An act of difficult transition not often captured in cinema is that of aging out, a term referring to when a teenager’s foster care term ends and they enter independent living. In his second feature, which draws its title from this term, writer-director A.J. Edwards captures this moment of isolation and loneliness with immediacy and gracefulness. Age Out tells the story of Richie (Tye Sheridan), a teenage drifter just out of foster care who finds a new love and trouble in Texas, with a cast also including Imogen Poots, Caleb Landry Jones, and Jeffrey Wright.
Following its South by Southwest Film Festival premiere, where it played under the title Friday’s Child, the film will now get a release this week both in limited theaters and VOD. We spoke with the director–who got his start working on Malick’s The New World, The Tree of Life, and To The Wonder, and made his directorial debut with the transfixing young Lincoln tale The Better Angels–about this second feature, his visual approach, influences, working with executive producer Gus Van Sant, finding the story in the editing, teaming with Weyes Blood, the morality of the film, impossible forgiveness, and much more.
The Film Stage: It’s been five years since your debut The Better Angels when we last talked. Could you talk about the period after that film and when you knew this would be your next movie?
A.J. Edwards: Better Angels came out in 2014 and then I had this script that at the time was called Friday’s Child and I was in the process of casting it. I knew I wanted to make this Crime and Punishment story which plays fast and loose with that novel but also with some other elements and the first stop was going to Tye Sheridan. I knew I wanted to work with him. It was perfect timing with his age, where his head was, what he wanted to do. He’s perfect in the role because that character at times is quite unsympathetic and makes some poor choices but Tye is someone that you feel for. He has intelligence in his eyes and has such a wonderful ability, so I was lucky he said yes. From then on we packaged the rest of the movie and sold it and that was it. We shot it in January 2016, and we edited for two years, so that’s why it’s been a long time.
You don’t really see foster care dramatized nowadays, and if you do it is very cliche, but in this film, I was impressed by this sense of isolation and spareness. I think of the scene where he walks into the room he’s gonna rent for the first time and there’s nothing there and you realize he has nothing in his life. With the specificity of foster care and being raised in it, can you talk about the research you did and the visual approach to capturing it?
We were lucky to work with a few young people who aged out and who shared their experiences and are actually in the film, so we were in tandem with them throughout development and pre-production. They were generous enough to share their stories on screen. Some of the idiosyncrasies of the film mirror their experiences. In terms of Tye’s character, rootlessness is key. That’s what we wanted to present. Rootless, parentless, without direction. I almost based it on Pinocchio a bit. He’s sort of unformed, so the movie is about him maturing and becoming an adult, and with that comes the temptations that the Caleb Landry Jones character brings about, but also the sort of right path that Imogen Poots’ character leads him towards unknowingly. The film is really about maturing, and the last stage of maturity is really about responsibility and taking responsibility for your actions which is a stage some people never mature to, but that’s really the idea. It’s the question of whether he will come out all right or completely fall by the wayside.
Tye Sheridan and Imogen Poots are familiar with this Malickian style, having worked with him previously. When it comes to being on your set, were they prepped for a similar style or did you have more direction to foster their chemistry?
Because I had started talking to Tye so early on in the writing process, I shared a treatment with him. It wasn’t even a screenplay yet. He was sort of able to tailor the character to his sensibilities. He was very helpful with ideas and strengthening the character, so we would talk a lot about the screenplay as it developed. The same thing with Imogen, whether it be very specific touches in terms of her costume, her backstory, even down to her accent or where she wanted her character to be placed in this world. She and I were always talking about not getting her to graph completely to the script but having the script catch up to her great ability and how she wants to do things. Which is fun for me as a writer, I like that more.
Was the tortilla toss a real thing?
You’re the first person to ask that. Yes, tortilla toss at that bridge in Waco is real.
Caleb Landry Jones has the kind of energy where you’re scared when he’s on screen. You don’t know what he’s gonna do. What was it like seeing that come to life?
He’s brilliant. He gives everything. He’s completely prepared, he works hard, he knows the character inside and out. He brought his own costume and props the first day arriving on set, which threw everyone off in the best way. He really didn’t need any assistance because he is already ready to shoot–camera ready right when he arrived. He even knows the other actors’ lines which is a lot of fun. He’s quite a genius in that way. Interestingly, we shot before all the other movies that he’s known for. I think what he had done before filming with us was Twin Peaks, then I asked him what he was going to do next and he said, “Oh, I think I’m gonna play this kind of preppy character in this movie with this rich family,” which I thought, “That’s kind of odd for you to do.” Of course, it was Get Out.
