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Keith Patterson: The TT Interview

One of the filmmakers behind the new documentary Ann Richards' Texas on the legacy of the former Texas governor, how he — a New Yorker — became interested in her story and why she is getting so much attention this year.

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Even as a kid growing up in New York, Keith Patterson was aware of Ann Richards, the late former governor of Texas.

"I have early memories of her at the Democratic National Convention, back in the day when there were only four TV stations," Patterson told The Texas Tribune. "We didn't really have cable, and then, people actually watched the conventions instead of Honey Boo Boo."

This week, Patterson finds himself in Richards' old stomping grounds. On Wednesday evening, at the Paramount Theatre in Austin, as part of the Austin Film Festival, he will be screening Ann Richards' Texas, a documentary he wrote, co-directed and co-produced. It will be followed by a party to benefit the Ann Richards School for Young Women Leaders.

Richards, one of the last Democrats to hold statewide office in Texas, died in 2006, but she has had something of a renaissance recently. Patterson's film completes the hat trick of major works remembering the former governor, including a new biography by Austin-based writer Jan Reid and a one-woman play starring Holland Taylor that also played at the Paramount and now is bound for Broadway.

Already a hit on the festival circuit, Ann Richards' Texas — which largely focuses on her 1994 re-election bid, in which she was defeated by rising star George W. Bush — will air on HBO, though a broadcast date has yet to be set.

In his conversation with the Tribune, Patterson spoke about Richards' legacy, the impressive roster of talking heads he wrangled for the film and why the former governor is getting so much attention. The following is an edited transcript of that conversation.

TT: You've had acting parts here and there, but this is the first time you have written, directed and produced your own film. Why did you decide to make Ann Richards the subject of you first project?

Patterson: I also worked on the staff of some TV shows, but this was the first time I broke off and did my own thing. I was looking for things to do, and I couldn’t believe that there had never been a documentary on her. I think it’s just such a fascinating story of her coming from nothing, rising to the most powerful seat in the state almost accidentally — Clayton Williams kind of self-imploded. And obviously, she pushed the buttons of the Bushes and inspired the first-ever pairing of Karl Rove and George W. Bush to run against her.

TT: We keep seeing Ann Richards retrospectives. There was the play, then the book, now the movie. Why do you think she is blowing up like this in 2012?

Patterson: I think it’s because people are starving for someone like Ann. Someone who is a public servant who will call people out and not just this tug-of-war of nonsense that happens now. She was so effective in getting everything done and would stand up for the people. She was just very genuine, and like President Clinton says, you knew she was real. There was never any suspicion about the way she really felt, because she acted and behaved very transparently.

TT: You’ve gone outside the usual Texas political sphere for the interviews in this movie. In addition to Clinton, who you just mentioned, you have people like Dolly Parton and Lily Tomlin. How did you decide who should be in it?

Patterson: They all were directly involved with Ann. Lily Tomlin hooked up with her campaign to try and help her out.

Dolly Parton actually sought Ann out when she was county commissioner. Dolly was down here doing The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, and everybody said, "You know, there’s this woman, Ann Richards, who is exactly like you, and you should probably meet her, because she’s hilarious and you’ll really get along." So Dolly sought her out and they became friends.

Obviously, Willie Nelson supported her a lot down here. Clinton and her were buddies. [Nancy] Pelosi and Ann would do the conventions together. She was so magnetic that she would draw in these people. She was larger than life, and people were naturally attracted to her, including celebrities.

TT: Did anybody refuse to talk to you?

Patterson: I got everybody I wanted. When you say, “Ann Richards,” people say, “Okay, when?”

TT: What do you say is her legacy?

Patterson: She opened the doors of government in Texas and made it more transparent. Some stuff has been rolled back, but before her, it was basically just white men in the government. She went in and appointed an African-American woman to the Texas A&M board, and people’s heads spun. She just kind of took the reins of power and forced people to change. She shook it up forcefully, and she told people the way it had to be. She was pretty effective.

TT: I noticed that Amber Mostyn is one of the executive producers. Of course, the Mostyns are the state's top Democratic donors. Would you say this is a partisan movie?

Patterson: No, it’s for everybody. It’s a hilarious, all-American story about someone who came from nothing and rose through the ranks of power. She was divorced and had a family and a political career beginning at 42. She really was just a larger-than-life personality, and no matter how you feel about her politics, everybody wanted to be around her. She was hilarious and was an icon of a time gone by in Texas.

During this election time, where there’s so much lying going on, I think this would be a really refreshing movie. And it really is funny.

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