On Monday October 27, “The Better Angels,” directed by A.J. Edwards, premiered at the Directors Guild of America in Los Angeles. Set in the forests of Appalachian Kentucky, the film charts the early life of Abraham Lincoln as he grows up on his family’s farm. Against his austere upbringing, Abe’s family come to realize that he is destined for greatness.
Q: How big a boost was it to receive that seal of approval from Terence Malick?
It wasn’t approval as much as it was encouragement and his lending his name and his support to the film. Of course, he’s been an inspiration throughout.
Q: How much of this movie is true to history and how much is open to your interpretation?
We were staying close to many sources that were important biographically. There was the work of the greatest living Lincoln youth scholar, William Bartelt. Carl Sandberg out of Illinois – his great biography “The Prairie Years” – Benjamin Thomas’ single volume “Abraham Lincoln,” the early twentieth century work of Ida Tarbell. We were definitely interested in being biographically correct.
Q: How was it working with the child actors for this film?
Fantastic. That’s one of the great points of pride in the story. Producer, Jake de Vito and Casting Director, Stefni Colle found them after a year-long search throughout eastern Kentucky and many rural areas, because we were searching for that beautiful, lyrical Appalachian accent, which is unlike the normal southern accent. The Kentucky accent is very specific and has a beautiful melodic quality to it. It’s so specific, people often cite in how Lincoln sounded. They said when he stood up to speak, he would even pronounce his name “Lin-corn” not Lincoln, he had a very unusual way of speaking in D.C. so it was important to us.
Q: The movie’s filmed in black and white, how does that starkness play on screen?
The starkness is very important. The pictures that were influencing the making of the picture were Robert Bresson pictures or Satyajit Ray films, and so depictions of youth, to remove the romance of it, and to create starkness and austerity, that was very important. In addition to the monochromatic palette there was also the lessening up on music throughout the film, just to let sound, behaviour and minimal dialogue guide things, so that it was not so much a performance, like a play, but more about pure cinema. That was the goal.
Q: What’s next?
Next I’m preparing a picture ready to shoot spring of next year in Texas. It’s a modern day crime and punishment story.
Q: You play Abe Lincoln’s birth mother, how did you get into the role?
A lot of it was me reading, actually, about things from the time period, and reading the Bible, because Nancy was quite a religious person and I’d never read that text before. So, reading that really helped me find the parables that meant something to her, and where a lot of her education or feeling for Abe came from. A lot of it was just about the space, and meeting those kids. A.J. cast those two kids out of elementary schools in Kentucky where he found them in these drama workshops. They’d had no training prior to doing this film. It was lovely just to meet them and get to know them and connect with them and create a space where they felt safe in opening up to imagining that Jason was their father and I was their mother. So a lot of it was about creating intimacy with a group of people so that it feels like a family.
Q: You mentioned space – how did the landscape affect your role?
A.J. draws a lot from nature, that really means something to him and he’s always really ready to take advantage of something spontaneous. If there’s a beautiful fog, or the sunlight is passing through trees in a certain way. I think one of his real gifts as a filmmaker is that he has a set plan but he’s willing to divert from it to see what is there. So, as an actor he wants you to do that too. If a grasshopper leaps on you in the middle of the take, you’re not flicking it off and going back to the scene, you’re allowing that to inform the scene and maybe making that the new focus of the scene, which is a rare thing.
Q: Did you have a say in writing the character?
I had no part in writing it at all, it was a pleasure to read something really beautiful and then come and play that part and do my best to bring the most I could to the role.
Q: What’s next?
I’ve just finished this mini-series in London called “Babylon” that Danny Boyle directed that was a lot of fun. It was great to live in London and work in London for a while, and now I’m back here writing, so we’ll see.
Q: You play a communications executive in “Babylon.” Do you think people talk more and say less now?
For sure. I think the whole culture has gone that way – even in the social media aspect – the volume of tweets that happen in a day, and this expectation that you’ll always have something to say, but not necessarily take the time to refine it and maybe think about what you’re saying. Liz Garvey in Babylon is certainly an example of someone who’s doing a lot of talking, and I think over the course of those six hours, she really refines what it is that she actually wants to say.
Q: They’re two quite contrasting roles, aren’t they?
[Laughs] Can you get farther apart from Nancy Lincoln and Liz Garvey? I don’t think so! I think those are the two opposite ends of the spectrum.
Q: You play young Abe Lincoln’s father, how did you prepare for the role?
