Won't Back Down: Director Daniel Barnz Talks True Story

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Won’t Back Down stars Maggie Gyllenhaal and Viola Davis give two performances that deserve major Oscar love, the film's director Daniel Barnz believes. “Maggie has an interesting, compelling, fiery passion to her that felt so right for this role,” Barnz told Movie Fanatic in our exclusive interview.

“This is a character who is a fighter and to see Maggie channel that passion into this role was really exhilarating.”

Rosie Perez, Maggie Gyllenhaal Viola Davis Won't Back Down

Davis, fresh off her Oscar nod for her work on The Help, equally impressed the Won’t Back Down director -- and she has for years. “Viola is an actress that I have revered for a long time. In fact, I actually wrote the role for her,” Barnz said.

“Directing her is a little bit like playing a Stradivarius violin. You can ask for any kind of note and the music that comes out is very beautiful. She actually makes your life very difficult as a filmmaker because she had so many brilliant takes," he said, laughing. "It was very difficult to choose which one to use.”

Barnz co-wrote the film with Brin Hill and it is based on a true story about a group of parents and teachers who took on the system, all in an effort to save their school. The film is riveting, as we state in our Won’t Back Down review, and the helmer appreciated the us-against-the-world motif.

“I am a great lover of the David and Goliath genre. Some of the films that were so inspirational for me, in terms of films like Erin Brockovich, Norma Rae, Silkwood -- those are the films that I grew up on and have loved. That was sort of half of it,” he said.

The other half had to do with the filmmaker coming from a family full of teachers and keenly knowing their sacrifice to make all of our lives more enriched.

“My parents are both teachers. My grandmother was a public school teacher. My sister-in-law teaches in the public school system in New York. My mother-in-law works in an alternative public middle school in New York City. So education has always been a part of my family; it’s been a part of my blood,” Barnz said.

“I think you take those two things together, the love of the David and Goliath genre and the huge commitment and deep passion for education, and you end up with Won’t Back Down.”

The events that inspired Won’t Back Down are a composite of tales of failing schools and what parents and teachers did to make the situation improve.

“What we wanted to try to do was to create a story that wasn’t going to feel like an L.A. story or a New York story, but was going to feel more like an American story about how people who feel powerless can see that there’s something wrong and go out and try to change it,” Barnz said.
David Barnz and Maggie Gyllenhaal Picture

Barnz found that as he was writing and making the film, art would imitate life almost every day in a story unfolding on the news. “I researched for months and months and months and conceived this story, co-wrote it, shot it, and then would read about things in the headlines that were unfolding,” Barnz said.

“I was just reading the other day about the Chicago teachers’ strike and I read that all the teachers were wearing red t-shirts. Well, it’s so interesting that I have a protest scene in my film where the protesters are wearing red t-shirts. It’s pretty amazing.”

Above all else, the experience was rewarding on so many levels… not the least of which was being able to have a front row seat to witnessing two actresses doing their best work.

“I was so blessed to work with these actors. I would sit there behind the monitor and literally pinch myself thinking how lucky I was to get to collaborate with them,” Barnz said.

“Maggie and Viola created these characters that I don’t think we’ve ever seen anything like it before. They’re just really unique, appealing, charming, winning, strong and emotional. It’s just really beautiful to watch. I guess you can tell that I really like them a lot.”

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