Interview: A.J. Edwards of the Lincoln Movie “The Better Angels”

Posted on November 16, 2014 at 8:00 am

A. J. Edwards is the writer and director of “The Better Angels,” a lyrical new film about the early years of Abraham Lincoln, when he was a boy growing up in a small log cabin. The title comes from Lincoln’s famous quote:
“We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory will swell when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”

I very much enjoyed talking with him about making this movie.

I’m from Illinois and we take Abraham Lincoln very, very seriously. I have heard about him all my life growing up. I have been to his home in Springfield, the Lincoln Museum, and the Library. But I did not know about this cousin, whose memories of growing up with Lincoln provide the narration for the film. So tell me a little bit about how you learned about the cousin and his story.

Dennis Hanks, Abraham Lincoln’s cousin, is essential to understanding the Indiana years because he provides one of the best and most thorough accounts of that time. And it is all available in a text in the form of an interview conducted by a journalist named Eleanor Atkinson when Dennis was what must have been his late 80s or 90s. He was a very old man sitting by the fire and over a series of nights, Atkinston interviewed him and got all these precious memories of his that give us a full picture of Lincoln as a boy, told by man who was with him. And it’s hilarious and tragic and so it’s just bittersweet and it reads like Mark Twain.

Was it difficult to cast the boys?

The boys and girls were found through a year-long search throughout Kentucky and it was one led by producer Jake DeVito and Casting Director Stephanie Coley. They scoured schools and youth groups, churches, camps for over a year. And we looked at thousands and thousands of kids all from rural Kentucky. Children of coal miners and everything just as Kentucky as we could get. And all for their athleticism, being outdoorsy, thoughtful, ready to engage with the world, young and old people alike. So we didn’t want video gamers and internet kids and kids that may have a little more boredom to them. And also their accents, they have this beautiful Appalachian accents, the same one Lincoln spoke with, and so that was very important to us.

You begin the film with Lincoln’s famous quote about owing everything to his mother. Most people think he was speaking of Nancy Hanks but some people think that was really reference to his stepmother. Which do you think it was?

You’re absolutely right.  That’s good research. There is disagreement about it and I think in fact maybe even the majority say that it was his biological mother Nancy, who was very dear to him. But the thesis of the film is how his stepmother was really a light to him in much darkness, the way that she guided him to the end of his life. She was just a positive force for good. And she is the one that really pulled him out of despair and grief when he was 10 years old. And she encouraged him towards education. She had a great amount of humanity. Her compassion, tolerance, gentleness — and their bond was a very special one. She also had a very beautiful interview that you can read when she was quite old. And the stories she tells are just very tender and there also some funny ones about him cutting up.

Where did you do your research?

We went to the Lincoln library in Springfield, went to the Boyhood Memorial in Indiana, went to his home as well in Springfield, the Coles County Cabin there in Lerna, and Thomas and Sarah Lincoln’s Cabin. We tried to travel around a lot and also read a lot over an extended period. Studying him is infectious and it’s a lifelong study. Anyone that picks up books about him you can’t stop, you’re it so fascinated.

I’m sure you know that he’s been portrayed on screen more than any other real-life character and second only to Sherlock Holmes. 

Amazingly in a hundred years of cinema no one has ever shown his Indiana years.

Why do you think it’s so important to explore that?

Well, it’s the most mysterious chapter; it’s the one that most people don’t know. They know his birth in Kentucky, they know his lawyer years in Illinois. But the tragic events that befell him in Indiana as well as the hope and joy that he experienced are essential to understanding his character. So much of him was shaped during the decade and a little bit more in Indiana. And it was shaped mainly by the positive influences of his two mothers and his teacher Andrew Crawford, the Catholic and veteran.

And even in just the strength of his father. He’s a disciplinarian, he’s a harsh man but he still has integrity, a strong sense of faith. He built their church, attended it regularly. He was a primitive Baptist to oppose slavery and moved his family from Kentucky to Indiana to get away from the institution of slavery. And Indiana was a free state. It was brought into the union that way. And so all of these people Lincoln were a reflection of, the best in them he absorbed. And certainly a good amount of him was God-given and a miracle, his greatness I mean. But there was definitely so much that he was reflecting. And that is all to say his better angels that he was reflecting.

