Advertisement

I Saw the Light: Interview with Marc Abraham

14 May 2016 | Nick Chen

Britain’s acting phenomenon Tom Hiddleston has recently played a spy and a dystopic hero, so what’s next? A folk singer, apparently. In I Saw The Light, he takes on the role of Hank Williams, exploring the onstage highs and offstage lows of that tragically short career. We sat down to learn more from the film’s writer and director Mark Abraham.

Hank Williams was the ultimate folk hero, a country pioneer whose lonesome music inspired songwriters from Bob Dylan to John Lennon. Nevertheless, Williams’ life was consumed by darkness, substance abuse and other wounds a guitar couldn’t heal. In I Saw the Light, he’s played by Tom Hiddleston, and the character’s self-assessment is brutal: “Boy, I’m a professional at making a mess of things.” Hiddleston’s immersion in the role is a sight (and sound) to behold. What’s more, he performs all the songs in the film for real, even nailing Hank’s vocal inflections.

I Saw the Light is written and directed by Marc Abraham, a Hank fanatic in his second time as director following 2008’s Flash of Genius. For decades, Abraham has been an illustrious figure in the industry, and has produced movies such as Children of Men, Bring it On and Dawn of the Dead. We caught up with him at Soho Hotel to talk about the legacy of Hank Williams, what biopics get wrong, and training Tom Hiddleston into a musical performer.

 

London Calling: Your IMDb page lists you as a producer for so many massive films, dating back to the early 90s, but this is only your second time as director. I imagine you’ve had lots of opportunities. So what drew you to I Saw the Light?

Marc Abraham: It’s interesting. I know I have all those films and you think that gives you clout. It doesn’t work like that. It’s getting harder and harder to make movies like this, no matter how many movies you’ve made. I didn’t choose this for any other reason than I’ve always been fascinated by Hank Williams’ life and music, and I think he was a really important writer who turned things upside-down with his songwriting. Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Keith Richards, John Lennon – they all talked about Hank Williams. I felt the same way they did about him.

 

LC: Given your producing background, did you encounter other people’s attempts to write a Hank Williams film? Or did you decide you had to write one yourself?

MA: There had been a few scripts written that didn’t get made, and I don’t know why not. Maybe they didn’t have the will to do it. I was just determined. I used Colin Escott’s book as source material, and I read about 20 other books on him. I just decided about seven years ago I was going to write and direct a film about Hank. And then four years ago, I met Tom. I talked to some other people, and it started coming together.

 

LC: Did you want to adapt the film to Tom’s strengths as an actor, or was it about getting Tom to adapt to Hank?

MA: It was all about Tom adapting to play Hank Williams. His strength is his ability to adapt. Yes, we did have conversations about him accessing certain elements of his personality that are not dominant. Tom is a very unselfish performer. He’s a gentleman. He’s in great physical shape. Being an alcoholic and having a very prickly personality and being completely selfish – those are not things that he’s known for. But are there moments in his life where he’s been difficult to people? Moments when he’s been short? Yes. It was about him accessing certain elements of his life.

In terms of Tom in the role, I just thought he was the best actor I’d seen in a long time. I thought he looked a lot like Hank. I thought he had an enormous amount of flexibility as an actor. Together, we were confident that with enough training he would be able to do the music. And he did. I also eliminated very early the idea he would sound exactly like Hank Williams. I just wanted him to render the songs in a way that was reminiscent of that, but in a very powerful way.

 

LC: Is that because it sounds strange if he doesn’t get it perfect, or was there just no reason for an impersonation?

MA: I don’t think anyone could do it. There are country singers that can sound more like Hank than Tom, because they go around being impersonators, but my job was to create a character. And that’s what Tom had to do – get as close to Hank in terms of his voice without it seeming like mimicry.

 

LC: I can tell from Tom’s performance he did a lot of training.

MA: I don’t think I’ve seen an actor in a performance in many, many years do what he did. I don’t think some people understand how complicated and difficult it is for an English guy like that to not only play all those amazing songs but sing that music in that particular way – and act it.

To do that, Tom prepared extensively. There’s a wonderful singer/songwriter from Nashville called Rodney Crowell, and Rodney is pretty famous in the States and Nashville. Rodney lived 40 miles south of Nashville. Tom moved into that house. For five-and-a-half weeks, Tom did nothing but run in the morning very early and then spend 14 hours a day singing, playing the guitar and studying with Rodney. It was a pretty extensive education.

 

 

LC: What about Elizabeth Olsen? I guess she didn’t have to do anything like that? Her character’s singing voice isn’t exactly supposed to be on the same level as Hank’s.

MA: She’s an amazing actress. I’m crazy about her. She brings real humanity to a very difficult role that most people might consider a bitch. She makes her understandable. Lizzie is a good singer. I didn’t have to train her. But it was a fine line. We didn’t want her to sing so badly that it made Hank seem like an idiot for having her onstage. But she couldn’t sing so well that we couldn’t see she’s a bad singer.

 

LC: In your director’s statement, you mention watching as many musician biopics as possible. What did you gleam from this?

MA: I wanted to avoid typical movies that start when he’s a child and go to when he dies. The movies that had the most influence on me were Bob Fosse’s movies like Lenny and All That Jazz, and also Raging Bull. Scorsese didn’t show you Jake LaMotta as a little boy getting the shit beat out of him on some Brooklyn street and saying, “One day, I’m gonna be the champion of the world!”

 

LC: Director/writer films tend to be autobiographical in some way. How much of yourself can go into a biopic about a musical icon?

MA: People better be able to see some of you in the movie, or else it doesn’t make sense. It has to have some personal touch. When it’s about a specific other person, it’s probably less so. But I have been married three times and I do have five kids. A lot of the movie is about show business, and I’ve got a lot of insight about show business.

The guy at the studio says to Hank, “I’m sorry to hear about you and Audrey. This business is tough on marriage.”

Hank says, “Yeah, marriage is tough on marriage.”

A lot of people laugh at that line. A lot of my friends laugh at it. They say, “Marc…” Being married a few times, there’s a bit of me in there.

 

I Saw the Light is out in UK cinemas now

Read our interview with Tom Hiddleston about High Rise.

Advertisement

Most popular

What to See at The Cinema
What to See at The Cinema
Advertisement
Top Theatre of the Week in London
Top Theatre of the Week in London
Advertisement
The Best Exhibitions in London Right Now
The Best Exhibitions in London Right Now
Advertisement
Top Gigs of the Week in London
Top Gigs of the Week in London
The Best Street Food Markets in London
The Best Street Food Markets in London
Spotlight on: Gay’s the Word
Spotlight on: Gay’s the Word

Your inbox deserves a little culture! Get our monthly newsletter

Advertisement