There’s certain locations that keep recurring, like Imogen Poots’ house or where Tye Sheridan is living, but you have these montages of a vast number of different areas. I’m curious, when you go to those different locations, are you firmly aware that they will part of a montage or with every location you go to, do you wonder, “What can I get out of this?”
The location strategy was ambitious and difficult because I think there’s like 75 locations in the movie and we only shot for like 20 days. So that’s the opposite of what you want to do as a small independent filmmaker. You don’t want to spend the day in the van moving from spot to spot, you wanna be everywhere you are and rolling as much as possible. We shot a whole bunch and that’s why the movie does jump around so much in terms of where we’re shooting. The reason why we were able to it was because some of my family is from Waco, so it was like shooting at home. I know the city pretty well and support there and resources so it was like a family affair in that way.
Speaking more to the visual approach, Better Angels was a little more austere given the time period, although you did bring a modern sensibility to the editing and the movement of the film. But here, from the get-go you know you are in a new territory. Can you talk a little bit about doing this modern period and if it was a challenge for you?
After my last movie I knew I wanted to work with Jeff Bierman, the director of photography who shot the winter unit on Better Angels, and I came back from that shoot knowing I wanted to work with him again. I remember sitting with him in the airport and thinking that guy is so great. Whatever I do next I want to do with him. He was kind enough to say yes to this movie, and we talked a lot about shooting in Waco and basing the photography on certain photographers we both loved, 1960s, 70s, and 80s American medium-format photographers and also this German school of photography from the 70s and 80s. Very boxy, deep focus, saturated colors. We wanted it to be very vibrant, colorful, but at times the boxiness would break out when the emotional interiority of the characters sort of catalyzed that. It wasn’t to be gimmicky or novel. It was really to take advantage of what’s possible aspect ratio-wise, given digital cinematography and projection of the last fifteen years. A change in the aspect ratio was done a lot in the silent era, like in Napoleon or in King Vidor’s The Crowd, and then it disappears for 70, 80 years and now you see it all the time, with Krisha or The Grand Budapest Hotel. But it’s a tool and it should be used as such. It was exciting.
For Better Angels I think we talked about twenty different cinematic influences, everything from Ken Burns’ Civil War to the Dardennes to Pather Panchali. I know for this film you said the photography was a little more rooted in the influences but Gus Van Sant is a producer and his tales of alienated youth and isolation seemed like influences. Is that true, and were there any others?
Definitely. Gus Van Sant has been a huge influence on me. Even when I was a kid, I remember loving his films. Even in the costumes for this movie we were looking at My Own Private Idaho and Drugstore Cowboy, the aspect ratio was the same as Elephant and Last Days. In addition to that a big influence was Ulu Grosbard’s film Straight Time with Dustin Hoffman. That was a picture I was in high school that has this character getting out of jail, going on probation, and then he makes some terrible decisions and goes back to his old ways of crime. That was really the starting point for this film. I thought what a great beginning, but I didn’t want to do jail because that’s like Buffalo ‘66 or You Can Count On Me. I thought about what could be another environment, and then I thought well, aging out is sort of being birthed into this unknown abyss so maybe that would be different enough to be original but also provide the same playground narratively. But Straight Time is a masterpiece. I love that movie. Maurice Pialat’s Naked Childhood is another film about a much younger person’s switch from foster home to foster home. That was a big influence on the Dardenne brothers too, they love that film. Pedro Costa’s Ossos, that film not only visually but narratively and tonally was a big inspiration. All his stuff I love.
The morality of the film is very interesting. You’re meant to buy into the character and believe his journey and be with him every step of the way and when he’s confronted with the reality of what he might have done, there’s this really big moral shift in the film, but it’s very affecting and shocking in a sense. I watched this with my wife and she was quite shaken. I’m curious if that was always the story you wanted to tell, and this idea of when you’re confronted directly with your sins, how it changes you?
What did your wife say?
She was physically shaken by the film. She had to get up and pause it.
She was upset by the change or she was with it?
She was with it but it affected her so much that she was like, “I need to get up and breathe for a second.”
When it was revealed who had done what, she was upset by that?
