Published on: September 20, 2015 | Last Updated: September 20, 2015 3:00 PM MDT
Filmmaker Marc Abraham was at the premiere of Steven Spielberg’s epic War Horse a few years back when he became fascinated by a British actor on screen.
This was shortly before Tom Hiddleston would gain fame for playing the charming and menacing super villain, Loki, in Marvel blockbusters Thor and The Avengers.
As Captain James Nicholls in War Horse, a small but important role, the actor was memorable. He was charismatic, magnetic and possessed a certain star-is-born screen presence. But, for Abraham, there was something else.
“I turned to my wife at the time and said ‘God, this guy is really good,'” says Abraham. “She said ‘yeah I like him, he’s good. Shhhh.’ Then I waited a few minutes and said ‘He really looks like Hank Williams.’ She said ‘Can we go through one movie without you talking about Hank Williams?'”
The story goes a long way in showing why Hiddleston, a Cambridge and Royal Academy of Dramatic Art graduate, was eventually cast as the yodelling country legend in Abraham’s new film, I Saw The Light, which will open the Calgary International Film Festival on Wednesday. But it also shows that the veteran producer’s fascination with Williams is hardly a passing fancy. He grew up three hours north of Nashville in Louisville, Kentucky and went to bed each night listening to the radio. It was country and western and, while Williams had been dead for decades by that point, Abraham reckons every eighth song was a Hank song. The interest in his music eventually evolved into an interest in Williams’ short and tragic life. Certainly the raw material was there: precocious talent, addiction, death, women trouble. But when it came to making a film, he wanted to avoid the melodramatic high-and-low cliches that define many biopics.
“I thought the story was amazing,” says, Abraham, who will appear at the screening Wednesday. “I was so interested in the truth of the story. I don’t try to hit the notes that the genre dictates. I’m really interested in the grey areas of life, the flawed aspects, the truth. And, in Hank’s case, he died so young and the last years of his life were so intense that rather than try to manipulate them into the highs of him getting into the (Grand Ole Opry) and giving people maybe what some might consider a more emotional arc . . . I made a film that is very much understated and makes the audience do the work rather than force-feeding them.”
Abraham, who has produced films such as Children of Men and Robocop, took a similar approach for his directorial debut, Flash of Genius, a very different biography. The underrated 2008 drama starred Greg Kinnear as Bob Kearns, the inventor of a windshield wiper system who lost everything battling the Detroit automakers over the ideas he had patented.
I Saw the Light, Abraham’s sophomore feature as a director, is based on the Williams biography by Colin Escott, who offered a thoroughly researched base for the film. But it goes without saying that music was going to play a big role and had to be done right. For the lead role, simply looking like Williams was not enough. So casting Hiddleston, a 34-year-old classically trained actor from London, may have initially seemed an odd choice. The announcement did cause some short-lived consternation, most publicly from Williams’ grandson Shelton Hank Williams, a.k.a. Hank 3, who thought a southerner or, in the very least, American should play the role. But Abraham was adamant he had the right guy. The fact that Hiddleston is receiving great reviews and considerable Oscar buzz suggests the director was onto something.
Certainly no one could question the actor’s devotion. He spent five weeks living outside Nashville with country producer and writer Rodney Crowell, who acts as the musical director of the film. Hiddleston lived on the upper floor of the house, putting in 12-hour days working out songs. This doesn’t mean he offers an exact replica of Williams’ nasally baritone, but he certainly captures the spirit.
“I never ever considered, not for one minute, not for one second, of lip-synching it,” says Abraham. “I’m not saying there haven’t been some good movies where lip-synching is done. But for me, and this is just a personal thing, when I see that it’s like a thin layer of cellophane over the top of the movie. I can’t help it. It just takes me away. I knew I was open to people saying ‘Well, he doesn’t sound exactly like Hank Williams.’ This is prior to me even casting the movie. My answer to everybody was ‘So what?’ I know more about Hank Williams than anybody and I know from the first note it’s not Hank Williams. But it’s a great version, a great rendition and the tracks are real.”
Which is not to say I Saw the Light is solely concerned with Williams’ musical legacy. His story was certainly filled with drama. Born with spina bifita occulta, he lived in constant pain and became reliant on alcohol and drugs. But while the film deals with addiction, Abraham doesn’t see that as the centre of Williams’ troubles.
“What was going on with him was a battle between him and women,” Abraham says. “That’s what it really was about. It was about men and women and a portrait of an artist as a young man. That’s what I was interested in.”
Actress Elizabeth Olsen plays Williams’ first wife, Audrey. Wrenn Schmitt plays Bobbie Jett, who had a short-lived relationship with Williams that produced a daughter. Maddie Hasson, who will also be attending Wednesday’s screening in Calgary, plays his second wife Billie Jean.
It’s a testament to the growing star power of both Hiddleston and Olsen that at least some of the early press for the film has been of the distracting tabloid variety, speculating on whether the two are romantically involved in real life. Both have denied this.
“They are super savvy people, so they can handle themselves,” says Abraham. “But what they do and what they don’t do, I don’t even know. I don’t talk to them about it. It’s not like we hang out every weekend. I think it’s hard for them, any actors, to have people delve into their personal life and want to talk to them about it. There’s a scene in the movie with Hank that’s right out of that. I teased Tom one day when someone was writing about it. I said ‘Dude, I would pay people to write that I was having an affair with Elizabeth Olsen’ He said ‘Yeah, but you ain’t me.’ But I was just trying to keep him light so he didn’t worry about it.”
I Saw the Light opens the Calgary International Film Festival on Wednesday at the Jack Singer Hall at 7:30 p.m. Marc Abraham and Maddie Hasson will be in attendance.