A Love Letter To All Of You
Dear Louisiana and Lagniappe,
I love being from Louisiana. I love even more being from Lake Charles — coupled with having sentimental roots in New Orleans, especially in the French Quarter. It’s what made me want to become a storyteller for a living — the rich history of our beautiful culture, its diverse tapestry and the colorful storytellers I was surrounded by growing up. All of those things have deeply influenced my own pilgrimage in life.
It’s intriguing to me now that I left Louisiana so young, and that I traversed far across the country to Hollywood to find myself in my art. I have always stayed closely tied to Louisiana: my roots, hometown, family and childhood friends. But it’s truly intriguing to me now that Forever My Girl — the film that’s lifting my career in my chosen profession — is a film about finding your way back home to a small town in Louisiana, just like the one I grew up in.
I’ve always embraced Lake Charles as my hometown. I’m appreciating that fact in this moment as I reflect on my life’s journey to here.
I know that when someone looks at the number of people who live in Lake Charles, it actually isn’t a small town, but the term “small town” to me is a feeling. It is a sense of community, and I have no better sense of community than I had growing up in Lake Charles. I grew up on homespun values, and this film is a love letter to the place I was raised in and the values I was raised on.
I hope this new film, Forever My Girl, will make audiences feel a sense of their own community, their own small town. The film is a celebration of love, family, friendship, music, laughter, good food — all the things that truly make life worth living. And I want to underscore the word “community” in that declaration.
Communities really have each other’s backs, in good times and also in the extremely difficult times. That’s my manifesto with this film in its broader strokes. I want people to remember that we have each other’s backs in our small towns and communities. The four simple walls that we gather together in as a community, in good times and in the extremely difficult, can be a safe haven and true blessing in one’s life.
So for me, finding your way back home doesn’t necessarily mean literally going to a “home.” It can, but it can also mean getting back to your true self. Your authentic self. No matter where you are in life, you can always find your way back to your true self. It’s never too late for that.
While this new film tells a fictitious story with fictitious characters, I hope that when people in Lake Charles see it, they’ll see glimpses of their own lives and the milieu in which the film is set. It is truly in my heart and soul, Louisiana. No matter where I go in the world, I’ll always be a Louisiana girl, born and raised — and an extremely proud steel magnolia who was raised by an incredibly strong steel magnolia.
For those of you who knew my mama, Jane Price Dennison, you knew grace and strength, laughter and love. You knew a woman who raised three kids on her own; started her own business; and made our humble lives grand with sheer imagination, creativity and love.
She was not just a survivor; she was a riser. And in the city I live in now, in Hollywood, only 1 percent of filmmakers in the entertainment industry were female when I moved here 20 years ago. It’s now at 4 percent for female filmmakers. Yes, only 4 percent of feature film directors are female. It’s a sad but true statistic. But I think in the spotlight of that statistic as of late in Hollywood, we should see a quick rise in females in my field.
I hope you all see the tenacity, strength and grace of my mother in my leading heroine Josie. It was extremely important to me to create a lead female who isn’t a damsel in distress waiting for the man to swoop in and save her.
Josie, played by the exquisite Jessica Rothe, has created a great life for herself when Liam Page, our leading man and our country music star in the film — played by the talented Alex Roe — returns home. Josie has already weathered a storm, has come out the other end, and has created a wonderful life for her and her daughter, Billy. (And wait until you all meet Billy. Talk about a female standing in her truth at age 7. World get ready: Billy Ann Page, and my actress who plays her, Abby Ryder Forston, are both fiercely honest, candid, and unwavering as they stand in their own truths, in life and on film.)
Abby would say to me on set that she wanted to be a writer and director like me when she grows up. And I would say to Abby, I want to be you when I grow up.
I hope you all enjoy Forever My Girl. There is something for everyone in it: it is a romantic love story, it is a father/daughter story, it is a father/son story, a mother/daughter story, and a brother/sister story. It is a story about not just romantic love, but also familial love and the power of friendship and community. It is a story of atonement, redemption, joy and happiness. It is a story about crossing over to find your own truth. And it’s also a really fun movie!
