“Making drama for the cinema is really becoming more and more difficult, and when you’re able to cut through, people begin to notice,” comments first-time director Scott Teems on the wide acclaim of his award-winning film That Evening Sun, which is based on William Gay’s short story I Hate to See That Evening Sun Go Down. Starring 84-year-old actor Hal Holbrook, the film is a quietly forceful, nuanced portrait of a Tennessee man, Abner Meecham, still clinging to the past. Teems points out, “A lot of [the attention] has to do with Hal and his amazing performance. I also think it’s because the film is not your typical Hollywood product and people are sitting up and taking notice.” It might be a difficult time for independent, distinctively crafted cinema, but The Evening Sun is a clear example of quality material with complex characters successfully breaking through. Approaching the L.A. theatrical release of the film on November 20, Slant caught up with Teems to discuss the intricacies of the film’s characters, how Holbrook got involved, and the difficulties of raising money for a small, character-driven film.
The first thing that struck me after watching the film was how the characters came off in an even light, neither good nor bad. Was that your intention?
Absolutely. That’s a big part of the story, because that’s truer to the world I know. We’ve got to be careful to differentiate between the protagonist and the hero; I think too often [an audience] is looking for a hero, but I’m looking for an interesting protagonist, and that, for me, is someone who you can get behind because they have qualities you respect. And for Abner, he’s got this tremendous resolve and strength and dignity and set of principles—and you empathize with his plight: He comes back to his house and somebody is living there. You understand his point of view, but he also is incredibly callous and stubborn and won’t listen to anyone else, and won’t see any other point of view but his own. So that creates great tragedy; there is beauty and tragedy inherent in all these characters. I hope this film causes you to constantly reevaluate these characters.
At what point did you decide this was going to be the first feature you wanted to make?
I think it was when I read the short story; I had been looking for a great story. I had written several scripts, you know, but nothing was great. I Hate to See That Evening Sun Go Down was a classic story I could sink my teeth into. The short story is really Abner-Lonzo-centric; it’s very much about that conflict, and that was great because it provided a real strong structure—a beginning, middle, and end—but it also provided a lot of room to write. What was missing from the story were all the relationships: Abner and the young girl, the husband and the wife, and Abner and son. All the relationships were tangentially talked about in the story, but for the most part they didn’t exist, and so I was able to bring myself into it and be creative. I was just compelled to make this film; it was either naïveté, or ignorance, or brilliance—I prefer the latter—which is to think that someone would put money up for a movie about an 80-year-old Tennessee farmer. It took about three years to find the financing, but eventually we did. We just persevered because we believed in the story.
As a first-time director, what was the most difficult part during production?
I’m a pretty calm guy, and it was imperative for me to keep things calm on set. [The shoot] was very rushed, and it was a very intense process, but for me it was crucial that everyone kept a level head. Because everyday something is going to go wrong on a film set. It’s just the nature of the process, and that’s when people’s true colors come out. You really get to know someone when you see how they react to stress. I was very fortunate on this movie because the people that worked on this film had super attitudes and [the crew] was really team-oriented, which you have to be like when you’re working on an independent film; you’re always stretched with time and money. When you have the right people, those limitations can become an asset, and they can drive people to do better work, and collaborate better. I believe in creativity through limitation, and it’s important to push yourself and have boundaries, and if you have the right people working together, it can be a great thing.
How did Hal Holbrook get involved?
We had been looking for a couple years, and as the story and script developed, we were wondering who could play this part. There’s only a handful of actors you could even begin to think could play this role, and now having made the movie, there’s only one. Part of it is playing the role, but the other part is the physical toll of shooting a film in Knoxville, Tennessee during the summer in August when it’s 100 degrees everyday. Hal is virtually in every scene, and we had long days and a very compressed time frame to shoot the movie. I’m convinced that very few, if anyone, would have been able to survive, and literally just make it through. If Hal had gotten sick, if he had missed a day, if he had to take a break, leave early or come late, the film would have been screwed. Hal bore that burden himself, and carried the production on his shoulders, and it was very important that we had someone that could do that. Finally the producers and I saw Into the Wild in the fall of 2007, and in that movie Hal has a perfect combination of strength and fragility that I had been looking for—so we approached him after that.