EXCLUSIVE: It’s every parent’s nightmare, or one of them, more real for some than others depending on social status and the access that privilege and money confer: A disobedient child is reprimanded in the heat of anger, resulting in a minor injury. A suspicious teacher reports the wound and suddenly a mother has her children taken away as she is spun into a seemingly entropic child-welfare system.

James LapineSet in New York City’s Family Court, James Lapine’s Custody, world premiering this weekend at the Tribeca Film Festival, tells one such story. With a rare combination of from-the-gut power and empathy for everyone involved in a system designed to manufacture villains and heroes, it’s hardly your typical procedural. A three-time Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize winner, Lapine wrote the screenplay for Into the Woods, which he originally co-created with Stephen Sondheim. A child’s searching for routes through an adult world has informed much of his work, including his early and underrated film Life With Mikey (1993), in which Michael J. Fox played a former child star who, out of work, starts a talent agency for young performers.

In Custody, Catalina Sandino Moreno (Maria Full of Grace) plays the mother whose world is turned upside down after just such an incident. Viola Davis (How To Get Away With Murder) is the judge charged with weighing conflicting evidence against her own practiced sense of right and wrong, as her personal world is coming apart. Hayden Panettiere (Nashville) plays the privileged young Yale Law School graduate assigned to help this mother navigate a system grown increasingly on edge with every reported death of a neglected child supposedly on its radar. Tony Shalhoub (Monk) plays Davis’ husband and important performances also are contributed by Ellen Burstyn, Raul Esparza and Dan Fogler.

DEADLINE: What got  you, a theater man, started on this project?
LAPINE: I take time off and go do weird things. I know this woman socially who’s a judge, and I asked her if I could watch the court proceedings. She put me right next to her on the bench, which was just a very bizarre experience. I was interested because she’s a real corker of a gal and also a Harvard grad, Yale Law School, and I was interested. But I got hooked — it’s kinda the best show in town.  I wanted to find out how peoples’ stories ended and so I kept going back and back.

I didn’t know anything about Family Court. It’s very different: There’s no jury, the judge is very proactive, the kids have their own lawyer. It’s built for kids. The courtrooms are small so a kid coming in would not be overwhelmed by the scale.

DEADLINE: It’s clear from the film that you found the grown-ups involved in these cases as compelling as the children.
LAPINE: It’s an incredible little microcosm of the city, such a lesson in New York. You’ve got lousy lawyers but also people who could be making zillions of dollars but who want to be down there. And you realize a lot of them are down there trying to correct their own past. This happened 10 years ago, and I was so touched by it I wanted to write something. Nobody was interested in the subject matter, things like this get relegated to the land of television, people think it’s a procedural. Try to get a movie made with a black actress and a hispanic actress in the leads? About a serious subject? Couldn’t get it done.

DEADLINE: Filmmaking has changed radically since the days when you started crossing over from theater, back in the 1990s.
LAPINE: When I did those other movies it was so laborious and slow. But when I shot the Sondheim thing (his Emmy-nominated Six By Sondheim, an adaptation of his multimedia theater piece Sondheim On Sondheim), it was digital and I thought, Oh, this is like theater. You don’t have to wait hours for set-ups, you don’t have to call Cut, there’s a fluidity  to it. With film you have excruciatingly long set ups, every time you switch an angle you have to wait — and you don’t have any of that with digital, it’s all very fast.

“Try to get a movie made with a black actress and a hispanic actress in the leads? About a serious subject? Couldn’t get it done.”

DEADLINE: How difficult was it to cast the film?
LAPINE: I sent the script to Viola and she instantaneously jumped on board. It must have been two or three years ago. I’d never worked with her, but I saw her off-Broadway and I thought This is the best actress I’ve ever seen. We started casting it and I fell in love with Catalina. She’s a remarkable woman and she just had such passion for it, she so desperately wanted to do it. We did a reading with her and I thought … she couldn’t speak anything. We worked so hard every week on her diction and her language skills and she was great. She’d say, “This word is not my word.” It helped me to not be an arty-farty writer.

DEADLINE: So you had trouble raising money to get Custody started? Why am I not surprised?
LAPINE: We had some crazy person who was going to give us $3 million if we shot it in New Orleans and it’s like, Oh God, New Orleans for New York, or do I rewrite it for New Orleans? But these people became really sketchy and finally I said No, and asked the line producer how cheaply we could do this in New York. And then I went home to Sarah (Lapine’s wife, the writer and filmmaker Sarah Kernochan] and I said, “Are you OK if I mortgage the house to make this movie?” She said, “Do what you have to do,” which is why I married her.

Custody: Catalina Sandino Moreno as Sara Diaz and Jaden Michael as David DiazDEADLINE: But you still had to raise money.
LAPINE: I’ve never asked people for money in my entire life, ever. I called up [theater producer] Daryl Roth, who I barely knew, and Roy Furman [also a producer], who I barely knew, and within one week the two of them ponied up enough money to get it done. Roy didn’t even read the script, he said “You’re passionate about it, I think you’re amazing, I’ll get you a half-million dollars,” and we cobbled the money together. It was humbling. It was really humbling. I don’t ever want to do it again but I’m glad I did it.

DEADLINE: And the result, for you?
LAPINE: It felt like Playwrights Horizons, you know?

DEADLINE: Where so much of your work originated, including Sunday In The Park With George with Sondheim.
LAPINE: Yeah. I tapped into some old part of myself, doing something just for the love of it. And I had nobody telling me what to do, which is pretty rare in a movie. Nobody to answer to but myself.

See http://www.tribecafilm.com/festival.