I Saw the Light writer/director Marc Abraham and stars Tom Hiddleston (who plays Hank Williams) and Elizabeth Olsen (who plays Audrey Williams) met with press in Hollywood to discuss the film. These are some of the gleanings from a forty-five minute press conference.
Hiddleston was asked how making the film changed his perspective of country music.
Tom Hiddleston: What I find interesting about American country music is essentially, as I understand it now, folk music. Folk music wherever you are is an expression of the authentic soul of a country—whether that’s Scottish folk music or Irish folk music or English folk music or Spanish folk music. When you get under the skin of a country’s folk music you begin to understand their instinctive rhythm. When I went to Nashville and spent some time preparing for this, I came to understand country music is America’s folk music that comes from the blues. The blues is so deeply engrained into the American soul. And I had a whole new appreciation for it which is really thrilling, especially because Hank is right in the center of it. He’s a cornerstone in the history of it. He was taught the blues and he made it his own, then people who came after him took him as an inspiration to make their own music—Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, and Johnny Cash—all these people for whom Hank is the brightest star in the firmament.
The group was asked about the tools they used to bring their own talents into the film’s emphasis on authenticity.
Elizabeth Olsen: You have a lot of responsibility and you’re also trying to make more of a three dimensional person than what the legacy or stories have. You also have the gift of a lot of original source material. You start there. You start with photographs. You start with personal belongings. You start with books, documentaries. Then there comes a point where you’ve done all your work and you just have to bleed into the character, basically. It’s nice to have all the original material though because that gives you a lot of inspiration. And what I discovered was that with Audrey, how much of a business woman she really was. Even as they got more money she created more of an image—everything was monogramed, she made sure their suits were suits as opposed to hillbilly/country denim. These were all things that she decided as a business woman that contributed to an image. That was surprising. That might also have given her a bad reputation as well, because being a formidable woman in 1946, I’m sure, wasn’t the most welcomed personality trait.
TH: The most fascinating aspect of acting is finding the common ground between yourself and the character. That becomes even more fascinating when the character is so far away from you as Hank was from me. I did all my academic research into his life, into his circumstances, all of my physical training, changing the way I looked and the way I sounded, but then at a certain point the challenge is to commit yourself to experiencing the intensity of his emotional life—his joy, his pain, his loneliness. And that is the actor’s duty, to inhabit those universal feelings through the filter of the character. That’s the fun part.
Marc Abraham: I never worry about whether or not we can get the right looking stove or we’ll get the right costumes, because I’m very fastidious about that as a director. But I think for me, what is authentic is who the people really are—not what date this happened, but who are the people. What that requires is you have to find someone, in this case Tom and Lizzie, and you have to be able to talk to them in a way that you find you’re in sync with what they are understanding the job is. Then somewhere inside of you, you have to believe that even though that character is nothing like the person you’re sitting talking to, having a cup of coffee somewhere in Hollywood or somewhere in London, that inside of them, based on what you’ve seen them do and what they’re expressing to you is the ability to actually become that person. They’re never going to be that person; they’re going to become the version of the person that they best believe in. Then you have to get very lucky. And that’s what happens someone like Elizabeth and Tom, who are so honest about what they believe they can do and what they feel they can bring to it that they do. And they bring everything—everything—that there’s nothing that they leave behind. When that happens, to me, they have found real authenticity.
They were asked about the tumultuous relationship between Hank and Audrey and how they had to deal with fame at such a young age. How did the actors bring that to their work?
EO: For me I think the hardest thing that I kept trying to fight Marc on was “Can you say fewer lines about her wanting to sing with him?” It just makes her seem so awful. The truth is that after he passed away she still worked at it. She put [her daughter] Lycrecia on stage and Junior on stage and she was on stage as well. There are videos of her on YouTube a few years before she passed away of her still singing on a show. So I had to just embrace it, even though it’s kind of an unlikable characteristic. With their relationship, we talked a lot about that specifically, about how young they were. Also coming from not the best educated background. So no one’s there to help them deal with an extreme lifestyle change with money and fame, increased just with attention, men and women, drugs, and excess. I always have thought of their relationship as just fiery—whether it’s fiery love or fiery hate. I think those two things have always walked a very thin line, because you can’t really fiery despise someone that you don’t fiery care about. So I just kind of felt like they’re always tearing between that. I think Marc wrote that really well. We really wanted to make sure that their love came across just as much as their arguing did because so much of their arguing is part of the story that we’ve heard when you look into their relationship. But there had to have been so much love for him to write the lyrics that he wrote out of such sincerity.
