A Conversation With Scott Teems (THAT EVENING SUN)
Based on a short story by celebrated Southern author William Gay, Scott Teems’ feature-length directorial debut, That Evening Sun, is executed with the grace and precision of a veteran. The film stars Hal Holbrook as Abner Meecham, an 80-year-old farmer who escapes the old folks home where his son (co-producer Walton Goggins) has placed him in order to return to life on his farm. But when he gets there, he discovers that his son has leased the house to Lonzo Choat (co-producer Ray McKinnon) and his family. Lonzo is a beer-swilling redneck who doesn’t take kindly to Abner’s stubborn determination to reclaim his home. Abner shares Lonzo’s fury. He refuses to accept this turn of events, shacking up in the nearby tenant house without any intention of leaving. This is just one of the conflicts Abner must face as life appears to be passing him by. Featuring a career-capping performance by Holbrook, That Evening Sun has won over audiences wherever it has screened. Days before its official theatrical release in New York City, I spoke to Teems on the phone about directing animals, the importance of authentic Southern accents (of which he has one), discovering the talented Mia Wasikowska, and why he hates flashbacks in movies.
Hammer to Nail: I wanted to open with a question I’m sure you haven’t heard before, which is what was it like to work with Hal Holbrook?
Scott Teems (laughs): I’ve been waiting months and months for someone to ask that, and I knew it would be someone smart and intelligent like yourself! (H2N laughs) He was a raging, raging bastard. (ST laughs)No, he was a class act all the way.
H2N: Okay, this question I’m not kidding about: what was it like to direct that dog?
ST: It was interesting. The dog was great, he was fantastic. It was actually his first movie and my first time ever directing any kind of animal. It was a little daunting going into that, and thinking about how to do that, knowing we had such a very tight schedule. There was so little room for multiple takes. We shot this movie in twenty-two days. We had no room to screw around with a dog. (H2N laughs) I had to find a dog I liked the look of and, for obvious reasons when you see the movie, once we picked the dog we couldn’t go back. But fortunately, he was great. He had to do some pretty specific stuff in terms of barking on cue and that kind of stuff, and he was fantastic. He was a trained dog, but it was his first time working on a film. He was new to the fold. And he was young too, I think. But he was great.
H2N: Aww, you gave that little pooch a big break!
ST: That’s right, buddy. We’ll all look back on this movie and say, “That was Dually the dog’s first breakout role.” He might become the next Benji. We’re all crossing our fingers. (H2N laughs)
H2N: I hadn’t realized it, but did your young actress just get cast in a really big role? I’m so not aware of that stuff.
ST: Yeah, she’s Alice in Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland. He actually cast her like two weeks after I cast her. That was pretty awesome. Full credit for her casting goes to Emily Schweber, the casting director. I had given her an ultimatum and said, “I want nothing but native Southerners in this movie.” I just wanted it to be real and authentic and for me it starts there. I wanted it to be unapologetically Southern in that we were gonna have thick accents, we weren’t gonna be afraid of that. In order to do that, it had to be authentic. And we’ve seen too many examples of that being done incorrectly. I don’t know, people must watch Gone With the Wind to reference their accents, ‘cause it seems to be this plantation era Southern accent and it’s just bizarre. And it’s not real to my experience. So for me it was critical that the accents be spot on.
It’s a big reason that I wanted to work with Ray McKinnon and Walton Goggins, not only as actors but as producers. It’s why they came onto the movie early on in the process, a couple years ago. They are great filmmakers in their own right and had made a couple films at that point that I thought were beautifully authentic Southern films: The Accountant and Chrystal. I just loved those movies and thought they were some of the best Southern films I had seen. And so I brought them on as actors but also as kind of BS detectors. I wanted them to be looking over my shoulders and telling me when something wasn’t real and wasn’t truthful, ‘cause I trusted their judgment. That was really crucial.
