Interview: Marc Abraham, Director of “I Saw the Light”

Posted on April 6, 2016 at 3:30 pm

Marc Abraham wrote and directed “I Saw the Light,” the Hank Williams story starring Tom Hiddleston and Elizabeth Olson. Williams died at age 29 after years of poor health and substance abuse. In an interview, Abraham talked about the moments that meant the most to Williams and what he liked best about working with Hiddleston.

What were Hank Williams’ happiest moments?

Well it’s hard to know about people. It’s impossible to imagine that he wasn’t happy some of the time. He had the birth of a son, he loved his kid, he really loved Bocephus. He used to talk about him on the radio, used to take him inappropriately huge teddy bears from very, very early age. I think he suffered from feeling bad that his father had not around, who wouldn’t. I think he took it but probably he missed out having a dad who wasn’t present and he was determined to make sure that he was present and of course that the irony, the irony of his life, the irony of the title, the irony of the film is that, as hard as he tried he wasn’t there and he died when his son was just three years old.

Copyright Sony Pictures Classics 2016
Copyright Sony Pictures Classics 2016

I think he loved his mother but also as he got older there was a sense of rebellion against his mom. There is no question that he and Audrey had a real passion for each other and passion often has happiness involved in it but it also has some pain. He was completely besotted by Billie Jean — he married a 19-year-old woman two months before he died. I think he was happy when he got on the Opry, I think when he saw what was asked of them once he’s was on the Opry and how much work was involved on a continuing basis and he was very much a guy who didn’t like authority, didn’t like being pushed around. So I think once he started thinking he was asked to be an organ-grinder’s monkey a little bit his instincts were like, ‘I’d rather just do it my way.’ He was one of those guys. When you’ve grown up without a father and been playing and performing since he was 13 years old and you know that you’ve got something to say, you can get pretty edgy.

On the EKG graph of his life, not his actual physical EKG, it was was peaks and valleys, peaks and valleys, peaks and valleys. He was a guy didn’t take much to get drunk and then couldn’t stop. He allowed himself to be treated by a doctor who had a degree from a gas station and gave him chloral hydrate. I think that he had real moments of high and he had real moments of low and those ups and downs took their toll on him physically and emotionally and on those around him. Ultimately he caved in, it all caved in on him.

What kind of research did you do on Hank? Who did you talk to?

The thing is, if you’re doing something about a real person and you’re talking to the people in their lives it can be an impediment as much as it can be an asset.
They all kind of have an agenda and also are protective and also everybody has a different viewpoint because if you’re standing on the side of the room somebody looks this way, they are standing on that side of the room they look a different way, every room has different camera angles. What was lovely was that Hank’s daughter who was born four days after he passed away, Jet Williams talked to us. She didn’t even know for 20 or so years of her life. She was passed around from family to family from foster home to foster home. So you can imagine when she finds out she’s Hanks Williams’ daughter, once she did she was passionate about understanding her father as one certainly would be and she has devoted a lot of time to learning about him. She’s a performer in her own right and she had a lot of material. She has one of my favorite photographs of Hank which is something we tried to show in the movie. When he’s on stage we showed him in all the garb that we are used to seeing him in, the suits, the beautiful hats but when Hank wasn’t doing that he could look like a hipster from right out of Brooklyn today, wearing a fedora. And when he walked right out of the door he was really cool. She had a great picture of him at the Alamo with these really great sunglasses on and he literally looked like somebody from right now and that was something we really pushed against. We didn’t really want people to think these are people off of “Hee-Haw.” Holly showed us a sort of soulfulness and told us about some of the relationships, being Junior’s daughter and a really fine musician in her own right. but in the end even though there is very little footage of Hank, there is a lot written about Hank.

Chet Flippo, wrote a really interesting fun book but it was a lot about things that there would be no way to be able to verify. Collin Escott’s book was a very heavily researched piece of material and because he wrote the book first in 1992, a lot of guys who knew Hank were still alive. So he had a lot of interviews with people that I wasn’t even able to reach, very thoroughly documented. And so there’s a lot of interviews and there’s the documentary that Morgan Neville did. And those interviews with musicians. I was able to put together a picture of the man. And people are always protecting someone that has had a great influence on their lives, very protective but they were also willing to say Hank could be a son of a bitch, Hank was a tough guy, Hank was a guy that really wanted to get it right, he wanted to do it his way and if you don’t want to do it his way well you know what, he is going to find somebody who did want to do it his way.

And it’s like one of my favorite quotes of Raymond Chandler: “If you don’t leave, I’ll get somebody who will.” So we put that together and then you bring someone else into the process like Tom, who has his own level of curiosity, his own intellectual curiosity and he takes those things very seriously. You’ve been digging in the same sandbox but then also he goes, ‘Did you notice this rock?’ and I go “Oh man, I didn’t know that rock” And that’s what the real beauty of collaboration is because then we’re talking about things and I kind of read that whole thing but what he took out of it is different because what he was looking for is something I didn’t even think about like “Oh dude that’s a good idea”, yes and that’s what film is a different medium in terms of the creative expression. We do a take and he says, ‘No, no, I can do it better.’ And we do another one and it is better, and then he goes ‘No, no, I can do it better than that.’ He is as committed a performer as Hank Williams.”

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