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Director A.J. Edwards on the 20 Films That Influenced ‘The Better Angels’

Written by on November 6, 2014 

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Arriving into theaters this weekend is one of my favorite films of the year, The Better Angels, which I said my review, “makes for a sublime, transfixing, and informative look at the early life of Abraham Lincoln.” Coming from A.J. Edwards, who edited To the Wonder and has worked on The Tree of Life and The New World for Terrence Malick (who produced this debut), his experiences on those films is clearly felt, but the influences go far beyond.

After having an extensive conversation regarding the production during the film’s Sundance Film Festival premiere, I recently had the chance to talk with Edwards about a different aspect of the feature: its strongest influences. During the conversation, the writer-director touched on twenty films that helped inform The Better Angels formally, thematically, and many other ways. Featuring films from Lynch, Truffaut, Bergman, Bresson, and more, check out the list below, including Edwards’ take on each, as well as trailers (or full films, where applicable).

The 400 Blows (François Truffaut)

Anytime you make a picture about a boy, that film has to be mentioned. It’s so important. It’s so personal and so timeless that it’s eternal in that way.

A Man Escaped (Robert Bresson)

A Man Escaped in its reliance on voice-over to propel the story, which is usually verboten in cinema. People usually look down on you for that, so the film is brave in that way. When he’s confined to his cell or in environments where he’s not allowed to speak, there’s therefore minimal on-screen dialogue. The film is incredibly tense, kinetic, and perfectly photographed. So much of it is about the movement: his hands, keys, and doors and locks. It’s a real nail-biter, but in the most minimalist way.

Ben-Hur (William Wyler)

I think Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ, as its called in that subtitle, you have a story that’s about Christ but you never name Christ. You never see Christ. You just feel him. You sense him more in the characters around him then in the Christ character himself. A lot of the story of Christ in that film is told musically. You’re not hearing the gospel being preached. You’re not hearing the Sermon on the Mount. You get it through Miklós Rózsa‘s score. That’s where Christ is most present in the film. Just as in The Better Angels, the aim was for Lincoln’s character to be suggested through the music. Both the indirectness of Ben-Hur and the musical structure was influential.

The Civil War (Ken Burns)

It’s definitely fascinating from an historical and narrative point of view. The tone of it is perfect. Some would say its too romantic a notion to have of The Civil War that mentions the brutality and ugliness of it, but that’s just the way Ken Burns is. He’s so interested in Americana and has such a love for it that you can’t blame him for the genuine sentiment that he shows in his documentaries. Also, the music of it, that Jay Ungar score, is completely entangled in the movie. Its in its DNA. He is the violinist in our church scene. I was so proud of that because I love Ken Burns’ work in specifically that film. Jay Ungar has done other scores for Burns and to get Jay Ungar performing at that church dance is a highlight for me.

Come and See (Elem Klimov)

Come and See is brutal and it’s very difficult to watch and both the music and visuals are ferocious in that way. The steadi-cam work is incredible and very much ahead of its time. The movie looks like Tarkovsky‘s The Mirror but it has this very mobile, restless camera that’s always journeying on with the boy. The story is like a journey through hell. For the more despairing parts of The Better Angels, the more ugly and brutal scenes that they experience, the rawness and honesty of Come and See was very relevant.

The Elephant Man (David Lynch) and The Wild Child (François Truffaut)

The Elephant Man would be for the subject of it. The way this very noble man, the part that Anthony Hopkins plays, takes on this case of John Merrick, The Elephant Man, and his patience with him, his goodness of heart and the compassion he feels for him when other people are appalled and horrified. The way that he metaphorically hand holds the Elephant Man through the story and the love and tenderness that he shows him, in that way it’s a parallel to Sarah Lincoln with this young boy who is in despair and how she helps him.

It’s the same with The Wild Child, the Truffaut picture where there’s a parent-child story where the child in a completely unnatural state that they need to be pulled out of be it living with wolves like in The Wild Child, or like The Kid with the Bike where they never receive love in these foster centers. Yeah, The Wild Child in its very natural black-and-white photography by Néstor Almendros and the way the story is told in vignettes, it feels less like scenes and more like episodes, where you are just getting moment-to-moment, kind of like Roberto Rossellini’s The Flowers of St. Francis where it’s all told in episodes, The Wild Child has a great rhythm in that way.

Hoop Dreams (Steve James)

Hoop Dreams just in its scope and its spirit, its meaning is one of the most inspiring and influential films of all-time. I’m sure that every month that they were shooting — because they shot for so long — they must have just been so surprised and so excited by what they were capturing, because it’s pure cinematic gold. The film is wall-to-wall humanity and life and love and has real heart to it. It’s not just an informational documentary. It’s not just a slice of life. It’s just concerned with socio-economic issues. It’s instead a real portrait of a moment in time and the hopes and wishes of these young boys and the way their families affect them. It’d be a perfect pairing with The Better Angels, the thesis of ideas in it.

The Kid With a Bike and Rosetta (Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne)

Those would be important almost with the subject of the pictures. The Kid With a Bike and that beautiful maternal figure that insists on helping that boy and how patient and tolerant she is of his shortcomings and his rebellion. That’s perfectly captured. All of their films are perfect. I just think the world of them, the Dardenne brothers. And then in Rosetta, she’s just a fiery youth. The energy of that picture, the handheld camerawork, from the get go where she’s running and being chased by her employer, the film is incredibly visceral, which I adore. It feels like a modern-day Mouchette or any of Bresson’s mid-career work.

