'Alice' Director Krystin Ver Linden Found 'Empowerment' in a Real-Life Story of Emancipation

Warning: This article contains spoilers for Alice (2022).

For any burgeoning filmmaker and screenwriter, taking control of your narrative and crafting the vision for your first feature project is a daunting feat. But for Krystin Ver Linden, the director of 2021’s Alice starring Keke Palmer, paving her path has been a years-in-the-making kind of journey. Alice, which first premiered at Sundance and is out in theaters on March 18, tells the story of an enslaved woman who escapes from the plantation on which she’s held only to find it’s not the 1800s anymore — it’s the 1970s, and the Black liberation movement is all around her. Introduced to icons like Angela Davis, Pam Grier, and Diana Ross, Alice goes on a journey to reclaim her personhood and identity, burning down her past and lighting the spark of her future in a film director Ver Linden hopes will be equal parts empowering and inspiring.

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Ver Linden took the time to chat with SheKnows before the film’s theatrical release about her mentor Quentin Tarantino, the shocking real-life stories of African Americans who remained enslaved following the Emancipation Proclamation that inspired this film, and her desire to subvert expectations about slavery movies with her take on the genre.

Ver Linden wants audiences to know that, just like the real-life people who escaped the unimaginable to create a new life for themselves, “they have the power within themselves to define themselves on their own terms.”

“And that goes beyond race or religion or gender or anything,” she says. “Define yourself on your own terms. And anyone can make a difference. Everyone has a voice. Everyone’s voice is important, and it takes only one person to start a movement or a conversation or anything. That’s what I hope people are left with.”

Read on for our full conversation with Ver Linden below.

SheKnows: This film is inspired by and dedicated to Black Americans who remained enslaved following the Emancipation Proclamation. How much did the specific stories that you came across in your research inform what we see Alice go through in the film?

Krystin Ver LindenThere were several stories. There were about 11 different cases, 11 different articles of different people. But the one that stood out and stayed with me to the point where, even if I push it out of my head, it was back in…[was] Mae Miller. It was a People magazine article, and it opens with this journalist asking her how she feels, and we know nothing about the woman. And they’re walking back onto this plantation.

She begins to describe her feelings, and then she starts to talk about memories. And then the journalist goes back to how it all started and her story. I wish I could say my movie was more dramatic, but her life was ten times more violent and horrific than anything I could have written. She’s a hero of mine because she didn’t carry with her a sense of victimization, it was more of empowerment and how to move beyond trauma. That’s what was really cool to me.

When she did get out, she was actually in her 60s. So, her age was a big difference from Alice. But also when she finally did run away, it was 1962. In Alice, she runs away in 1973. I wanted there to be enough time for our character to reflect on the movement that happened in the ’60s instead of her running right out into the middle of it.

Mae Miller went to school, she became an engineer. She had an amazing third act to her life, then passed away in 2004 or 2005. She’s someone I think about every day. She just truly, truly captured my heart because she had…she was someone to draw strength from. Whenever you feel low or, “what’s the point of anything, what’s the world going to become?” People like Mae Miller redefined who they were after having someone tell you your whole life that you’re nothing is amazing and it’s something to be inspired by.

SK: You straddle two different time periods in this movie. One’s a Southern Gothic nightmare, the other is saturated and very ‘70s. Were there films or pieces of research that inspired those distinct looks? 

KVL: I love that you used the term Southern Gothic, because that’s what I was going for when I was describing it to the team and the [director of photography, Alex Disenhof]. I wanted to have this Southern Gothic feel. We decided the best way to get that feeling would be to de-saturate the film. Whenever you look at any movie that has anything to do with slavery, or a plantation, it looks beautiful. The grass is really green — everything’s very cinematic. I didn’t want [Alice] to have that feeling.

The films that I drew inspiration from — I’m a huge cinephile — are classics, like The Night of the Hunter was a big one for me. It’s a Robert Mitchum film. It’s a famous movie where he has love on one hand and hate on the other. He’s this preacher who’s very calm and well-mannered and we come to find that he marries widows in order to kill them.

It’s a very famous Southern Gothic movie. They shot that film as if the camera was an observer instead of a participant, which is really creepy. That’s what I was going for cinematically. And then, you nailed it again, when she [escapes the plantation], we did saturate the film. When you think about it, there are certain things [Alice] hasn’t seen, like bright yellow. She’s never seen that color before. Colors that wouldn’t even exist on the plantation for our audience for the first 30 minutes [of the film]. Just by saturating colors that we see on an everyday basis, we really get a sense of this world is really interesting, and everything seems like a first experience.

In the ’70s, of course, there are so many Blaxploitation movies that I pulled from — specifically Pam Grier because she was a hero of mine growing up. Coffy was probably the main one (it was Pam Grier’s first film as the lead). And there’s a vulnerability in that film that isn’t in other Blaxploitation films with a female lead where she’s not trying to be this cheesy badass. She hurts, and she goes through trauma, and she is resilient, and it feels very organic. There’s never a moment in that film where she’s this crazy badass. There’s a moment where she has the one-liners, but ultimately it’s a woman who’s been through Hell and back. There’s a beautiful vulnerability to that.

SK: You’ve spoken so eloquently about writing and directing working in tandem. How did your initial vision for Alice change during your writing process?