But then we get to casting, and we’re able to fill the entire cast with native Southerners, except for Hal, of course, who’s not native but he’s married to Dixie Carter so she’s Southern enough for both of ‘em! But we still hadn’t found the girl yet. We’d cast every other role but hers. I said to Emily, “I’m looking for a young Sissy Spacek.” Sissy Spacek in Badlands was my dream. I told her, “Find that girl.” And she said, “It’s this girl named Mia Wasikowska.” She said that before I’d seen anyone, way early in the process. I said, “Who is Mia Wasikowska?” And she said, “She’s from Australia.” I said, “Nope, not gonna cast her.” She said, “What are you talking about?” and I said, “Look, I told you, there’s no way! We’re dead in the water if this girl can’t do it. There’s just nowhere to hide in this movie. You’re exposed. If you’re acting’s not real we’re dead.” And she goes, “Just meet her.”
Mia came in. She was only in town for a couple days on her way back to Australia from Toronto, I think, where she was shooting Amelia. She only had a couple hours to prep for the audition before going to her Alice in Wonderland audition, actually. She got on YouTube and watched Sissy Spacek clips from Coal Miner’s Daughter—true story—for like two hours. She’d never done a Southern accent, I don’t think she’d ever heard a Southern accent, then came in after two hours of watching YouTube (H2N laughs), and it wasn’t perfect the first time but it was really good. Plus, she had that other thing, which was, for lack of a better term, that “it” factor. She had that thing where you just couldn’t take your eyes off her, and not in a dirty ol’ man kinda way. (both laugh) She was just interesting. We saw so many girls. I think I saw every 18-22-year-old girl in Los Angeles. They all came in, and we saw some very, very talented actresses, but they came in and they had the blonde hair and the big boobs and that was the last thing I wanted. Mia’s very beautiful but she’s also very innocent and just has that quality. I wanted her to be able to be in that tenant shack with Hal and anything nefarious would be the furthest thing from your mind. It couldn’t be anywhere on your radar. Yet I wanted her to be pretty and have those qualities. Mia was the perfect combination of all that.
H2N: I haven’t read the short story that inspired the film. How much work did you have to do to shape it into a feature-length screenplay? Was the skeleton there or did you have to do a lot of structural work as well?
ST: A little bit of both. I did a lot of work, but it did have a very strong framework. Basically, the short story is very conflict-centric. It’s very much about Abner and Lonzo and their conflict. It’s very streamlined, but it has a real definite beginning, middle, and end. Most of my major plot points were in the story. So it was great in terms of giving me a spine to push the story through. What it lacked were the relationships. It had some of them, which were tangentially hinted at in maybe one scene here or there, but for the most part it was lacking real depth in the relationships outside of the Abner/Lonzo conflict. So, for example, Abner and the daughter, who form a kind of surrogate grandfather/granddaughter relationship, was not in the story. In the story she brings him the food that first day, but that’s as far as they go. And I saw an opportunity there to really give these people what they both needed, which was a surrogate family member, somebody to confide in and to spend time with. And then Abner and his son.
The biggest thing I think I did was develop Lonzo and his wife, because that is not present at all in the story, they hardly even speak. I saw that as an opportunity. One of the big challenges was that I needed some way to make Lonzo a three-dimensional character without betraying who he was on the page, which is an uneducated redneck, for lack of a better term. I didn’t want him to be someone who wasn’t that, yet I also wanted him to be three-dimensional. So the challenge became how do you do that? How do you show an interior life for someone who doesn’t have one? As a friend of mine said, “What is redemption for the unexamined life?” He’s not a guy who sits around and examines himself, who says, “How can I be a better man today? Is my life goin’ the way I want it to?” He’s a guy who says, “Where’s the beer and where’s the babe and how can I make myself feel better?” He communicates through the primitive urges. So how I decided to do that was just to spend time with him and not be afraid of that. Not make him more articulate than he would be, but just spend time with the guy. And whether he’s trying to start the lawnmower, whether he’s wrapping up the hose the morning after, but not being afraid to spend time with him and just watch him as he goes silently through his day. He has two kind of “morning after” sequences, after two major events, that were just me sitting with him, and that was the best way for me to get into his head.
I’d say at the end of the day it was probably 50/50 between what’s original and what was already there. So it was a nice way for me to still be able to write, as opposed to a novel when you’re cutting scenes down to make it fit into two hours.
