Filmmaker A.J. Edwards Discusses 'The Better Angels' | Under the Radar - Music Magazine
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Filmmaker A.J. Edwards Discusses ‘The Better Angels’

Film Chronicling Abe Lincoln’s Childhood Opens November 7th

Nov 07, 2014 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share


The Better Angels is a breathtaking cinematic interpretation of three critical years in Abraham Lincoln’s youth. Starting before the death of his birth mother in 1818 and spanning through his stepmother’s arrival in his life, the film is not only a realistic, un-romanticized portrayal of American frontier life, but a poetic study of the bonds between a child and its mother. The Better Angels speculates on the impact these two women had in shaping the future leader, and does so quite convincingly.

It’s an impressive feature debut from writer-director A.J. Edwards, who has spent the last decade working with filmmaker Terrence Malick in various roles. (Malick is one of The Better Angels’ producers.) Edwards spoke with us about his film.

Austin Trunick [Under the Radar]: It’s probably easier to trace this project if we start off at the very beginning. How did your partnership with Terrence Malick begin? IMDB credits you as an intern on The New World.

A.J. Edwards: That’s right. I started on The New World with him about a decade ago, and I’ve been with him ever since then, in editorial, development, pre-production, as a second unit director during shooting. And I’m still with him to this day. That rhythm of wearing different hats has been continuous.

What was your background in film, before that point?

I started with him when I was 18, so I was quite fresh and young. I didn’t go to film school. That was the beginning.

What drew you toward wanting to portray this period of Lincoln’s life?

It’s an unknown chapter; it’s the most mysterious. In all of the Lincoln biographies, we know the least about it because he shared so little about it to those closest to him, albeit his wife or his law partner. I think it cause a lot of pain in him, because of the death and misery. There were, of course, joyous times, too, but he chose to keep it to himself. In studying him, when you find this little ellipses in the narrative, it immediately makes you want to look deeper, and that was the attraction.

Can you talk about what your research entailed? If there’s so little known about that period, where did you look to find details for your script?

Some very seminal texts at the time would have been Benjamin Thomas’s single-volume Abraham Lincoln, Carl Sandburg’s The Prairie Years, Ida Tarbell’s work, Eleanor Atkinson’s now out-of-print texts, David Herbert Donald’s Lincoln. Our historical consultant’s book, There I Grew Up… he’s the greatest living Lincoln scholar, named William Bartelt. And then Lincoln’s own campaign autobiographies, which are fascinating to read. They vary in length from half a page to a couple pages. He mentions during his Indiana times that he was kicked in the head by a horse. He mentions the death of his mother; he mentions shooting a turkey and deciding to never hunt large game again. Those were essential.

[Terrence Malick] had a Lincoln story in mind, but with nothing put to paper. I came to him at a young age with an idea for a Lincoln film, and it was a beautiful coincidence. Mine was larger in scope, because of my naïveté. I, of course, wasn’t thinking about filmmaking realities. He wisely suggested I condense the story, to focus on this transitional time between the death of his biological mother and the arrival of his stepmother, which was contained in the narrative I had imagine, but the one I had in mind went farther down the Indiana road, to his eventual leaving Indiana and his father. So, there was a real wisdom in finding a target for the heart of the story, and that was how his two mothers guided him. That was the essential component that he and I developed from the start.

Shooting in black and white was a gorgeous aesthetic choice. What led you to decide that this was a story you wanted to tell in black and white?

From the very beginning I had conceived of the film in black and white. Lincoln lives in black and white; that’s how we all know him. The Civil War is black and white, [through] Mathew Brady’s gorgeous and powerful photographs.

I thought it would also create a greater sense of austerity and starkness, like a Carl Dreyer film or a Bresson picture, so that the romanticism of the frontier life would be absent. There would be no clichés of the coonskin cap and musket, the Lincoln log cabin. We wanted things to be much more severe, as they were. To remove any sort of Disneyland, or Little House on the Prairie. Those are fine, but we wanted to get rid of the romance of that and show the reality of the times.

Your cast is wonderful, but the biggest surprise is Braydon Denney, who plays young Lincoln. How did you find him?

All of the boys and girls in the film are non-actors. Braydon and the others were found through a year-long casting search throughout Kentucky, led by producer Jack DeVito and casting director Stefni Colle. We looked at thousands – if not tens of thousands – of boys and girls over those 12 months, from schools, camps, churches, sports leagues, mostly in rural areas. Children from coal mining families and so on.

This was all in the name of finding athletic, thoughtful boys and girls, and ones that had that beautiful Appalachian accent. It’s so melodic, it’s so lovely to hear, and it’s unlike a Southern accent. It’s very unique, and when you read about Lincoln, you hear about how amused people were when they heard him speak in office. When he would first stand up, people would smile at his peculiar accent, but of course from one minute of hearing him speak they’d be transfixed. His cadence wouldn’t matter any more.

The easiest way for the audience to track time in the film is through the changing of seasons; you go from summer, to winter, to spring. How long were you shooting for?

I’m so glad that you noticed that about the seasons, because that was really difficult to accomplish. It takes a lot of planning, logistically. We filmed in the fall of 2012, and then regrouped in January 2013. We wanted to capture the snow and the brutal winter where Abe and his siblings were left alone by their father, while he went to search for a new wife. So, it was two shoots. And then the film ends with the actual Thomas and Sarah Lincoln log cabin in Coles County, Illinois, where Sarah and Thomas were buried. That was the real deal, and I’m always proud that the film ends with historical authenticity.

You tried to avoid staged moments, so that the film would almost feel like a documentary. Can you talk about the editing philosophy you used?

Behavior was, first and foremost, what we were searching for. Nuances, idiosyncrasies; the little things that get under your skin and into your blood, because they have true humanity in them. Vitality, and life.

We wanted things to have much more vigor and energy to them … and then, the jump cuts result from shooting it like a documentary. If you don’t do coverage, meaning wide shot, middle shot, close-up, shot-reverse-shot, you’re then forced into the grammar of the jump cuts, because you’ll no longer have match cuts without coverage. Editorially, specifically, that’s where that comes from.

Did that method of working reshape how the final film turned out, in contrast with what you had originally envisioned? Were there moments or scenes you were able to build around, because you’d captured something you weren’t expecting?

Yes. One of the things that was most surprising was the spontaneous wrestling match between the father and his sons. That was not in the screenplay. It just came about when we were hanging out in the parking lot and all having a lot of fun. We wound up shooting that, where Jason’s teaching the boys how to wrestle. Of course Braydon, for the first time, begins to display some physical strength … it’s a climactic point in the film, and it all came about from the documentary approach, and being open and free, and being ready for discovery, rather than relying on some cookie-cutter framework. That’s one of the things that I’m most pleased with, that moment.

Have you started developing your next project?

Oh, yes. I’m starting one in the spring of next year. We’re shooting in Texas. I’ve been calling it a modern day redemption story that takes place in central and west Texas. It’s in the vein of Crime and Punishment.

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The Better Angels is now playing in select cities. For more information about the film, check out its website



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