KVL: It’s almost like being a surrogate mother — you’re carrying this kid but it goes to someone else. That was my life up until I wrote Alice. You can write a movie for any size, and ultimately you’re handing it off to a filmmaker. I wanted to direct Alice because, ultimately, all I ever wanted was to be a director. I just needed the right thing. It just needed to feel like the right time for me. Alice was that thing.

From the minute I wrote the first sentence, I already knew it was something I wanted to direct so I was very conscious of trying to write it with a budget in mind. I was very conscious of trying to be economical and still tell a really great story. The script I had, of course, there are so many more details. As a first-time director, you go in thinking this is what the script is going to be. My DP was almost like, “Well you know the point where the script gets cut in half because of budget. That happens on every movie.”

I was like, “No that won’t happen.” Come to find out…I remember the conversation was we need to lose 20 pages. We were already in the middle of COVID so a lot of the budget was going to COVID precautions — having a doctor on set, having testing. It was 2020 during the summer, the height of COVID, when people didn’t really know how to handle it.

But money from the film was going to keep everyone safe. It was just one of those things where I was staying in Georgia and just cried. Then, I rolled up my sleeves, and I swear on my life thought, “What would Mae Miller do?” She would get back to work, she would roll her sleeves up and she wouldn’t cry about it. She would just figure it out.

I just sat down, printed out the script, opened up my Final Draft and went through and thought, “How can I still tell the same story and lose 20 pages?” I’m grateful at the end of the day that I was able to make my first movie, and that’s what I look at is that I got to shoot it beautifully and I got to shoot it in Georgia, where the stories took place, and that is what I’m grateful for.

SK: You’ve spoken about your mentor Quentin Tarantino and how much he’s impacted your work ethic. How did your experience working on films like Django Unchained inspire your choices for Alice, if at all?

KVL: If mentorship was a job, he would be the best at what he does. When the film came out and the reviews came out, he called me up and he went through some of the big reviews. He was the first person I showed my cut to and the rough cut without any of the real score. He’s been through the process with me.

When I started working with him, he knew what I wanted to be. He saw himself in me as he did Reservoir Dogs and when he was just a screenwriter, and he wanted to find that vehicle. He was always hands-on in the sense of stopping to teach me things or show me things, because when it comes to screenwriting, that doesn’t cost anything.

I’ve been writing screenplays since I was in sixth grade. They probably weren’t good. But over the course of time, they got better, and better, and better. By the time we met, my voice was starting to emerge. But when I met him I was 18. What does an 18-year-old have to say? It took the process of living a life and learning from him. Learning how a writer-director approaches their own film and their own vision. And that’s how I learned to write in my own music, and really believe that every character has a backstory.

He taught me all of those things. You just had to keep up with him. That teaches you to get faster, and faster, and faster. And being with him on set, the biggest thing that I learned is don’t be the director that sits in a tent 10 feet away and you’re talking to your actors through a microphone.

Don’t be the director that is so controlling when you’re blocking a scene that the actors don’t feel free enough to try things. Part of directing is holding a safe space for the actors to do what they want, not telling them what they want. Your job is to hold a safe space to let them try it, ultimately, knowing what you want.

SK: Tell me about collaborating with Keke Palmer. How did your relationship evolve over the filmmaking process?

KVL: I love her so much. When we first met, we bonded and sat in a café in New York for hours. I remember she wanted to do [the movie] really bad and I wanted her to do [the movie] really bad. But I didn’t want to put her on the spot because I know you can’t jump into someone’s head. We really got along together.

I remember when I left, she sent me a text that said, “Ok, are we doing this?” I said, yes, and we got really excited. From then on we were just calling each other, texting back and forth and got really, really, really close. And that was at the tail end of 2019, right before 2020. Then COVID hit and we were still locked arm-in-arm.

When we got on set, we made a pact with each other that no matter what, we had each other. We found safety in each other. We had a pact of sticking together like two sisters and that was amazing. As an actress, she was amazing. She’s really, really empathic. So, she gets into the characters in a way that comes from a very emotional place where you truly feel you can almost feel like she really embodies the things that are going on with the characters. And I just love her. I think she’s so brilliant and I can’t wait to work with her again. I know I will.

SK: What do you hope audiences take away from Alice?

KVL: That they have the power within themselves to define themselves on their own terms…and that goes beyond race or religion or gender or anything. Define yourself on your own terms. And anyone can make a difference. Everyone has a voice. Everyone’s voice is important, and it takes only one person to start a movement or a conversation or anything. That’s what I hope people are left with.

SK: What are you looking forward to most in the next chapter of your career?

KVL: As a writer, as well as a new filmmaker, I control my own narratives. So, even though there are incoming projects, as a writer, I have the power to write any story I want. The Rise & Fall of Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid is something I’m excited about. There’s a story I’m working on called The Widow in the West, and a movie that takes place in 1968 during the assassination of Bobby Kennedy, but it’s a coming of age story for a woman and the loss of innocence that comes with experiencing something traumatic for the first time. There are many things I’m excited about. Those are all things that I’m writing myself and I’ve written myself. I’m grateful for incoming projects, but I like to be the controller of my own destiny.

Before you go, click here to see celebrity women of color share the first movie or TV character who made them feel seen.

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