TH: To me the great appeal to Marc’s conjecture in the screenplay was that he was drawing together the power of Hank’s songs, and the marriage of Hank and Audrey, and suggesting that the genius in his writing and the endurability of his legacy comes from that authenticity and sincerity in those lyrics. In Marc mind and in my mind there is no question that the authenticity of that writing comes from that relationship largely. They were young and they were going places and they were energetic and I think they fell so very deeply in love, but they were poor and they were impetuous and strong-headed and impulsive. And they were the kind of couple that fought as much as they were kind to each other. I think Hank wouldn’t have become Hank Williams without Audrey because Audrey had the head for business and she kept him on the straight, she kept him on time, and she introduced him to various business contacts and his managers, and he wouldn’t have gone to the Opry without them. But at the same time it was difficult because she wanted to share in that success and he loved her and tried to get her up there with him, and his producers and band mates would say “Your wife can’s sing with us,” and he’d have to tell her that, and she interpreted that as a huge break in loyalty. So it was obviously a very complex, difficult relationship, but it is the center of the film and it is the center of his songwriting. As you said, they were young, and it’s difficult to be young. I enjoyed playing it very much. Passions run high. The freedom to commit to their passions as an actor was very exciting.
Olsen and Hiddleston were asked about doing a film based on a true story after having done Marvel blockbusters.
EO: There’s a lot of original source material in the Marvel land. They may be true stories.
TH: Honestly I think the interesting thing about this question is that I think for the audience the difference is greater than for actors. Our job, our obligation, and our duty is to step into characters and play them truthfully, whether that’s a Norse god of mischief or a real life American icon. So in terms of that commitment of empathy and psychological excavation, to me there is actually no difference. I’m flexing or exercising the same dramatic muscle. But of course it’s different in process. We were able to go, the three of us, down to Shreveport and find real locations and inhabit those locations without any supplemented green screen or visual effects. So in that regard it’s different. But the acting part of it, the extension of compassion and understanding, to me, is the same.
EO: I agree that the way you approach characters is very similar, but for me it is a breath of fresh air to be on an intimate set and have momentum and have speed and to not wait around and not be waiting in a trailer for six hours, and you have thirty seconds to save the world. That’s a lot of pressure. To me it’s a lot more fun to have a creative argument about how we are blocking or overstepping each other’s lines in a hallway, and how we’re going to film that and how we’re going to change it. And you do get to try things out when you’re in Marvel, but there’s so many more elements that you’re a piece of. With this, this centerpiece is the moment to moment work between two people. There’s so many other things that have to go right when you’re doing a scene from Marvel. People have to pick up their cues, and for some reason that’s hard for eight people. I don’t know why. Those scenes would be terrible without editing. Or there’s an explosion that’s got to be timed at the right time. Camera moves are very complicated. There is a freedom in not being responsible to all these other pieces. I enjoy that immensely, and then I enjoy going back to the family of Marvel. It’s the only time I’ve felt like I’m a part of a community of actors. They’re a great group of people. They’re a lot of fun to work with. You still keep in touch with everyone that you work with, and you get ready for the next one. I enjoyed that aspect immensely.
TH: On I Saw the Light if you wanted to have an opinion on the film, you were on the set. There was nobody who had a creative influence on the film who wasn’t in Shreveport, in Louisiana, with us on the day. The three of us and [Director of Photography] Dante Spinotti and the other actors—if you wanted to have an opinion, you had to be there. With Marvel sometimes, because you’re part of this huge universe, sometimes there are people who have hugely important opinions on a day’s work, but you can’t be there in person. So decisions have to go through decision making processes and approval, which can slow things down a bit.
Hiddleston was asked about the singing and if he reached a point where he was no longer concerned about the technical issues of imitating Hank William’s voice and started to feel the songs.
