By Paul Risker.
Within the ongoing story of film there are those filmmakers, actors and producers that cast long shadows, although there are the more personal and intimate shadows, such as the one Marc Abraham’s producing career has cast over his work as a director: Flash of Genius (2008) and I Saw The Light (2015). While both of these directorial credits are biopics they remain worlds apart, from Robert Kearns’ (Greg Kinnear) legal battle with the American automotive industry to the story of American music icon Hank Williams (Tom Hiddleston). This perhaps signals Abraham’s ability to find diversity amidst a common connection.
Almost certainly it is the box office talent in front of and behind the camera, film stars Harrison Ford, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Robert Redford and Brad Pitt, alongside directors Tony Scott and Alfonso Caurón that have elevated Abraham’s work as a producer. And perhaps I Saw The Light will be ingrained on the cinematic consciousness with the image of Tom Hiddleston as Hank Williams, casting yet another shadow that will diminish Abraham’s importance in the film’s journey to the screen as writer, director and producer. But speaking with Abraham such observations will unlikely distract him, as he’s a practitioner who appreciates the collaborative nature of film, and as such these are shadows that he’d likely describe as positive associations.
In conversation with Film International, Abraham discussed the process behind filmmaking, from a spark of passion for movies as an adolescent that evolved into a career in which instinct and process intertwine. He also reflected on the nature of his expectations versus the realities of directing, the inevitability of letting go of a film and the intricate relationship a film forges between a filmmaker and their audience.
Why a career in filmmaking? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?
I don’t think I had one moment. I was into the movies from a very early age and we actually had a movie theatre very close to my house in Louisville, Kentucky. So I went to the movies literally every Saturday and I I always loved telling stories. I remember the first time I ever really thought about it in terms of show business was watching Johnny Carson, and later it was when I was in high school that I started to write a lot. I think that’s when I sort of got the bug and the thought that maybe I could make a career for myself telling stories. I never lost the passion for film and at college I definitely was interested in being involved in film in some way, but the college I went to didn’t have a film programme. There were a couple of film courses, but there was no film programme, and so I didn’t have the chance to hone anything there other than to take those courses. Once I got out of college and I travelled around, I pretty quickly ended up trying to get back into some form of entertainment, and the first real job I actually ever had – I had millions of jobs including menial labour – was working as a junior copywriter at an advertising agency in New York. So I was always into some form of creative endeavour.
I often ask filmmakers about the expectations versus the realities of the experience of making not only their first film, but their successive films. For you personally, your extensive producing experience must have shaped your expectations of the experience of directing?
Well I originally started as a writer and never thought of becoming a film producer. It was just sort of an accident when I started a company whose main intention it was to write and direct our own movies. The first film I got involved with that I had either written or was going to direct happened to be The Commitments (1991). A friend of mine had shown me the book and we helped finance and turn it into a film, but Alan Parker wanted to do it, and so clearly I wasn’t going to be directing that movie [laughs]. By the time I finally got back to the idea of directing, which was something I thought I was going to start with very early on, I had a lot of experience of being on a film set. And having gone through the entire process from the development to the execution stage; the post production and then the marketing and exposure to the real world, I’d seen everything that could happen, and every kind of experience that you could imagine. There were films I had been involved with that were blockbusters, films that I loved that didn’t do any business and those films that I didn’t think were as good as any of the others that happened to catch on. So I saw that it was pretty random, and then in terms of the expectations of directing a film for the first or the second time, it was great.
I am a real believer in process and I care about it more than anything, and I loved the process both the first and the second time. They were very similar, but I was obviously more experienced the second time where I have taken on a more challenging piece of material in terms of what I had to do in the amount of time I had to do it in. But I found it to be as exciting, enjoyable and as challenging as what I had thought it might be.
The great thing about directing – and to me it is the greatest job in the world – is that you have an opportunity. I love being on and creating a team, and I love creating a collaborative environment. No matter what anyone says you are the top dog in your decision. You get to be the boss, but in a way that inspires, encourages and enables all those other people, so that everyone feels a part of what you are doing and feels passionately. It is a great job and I loved it the first time I did it where I had a crew of people that were dedicated to helping me to make the film, and then on this picture it was the same thing. I knew it would be very hard making a music film and it’s more difficult than most people have any idea of. Unless you have enormous sums of money, and even if you do it’s still very, very difficult, and especially when you are doing it in the time that we did – thirty nine days. You are shooting scenes in one night that are separated by five years of script time, which you are asking your performer to do. To shoot all one hundred and fifty seven locations and one hundred and thirty four scenes in thirty nine days is very demanding, and every night I didn’t hardly sleep at all. But I loved every minute of it because you come upon a set and you see all these people that are all there to work their asses off, as long as they are treated right and are respected.
