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‘The Better Angels’ Director A.J. Edwards On Working With Terrence Malick, Historical Authenticity & More

Written by on January 27, 2014 

One of the best films to premiere at Sundance Film Festival was the Terrence Malick-produced biopic The Better Angels, directed by To the Wonder editor A.J. Edwards. Tracking three years of the to-be president’s upbringing, I said in my full review that “it’s a sublime, transfixing, and informative look at the early life of Abraham Lincoln.”

We were honored to get a chance to sit down for a one-on-one interview with the helmer during the festival to discuss his directorial debut. An eloquent speaker, who clearly has deep knowledge of the history on his subject, we touched on a number of aspects of the film, including parallels to Malick’s other work (specifically To the Wonder and The Tree of Life), spiritual aspects of the film, if Malick has seen it, the original title, premiering at Sundance, how he feels about comparisons to Malick, and much more. Check out the complete conversation below.

The Film Stage: I was wondering how editing on Terrence Malick’s films — and you worked as second unit director as well — inform the development process? Those were kind of side by side, and you were working on those films while you were developing this?

A.J. Edwards: Always, yeah, yeah. They’ve been in tandem and Mr. Malick was an integral of the origins of this picture. We had long discussions in the post process of The Tree of Life, while we were working together, and he was integral to sort of bounce ideas off of him, you know I would share with him the treatment and the screenplay, so he was essentially brainstorming the fundamentals of the production — the approach we had, the cast we had wanted to get, how we wanted to make the movie, and then also making sure that we got our meaning, which is the heart of the story being the two mothers and how Lincoln is a reflection of their goodness.

I know you didn’t edit this film, but I was wondering what your involvement was with it and did you bring anything from your previous experience working with Malick? With To the Wonder, I appreciated the cinema-as-memory approach and found a lot of parallels with that here.

Certainly, each picture that I have been able to edit has been a stepping stone in terms of knowledge and film understanding. And To the Wonder is no exception, in terms of its rhythms, it’s pace, the film feeling, like you said, memory or consciousness. So it’s not just a story. Films can be stories, memories, they can be fantasies or they can be regrets. They can tell the truth, they can lie and just like in our own heads, it’s not always linear. it can bounce around. Alexander Milan was the editor on The Better Angels and I’ve known him for a few years and he is rock solid in the cutting room and has great instincts and musical rhythm.

I know on Mr. Malick’s films the process can be really extensive, but did you have a shorter time putting this together. When did you shoot?

We shot this in October of 2012 and then we edited for about nine months, in Texas and New York, so it wasn’t too long, but a little longer than some. But I think it needed it because it sort of had to blossom and grow. We were out to discover and find things spontaneously, just like on set — it was the same during post.

Getting into some of the themes of the movie. I found it to be quite a spiritual movie. When Brit Marling’s character passes and you see her last gasp of air, then her walking through a doorway and then camera peering up to the heavens. Then with Diane Kruger’s character, I love the line when she says she will love Lincoln unconditionally, regardless of his feelings toward her, reminiscent of Christianity and God’s view of humanity. So, I was wondering if that was something you found historically or added and wanted to bring to the picture, or if you didn’t see it at all.

No, of course. I’m glad you noticed that. I think the death of Lincoln’s mother, Nancy (in the film, Brit Marling), I’m very proud of that sequence because of Brit’s emotional performance and even seeing her breath just naturally occurring on set like that and the music that we used there being a section from HovhanessMysterious Mountain, it all just came together very well I thought, and showing spirit… that death is not an end, it’s more like sleep and that the spirit moved on. That was the idea, that it left the cabin and went somewhere else.

And I think that line about unconditional love, that you were talking about, that Sarah Lincoln says is so important, with her wisdom and her love that she had to meet Lincoln where he was. He was a suffering child, he was in a lot of pain after the loss of what he loved the most, being his mother, and so she knows that his distance or lack of trust, as  of then, that he had to learn to love her. It would be a process, it wasn’t something that happened immediately. She sort of tamed him and slowly made her way into his heart, sort of like The Miracle Worker or that Truffaut picture The Wild Child. He was someone that had to be sort of roped in and she so cleverly and tenderly did that to him.