You read books. I listened to Tom Sawyer, an old reading of that on audio file, just to listen to the language. The guy reading it had a great accent for the period and time, I thought. Another accent from that area – from Tennessee – was Johnny Cash. I listened to him read the Bible. It was 45 hours of Johnny Cash reading the Bible. Reading books just to kind of remember that time and the way people lived. And then I went out camping and found a bit of solitude. I grew up on farms so I had an appreciation of that. And the way society ran back then: very patriarchal and not much expression of love. And just trying to understand that that was not from a mean place, it was just the way that it was. Just trying to get as much as you can to be in that period.
Q: Speaking of being out in the wilderness and camping, how do you think the landscape plays a part in the movie?
It plays a huge part in the film. You’ve only got to go out into the middle of nowhere and figure out how you’re going to feed yourself and clothe yourself and house yourself. It’s a huge part of the shoot and how it looks, and its a huge part of the story – that’s what Lincoln came from. His father took him out – moved the family out into the middle of nowhere – and said “we’re gonna live here.” And there’s not anything there, you’ve got to build it all and grow it all and find it all. It gets pretty rough.
Q: Not coming from America, how do you feel that spirit of individualism plays a part in America today?
I still think it’s there. I still think it’s part of the whole American psyche – about going out and making your own destiny – for good or bad or that anything is possible. That’s why [America’s] embraced capitalism and pay-as-you-go, you pay your own way. It’s that element of ‘fortune will be on your side if you work hard and do the right thing.’ It’s very different coming from Australia, we’re landlocked with a desert inside, whereas they just came and went across the frontier all the way to the West Coast.
Q: You were in Gatsby and you’re soon going to be John Connor. Is this something of a small-budget palette-cleanser for you?
In the end it comes back to the story and the material. If something really grabs you, it grabs you and there’s not much you can do about it. You’ve got to pay your bills. It was such an amazing story, I couldn’t stop thinking about how this is where this dude came from. I couldn’t work that one out. And then the idea of playing a hard father who doesn’t show love in a way that we think we show it nowadays, and the way we bring up kids. He was still good for his son, I mean look at where he ended up. Lincoln had a very troubled relationship with his father, but there’s a lot of good in Tom Lincoln. I thought it was something I wanted to put inside me, a father like that. You take these characters, and they sit inside you, and you use them and reference them in later parts and it becomes part of your library.
Q: You’re a composite of a few of Abe’s teachers. How did the role make you think about education?
Well, I have my own children, so I’m always thinking about education and worried about the state of it, or the different opinions about education. The time period was such a different thing. They were all disciplinarians. They taught them everything from etiquette to actually how to read and write and history. But they also taught them how to live. [Teachers] were sort of another parental figure in their lives. Now it’s not so much like that, we have so much separation and control and liability. Teachers don’t have that kind of influence much anymore.
Q: How was it working under A.J.?
It was great. A.J.’s amazing. I worked with Malick as well, and it was great to work with A.J. who was strongly influenced by Terry. He does an amazing job of it, he’s such a thorough filmmaker.
Q: He’s hands-on?
Absolutely. Everyone had to be hands on, but he’s definitely right there. It’s a particular style. He was great at explaining to his actors how to meet the style of the film-making. It’s tricky with the camera and the movements.
Q: How did it feel to be in a more small-budget, art-house film?
I’m used to doing a lot of smaller budget art house films, so it was nothing new to me. But I always enjoy it, I love all kinds of film. I love being a part of film. Art-house films were probably my first real love and understanding what film-making was. I love being a part of these kinds of films, especially one with such a significant part of our American history.
Danny De Vito
Q: Exactly how proud are you of your son?
I’m so proud of Jake, Better Angels is a terrific movie. It’s his first one out there. He and his friends are so tight and dedicated to it. They’ve been working hard on it and he did a great job.
Q: There’s quite a strict father in the film of young Abe Lincoln?
Nothing like our relationship. I don’t know if Jake’s gonna be President (laughs) but he’s gonna be a great producer. He is a great producer.
Q: The 10th series of It’s Always Sunny drops soon?
We start airing it in January, and it could be the best series that we’ve done. It’s really loads and loads of fun, still, and I really just love working with those maniacs.
Additional celebrity guests in attendance included Danny DeVito, Rhea Perlman, Isabel Lucas, Vampire Weekend’s Rostam Batmanglij, Shawn Pyfrom, Kristin Gore, Max Carver, Christopher Stanley, Ryan O’Nan, Nev Schulman, Nick Jarecki, David Lowery, Nicole Laliberte and Keenyah Hill. The film hits theaters November 7, 2014 on New York and Los Angeles.