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Marc Abraham’s career has known box office success as well as critical lionising, with films such as Children of Men and Spy Game standing out for attention on a resume which covers over twenty years in the business. Having made the transition from producer to director with 2008’s Flash of Genius, his latest film I Saw The Light is a study of country legend Hank Williams. He spoke with CineVue’s Tom Duggins, making his infectious passion for William’s writing apparent from the get-go in an interview that focused on the folklore of country and the difficulty of representing pop stars on screen.
Tom Duggins: How do you feel about the stereotypes surrounding country music as a genre?
Marc Abraham: Well, if you’re a true music aficionado, if you really care about music, you know that really great country music gives you some of the best story-telling in the world. And certainly some of the greatest writing – that’s part of what’s so intriguing about Hank Williams. You listen to pop music, listen to what’s often so banal in that, and then listen to: In anger, unkind words are said that make the teardrops start Why can’t I free your doubtful mind and melt your cold, cold heart? That’s real poetry, and I think that’s why people like Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen and Neil Young and Roger McGuinn and Elvis Presley: they were all inspired by Hank. Like any genre, there’s a lot of crap out there, a lot of mundane shit, but when you get to the greats – it doesn’t matter whether it’s three chords or it’s Chopin.
TD: Do you think any of the big pop stars today could learn a thing or two by checking out Hank Williams?
MA: I think plenty of them could. But I think anyone that is really good – and I mean really good – anyone who in five or ten years time will still be thought of as a really good artist, you will likely find that they’ve already paid attention to Hank. To me, Hank Williams wasn’t a great musician, he was a great writer. You’re talking about the 1950s, when much of the music being written was pretty insignificant in terms of what was being said. Not in terms of the music, but what was being said. When you think of a guy who says: The moon just went behind the clouds, To hide its face and cry […] The silence of a falling star Lights up a purple sky. That was really abstract poetry. Even for a man, at that time, to sing: “I’m so lonesome, I could cry”. You didn’t sing that stuff if you were a man. It wasn’t something people did. I think anyone who doesn’t think they can learn from something good is on the wrong track. I’m not a big hip hop fan, but my sons are, and even though the lyrics are sometimes unbelievably crass (to a level that’s almost inconceivable, some of the shit they’re saying), when you hear somebody really lay it down good, and you listen to the stories being told. (And I worked with RZA from the Wu-Tang Clan, we did a film together). When you listen to what the Wu Tang have to say, or Eminem, or Biggie, those guys had something on their mind. They’re telling stories of their neighbourhoods and their lives.
TD: There’s a scene in the film that I like very much where Hank is being interviewed by a journalist and he seems very hesitant. I get the sense that Hank is saying: “There’s something in my music that you can’t really explain”. Does that resonate for you?
MA: Yeah. When you write something, your job and your expectation and your hope is that you write something that you won’t have to then literally explain – standing over somebody’s shoulder and saying: “See, what this sentence means is…”. Because you won’t get that chance. It’s just going to go out there into the universe, and you’re hoping that people will understand what you’re trying to say. I think, for the most part, any artist, musician, writer, anybody – they’re hoping that they won’t have to explain what it is that they’ve created. It feels somewhat pretentious to explain what something means. ‘What I meant is what I wrote’, they think, and even if it’s quite abstract – whatever it means to the reader or listener, hopefully it’s an emotional experience. In that scene in particular, Hank is kind of willing to explain what it is that he does. You know: people think I can make their troubles better. They think I’m kind of like the Red Cross. They write to me when their husband’s dead and left them with seven starving kids.
I think Hank does feel people are looking to him for solace. And who isn’t? Where he objects is when it gets personal. I think it’s very current – because that sort of questioning is very common today. It’s a fine line even for a journalist, because you’re dealing with people who are putting their personal lives out there. They’re living off their work, but they’re also living off People Magazine too, and then if someone starts to delve into it, they don’t like it. I get both sides of that, but I don’t think that, if you’re a serious journalist, asking people about their relationships is really valid. Because, just think, you’re a guy, you’ve got a relationship with another woman, you say the wrong thing, it gets interpreted in the wrong way. You can break up a marriage. There’s a lot at stake. But in Hank’s case, in the interview, it’s when he’s asked about his drinking that Hank gets mad.
TD: Hank is almost an archetype in some respects of what people tend to think of country music being. I just wonder, as the writer and director, was it a challenge for you to negotiate telling Hank’s story as it was but also worrying that maybe it’s too much of a stereotype?
MA: Well that’s interesting. What’s funny to me is that people have written things along the line of – “Oh, what a shock, hard life, drinking,” and so on. For me, it’s interesting because he was the first or one of the first. So, rather than avoiding that stuff because I’ve seen ten other movies about these kinds of things, the point for me is that this is one of the first of those stories. I could have avoided it, but that would have been insane. What I also didn’t do is to try to analyse it. I didn’t try to have him talk about his drinking at all, or have anyone make a big effort to try and talk him out of doing it. That for me would be the big stereotype. It wasn’t like I was unaware of the fact that this was a story about a hard living, hard drinking, country music singer song-writer. I knew what I was doing, and I anticipated that there would be people who would have all kinds of reactions.
TD: Bob Dylan once said that, when people started to claim that he was perhaps the greatest songwriter of all time, he just dismissed it because, in his opinion, Hank Williams was already the greatest song-writer of all time. Do you share that opinion?
MA: I don’t, because I don’t there is just one of anything or the best of anything. I don’t believe there’s a best song, a best picture. I do think he was one of the great literary figures – to take a broader look at his work – and certainly a great songwriter. But you’d find it hard, for me, to find a better songwriter than Bob Dylan. My favourite record and the one that resonates the most about love (the bad side of it) is Blood on the Tracks. I don’t think that anyone has ever written anything more incisive or insightful than Tangled Up In Blue or Idiot Wind. That album blows my mind, but I would also say that John Prine is one of the great singer song-writers. And you’d have to say Cole Porter, Neil Young, Paul Simon. Eminem’s written some great songs.
TD: I feel like maybe part of the way that Hank Williams is seen in the UK is perhaps different than in the states, because Hank Williams over here is seen as more of an influencer of some of those folk artists of the ‘60s. Do you think in some way you’re trying to promote Hank’s legacy?
MA: I’m actually excited by some of the conversations I’ve had with journalists about the film today, because it’s been much more interesting than some of the ones I’ve had in the States. I’m not an Anglophile, but I have to say the questions have been much more intellectual and have not focussed on what I didn’t do. So, look, am I gonna be able to bring Hank Williams to a larger audience? Here’s a perfect example – Desert Island Discs – I love it, and one of the recent guests that I really enjoyed hearing was Keith Richards. He had a Hank Williams song on there. Will I be able to promote Hank Williams better than Keith Richards? I doubt it. It would be great if people who are music fans in the U.K. were to go ‘Woah, I didn’t know that about Hank Williams. I just thought he was another guy with a big cowboy hat and some goofy boots and a straw coming out of his mouth.’
TD: Do you think that aspect of his celebrity might appeal to a younger audience who don’t necessarily know what his music is about?
MA: I don’t know. It’s been going on for so long. I think it’s always got some bizarre…sexy attitude to it. Live hard die young. Not a great mantra in my opinion. Not one I’m interested in. But, we just saw Amy Winehouse go down, and although he wasn’t super young, Prince is 57 and…we know he didn’t die on an elliptical trainer. So, I don’t know, I think it will be hard to get younger people to go to the movie, but I think if they do go, their reaction will probably be “That guy seems kind of cool”.