TH: We had to prerecord certain tracks because the way we were going to shoot them. If Marc was covering a concert performance he was going to be cutting between wide shots to close-ups to hand-held, which meant that we had to be very precise about the musical track, and therefore couldn’t play it live in order for it to cut in. So we had to prerecord the track and I would sing along to myself, but he had to lay down a couple tracks before we started. They each had to have different atmospheres because some of them are radio station tracks, some are studio tracks, some are live concert performances. There were some that came very quickly and very easily to me, and some that didn’t. I recorded “Why Don’t You Love Me” in an hour. It took me about ten days to record “Lovesick Blues”. I can’t explain why. Rodney [Crowell, Executive Music Producer] and I used to say that it was like swimming in the ocean and that I would have to swim for miles and miles through seaweed in order to get to clear water. That’s how it felt vocally. There would be cracks and strains in my voice, because singing is a physical exercise; it’s a physical thing. Once your body and your resonance and your lungs are sufficiently warm, you can actually get to a place where you feel like you feel like you’re up at altitude and you’re finally in control of the airplane. It’s a fascinating experience for me because I still believe singing is the most naked form of emotional expression. Actors can hide behind characters. Writers can hide behind their writing. Painters can hide behind their painting. Singers are purely open. The reason we revere the greatest singers is because we feel there is a raw power to the transmission of their emotion, whether it’s Johnny Cash or Amy Winehouse or Nina Simone or Hank Williams or whoever it may be. That was challenging, because even though there was a technical discipline to it in manipulating my baritone voice to sound like Hank’s tenor, there was still a commitment to emotional sincerity which was really new for me.
MA: I just want to add something to that, because it was a big deal when we decide how we were going to do the music. From the very beginning, from the very moment I wrote the script and decided to make a movie, I was intent that we were not having lip syncing of the songs. Whoever played the part was going to have to sing it. I didn’t know if they would be able to do as well as Tom did—I was hoping that would happen. But what’s important to understand and that Tom understood, and even Lizzy to some extent when she was pretending to sing badly, even though she gets mad at me for saying she can sing well, she can—Tom and I both knew from the very beginning that he would never sound exactly like Hank Williams. I know Hank Williams like my mother knows her kitchen. I can hear one line of Hank Williams, and know whether it’s somebody. And there are people who imitate Hank Williams better than Tom Hiddleston can imitate Hank Williams, because he’s a natural baritone and Hank’s a tenor and that’s just reality. What Tom was able to do was to create the feeling not just in his voice and replicate the sounds and the modulations and get close enough for us, but to inhabit the character so in the end it didn’t matter that he didn’t sound exactly like Hank Williams. What we wanted was for you to feel that he was Hank Williams. That was the magic. The magic was that he got so close in the music and put so much energy and time and devote himself so deeply to becoming that character and bring his vocal representation that close—knowing from the very beginning that he couldn’t be that. It’s not possible. That was what was really important. And that’s why we didn’t lip sync, because then you’re watching it and you see that character play and you see Hank sing “Your Cheatin’ Heart”—which was done live—that’s Hank Williams.
Abraham was asked when he became interested in Hank Williams
MA: Well, I’ve always been a country music fan. I grew up listening to country music. My father was in the radio business. So I grew up listening to country music. Hank obviously preceded me, but if you listen country music, if you listen to George Jones or Merle Haggard or any of those guys, eventually you’re going to hear a Hank Williams song. You’re going to hear Patsy Cline sing it or you’re going to hear Willie sing it or you’re going to hear Hank sing it. So I was always a Hank Williams fan. As I got older and I learned Hank’s story I thought it was fascinating. I couldn’t believe how young he was. I couldn’t believe how much it mirrored what we see every day what takes place in show business. It’s a real show business story. So I was always motivated by that. And I thought that the fact that they were so young—they’re not Romeo and Juliette young, but they’re young—they’re 19, 20, 21, 23 years old when we’re talking about. So I loved the story and I love the music. I think he’s one of the most important literary figures of the Twentieth Century. I do. I think he’s one of the great poets. I think that’s borne out by the fact that if you look and see that Bob Dylan or Bruce Springsteen or Neil Young has his guitar or Kurt Corbain. He’s mentioned in a Leonard Cohen song. Mick Jagger. It doesn’t matter. These often are our poets. So I was really motivated by, and inspired and excited by that idea of Hank. I didn’t want to make a movie about when he was born and when he learned how to play guitar and how he wrote his songs. I definitely get to the human condition and the human condition was what Elizabeth and Tom and Bradley [Whitford] and Cherry Jones brought. I still love country music, the classic stuff.
