AJ Edwards has worked on four Terrence Malick films and edited To The Wonder. He talks to Jeremy Kay about his feature directorial debut, The Better Angels.
The evocative New Frontier selection takes place in early 19th century Indiana as the young Abraham Lincoln experiences the tragedy of his mother’s death and the subsequent arrival in his life of his step-mother.
Jason Clarke, Diane Kruger, Brit Marling, Wes Bentley and Braydon Denney. Cinetic represents US rights to the film, which premieres in Sundance on January 18. Malick and Nicolas Gonda are among the producers.
Tell us a bit about your background.
I grew up mostly in Texas and worked as an editor and second unit director and worked on four of Malick’s pictures – The New World, To The Wonder, Knight Of Cups and the untitled picture, which we’re still editing.
When did you start working on The Better Angels?
I had been working on it for about five years. It’s really just the cumulative effect of the resources coming together. First of all an excellent cast which is what I am most proud of, and then the excellent crew that was available, ready and enthusiastic about moving forward with bold filmmaking and production.
Explain more about the boldness of the production
We wanted to shoot it more in a documentary fashion; we weren’t trying to create artificial situations, but rather capture what was there. We had real children from Kentucky and shot in these beautiful woods in New York. Sometimes that takes patience and sometimes it happens on a whim. We were like fishermen catching the improve between the actors or the genuine expressions that came from allowing things to come into the free form they wanted to.
Did you always plan to shoot in black and white?
The film was conceived in black and white. Before there was anything put on paper that was what I decided. You face many challenges but the advantages far outweigh them. Black and white suits the iconography of Lincoln – that’s the only way he exists to us. It made it more welcoming and intimate.
How did you cast the children?
It was a year-long casting search and they went into different schools all around Kentucky and different coal mining regions to find the true voice. It’s not just a southern accent but the specific accent that Lincoln [would have had.] the adult actors had to match them and they met the challenge. The accent is like music. The children were all newcomers. The freshness is exciting; there’s a vitality and a lack of self-consciousness.
But the adult performers had to learn the accent.
We had excellent dialect coaches. Brit [Marling] is from the Midwest. Wes [Bentley] is from Arkansas so the Kentucky accent was a hop, skip and jump. For Diane [Kruger, German] and Jason [Clarke, Australia] it was even more incredible they could achieve the Kentucky accent. What I am most proud of is the cast and the performances. They were completely committed to the physicality that was required. Whatever they were on camera they were always huddle together with their dialect coaches.
Why this story?
It’s a very mysterious period of Lincoln’s life. He spoke of it very little, even to those who were closest to him. It caused him great pain and his recollections are very bittersweet. He had the joy of childhood and the suffering of his mother’s loss and some of the difficulties with his father. It shows the origin story of an American hero and hopefully there’s universality in that. Hopefully people can see themselves in this story.
The real essence of the picture would be the mothers and this dynamic. Abraham the boy loved so dearly one woman and saw perfection in her and to lose that. It threw him into a tailspin of despair and the answer of that despair was the new mother and he doesn’t get to see it [at first] and he has to grow and accept this new woman. By loving this new woman he regains this mother he thought was gone forever.
When did you write the script?
I wrote it in autumn 2008. It was while I was editing The Tree Of Life. I started it as a treatment and before this we had discussions with Terence Malick about the overall approach to the picture and how to narrow down the slice of Lincoln’s life that we wanted to chronicle.
When and where did you shoot?
Four weeks in October 2012 in Mohonk Preserve [in the Appalachian Mountains], New York state. It was a quick shoot. We shot in Mohonk for its resemblance to the hardwood forest of 19th century Indiana. The last sequence we found a place in Coles County, Illinois. It was the actual log cabin from Sarah Lincoln [step mother, played by Kruger]. It was wonderful to end the film on a note of historical authenticity.
You encouraged improvisation.
The script was really a blueprint on which we wanted to build something even taller and greater. The script was always followed but what happened after we had gotten to the end of the page brought new things to it. For example when the children started whistling and that became a motif. Or walking on the logs as a symbol of trust.
What is the message of the film?
I hope they take away a story of hope. In the deepest despair there is that thing in our lives of can act like a lighthouse to us, whether it’s a person or event. There’s a fate that guides us. Nothing is lost to us; nothing is gone forever. The joy we can experience will far outweigh any sadness. I would hope that they take away a greater understanding of Lincoln himself, who I always consider one of the three most important figures in American history. We all know the top hat, beard and the White House years, but it’s always fascinating to see the journey that got him there.