If you love country music, here we go! I wanted to represent the vast array of country music that is very much alive right now. I wanted to represent classic country, anthem country, blues country, pop country, folk country. The movie’s just packed with feel-good music that gets into your soul and lights you up.
I vehemently wanted to have a living legend country star do a cameo in the film. I literally called Travis Tritt’s team every day for 3 months to get him to play a role in the film and sing a song in the film and on its soundtrack.
Early on in development, I passionately emphasized to the production company how vital I thought the country music was going to be to this film. I strongly felt that the music was as important as my screenplay, and that I wanted to simultaneously work on developing the music while developing my script. But it’s a very hard thing to pitch something audible instead of something visual to a room. So I went out on my own without telling anyone, and started working with Brett Boyett and Jackson Odell to develop all the original songs for the film. My plan was to bring the music into the next development meeting, and have Brett, Jackson and a band play all the songs live in the conference room.
I did just that. Without anyone knowing beforehand, I brought in Brett and Jackson, and a live band that I had waiting in the lobby. And then I walked the production company through every place in the film where each song would go. Then I had the band play each song live for them.
All went very well. Every original song that you hear in the film was played in that meeting two years before we commenced shooting. All of Brett and Jackson’s songs from that meeting are in the film.
And then I worked hard at getting Brett Boyett hired as my music producer. Brett and I worked feverishly on more music and on getting a country star line-up for the film and its soundtrack over the next two years.
What I did was unprecedented. It was unconventional, and so I didn’t tell anyone before I had that development meeting because I knew my move would seem too out-of-the-box.
But I believe that brazen side of me is in my Louisiana blood, nurtured by the bold, intrepid women I was influenced by growing up in Louisiana. Steel magnolia through and through. Resolute, unyielding, steadfast. Those are the women I was surrounded by growing up. I knew I had to actually show them the music and not just tell them about it.
I hope you’ll all revel in the magical journey of Forever My Girl; see pieces of yourselves, your parents, your homes, church, grocery store, your flower shop … and most of all, of the extraordinary communities that we have in Louisiana.
The film opens in Lake Charles and nationwide on Friday, Jan. 19. I’d like to dedicate this article to my siblings. You have all believed in me, and have had my back for a very long time, especially my brother, Jace, who is also a talented writer and director on his own rise up. You have often been the silent hero of our family. But to all my siblings — you all have lifted me up in ways I can’t express in words. I’m so grateful we have each other, and I love you all to the moon and back.
I’ve dedicated the first screening of the night to my sweet mama, Jane, and my Aunt Ray Henrich, the two women who raised me — my own steel magnolias — and to my best friends growing up; to their mamas, the ya-yas in my life who have influenced me; along with my mom and my Aunt Ray. You wondrous women have all shaped who I am along my road to here: Mickey Laborde, Pat Dow, Lenita Boudreaux, Mary Woosley, Sally Cappel, Lesli Quinn and Sarah Jones. Thank you all for instilling in me that you can be kind, graceful, loving and giving, and at the same time, you can also be a strong leader, communicator, collaborator, visionary. Most of all, you taught me how to stand in my own truth, no matter what.
I’ve dedicated the second screening of the night to my stepdad, Denny Dennison. Denny, I love you. You taught me to hold my head up high. You drove me out to Los Angeles when I only knew one girl there, and she was living in a seedy apartment in Hollywood with her boyfriend’s band. I had never seen boys with long hair before; that’s how sheltered I had been. I was such a young girl, who was so nervous and unsure about being out in the world that far away from home, yet I was passionately pulled toward it; I knew in my heart it was where I was supposed to be to pursue my artistic dreams. Your confidence in me gave me the strength to stay in Hollywood.
I remember that you took me to the bank and helped me open my first production bank account, and you said to me, “Your mom and I believe in you. Go make movies.” And so I did.
Bethany Ashton Wolf