And talking about the relationship with his father, I found it is sort of reminiscent of Hunter McCracken and Brad Pitt in The Tree of Life. I know you developed this film around then, was there a parallel there?

There’s certainly a parallel there, in their dynamic, but in the end, this film being based on the actual history of Lincoln, the relationship was there and the history of difficulties he faced with his father were long lasting. I think Dennis Hanks has a wonderful quote that said, “Each man failed to understand the other’s world,” and that’s a pretty telling quote that shows that they could not meet in the middle. They didn’t see things the same way, one being a man of the land, a farmer, a laborer, living in the wild. That was the life that he knew and the discipline he found important. Lincoln aspired to a life of thought, study, of rhetoric, learning, and I guess those notions and ideals were not as central to Thomas Lincoln’s understanding of what a man should be. It’s a somewhat tragic relationship they had, that was never quite settled as things are in life. It’s very mysterious. This story I think is still a bit divided between Thomas Lincoln’s character and what kind of father he was and how he effected his boy.

I found that really informative, like you were saying, with Mr. Crawford and those sequences, what he learned. You also show the first time he saw slaves, presumably.

Well, that scene in the movie I think is a bit more figurative, you know, because there is no account of that literally. Indiana was a free state at the time and had just come into the union and decided that it would be free and no slaves. Kentucky did have slaves. Lincoln would have seen them there and the only way he would have seen slaves in Indiana would be runaways. He did see slaves later when he went down to New Orleans as a teenager. He saw slaves auctioned and a family being separated, which was horrific. But that scene where he saw slaves was more suggestive of his future, than it would be being based on an actual event.

And with the casting how did that come about, specifically Braydon [Denney]?

He was found by our casting team led by Stefni Colle and Jake DeVito. They spent a year searching out schools, churches, athletic teams, all in Kentucky, so we wanted to find that real authentic voice, that accent that’s so specific, being Appalachian. It’s not just a southern accent, it’s a beautiful accent that they have and people often write about how Lincoln spoke, how he had such an unusual accent. When he would go up there he wouldn’t say Lincoln, he would say “Lincorn,” You could read about how someone documented how he would say things unusually. They thought he was a bit of  backwoodsy fellow when he would speak casually. But then, of course, when he would rise to make a speech he was so compelling with his rhetoric…and all the backwoodsy nuances would disappear. But, yeah, Braden was such a wonderful find, he was a blessing to the film and he’s a very good boy.

I’m curious in the writing process, is there certain events you knew you had to hit, especially in terms of his family relationships, but was a grab bag of things where when you were on set you could discover them?

Certainly, there were definite story check points we had to hit in and I’m pretty proud of the historical authenticity of what we achieved there. But also, in terms of discovery, those story points were sort of the foundation on which other things could be replaced, being the behavior and expression that we captured on set, which happened either through improvisation or spontaneity. Maybe even before we set out to shoot a scene or the scene ended, we shot the pages, and then suddenly something new happened with the children or the children and the mother’ and we were like “oh, hurry up capture that, you know let’s get going.” It’s almost like capturing wild animals, you have to be quiet and creep up on them and so I’m especially happy with that, in terms of when they’re balancing on the fallen tree, suggestive of trust and a relationship developing. That suggested that more than any dialogue or set-up scene could have. It was so casual and light-hearted and kind of paper thin.

In terms of the voiceover, you said that’s from an actual document, so as soon as you saw that document did you have that thought you were going to use it?

All of the voiceover in the picture is based on an interview with Dennis Hanks’ cousin, made in I think around 1890, something like that, and published around 1900 by Eleanor Atkinson, a great journalist, and it’s that document that’s so integral to understanding Lincoln’s Indiana years, because other than that, there’s not much recorded of words from the mouth of people that were walking with him and living with him, so all the voice over in the picture is verbatim his own words. But I would encourage people to seek it out, cause we just used 1/100th. I wish the whole movie could have been the interview, cause it is so funny, but also so emotional and sad at times. It has the bitter sweet quality of what those times in that life…you know, what that life must have felt like.

See the rest of the conversation >>

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