My Darling Clementine (John Ford)

Like the Brakhage [mentioned below], that was inspirational specifically to a scene, which was the church scene in The Better Angels, when they had the church dance. I love the stiffness and manliness in which Henry Fonda gets up and dances. It’s very comical and endearing in that way. Jason Clarke, being such a cowboy, such a big guy, just to see him grab Abraham Lincoln and start to dance to celebrate the church being constructed, that scene was in my mind for just how Henry Fonda’s performance is so brilliant.

The Night of the Hunter (Charles Laughton)

The starkness of the photography, the cut-aways to the natural elements around them, be they frogs, insects, the night owls. Nature is both terrifying in that film, but can also be very welcoming, like when they get closer to Lillian Gish at the end. Yeah, the nature in the film as well as the imminent danger with the children. The most terrifying thing you can do in movies is take children and put them in hair-raising circumstances. That just makes the audience feel so much. That’s definitely the way it is with the sickness that threatens the Lincolns and then when they are abandoned by their father during that very difficult winter.

Pather Panchali (Satyajit Ray)

If the film had a companion that would be its closet sibling. That is the most inspirational film and the most important director, thinking about The Better Angels. Of course I say that humbly because no one should compare themselves to the great master Ray. But that film, like Night of the Hunter, but differently of course in tone, is a right of passage story, the close-knit siblings, the death that they experience, the entire community around them. It’s pretty much to me The Better Angels in India. It’s a beautiful, perfect movie that I don’t think is widely available on DVD, which is a shame. The score by Ravi Shankar is a character in the film. Those scenes of the water gliders and that scene in the field where suddenly the modern train goes by. That’s another film that shows the perfect way nature is entangled in the narrative. Not just an imitation of beauty, but it feels like the music is a character in the film.

Sergeant York (Howard Hawks)

Sergeant York has some of my favorite production design of any picture, showing rural Tennessee. I love that film. I love Walter Brennan‘s performance. The production design, the photography, Brennan, and also the accents. It has the most beautiful accents performed by all the players in the film. Also the sense of humor. It’s a very bittersweet film the way it mixes the harshness of war with this innocent sense of humor to it. Mostly with York’s naivety, because he’s so backwoodsy and the way that collides with modern warfare. It’s a beautiful balance.

To Kill A Mockingbird (Robert Mulligan)

That would be in the narration, again, the way the character is reflecting on the story from an older age and the possibilities that allows narratively. It gives you more whims you can go on. You have the power of nostalgia, which allows you take things a certain way and stray from reality certain times as The Better Angels does. Then also, the incredible stature Atticus Finch, played by Peck, embodies. His goodness, his nobility, his integrity, all that he stands for. That notion in him I hoped for in Sarah Lincoln, played by Diane Kruger, and she does it beautifully. Of course, not as a father, but as a stepmother. She’s a surrogate guide to Lincoln and she’s the one that is pointing the way for him and helping him always.

The Virgin Spring (Ingmar Bergman)

On that one it might not be the aesthetic, as much as the sound. The sound sometimes even drops to what sounds like complete zero which you rarely do in film. It almost sounds as if the speakers have shut off. It makes for a real sense of severity and austerity. Especially since that film involves murder, rape, the violence of medieval times, the religiosity that’s a response to it. It’s very impactful. Then, for sure, the stark black-and-white and the interiors of that film are a bit lighted and you can feel that. The naturalistic Bergman photography would come later, but for the time, the black-and-white is beautiful. Especially the exteriors in the woods.

Wedlock House: An Intercourse (Stan Brakhage)

That Brakhage short influenced a specific part of The Better Angels which is the sequence I used to call “the night terrors” in editorial where they discover the aunt has become infected with milksick, which they got from drinking poisonous milk from cows that have eaten snakeroot. In the cabin there’s a swinging lantern and in the dark you just see these slivers of this woman’s agony and these ghostly images that these sweeping lights create in the dark. Or even at the end of Psycho where the swinging lanterns hit and go around the room to give you a sense of light. That’s where that Brakhage work was influential.

Winnstanley (Kevin Brownlow)

Kevin Brownlow is known more as a film historian. He wrote a really incredible text on the silent era called The Parade’s Gone By…, but he did make a few films himself. One of them is the picture Winnstanley, which in its black-and-white photographer, strict adherence to history, and the incredible recreation of it, that was really influential to me. It’s not really a known film, so it’s nice to recognize it.

Wuthering Heights (William Wyler and Andrea Arnold)

I watched [Andrea Arnold‘s Wuthering Heights] during the post-production. Both Fish Tank and Wuthering Heights are terrific and anything she does is exciting. Her cinematography is brilliant [working with] Robbie Ryan. He’s a real master and everything that he shoots is very textural and immediate. You feel like you could reach out and touch. They usually rely on a lot of soft focus photography, but it’s still got a three-dimensional element in how tactical it feels. And then Wuthering Heights is a pretty quiet film and a very experiential one. It feels like you could step into the frame and walk around it any shot. And then Wyler’s because of the Gregg Toland cinematography. It’s a ghost story and very haunting in that way. There’s a lot of ache and longing in that film and I’ve always loved the tone of it. Anything Wyler I love, he’s one of my absolute favorites.

The Better Angels opens in limited release on November 7th.


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