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With That Evening Sun, first time writer/director Scott Teems has adapted a modern Southern story (I Hate To See That Evening Sun Go Down, by Tennessee writer William Gay) into a elegiac, quiet film with heart, rugged authenticity, and a stubborn mule of a central character, portrayed by veteran actor Hal Holbrook. Holbrook’s revelation of a performance in Sean Penn’s Into the Wild two years ago (for which he received his first Oscar nomination at the age of 82—the oldest actor ever nominated) caught Teems’ eye; as he said, “We knew we’d found our Abner.”
Abner Meecham is an 80-year-old widower whose only son has moved him from his farm in West Tennessee into an assisted living facility several hours away. When Abner decides he’s had enough of the place, he hitches back to the farm, only to find it (legally) occupied by the family of Lonzo Choat, a tenant farmer who Abner believes is a good-for-nothing delinquent. A tense standoff between the two men follows when Abner moves into a shack on the property and refuses to leave. Replete with terrific character actors (Ray McKinnon, Walton Goggins, Barry Corbin, Carrie Preston, Mia Wasikowska, Holbrook's wife Dixie Carter), this is a character-driven film that is both specific to its time and place—a 21st-century, southern American farm in a decimated town—and universal in its exploration of central themes: class issues, the current plight of the elderly, fathers and sons…
With Holbrook bubbling under as a Best Actor contender in the upcoming awards season, we sat down with Teems and his star to discuss the intentional ambiguity in the script, the hokeyness of twangy banjos, and the letter-writing skills of Sean Penn.
Scott Teems, Hal Holbrook
Scott, as a first-time writer/director, you showed incredible restraint and made a pitch-perfect movie. How did you avoid the sentimentality that could have so easily crept in?
Scott Teems: I think for [a movie] to really work with today’s audiences, you have to find the balance between character study and a tense, propulsive plot. So if I could make the script as tight as possible—bone-thin and streamlined and only what’s necessary—then the script could propel the story, and I wouldn’t have to do it through editorial, camerawork, music... I could let each scene progress the story forward so you are always wondering what happens next, and then I could sit back, observe, and put a camera on this man’s great face—no bells and whistles, because there’s life and history there. The characters’ faces add layers and layers that aren’t on the page, and that a thousand words wouldn’t do justice to.
Hal Holbrook: It’s much more interesting to see what happens when people drive a story—create and solve problems—than it is to see someone jumping out of an airplane with a machine gun, landing on both feet, and gunning everybody down.
ST: That’s my next film. [Laughs.]
How did you take the script and make it your own?
HH: Scott wrote a very authentic script. From the minute you read it, you realize that he really knows how these characters talk, and how they think. He created real people, if you have any knowledge of people in the South, which I do, having married into a family from Tennessee—I’m accepted as a member of the Tennessee fraternity now. [When] you’re in, you’re in for good. That’s part of the Southern ethic. And I could recognize right away that Scott had written about people that I recognized down there.
How did you learn to let actors embrace their characters, to hand off your script to them?
ST: The idea that directing is 90% casting (maybe Clint Eastwood said that?) is so true. If you have confidence in your actors, you don’t have to overdirect them; you can just step out of the way. I was so fortunate—the actors in this film are of such a high caliber—
ST: —and a large majority of them have made their careers doing character work. Hal, Ray McKinnon, Walter Goggins, Carrie Preston, Barry Corbin—what I love about them is that they are usually the best kind of craftsmen. They can slip into their roles, and I wanted you to get to this farm and not recognize these people. When you have great actors—Carrie Preston is like a finely-tuned instrument—you can just step out of the way and trust them.
Carrie Preston, Mia Wasikowska, Hal Holbrook
HH: They were all real people to me. There is this little tiny scene, where the phone man comes in the front door and I tell him where the phone line is. Well, this guy comes to the door and he’s got every kind of thing on him that a phone man would have—I mean, his belt was loaded down with this, that, and the other—and I thought, “It’s a low-budget film and they hired a phone man.” So after we stood there a while, I wanted to make friends, so I said, “Are you from the phone company?” He said [offended], “No, I’m an actor! I’m from New York, and I do plays and movies!” I said, “Oh, geez, sorry! You look like a phone man!”
