True crime films about rape have been told—and retold. And yet, veteran director Michelle Danner discovered a story that had never been depicted on screen.
Her film Miranda’s Victim tells the story of Patricia Weir who, against the odds, brought Ernesto Miranda, her abductor and rapist, to trial. But after his conviction in 1963, Miranda’s lawyer sought to overturn his case, stating that the evidence against him had been obtained under duress—and Miranda was uninformed about his right to remain silent. Ultimately, this case led to the “Miranda’s warning”—the legal requirement for the police to read someone their rights upon arrest. And, as the film shows, it protects the innocent—as well as the guilty.
Miranda’s Victim premiered at the 2023 Santa Barbara Film Festival and earned Danner the Best Female Director at the L.A. Independent Women Film Awards. It continues its festival run throughout the summer of 2023 with forthcoming screenings at the Nevada Women’s Film Festival; Cinequest Film Festival, Accolade Global Film Competition, Madrid International Film Festival, and others.
Danner spoke with Ms. about the inspiration for the film, its depiction of violence against women, and her views on being a woman in the film industry.
Michele Meek: Can you talk about what brought you to this story?
Michelle Danner: Well, I was always fascinated, interested, and perturbed by crime and mystery stories. Immediately, I could tell this was an important story that had never been told.
In my previous movie called The Runner, I used the right to remain silent and the right to an attorney, and I never questioned where it came from. But one of the writers, George Kolber, did. He went and looked for the person that it happened to and realized that she had never told her story.
There’s just meant to be in life. For all the flack that I’ve gotten from my family over all the crime shows I’ve watched—it was meant to be that a movie like that with that subject matter should be offered to me. And immediately, I said yes, I want to do it.
Then I started to work on the script and talked to a casting director to put together a cast. And a lot of my first choices are on the screen. When that happens for a filmmaker—there’s nothing more exhilarating than that.
Meek: Why do you think this is an important story to tell now?
Danner: It’s so rare that you find a story that hasn’t been told. But this story led to what we know as the Miranda rights and civil liberties for people who get arrested—whether it’s for the innocent or not—as we show in the movie. I appreciated that the story had karmic justice, so it all came full circle since at times, as we know, our judicial system can be flawed.
And it inspires people to have their voices heard, especially women. What did it cost, you know, this wonderful, courageous lady, Patricia Weir in 1963, and again in 1965, to come forth with her story and tell the truth and have her voice be heard?
These stories need to keep being told to empower people. It was difficult in 1963 to come forth—and how hard is it for somebody today? It still is. Yes, we want to believe that things have changed. They have evolved, of course they have. There’s been the #MeToo movement, but there’s still a while to go. I saw a documentary not too long ago about a lot of women that had come forth with their stories, and the tables are turned on them. And they’re the ones accused of making it up, and they are the ones who are convicted.
The judicial system can be erratic. In this story, it’s great because justice prevails, and people are committed to doing the right thing.
It’s so rare that you find a story that hasn’t been told. But this story led to what we know as the Miranda rights and civil liberties for people who get arrested—whether it’s for the innocent or not.Michelle Danner
Meek: Can you talk about the research you did as part of making this film?
Danner: As part of my research, I went to Arizona, I went to Phoenix, I went to the Paramount Theater, which she worked at, and, and got on the bus and went to the bus stop where he abducted her and did the drive to the desert. And I mean, I was sitting there at the bus stop and it just started to get really emotional because I was thinking, if she had taken an earlier bus …
Meek: In addition to the explicit assault, some more subtle threads run through the film—like domestic abuse. For example, we get the feeling Patricia’s husband is volatile in the home—and we get the same sense from Twila’s testimony about Miranda. Can you talk about how you made choices about how you wanted these threads depicted?
Danner: I wanted to show what it cost Patricia to have the courage to do this, and that he was not supportive of her. A woman’s place in the ‘50s, the ‘60s, and sometimes even today, is to be subservient to what your husband wants. She defied all of that. So, it was important to show the obstacle that she had to overcome.
In terms of Twila, played by the wonderful Taryn Manning, she also portrayed a woman who took her power and really found her voice, which is scary in 1966 in a courtroom with your perpetrator.
Meek: Absolutely. I don’t know how she had the courage to do that when he could have gotten out of jail. Because he is such a violent person, you don’t know what he is capable of.
Danner: Right. When you’re dealing with a wild card, you don’t know. And when you have children, you want to protect them, right?
Meek: Of course.
I thought it was really interesting how you did not depict the sexual assault at all in the beginning of the film. But then there is the decision to include a more graphic depiction at the end. I’m curious about the thinking behind that, about including it at all, or including it here but not there.
Danner: My instinct absolutely was not to go into it until the end and that everything should lead up to that. The movie is more about her fight for justice. At the end, she experienced a very sad, tragic and violent event, but I thought that it needed a build.
I think that we talked about it so much in the movie that it didn’t need to be violent? Do you think that it was violent from your perspective?
Meek: I mean, I think anytime I see sexual assault on screen, it feels violent to me.
Danner: It was graphic, but I always knew I was going to depict it in a more artistic way. We scheduled that scene for the last day of the shoot because I knew that a lot of people were nervous about it and even a lot of people on the crew, they walked away. They didn’t want to see. It made everybody nervous.
I was going to take the shooting day to shoot it, but because we were shooting in New Jersey and there were thunderstorms, we lost time. So now I’m finding myself having to get all these setups the very last day of the shoot. I walk on set—and we have 27 setups and everybody, my director of photography, my first AD [assistant director] are like, “Nope, it’s not possible. You won’t be able to get it. It’s not going to happen.” And I said, “Oh, it’s going to happen—just watch.” And I was just very strong that day. I mean, I had been strong all throughout because you have to be, you know?
I have always said directing movies is not for the faint of heart.
Meek: What has your experience as a woman in the film industry been like?
Danner: As a woman, you have to keep fighting to have your voice heard. Obviously we’re having a problem when older white men get to make decisions for women and for minorities. I think it’s just important for women to keep being strong and keep fighting and not taking no for an answer.
I can’t get too specific, but recently, I was negotiating something, and I just had to fight for it. It had to be a hard no. I had to say, no, I’m sorry. This is the line. This is what I need. And, that’s it. Maybe women just have to keep being at peace with the fact that they’re going to have to keep fighting more.
Meek: What are you working on next?
Danner: I’m developing projects and reading a lot and, but I signed on recently to direct a space movie called Helios. It’s a woman’s story about saving humanity.
I’m really lucky that I get to do the thing that I love. I’m also teaching some master classes in acting throughout the next few months. So, when you get to do the thing that you love, you can feel nothing but gratitude.
Special thanks to Meg Grasberger for assistance with transcription and editing.
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