it flow?
Krystin: I'll go back just for a second and say Angela Davis has an influence too. Just to give her her flowers.
Krystin: To answer your question, it was fun and special because for me loving film and loving music and everything, but mainly film it was cool to get the opportunity my first time out to play in two genres. And it was fun finding examples to show the people I was collaborating with like my DP; I showed him The Night of the Hunter with Robert Mitchum and I showed him Stalker, where they have a filter on the first 30 minutes. And then once he goes into the other world it’s saturated and so that's what I wanted to do for the Southern Gothic aspect of the first 30 minutes was to desaturate it; so, as the audience, their eyes are adjusting to a certain look. But also, I wanted to deglamorize what plantation movies look like, because they are always really pretty. [laughs] I don't want the house to be really white. I don't want the grass to be really green. I don't want these things to pop out. And also, when Alice runs out, I oversaturated the film because I wanted people to adjust their eyes to like, ‘Whoa,’ that's what it would be like to see yellow for her for the first time because never in her life, why would she ever see the color yellow? It doesn't exist on the plantation. So little things that we wouldn't think of in normal life, kind of pop out to us after watching it for a certain amount of time with all the colors that are coming to life for her. I leaned on movies that I love and just ideas that I love from the 70s other than blaxploitation movies like Coffy, or Foxy Brown was Being There with Peter Sellers, where he's never left the house and then he comes out into the world and everything's new to him. And he doesn't know what anything is. That was cool to play with a character that's new to the modern-day world.
Sadie: I'd be remiss if I didn't mention your cast, most notably Keke Palmer. How did you get her on board?
Krystin: She was someone that I had always loved. And a mutual director that I knew had worked with her and, and I just loved the things she said about her. But also, I loved that she had such an amazing range. On top of that, she's someone that is true to her convictions, and she lives and embraces her individuality, which is one of the biggest themes in Alice. And so, when we were casting, it was during the George Floyd tragedy, and every time I picked up my phone or turned on the TV, there was Keke protesting or talking or giving a speech. And it was undeniable that it was eerie looking at her going, ‘God, she feels like Alice.’ The first step I made to engaging with her was I just wrote her a letter about how I felt about her. She answered back really quickly, and then I flew to New York, and we sat in a cafe for four hours talking about how we grew up, our lives, and just being really vulnerable with each other. And she felt like she didn't have a voice growing up, so it was cool to see, yeah, she's Alice when Alice is empowered, but she's also been Alice when Alice was vulnerable and unheard. So, she really was Alice.
Sadie: That’s amazing. It’s kind of like this full circle, she is the Angela Davis of our time.
Krystin: Yeah! She doesn't filter herself. She's not fake and that's her superpower. I wish everybody would know that's everyone's superpower.
Sadie: I'm totally there with you. The power of story and the power of films and how we portray things on screen, for you as a filmmaker, why was it important for you to write this story and get it made now and tell it in the way that you did?
Krystin: Well two layers, obviously, because there's still systemic racism in America and all over the world. And there's a class system and there's a bigger social conversation to be had. But also, on a higher level than that, I feel like what I just said, which is, I want people to know that they don't have to believe the projections that society puts on them of what they're capable of and who they are. Their individuality is what will make the world a better place and then embracing the love for themselves will ultimately make the world a better place. I hope people take away that my being myself is going to give me a better life, and for me and the people around me.
Sadie: Yes, and I hope you keep doing it and making more movies like this. You’ve rattled off a lot of great movies that have influenced you over time, but was there anything specific that influenced you and inspired you to become a storyteller?
Krystin: Movies. I remember as a little girl, the first movie I ever remember watching was Lawrence of Arabia. And I wasn't the little kid that wanted to be an actor, fascinated with Peter O'Toole or Omar Sharif; I wanted to know who made it, ‘How did that happen?’ So, David Lean became my hero. I wanted to know everything about David Lean, and then watch all of his movies. And then once I watched all of his movies, then I just kept growing and learning about other filmmakers as a child, so then, I created my own Mount Rushmore of the rock stars that influenced me and really felt like I was getting an education from like Akira Kurosawa, Andrei Tarkovsky, Sergio Leone, and Sam Peckinpah and obviously, Fellini, which is what every filmmaker says. [laughs]
Sadie: [laughs] Yes, it's a must.
Krystin: I mean, his surrealism was innovative and still is. And so those were the people that I looked up to, and they all had two things in common, which was, they got into filmmaking by screenwriting. I knew that in order to do what I needed to do, the best path and the cheapest, because writing is free [laughs] would be to become a writer. And that became a beautiful gift. And I love screenwriting, too. Another thing about all of those filmmakers I looked up to was they treated the camera like a character. So, the camera, the shot selection, the movement, and the perspective of the camera really can shape a film. You can give four filmmakers the same script, and they're all going to come out differently based on the perspective of the camera. So, for all of the people I just listed, I am a super nerd about the choices they made and the chances they took, and the risks that they took. And I would throw Orson Welles in there, too. [laughs]
Sadie: Another must. [laughs] Those guys weren’t making little films. Those are big filmmakers. And just in terms of the scope of what they're putting out there and I think it’s the same with your movie, it's the texture of what we’re seeing on the screen and how that carries across tonally. Just like you were saying, ‘I don't want the plantation to be beautiful.’ I’m incredibly inspired right now and am definitely watching all those movies back-to-back.
We briefly touched on this, but for you and the next slate of stories that you're writing, what are you drawn to write about? Are there specific themes that you’ll carry through each movie.
Krystin: Yeah, I mean, there's obviously the theme of the outsider or people that feel like they don't have a voice. And that comes in many shapes. Those are always the stories that I naturally gravitate towards, because of how I grew up. And I think I'll always love those stories.
Sadie: And I'm here for it. I'm just throwing this out there because David Lean's one of your favorite directors, can you please do a remake of Blithe Spirit in this lens? I know you could do something so cool with it.
Krystin: [laughs] I wonder who the American distributor is, but that would be fun.
Sadie: We’ll put it out there…Any advice for those writing a script that is based on true stories and events, like yours, something they should fully lean into or rethink?
Krystin: I would say listen to what your heart is telling you. Follow your art, and follow your heart, because those two things will never steer you wrong ever in life.
Alice is in Theaters on March 18, 2022.
Here’s the ultimate movie watch list for any and all cinephiles, screenwriters, and filmmakers, wonderfully mentioned by Krystin during this interview, as well as the directors that influenced her filmmaking journey:
Lawrence of Arabia
The Night of the Hunter