Memphis Flyer: That Evening Sun is the second time you’ve made a movie based on material by author William Gay.
Scott Teems: I made a short film as part of the process of getting That Evening Sun made. I had optioned the short story [Gay’s “I Hate To See That Evening Sun Go Down”] in 2005, and I wrote the script and we spent about a year and a half trying to get something going with it. We were having a tough time getting people excited about it — no one wanted to make a movie about an 80-year-old Tennessee farmer. I can’t imagine why that’s not commercially viable.
[Producer] Terence Berry and I decided to make a short that was indicative of this world [to help with funding]. But I wanted it to be its own thing. I had read “A Death in the Woods,” and it fit a short film. Gay was a big supporter of what we were trying to do and was an advocate for the project. I made “A Death in the Woods” saying, This is me making this kind of movie on very limited resources.
Did you grow up in a rural Appalachian setting?
No, I grew up in the burbs, about half an hour northeast of Atlanta. I have family who are from the country, and I spent a lot of time there as a kid. Abner Meecham [Hal Holbrook’s character] reminds me a lot of my grandfather. I didn’t even really know that until well into writing the movie. I realized that was the reason I was drawn to him. And Holbrook actually looks a great deal like my grandfather. To such a degree that when we screened in Atlanta in April, when all of my family was there, my cousin asked, “Do you know how crazy this is for us to look up and see this man who looks so much like our grandfather?”
He’s the consummate professional. Hal has been acting twice as long as I've been alive. I realized pretty early on that I wasn't going to teach him anything. My job was to trust him and get out of the way.
Working with an actor like him, you can put the camera on him and [capture his] life and history immediately. It goes hand-in-hand with the way I like to shoot, which is quite reserved. I work a long time on getting the script so tight it propels itself so I don’t have to propel the film through technique. I can just sit back and watch and observe character. The story on their faces is what interests me.
I was so fortunate with this cast. I went with my gut in a couple key roles, where there was pressure to go in other directions with a couple bigger names.
Speaking of casting, Dixie Carter has such a crucial role even though she doesn’t have any lines. Whose idea was that to cast her?
[Producer and actor Walton Goggins] and I came up with it together. It seemed very obvious. This was an opportunity to use this history that an audience is going to have with these people to add to the story we’re telling on the screen. Those scenes are so magical and real and honest, and that’s not acting, it’s just them. It was a real thrill to watch them together.
Had Mia Wasikowska been cast in Alice in Wonderland when you cast her?
No. I cast her, and then two weeks later Tim Burton cast her. We knew she was up for the role. A lot of that credit goes to Emily Schweber, the casting director, who from the very beginning said, “You’re going to cast Mia Wasikowska.” I asked, “Who is she?” She said, “She’s this girl from Australia.” I said, “No, not going to cast her.” I told her I wanted to cast all Southerners in this movie. If this isn’t real, we’re dead. It can’t be fake.
We went through several weeks of casting and saw some good actors. I told people I was looking for a young Sissy Spacek. Then in walked this girl who looks like Spacek [when Wasikowska auditioned]. I knew she was Australian. She had only two hours to prepare for our audition, and she went on YouTube and watched clips of Coal Miner’s Daughter. It was very good. I said, “If you can do this in two hours, what can you do in six weeks?” I had seen her on In Treatment and knew she could do an American accent.
Another key was that [the actress cast as Pamela] had to be pretty, but when she’s in the tenant house with Hal, there had to be zero thought of anything sexual or nefarious. I wanted it to be the furthest thing from your mind, just entirely innocent. Mia is beautiful, but she’s totally innocent, and it is the last thing on your mind when you watch those scenes.
She has the other thing, this energy that I just know is right. And it helps with the film that she’s going to be this huge superstar in about six months.
Did you go to film school?
I have a degree in film from Georgia State. I had always made movies and wanted to have a camera in my hand. I realized that the kinds of movies that I wanted to make weren’t getting made. I’ve been out of college about 10 years. For most people I know who have made it, who have careers, it takes about 10 years. A lot of people write their first screenplay and think it’s the best thing ever, and it’s not. It takes a long time to figure it out.
As you look ahead, do you see yourself as a Southern filmmaker?
I certainly would like to tell stories about the South. I had this stark realization one day that my children are not Southern. They have Southern heritage, but my son was born in Manhattan, my two daughters were born in L.A., and they’ve all been raised in L.A. I realized that their Southern experience is second-hand. I believe that so much of how you look at the world is through the lens of how you were raised and where you were raised. I love Los Angeles and we’re happy here, but I also miss living in the South. There is a spirit of family and community there I haven’t found in other places I’ve lived. I want to impart some of that experience to my kids. I wasn’t raised on a farm, but it’s a world I know, and it’s the experience of my parents and grandparents. My next project isn’t based in the South, but it’s about a guy from the South who doesn’t live there anymore. It’s a small part of the story, but it’s a core idea that’s influenced by me. I’m not tied to that like an obligation, but the worldview of the South comes through in whatever stories I tell.
Talk about the music and the Jimmie Rodgers song, "Blue Yodel No. 3."
I’ve been a long-time fan of the Drive-By Truckers. I met Patterson [Hood] through [producer and actor Ray McKinnon] and Walton. Patterson is a fan of The Accountant, Ray’s Oscar-winning movie. I think The Accountant is one of the top-five Southern films ever made. Patterson saw that film, and it inspired him to write a song called “Sink Hole” on the Drive-By Truckers album Decoration Day, about The Accountant. Patterson and Ray had a friendship and a relationship.
The Truckers have a cultural authority and authenticity, and [their involvement] is a stamp of approval, in my mind, to a project’s authenticity. We experimented with a few different ways for Patterson to be involved [in That Evening Sun]. He wrote a few songs, including an original, “Depression Era.” I’m biased, but I think it’s one of the best songs he’s ever written. And he did an interesting acoustic slow burn of the Rodgers tune. The story title comes from the “Blue Yodel No. 3” song. I wanted it to be all over the movie, but I didn’t want a lot of music in the movie. I like to let the story propel the movie and not have to use music. I was trying to find a balance, how do you have a movie that feels like it has a lot of music in it without actually having a lot of music in it? One way I did it was having “Blue Yodel No. 3” appear in different incarnations. I wanted to have it in there but not in repetitive ways.
For the score, we approached Michael Penn. He was the last guy on my radar because he’s so cosmopolitan. But Linda Cohen, our music supervisor, suggested him. I thought it was interesting, because I didn’t want the music to be regional. I didn’t want it to be twangy, with banjo crap. It’s such a cliché, and with the accents, the actors, and the locations, you were never going to forget where you were. But what you could do was accentuate the bigger, more universal themes of the film — life, death, land, fathers, sons. Michael watched the movie, and the first thing he said was the movie felt tribal and primitive. He got that right away. He has a different vibe totally from what I was thinking originally, but I’m so pleased with the score. It’s a different point of view, removed from that world that didn’t have the Southern bias and didn’t want to play into that, it counters that and plays against it. But if feel very organic.