WON'T BACK DOWN
WON'T BACK DOWN is a powerful story - inspired by true events - of
parenthood, friendship, hope and courage. Maggie Gyllenhaal and Viola Davis
portray determined mothers who will stop at nothing to transform their
children's failing inner city school. Facing a powerful and entrenched
bureaucracy and a system mired in traditional thinking, they risk everything to
make a difference in the education and future of their children.
The film echoes the overarching themes of such beloved pictures as "The Blind
Side," "Erin Brockovich" and "Norma Rae," all of which depict women who right a
wrong by taking matters into their own hands and force necessary change for the
collective good. These characters embraced the chance to step into the arena and
fight the good fight because no one else was going to do it.
WON'T BACK DOWN is also a David vs. Goliath tale whose structure, says
director Daniel Barnz, plays out in unexpected ways for a drama focusing on two
characters. "In a way, we treat this as a kind of war film, so we endeavored to
give WON'T BACK DOWN as much scope as possible," he explains. The story depicts
a series of battles in which the lead roles are combatants waging war against a
broken system. The weapons they employ are hope and action.
Audiences will identify with many of the struggles facing Jamie Fitzpatrick (Gyllenhaal)
and Nona Alberts (Davis) as they fight for their children against a powerful
bureaucracy. Theirs is a story that emboldens and enlightens, and posits that
one person can make a difference. Says Barnz: "I hope audiences take away a
feeling for the power of the individual. We have the power to change things -
for our children and for the next generations. Oscar -winning producer Mark
Johnson ("Rain Man") echoes: "Vital change can start with a single person and
then another, and before you know it, there's a block of people who are
demanding, 'We want something better for our children!'"
Viola Davis, an Academy Award nominee for her work in "The Help," takes this
idea to the next level. "It is our job, as human beings, to live a life bigger
than ourselves, or otherwise we are not living. We must risk more, love deeper,
and leave something on this Earth bigger than ourselves."
Barnz presents these big ideas in a compelling portrait of the emotional
lives of the two principals, who are the film's heart and soul. They are mothers
from opposite sides of the social and economic track, but who are equally
determined to save the futures of their kids, as well as their own. For
Gyllenhaal's Jamie, the journey is about ensuring her daughter isn't doomed by a
poor education; for Davis' Nona, it's about rediscovering her passion for
Sporting tattoos and rocker-chick wardrobe, Jamie is far from a prototypical
activist who would be leading a charge in education reform. Says Gyllenhaal: "I
wanted Jamie to be surprising; that she'd be the last person you'd expect to
care enough about this issue to drop everything and risk everything to effect
these huge changes. She's not a political person, so this activism is coming
from her heart."
It is a complex role, which Davis communicates in powerful yet simple ways.
"What is extraordinary about Viola is her ability to communicate 10,000 emotions
in a single expression," marvels Barnz.
The fact that Jamie and Nona are so different - socially, economically,
personally - makes their teaming even more powerful. "The characters are
opposites who are perfectly matched," notes Barnz. "Jamie and Nona are so
different when they first come together, that sparks fly and they clash. That
electricity is fascinating to watch as they struggle to overcome the divide
The same holds true for the varying personalities and approaches of the two
actors taking on the roles, further enhancing the chemistry and sparks. "Maggie
is a fiery, passionate and political person," notes Barnz. "Viola is thoughtful
and a bit more reserved. Both artists have tremendous emotional depth."
Playing another teacher, Michael, is Oscar Isaac, one of today's most
in-demand actors, who is currently on screens as a covert operative in "The
Bourne Legacy." Isaac's Michael is a progressive teacher who employs innovative
methods to make learning exciting for his young pupils. When he meets Jamie,
romance blossoms, and Michael is caught up, reluctantly, in her and Nona's
quest. "Michael's teaching style is working for his class, so he's reluctant to
uproot what seems to be successful and rewarding," says Isaac. "But Jamie forces
him to look at the bigger picture and see how he can make even more of a
difference in the lives of the entire student body."
Academy Award nominee Rosie Perez portrays Breena Harper, a teacher torn
between the crusade led by Jamie and Nona, and maintaining an imperfect status
quo. "Breena's at a crossroads," says Perez. "She's flawed but has a great
heart, and that's what makes her relatable."
In casting the role, Barnz had told his casting director to pursue a "Rosie
Perez-type," skeptical that he could land the actress. "But we got her!" says
the director. "Rosie has extraordinary passion for the character and subject
matter. She is vibrant and funny, and well-versed in the issues facing so many
Rounding out the starring cast is Academy Award winner Holly Hunter, who
takes on the role of Evelyn Riske, the conflicted head of the teachers' union.
"Evelyn asks a lot of questions about herself and her positions," says Hunter.
"She's torn between her role in the system and making the changes that best
serve the school and the kids. She's facing a big shift in her thinking."
"Holly is one of our most beloved actors, even when she plays an antagonist,
as she does in WON'T BACK DOWN," notes Barnz. "She brings warmth, sympathy and
complexity to the character."
Taking on co-starring roles are Lance Reddick ("Fringe") as Nona's estranged
husband Charles Alberts; Marianne Jean-Baptiste (an Oscar nominee for "Secrets
and Lies") as Olivia Lopez, the chairperson of the board of education; Golden
Globe winner Ving Rhames as the school's principal, Emily Alyn Lind, as
Maggie's daughter Malia; and Dante Brown and Nona's son Cody.
WON'T BACK DOWN was filmed on location in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, which
Barnz lauds for its "great spirit, and mix of Midwestern flavor and Eastern
(U.S.) feel." Adds producer Mark Johnson: "It's an aggressively proud city, with
an impressive beauty," noting Pittsburgh's downtown triangle area, and
convergence of three rivers."
Barnz, production designer Rusty Smith, and director of photography Roman
Osin, BSC wanted a palette that evolved through the story. For early scenes,
they created a cold, wintery environment with a desaturated color palette. As
the characters' journeys progress, and their dreams and plans come to life, the
colors deepen and become richer. Says Smith: "By the end of the story, we're in
spring and everything is vibrant and full of hope."
Osin's camera is constantly on the move, enhancing WON'T BACK DOWN's strong
energy and helping convey the characters' restlessness and relentless pursuit of
their cause and for their battle.
But what drives the film most of all, is the cast's and filmmakers' passion
for the material and the struggle it depicts. Says Barnz: "My hope is that
audiences connect to WON'T BACK DOWN whether they're a parent or not. The film
deals with universal and relatable themes, including taking on something bigger
than oneself, and discovering you have the strength to accomplish anything.
"That's a powerful message for audiences, everywhere," he continues. "It's
not just an American story."
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