I see. Well, that’s nice to hear. [Laughs.] It’s good that it’s a moral story and not didactic because that’s the worst thing you can do as a storyteller, but more that the character is wrestling with a moral dilemma. Along with seeing Straight Time in high school, I knew I wanted to make a film about impossible forgiveness, where there might be a command within your family, or your culture or religion, to forgive and that forgiveness is the answer and that is the greatest act we can achieve and that’s true love, but at times it seems irrational and to forgive almost seems like a bad idea. And even to confess, although right, it would impair your future, so why would that be a good thing when it actually leads to an end? In the book Crime and Punishment, the end is really a new beginning, and so that’s where the characters find each other. What could be perceived as a despairing situation is actually a crossroads for the better. Or I guess the audience should decide that, whether it’s for good or not. But those were the two books, Crime and Punishment and also Dreiser’s An American Tragedy, that was a big influence. That one is a little more cynical and a procedural, it doesn’t have the transcendence the Dostoyevsky has. That’s nice to hear that your wife felt that way.
I had no idea where it was going.
The structure of the film was found in editorial. It was much straighter and then one of the producers Tyler Glodt and co-editor Christopher Branca, both of them coming at it from different angles had this idea of what if we withhold certain information until the end and that would completely change the experience of the film like your wife sensed. But it used to be A-B-C-D-E and laid out, but then it doesn’t have the punch at the end.
There’s a robbery scene in a motel parking lot and apartments and I was blown away by it both visually and the score, which you’re mixing with the alarms. Can you just about the logistics of filming that and then in the editing room and kind of having this suffocating feeling when he’s running and then feeling the freedom he has?
I’m glad you noticed that robbery scene because I always think, even if people hate this movie or think that it’s bad, I know that scene is good. I read about these three youngsters who started car fire as a distraction for a robbery they wanted to commit across the street, so that was the basis of that. Also, I asked a family member about the idea of robbery and he was saying, “You know what I would do? I would pay the maid for the master key,” and I was like that’s kind of crazy your brain had already thinking about that, but it gave me a great for a robbery, and with those two things combined I had the idea that they would go on this spree and we’d be Steadicaming though it with them with the pandemonium across the street and robbing people while some of them were even home, which I thought would be terrifying. But the film set was a real living space, so the people there were kind enough to let us use where they would be living temporarily, so those rooms were dressed and the children in the rooms were living there. Which isn’t what we intended to do but when we showed up they allowed us. The energy of the Steadicam mixed with Tye’s horror at what he is doing and Caleb’s advancing from room to room so quickly and robbing everyone blind and mixed with Colin’s music, it does have this climatic feel that catapults Tye into the final act of the movie.
Another musical element is a Weyes Blood song which is an original, how did that come to be?
I love Weyes Blood and our music supervisor knew that I wanted a song for the end of the film and she suggested Natalie Mering who is Weyes Blood and she was kind enough to meet. The song came together very quickly. I just met with her once. I asked Gus Van Sant, “How did you work with Elliott Smith on “Miss Misery” for Good Will Hunting? And he said, “I didn’t, I just let him do his thing.” I thought that was just the best advice: let the artist see the movie and digest the movie and respond to it with their own work and it’ll be true, especially with someone like Natalie. One thing I loved about “Miss Misery” is that you can hear the frets, you can hear his fingers on the frets in Elliot’s music and I love that. And she left that in her track a little bit and I thought that was a nice gesture.
In the film, you’re seeing different class levels, with Caleb Landry Jones going in and out of the hotel and the kids he interacts with and then you have this upper-class, decadent party that Imogen Poots invites Tye Sheridan’s character to. You’re really struck by the kind of difference. There’s this feeling like Tye Sheridan doesn’t belong in either environment, which drives home that lost child aspect of the film. Was that a resonant theme for you?
What a great question. One thing that I do when I sit down to write or to shoot is capture all different shapes, sizes, and colors of people as well as different socio-economic stratospheres. Not for any liberal reason, almost more instead to enlarge the world. So many movies you see are just sort of one color or one people, something that makes the movie feel small. So with Imogen seeming more upper-middle class and Caleb almost seeming like he almost doesn’t live anywhere, I wanted Tye to feel torn between two different worlds and being introduced to worlds and people he otherwise wouldn’t have encountered if he didn’t have this specific experience. Coming back to An American Tragedy, that feeling is very much in that book, going back and forth with his job at the factory and the factory boss who wants him with his daughter and this woman that he meets who is a debutante. It just makes for great characters and scenes and they kind of write themselves.
The movie is opening this month. How does it feel that people will finally be watching and what do you hope that they take away from the film?
I hope it puts on a good show. I’m proud of it. I hope it feels unique and moves people in the right way. The cast did brilliant work, and I think everyone behind the camera approached it in a way that feels like the proof is in the pudding.
Age Out opens in limited release and VOD on Friday, November 22.