There are two elements of the look of the film that were very powerful. And one was the beauty of the natural world, living out in the wilderness. And the other is the isolation, the incredible isolation of that world. Both were conveyed visually in the film. So how do you think those really affected him?

Oh yes, it was wild country for sure as Carl Sandburg, the great Illinois poet described. He said it was “land unknown to the plough” in his biography of Lincoln. And so many wild animals.  Lincoln and his father would go on bear hunts. And for sure the isolation must have affected him when his father left them during a very brutal winter in order to go find a new wife, which he did in Sarah Lincoln. He brought her home but during that time, during that absence, Lincoln was left to fend for himself with his sister and their 18-year-old cousin, Dennis. They were very lonely times. Dennis recounts them in that interview, they just sound very despairing.  And when Sarah returned with Thomas to find these children, her description of them was that they looked hardly human. They were so malnourished and so dirty that it was her first task to feed them, dress them, bathe them which she does in the film.  But nature is in the film as more than ornamentation, not just to be pretty but rather because that is their character, that was their life, they moved at the rhythm of nature be it Little Pigeon Creek that they lived beside, their source of water or the Ohio River which separated Indiana from Kentucky that was the main passageway by which all people traveled. There were the ponds and brooks that they enjoyed, the meadows, the fields that they worked. So many people are of a cynical view when they see the film and just talk about being pretty but no, it’s the locale and their entire universe.

Copyright Brothers K Productions 2014
Copyright Brothers K Productions 2014

I was very impressed by the way that the texture of the clothing seemed very authentic the way it came across in black and white.

The costume designer is a brilliant woman name Lisa Tomczeszyn and in this film she had quite a task ahead of her not only in the research that’s required and the authenticity that is expected in the costumes but also the fact that it’s a monochromatic palette. And so any film the goal is separation. You need people to separate from the background and in color that can be a lot easier, because blue and red are completely different, blue wall, red shirt, the actor will separate.  But in black and white blue and red can be the same shade. And so we had to do many tests to figure out how to get them to stand out from the darkness of the trees or the lightness of the sky or the kind of mid tones that the grass would be when they were out in the meadows. And so she was always having to switch things out to be getting them to separate from the background. She did a beautiful job, she really did her research and one of my favourite costumes in the picture is the dark big coat Sarah Lincoln arrives in, which is very iconic looking.  The bonnet that Diane Kruger wears just looks so cinematic.

I also loved the score of the film, which really helped to set the mood. 

The music is in part an original score by Hanan Townshend but the majority of it is some classical music by an Armenian-American composer, Alan Hovhaness, and Aaron Copland.  That Copland I really loved, it so emotional. It plays over the young boys reuniting after some time and they enjoyed some days together cutting up. Then there is a piece by 19th century Russian composer named Kalinnikov. That’s sort of the theme of the film and usually associated with the mothers. And then also there’s the work of 19th century German composer Bruckner and that’s a sort of grander theme that suggest the ideas of his growth every time its used.

What is it you hope people will take from the film?

One thing I don’t usually get a chance to speak about is a sense of the Calvinistic views of the time, the sense of destiny and faith that they were bound for something. It was not uncommon for families lose three or four siblings to sickness and death, a lot of children not living past three or four years old including Lincoln’s brother. He had a brother that died in infancy. If you lived to be 17, 18 years old that was quite an accomplishment, you had a greater sense of destiny that you were being preserved for something greater than yourself. There were forces in this world that were invisible to you that were guiding you always and sometimes guiding you through others, being the better angels.

But that sense of faith and destiny not only applies to all that Lincoln accomplished, some of the greatest accomplishments in this country’s history, but it applies to all of us that the film should act as a mirror that our circumstances now don’t determine the ones that will come later. Maybe we started in poverty, we started in sickness or we faced a job loss, divorce, death but those things aren’t eternal. And that hope, faith charity, these ideas can guide us to something better. And just as Lincoln pulled himself out of deep grief and loss and suffering, and was also pulled out of those things by his stepmother, a new chapter began for him. A door was opened and he was led further down the road to his great destiny. And so this movie is just a slice of that but you can make it about anyone because we all have these chapters of our lives. And so hopefully it’s a family film that young and old alike can enjoy because of these universal ideas. You know a picture without cynicism and instead it’s one that is hopefully filled with light for people.

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