H2N: This film is filled with smart choices, but one thing that really jumped out at me is how you used flashbacks. I have a big chip when it comes to flashbacks in movies. In fiction, those transitions are less jarring somehow, but in movies, I’m almost always pulled out of the story and my suspension-of-disbelief is shot. It seems like you made a very conscious decision to keep these more poetic and dreamlike and not have actual scenes with dialogue. Am I reading into things or is that the case for you as well?
ST: I hate flashbacks with an utter passion. (H2N laughs) I’m very, very wary of them. And yet, I tend to be drawn to stories that have some back story, where something has to be revealed. So it’s always a challenge when I’m writing. This is of course my first feature but I’ve written a bunch of other stuff and as I’m writing, it’s always this great challenge to try to figure out how to do that. There’s nothing that pulls me out of a movie more than the big 12-minute flashback to when he was a kid and goin’ to the general store and buyin’ some gum! (H2N laughs) I hate that kind of stuff. I hate it. It bums me out. So I’m always looking for a way to make it as short as possible, to convey the information and to make it interesting.
In this story in particular, it was an opportunity to literally mimic the way William Gay writes. He gets compared to Cormac McCarthy a lot, because his prose is very sparse, very dry, but with these occasional bursts of poetry. You know, he doesn’t use quotes, he writes very staccato sentences, but every three or four pages there’s this burst. Which usually has to do with memory and dreams and the way things were. It’s much more about imagery. So I wanted to stylistically make my film mimic the way he writes. I wanted the film to feel the way you do when you read one of his stories. For me, that meant the story proper would be very sparse, to the point, not a lot of music, and then have these occasional moments of visual poetry, which in this case encompassed the flashbacks. It ended up being a nice, natural way to do it and to solve both issues. Stylistically, it reflects his writing, and also it gets away from the terrible flashbacks that plague a lot of movies.
H2N: The, like, slow pan onto the empty coffee mug and dissolve onto a steamy hot mug twenty years in the past!
ST: Oh, God. It works occasionally. Usually when it works it’s a full-on immersion, where they’re big enough to become a part of the story. Let’s say a movie like Lone Star by John Sayles. It’s half the movie, or a third of the movie at least. It’s its own narrative line in the story. It gets dangerous when you try to do little five-minute bursts. And a lot of it has to do with the mere physical presence of the performers. You can tell me this is the guy when he was a kid, but it’s just some other actor who I don’t know and don’t care about, who I don’t have any connection to, and it’s not the same story. No matter how much you tell me it is, it’s not the same story, because it’s not the same actor. I haven’t lived with him through this time, so I don’t care about him when he was a little kid. The same way we bring our own baggage with an actor, the same way it’s hard to let go of that inside the movie doing a flashback to a younger character. You almost have to either cut the whole thing out and do something different like Todd Solondz did in Palindromes, or you can’t do anything. I don’t know.
I didn’t want Hal to have to wear makeup and act ten years younger. With me, when I dream, as much as I can remember my dreams, I’m my age. Like, the dream might be of something that happened in my past, but I’m looking at it through my eyes today. The flashbacks in the movie are ten, fifteen, twenty, thirty years prior, but Hal is the same age because that’s the lens through which he is looking back. More than anything, just practically and pragmatically, it just helps you stay in the movie. That’s the biggest thing to me, is how to keep you in the film and not pull you out. They’re also located at critical emotional moments, so it’s really important and made them a big challenge. Also, I wanted them to be stylistically different. Especially the first one. It was important to keep Hal in that scene and not somebody else. Not Walt with makeup on! (both laugh)
H2N: Visually, the film is—refreshingly, I might add—patient and restrained. But then there’s that one bravura shot, which I think was in the pre-SXSW trailer, where he wanders to the edge of the porch while singing that song. How did that shot come about?
