The Flannery O'Connor School
In what some are calling his best performance, Hal Holbrook plays Abner Meecham, an aging Tennessee farmer looking to reclaim his old life in the critically acclaimed That Evening Sun, a film now playing in limited release.
The film begins with Abner fleeing a nursing home and returning to his country farm to live out his days in peace, only to discover that his son has leased the farm to Abner's old enemy and his white trash family. Not one to suffer fools or go down easy, Abner moves into the old tenant shack on the property and declares that he won't leave until the farm is returned to his possession. But Lonzo Choat, the new tenant, has no intention to move out or give in to the old man's demands. This sets up a ruthless grudge match between Abner and Choat, each man right in his own eyes, each too stubborn to give an inch.
It all plays out under the watchful eye of 34-year-old Scott Teems, who wrote and directed the film, based on a short story by William Gay. Teems, a Christian, talked with CT about That Evening Sun, working with Holbrook, and his philosophy of filmmaking.
That Evening Sun has been described as a Flannery O'Connor-esque tale from the South, also as a "classic Southern Gothic." Would you agree those assessments?
The great difference between O'Connor and William Gay is the action of grace in the midst of chaos. Perhaps this is where I diverged most from the original story, bringing a hint of hope and grace to the ending, where Gay's story was more bleak and hopeless. I'm not sure whether this betrays Gay's vision or not—I've asked myself this question often in the months since finishing the film, as I believe that fidelity to the original author's intent is my highest responsibility in the adaptation process. What's ironic is that a recurring comment I get when we screen the film for audiences is that they wish the ending was "happier" or somehow more satisfying. It doesn't play into their expectations, and is often perceived as sad or depressing. But I think it ends the only way it could, because there are no winners in a war of attrition, no victors in a battle over things of the earth. And somehow I find that quite hopeful, because it forces us to look beyond ourselves, beyond our small worlds, for meaning and purpose in life.
This is the second William Gay story you've adapted for film. What do you like about his work?
His work is very cinematic, because he balances a hardscrabble, stripped-down style—his sentences are generally very sparse, using no quotations or unnecessary punctuation, much like Cormac McCarthy, with occasional bursts of gorgeous poetry. It lends itself quite well to the cinema, where one can echo both his minimalist language and his poetic flourishes. But more than that, Gay writes flesh-and-blood human beings.
A character like Abner Meecham, who was fully formed on the page before I ever showed up, is strong and sharp and funny and fiercely independent, honorable qualities to which an audience can relate. Yet he's also callous and cruel and refuses to see anyone's point of view but his own. He's fully human, warts and all, and as the story progresses you are forced to constantly reevaluate how you feel about him, because he pushes against your expectations of the "hero." He's a tremendously captivating protagonist, but he's no hero. He's a man in great pain, but one who has never been given permission to be vulnerable. He comes from a generation of men who equate vulnerability with weakness, and there's no room for weakness in a battle of wills. Thus, he builds walls around himself and claws like a caged tiger whenever someone tries to break through. I think he's downright fascinating.