ST: He’s wonderful—Anthony Reynolds is the guy’s name. He’s a wonderful actor.
Can you describe for us your process? This is not a caricature, and you really got this character. Can you describe how you brought Abner Meecham to life?
HH: You read this script, and you begin to recognize similarities in people you have known. The more I worked on this, the more I thought about Dixie’s father, a gentleman in a small, two-gas-pump, one-cannon town in West Tennessee. I actually ended up feeling like I did this for him. There were very few things Cart and I could talk about—politically, he was so Republican, I couldn’t talk politics—but over the course of 26 years of knowing this man, I gained such a terrific respect for him, because he was who he was, and he did not apologize for it. He was a good man, a kind man—as much as he knew—he had a moral basis, he lived strictly for the good of his family, and he was very protective of his family, and I was included in his family.
We took care of him the last 20 years of his life; we brought him to California and he lived with us. Finally he said one day to Dixie, “Darling, I’m getting dying signals. I want to go home.” We moved on back down to Tennessee, lock, stock and barrel—and I figured he’d last a short while. He lasted two years. He didn’t know how to quit. There was no quit in him, as they say.
Well, Abner is a very angry man—and why shouldn’t he be? They are trying to put him away, and Goddamn you, he’s not going to be put away. There’s a steel in him, and a no-quit in him, and a sense of morality about him—what’s right and wrong—that was very easy to identify.
Can you talk a bit about adapting this from a short story?
ST: A lot of credit must go to William Gay. His story is very streamlined—it’s very much about the central conflict. As a writer, he gave me this sort of beginning, middle and end—a lot of the key plot points are from the story—but what was missing was the relationships. Some of them were hinted at tangentially, in one scene here or there. For example, Abner and the girl’s [played by Mia Wasikowska] surrogate grandfather/granddaughter relationship—there was one scene in the story, but nothing else happens between them. I saw a great opportunity there for something both of these characters needed: someone to confide in, to share their struggles with. The one relationship that was fully formed was between Abner and his neighbor Thurl Chessop, played by Barry Corbin. So I had this great structure, this skeleton, and I could come in and put on the meat, the skin, the muscle.
Hal Holbrook, Barry Corbin
How did you work on the beats between Mr. Holbrook and Mr. Corbin? They had a nice give-and-take.
ST: I was able to cast two class acts, two great actors, and I gave them some material that I think is pretty good, and just said, “Go.” And they would sit on the porch and talk like old friends—and the nice thing is that they are old friends, and hadn’t seen each other in several years.
HH: We worked together on the same film I met my wife Dixie on, thirty years ago, a movie for television called The Killing of Randy Webster. He played my best friend in that film too.
ST: And a young man in that film made his television debut, a boy named—
HH: A young boy named Sean Penn!
ST: Ahhhh. It all comes back around.
HH: We watched this young guy, with this little part, and we thought, “This kid has got talent. This kid is something special.” We told him, you know? And when the film was over, I got this beautifully written letter from him—I was astounded: non-verbal kid, you wouldn’t even think he could write! [laughs]—thanking me and Dixie for encouraging him, which was unheard of. And then years later, he gives me the biggest break of my late acting life [Into the Wild, for which Holbrook was nominated for his first Oscar at 82].
Speaking of Penns, can we move to music for a minute? The title of the movie (and the story) comes from a Jimmie Rodgers song. Can you talk about the involvement of the Drive-By Truckers? And Michael Penn [who wrote the score]?