Abraham was asked of the actors gave him additional insight into the characters.
MA: Of course. First of all, neither one of them is that shy. Honestly, it was a real collaboration. It’s what I love. It’s what the job is as a director. There’s the facts and beyond the facts there’s a lot that we have to know. Everybody’s got a version of the story.My grandfather always said to me when I was a kid, fighting with my sisters, “Don’t forget, son, no matter how thin you slice it there’s always two sides.” They brought, it wasn’t so much information we didn’t know, because we all shared the same information. What they brought was their instincts. They brought their intelligence. One of the things I loved about Elizabeth the first time I met her was that Audrey could easily be construed as a shrew. She’s very difficult. She’s pretty bitchy, you know? She’s pushy and difficult. But Elizabeth talked about it—and I think this is what really makes that character so interesting—that she sort of forces you as a viewer to go, “Okay, I know, but I’m pretty rough, but you think it’s easy to live with this guy?” I think that’s really important. So they brought timing to a scene or where they felt that I as a writer did not convey exactly what I thought I’d conveyed. Tom and I once took a walk—the three of us were always trying to get beyond what is this movie about—to me it was not about this is what happened to Hank Williams. It was about show business and the vagaries of that. It’s about the human condition and people were inspired to write things and to create things based upon what’s going on in their lives. I have a nine year old daughter who was listening to Adele’s music the other day and was explaining “Hello” to me. But Tom and I had a conversation one day where we were really digging in to what’s this movie really about? I’d been looking at a Scorsese movie—Casino, not one of his greatest movies, it was certainly a good movie, everything he does is pretty damn good—but I talked about it being about capitalism. It’s not just about Vegas. We started talking about that and we came to this thought as we walked around outside in this beautiful countryside that this was a lot about what cathartic experiences that a performer is able to bring to an audience. And Tom brought up some conversations that he had with another actor at one point and what that actor who’d often played some pretty nefarious characters would value that. Out of that sprang a conversation that had already had been written but it became deeper. That was the conversations with the reporter and that became from a collaboration of the two of us really digging into that.
TH: It was an amazing, defining moment for Marc and I. It was a beautiful day in Tennessee and I took a break from the scene and we took this walk. We were both really trying to give ourselves a center so through the shoot we would always be able to come back to the center and find out what we were going to do. I found myself telling a story about Anthony Hopkins and something he had told me which was—We were shooting the first Thor film, I was obviously playing the antagonist. He very sweetly invited me to his house for breakfast. He said [shifting to Anthony Hopkins-esque voice], “I know what you’re doing. I’ve played antagonists. I’ve played lots of parts in my life. I’ve played kings and princes and poets and thieves. People out in the street always ask about one man. Who do you think that man is?” I knew who that man is, you know who that man is, I don’t even have to say his name. But it begins with H and ends with Annibal Lector. And he said “It’s interesting because it’s my experience that people want their lives to be full of love and laughter and friendship and family. They want to have nice lives. They want to have happy lives. But when they listen to music, when they go to the theatre, when they go to the cinema, they want somebody who’s brave enough to lean into the darkness. They want someone who can express the darkness that they feel in their own lives, they feel in their own hearts, but they don’t want it at their front door. That’s what they want. That’s what they want from art. That’s what they want from actors and musicians. They want people who can lean into the darkness and I just flirt with the most powerful thing.” It’s a very strong memory. It became a touchstone for us because I realized that’s what Hank was doing actually. That was the role he served. People connected to the power of his songs because he wasn’t afraid of leaning into that darkness. That’s what sometimes great art expresses.
Photos courtesy of Sony Picture Classics