Interview: Director Marc Abraham Talks “I Saw the Light”

Marc Abraham

Biopic films can’t always cover a particular aspect of its subject’s life in the way that leaves its dedicated fans completely satisfied. Largely, it’s due to multiple life changing events occurring in one man’s life, leaving up to the filmmaker to decide which ones to tell. If you are a big fan of Hank Williams’ music, or more or less aware of his lifestyle, then you should probably be a bit more patient as you watch Marc Abraham’s film, because in the end you will be rewarded by beautiful performances of Hiddleston and Olsen, as well as Williams’ music which you will be able to hear throughout the film.

“I Saw the Light” is based on Colin Escott, George Merritt and William MacEwen’s book, while the screenplay is written by Marc Abraham, who also directs it. During the Toronto International Film Festival that took place last year, I had a few minutes with Marc Abraham to discuss “I Saw the Light”, his directorial approach, and the stellar cast he managed to get on board.

MOVIEMOVESME: How does it feel now, people having seen your movie, sharing your baby with the world?

Marc Abraham: No matter what, it’s always hard. You’re right, you’re sharing your baby with the world. I guess I’ve done it enough that I kind of know what to expect because I know what kind of movie I’ve made. I liked this festival a lot, I’m a big fan of this festival, it was a very gallatarian festival. I’ve been to many festivals where when you got a big movie they treat you differently but here all directors were treated the same. The two screenings we had were fantastic. The first screening had an amazing reaction and the second screening got a standing ovation, which I never had before. Tom has had quite a few, so he told me just to take a bow! I told him I don’t know how to take a bow, and he said, “No c’mon, step up here.” And we took a bow. The hard part always is reviews and criticism of your baby. I knew when I made this movie, the way I made it, it would be slightly controversial. I told Tom that because I had made some different choices. When you make a film with the choices that I made, I don’t see criticisms coming the way it’s supposed to be. These days’ people criticise or love the movie based on what they wanted you to make instead of the filmmaker’s intentions. So it’s always complicated. I feel great though, I’m really happy to have made the film the way I wanted it.

MOVIEMOVESME: What was the film you wanted to make?

Marc Abraham: I was intent to avoid certain things. I didn’t want to show from cradle to the grave. I wasn’t interested in the formative years of the artist’s life because I’d seen it so many times and they were always the same. I wanted to jump right into the movie. I wanted to be a accurate as I could which meant that I wasn’t going to put the same arc you normally find in movies. It is going to be wavier because I thought his wife was so crazy that a guy could, in the last years of his life divorce one woman for the second time. Three months later he murdered a nineteen-year-old that he met two months before. he wrote five songs, one of which he couldn’t even stand up to sing and he was dead three months later. I really wanted to be as accurate as possible, not because I wanted a badge of honor, but I didn’t wanna show someone creating. What I wanted to do was go into the most mundane, painful parts of the young artist’s life. You see that he’s in pain because he’s got a spot of bitter now. You see all this mess and then you show the music. The woman you’re seeing there, it isn’t even about her! That’s what I wanted to do, and that’s what I did.

MOVIEMOVESME: Are you concerned about not only criticisms, but also the people who actually knew the person in real life?

Marc Abraham: Absolutely! I was very respectful with the family. I spent time with them and was really straightforward with them. I told them, “You have a very dysfunctional family and that couldn’t make everybody happy but I’m going to tell the truth. If I tell the truth what I have researched, in that is respect.” Two days ago I showed it to the family and they loved the movie and Tom was with me. Sometimes it’s hard to get the palpable sense of what you feel, but it was an overwhelming sense of relief. I couldn’t watch it, it was really intense, we had the entire family and the atmospherically molecules were so bouncy, I got up and walked around Nashville by myself until I found a bar and had a couple beers. Then I went back because I couldn’t handle it. So I really cared about the family. Not that I knew I was going to make them happy, at least I could justify the movie that I made. I can stand in front of them, look them in the eye and say, “This is what I believe and this is what I know.”

I’ve always said I’m making the film for the audience, I want the audience to have an emotional experience. I know not everybody is going to like the movie but there will be some who will tell me it’s their favorite movie! I know all those things are going to happen.

Elizabeth Olsen as Audrey Williams and Tom Hiddleston as Hank Williams Photo by Sam Emerson, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics
Elizabeth Olsen as Audrey Williams and Tom Hiddleston as Hank Williams Photo by Sam Emerson, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

MOVIEMOVESME: How do you know that you can give up control because the movie’s finished?

Marc Abraham: There’s an old joke that they’re never finished. Yes, if I had more time I’d probably go back and change a couple of things. What happens is you run out of money and time basically and it’s almost release date. That means the movie has to be finished by a certain time and then you have to do the sound and finish picture, and then color it. Then the studio says they need to show it to their international distributors. The events take over, you know this when you’re going in, it’s not a shock. It’s like building a house, you sort of start running out of money and hope the contractor’s not a thief but basically you know how much time you have. So it’s all scheduling, then you have to ultimately live with it.

MOVIEMOVESME: What attracted you to Hank Williams and the process of making the movie on his life?

Marc Abraham: Basically, I knew a lot about country music. I was a fan; I grew up in Kentucky which is three hours from Nashville, the heart of country music. I knew about Hank Williams too and always thought about the story. So I had a lot of information before I decided to make the film. When you make a movie you know you’re headed into war, so you better be passionate than doing just for the money. Sometimes, there’s nothing with that, great movies have been made because people were broken. But I wanted to tell the story and I knew a lot about it, although not nearly as I know now, but my preparation was I read everything possibly I could read and listen to everything I could hear. I am a big fan of Lenny and I wanted to make that kind of movie. That was the template of the film I wanted to write.

MOVIEMOVESME: How was working with Tom Hiddleston?

Marc Abraham: He’s amazing and so fastidious, so serious about his work that anything I’d mention to him he’d already probably started looking at. The key thing was I hired a guy named Rodney Crown to be the music producer. He’s a world renowned singer-songwriter who’s won two Grammys and had Tom arranged to move into his house and work with him for two months. Everyday they trained in Rodney’s studio and that’s Tom, there’s no holding him back, he’s a racehorse.

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