ST: The short story is imbued with the spirit of music. Abner and his wife were big fans of Jimmie Rodgers, the Carter Family, [the roots of] country music. I wanted the spirit of music, but without a lot of music, which was a challenge; I wanted the film to be very still and quiet. So we weaved in different incarnations of the Jimmie Rodgers song where the title comes from—Blue Yodel #3—there’s a big old rock ‘n’ roll version of it, by the Drive-By Truckers [on a car radio], and then Patterson Hood (of the Truckers) does a slow-burn acoustic version of it, and then Hal sings it a cappella on the porch. You hear all these different versions of the same lyric, but the music is not repetitive, and you aren’t inundated with hokeyness. The one time that you actually hear Jimmie Rodgers himself, it’s a different song that plays in the house.
I didn’t want the score to be regional. I didn’t want the music to undermine the story by being the twangy kind of banjo that you’re used to hearing in Southern films. I wanted the music to speak more to the universal themes: life and death, fathers/sons, land… After Michael Penn watched the movie, the first thing he said to me was, “This movie feels very tribal, very primitive.” Those were very interesting words, and we began to work together. I was so impressed with his work: when there is music in the film, it has purpose, it matters. It’s not driving the narrative, pushing emotions along or telling you how to feel, not doing anything except accentuating, being very subtle and purposeful. There’s only about 25 minutes of music in a 2-hour film.
Carrie Preston, Ray McKinnon
Can you talk about the central battle between Abner and Lonzo? There are levels of morality there—they are both wrong and both right. Did you have to be careful not to make one the straight-up bad guy?
ST: The key for me was to not be afraid of ambiguity, of the good and the bad that comes with an honorable, well-intentioned man who is stubborn as an ass and unwilling to see any other point-of-view than his own. All three men have their own view that “I’m right, and you’re wrong.” And all are correct, from their point of view. (Abner is actually the least correct, legally, of all of them—ethically and morally, it’s a different story.) So when those things clash, something’s got to give.
HH: I gave him a tough time, because I thought I was the hero of the piece. It was a hell of a shock to find out the truth!
ST: Well, I hope you realize at the end that there is no one in this world that is all good or all bad, and we all have the capacity for beauty and grace, and we also have the capacity to be assholes, for lack of a better term. We should be unapologetic in our complete humanness, but we should also be aware. Hopefully we ask for forgiveness, we are humbled by our mistakes, and we learn from them and grow as people. But when you don’t, this is what happens. There are no winners in this film.
What do you think Abner’s plight says about how elderly people are treated today in this country?
HH: The elderly are a big problem for the young people, and it’s only beginning, the more drugs we have. Down South, you don’t put your people in a nursing home, usually. You have them in your house. I mean, everybody has died in our house: Cart, Aunt Helen, we took care of them.
ST: My parents are still in their 50s/60s, and so my grandparents are your age, Hal, and we’re starting to experience that with them, the struggle between them needing help, but not wanting to go. I wanted to explore the need to give the elderly their independence and to let them make their own decisions, while also recognizing that all decisions aren’t good ones—no matter how old and wise we get, we’re still capable of immense pride and stubbornness, and bad decision-making. And so I wanted to celebrate the independence of the elderly, but not shy away from the fact that though a man like Abner is honorable, he’s also stubborn as hell, and capable of causing great destruction.
HH: Everybody is not sweet, you know? I think it gets back to the fact that Life. Is. Difficult.
Your character is so nuanced, which is why there is so much Oscar buzz. How are you dealing with it?
HH: Oh, for heaven’s sakes. One thing you learn if you get old enough in this business is to not let hope carry you away. My dear wife, she always wants to hope for the best. She gets so excited, and she says, “Why aren’t you excited?” I say, “I don’t want to be disappointed.” She says, “But look, you are missing the opportunity to feel wonderful for a while. I don’t mind being disappointed later.” I don’t like being disappointed, so I try not to let myself get carried away.
I know how this business is, I know what a beyond-long-shot it will be that our film is really going to take off and go somewhere big. And as far as getting up for an award—when I got nominated for the Academy Award two years ago, it was just amazing. It was a great moment in my life—it’s a pinnacle! That’s it. To reach it at the age of 84 after all I’ve been through would be a miracle. And miracles don’t usually happen twice, you know…
ST: But sometimes they do…