I often speak with filmmakers about how learning to make films is structured around honing one’s instincts so that you are able to eventually function instinctively. You speak of your attention to process and I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on how you perceive the relationship between instinct and process?
Well you always rely on your instincts and they are always going to serve you. But because you can only see it from one point of view there is a point in which your instincts are not necessarily going to be what you thought they were. And it’s weird how that happens. First of all I want to be able to rely on my instincts, but I would never want to rely on my instincts if I hadn’t done any preparation. I don’t want to be in a situation very often where I have to make a call on some gut decision because I haven’t prepared for it. What I like to do is to be prepared so much so that I know I am okay; I am not going to die. And then at least in the moment if I feel something then I can feel comfortable enough to take a different path than the one I had decided on. This is because I will have processed it and gone through it enough in my head to think: Okay, I am not going to go there, but at least I know why… It’s not because I don’t know what the hell I am doing. But what’s really strange and it can be funny about not just what you feel, but your instincts and what you think, is that no matter how many times you read the script and in this case I wrote the script, but you read the script, rehearse the script, talk about the script, break it down for all your department heads and discuss it with your actors, and yet there still comes that moment when you’ve overlooked something. This is what fascinates me because somehow, some way, somewhere, never do you not overlook. At some point you’ll go: “Oh shit, I wrote that… Why didn’t I realise that going from this scene to that scene is not going to work?” I specifically remember once on the first film that I did where I had a father and son talking. The character of the son was played by two different actors – one was when he was younger and one when he was older – and when we had rehearsed the scene I had put the younger version of the son without realising that the scene took place later on in the movie with the older one. Somehow, some way in that crease in my thinking it had just gotten lost. It’s just this weird thing because by not having two hundred sets of eyes on every moment of it, you somehow overlook something. Either that or your gut will tell you this is something that would work absolutely perfectly, such as this song is going to work brilliantly here and suddenly you are looking at it or listening to it, and you realise you were dead wrong. It’s actually not going to work here and those lyrics are even counter to what I want people to be feeling. I thought the song and tempo was perfect and Oh my God, people are going to interpret this song this way, and it’s not meant to be interpreted that way. So there’s always some element where your instincts are very good and where you just make the right decisions, and there is a time pretty much for me where I always have some shock where I’ll go: “Oh damn, I should have thought of that.” Those will keep you up at night and that’s why you don’t sleep, or at least I don’t sleep very well. I go home at night and I am either chewing over what I did the day before and wondering if it worked or I am thinking about what I have to accomplish the next day. I’ll be trying to somehow remember everything that I want to do and will assiduously write down every thought: Okay wait a minute, I don’t want to forget to do that and make sure that costume is like this, because who knows what inertia you might be thinking about.
With the film now being complete are you able to create a separation? I ask in part because the collaboration between the film-maker and the actors is often discussed ahead of the equally important collaborative relationship between the film-maker and the audience. Do you perceive the audience to be the ones that complete the film and therein would you agree that the audience completes and therein defines a film?
I think inevitably you have to. It’s hard because what happens is once you put it out there you have people that change it or sometimes audiences don’t get what you are trying to say or you didn’t say it clearer enough. And so inevitably there are times when you or people misinterpret something and you think: What an idiot… How could they think that? Did they think I didn’t notice that and it’s an accident that’s in there? So most of the time you have those moments, but then it happens that people love something and you think: Jeez, I am glad they loved it; I didn’t even realise it was that good. I didn’t even like it and they think it’s great. Who knows and inevitably you know when you are making a film, writing a book or anything that ultimately it is going to be interpreted by other people. I want people to feel that they’ve been touched by something and that there has been an emotional experience because for me films are an emotional experience. They may not get my intellectual points or they may not understand because of either my not accomplishing it or their not understanding it, but pretty much at this point I am able to hang the picture and let whatever happen, happen. I can’t go around to every single person that walks through the gallery and say: “Now you notice the colour of the ocean I have painted there, I know you think it’s blue, but it’s actually closer to magenta.” You can’t do it and you have to ultimately know that the work speaks for itself.
I Saw The Light was released theatrically in the UK on Friday 6th May by Sony Pictures.
Paul Risker is an independent scholar and film critic who contributes regularly to Film International. He is an Editor for Mise-en-scène: The Journal of Film and Visual Narration, which will launch in Fall 2016.