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Writer-director Scott Teems knew he'd written himself into a corner with That Evening Sun, an adaptation of William Gay's short story about an 80-something Southern man fighting to keep his house in the face of advanced age, surly renters and an indifferent son. Teems realized that there were very few elderly actors who could handle the role, much less the Southern accent, but he knew one guy who'd be perfect for it-- Hal Holbrook, the veteran actor recently Oscar nominated for Into the Wild, who knows a thing or two about remaining steadfast and stubborn into your 80s.
In That Evening Sun, Holbrook plays Abner Meecham, a man who escapes from the retirement home to move back to his old farm, only to find that his son has rented out the place to another family, led by Lonzo Choat (Ray McKinnon), who hates Abner as much as Abner hates him. The film follows their conflict and allows each side to be seen as more or less right, creating a portrait of several characters living in a corner of the South that's rarely explored on film. We talked to Teems and Holbrook about their work together on the film, deliberately making a quieter kind of film, and the inevitable Oscar buzz that's grown up around Holbrook's fierce, dedicated performance. That Evening Sun is currently out in limited release.
This movie was incredibly restrained for a first-time writer-director. Did you have that specifically in mind?
Teems: That was the goal. My favorite thing is to observe character, and I think you can find a balance between character study and still have an intense, propulsive plot. If I can make the script as tight as possible, then the script could propel the story and I wouldn't have to do it through technique. Then I could do what I wanted to do, to sit back and observe and put a camera on this man's great face [gesturing to Holbrook]. I could sit back and just be.
Holbrook: In real life, people drive the story. People are driving our country now in one direction or another. No director is out writing a script. It's much more interesting to see what happens when characters drive a story than it is to have someone jumping out of an airplane with a machine gun, landing on both feet and gunning everybody down.
Teems: That's my next film. [Everyone laughs] How did you both learn to work with character beyond the script?
Holbrook: 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. 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?
Teems: The idea that directing is 90% casting 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. 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.
Can you talk about how you brought Abner Meecham to life?
Holbrook: The more I worked on this, the more I thought about Dixie’s [Carter, Holbrook's wife] 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.
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. 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.
How did you direct Hal and Barry Corbin together?
Teems: 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.
Holbrook: 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.
Teems: And a young man in that film made his television debut, a boy named—
Holbrook: A young boy named Sean Penn! We watched this young guy, with this little part, and we thought, “This kid has got talent. This kid is something special.” And when the film was over, I got this beautifully written letter from him—I was astounded--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.
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?
Teems: 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. So when those things clash, something’s got to give.
Holbrook: 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!
Teems: 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. 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?
Holbrook: The elderly are a big problem for the young people, and it’s only beginning. 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. Teems: 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. 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.
Holbrook: Everybody is not sweet, you know? I think it gets back to the fact that Life. Is. Difficult.
How are you dealing with the Oscar buzz? Holbrook: 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. 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…
Teems: But sometimes they do.