ST: That specific shot, I was just trying to capture this moment that I knew would be a moment that was beyond him. I wanted to give the audience a moment to reflect. It’s right about at the halfway point of the movie, more or less, right near the hour mark, and I wanted the audience to have a chance to reflect. And I just knew we’d been building up to something like that. It had been very restrained coming into that. There is that emotional release of the beating that happens five minutes prior, but visually, we’d been earning this moment. I don’t know what the impetus of it was, I just knew I wanted to pull away from him and give the audience a chance to remember we were are and what these guys are fighting about. We don’t go across the whole farm, we just kind of go out into the woods a little bit and sit there with it while he’s singing and reflecting, so you can take on his point-of-view for a second. It was really hard to get that through, because there was some fear that it wasn’t going to have the intended effect, that it was gonna be too slow. It’s like a ninety second shot. There was just a lot of apprehension about that shot. There was no coverage on that scene, and how do you get out of it, and all this kind of stuff. I just said, “You gotta trust me. When we get to this moment, it will mean something that even I can’t articulate ‘cause it’s more about the accumulated value of this experience.” I don’t even know now if I can articulate it. I can hint at it and try to, but it doesn’t do it justice. Not that it’s some great thing. I just think it’s one of those decisions that intuitively I know is right and feels good to me, and I like to trust that whenever I can and fight for it when it matters. Which means letting go of it some other times when it might be getting too showy in lieu of keeping a moment like this.
H2N: Logistically, did you guys build that actual tenant house next to the main house or did you luck into that location as it was?
ST: No, we built it. Mara LePere-Schloop, who’s amazing. Do you know Mara?
H2N: I don’t think so.
ST: She was the art director on Low and Behold. That’s how I met her, through Barlow (Jacobs). She’s a big set designer in New Orleans and does a lot of sets for big movies, but she’s fantastic. She built that. Basically, I knew that was part of the film, there was a tenant house that was built too close to the main house, like sixty feet from it. We couldn’t find anything even close to that, especially with a house that fit the specs of what we needed to be able to shoot inside of it and that had the right look. So she built that about two weeks before we shot, and it looks as though it’s been there for a hundred years. There was actually a tenant house on the property, about two hundred yards behind the house, way back in the woods, which had not been lived in for six years. It was infested with snakes and spiders. She and her boyfriend went in there and bombed it! Two days later, they went in there and disassembled it.
There are these people that go around the South and they take apart old barns for the wood, ‘cause it’s very valuable wood. And so these guys go around and take down old barns and sell the wood, but they can’t ever sell the structural wood because no one wants that. She was able to find a guy like that and get him to sell her all the structural wood for real cheap. So she had this old wood that was structurally sound. She designed the framework, built the framework, and used the cladding from the original tenant house back in the woods and used it as cladding for the new house, so it would have that feel to it. She ended up losing her full art crew about a week before the shoot. They bailed on her and wouldn’t come up ‘cause they got a better paying job. So she actually ended up calling this guy who took down the barn, an itinerant preacher who went around the country taking down old barns—he and his wife and son and daughter-in-law. She called and said, “What are you guys doing for the next month? You want to come work on this movie and build this thing with me and be my crew?” (both laugh) And they came. They’d never worked on a movie before and that was our art crew and they were amazing. Mara is just super resourceful like that, she’s so wonderful and did such a great job.
[THIRD-ACT SPOILER ALERT!!! STOP READING IF YOU WANT TO KEEP EVERYTHING A SURPRISE!!!]
H2N: And on the opposite end of that, you really brought it down, too?
ST: We did. It was funny, ‘cause I was like, “Oh, man, Mara and Kelly (Anne Ross), who’s the set decorator, they’re gonna be so bummed about this,” and they were on the front line going, “Burn it! Burn it!” (H2N laughs) I was like, “What are you doing? Isn’t this sad?” and they go, “No, you don’t understand. In our jobs, we work so hard on these things and build them, and all that happens is they’re taken down and put into storage. For this destruction to be part of the film is awesome and wonderful. It’s the perfect finish to our work.” So they were on the front line cheering on the torching. But that thing burned down in like eleven minutes. We had one shot. Once it went up there was no going back. Thankfully nothing went wrong. We shot that whole sequence in eight hours: inside, outside, everything.
ST: It was crazy. It was so hot. I was twenty feet behind Hal and Ray—that’s really Hal and Ray pulling out of there—I was twenty feet behind them and I thought my face was gonna melt off. I can’t imagine how hot it was for them.
— Michael Tully