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Interview: A.J. Edwards says 'The Better Angels' is inspired by more than Terrence Malick

The director and longtime Malick collaborator's first film portrays the childhood of Abraham Lincoln.

A.J. Edwards has been working with legendary filmmaker Terrence Malick, as an editor or assistant director, for over 10 years. Perhaps inevitably the first film he wrote and directed, “The Better Angels,” looks and feels like a Malick film. But, Edwards points out, there are plenty more influences than his employer on the film, which takes a loose look at young Abraham Lincoln (Braydon Denney), living in the woods with his tough father (Jason Clarke) and suffering the loss of his mother (Brit Marling) then gaining another (Diane Kruger).

This isn’t a traditional biopic, or a traditional film. There’s little in the way of expositional scenes; it’s mostly montages. How much closely did you follow the script?

The screenplay was used as a foundation upon which we built something. It was a blueprint, but it wasn’t the end result. We weren’t trying to just photograph the script. The script was used to create scenarios and characters. It was more like a documentary. It had to be an experiential picture. It’s not a didactic Lincoln film. Those have all been done brilliantly since D.W. Griffith. He’s been portrayed on film 350 times. This was to be different, a sensory experience. You get to live with him, work with him, pray with him. This is the first Lincoln film where we’re more aware of what’s ahead of him than he is. He’s just a child. The whole film hinges on the drama of us knowing a fate that the characters in the story don’t know.

There’s a strong sense that, if you lopped off the Lincoln Memorial opening and never said his name, this could be about anyone and still work the same way.

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What you just said was the basis of everything we did — that the movie should stand up on its own even if you were to remove the word “Lincoln” from it. There’s the conflict between the father and the son, the drama of losing one’s mother and gaining another, and learning to love. All those things had to function on their own. Lincoln was what you added on top of that as the icing on the cake.

It’s been said this was a project inherited from Terrence Malick, who was working on a Lincoln film.

It wasn’t exactly inherited. It was a lovely coincidence. I came to him during the development of “The Tree of Life” wanting to do a Lincoln story. The beautiful coincidence was he had a similar idea. His was much more focused. I imagined something longer, encompassing more years. In his wisdom he said to give more of a target to the story. He said to focus it on this transitional period between mothers.

How far into his life did you plan to go?

I imagined it would go up to him leaving Indiana. He becomes a riverboat captain, and eventually separates form his dad and he moves from New Salem to Springfield — so basically when he leaves his dad.

The portrayal of Tom Lincoln is conflicted. Sometimes he’s tough, remote, even cruel. Other times you can sense a real love for his son.

There are apologists for Thomas Lincoln. But there are also historians — usually in the earlier part of the 20th century — that are harder on him. They have the view that he was shiftless, mostly uneducated, very difficult to work with, difficult on his son. And yet there are others who say he was a great man, a great Christian and community leader, who built his church.

In the film he seems more like both.

That’s what he should be. The movie shouldn’t paint him one color. You also have to consider he’s a father and a man from a completely different era. A modern day Northeasterner would say he’s a child abuser. It’s just a completely different kind of parenting. Discipline was different then. What was expected of a child was completely unique in 19th century Indiana.

Jason Clarke told us Tom was simply trying to toughen him up, to help him survive.

Jason’s understanding of the part was right on from the beginning. He ennobled the part of Thomas. He gave him dignity, integrity, a soul, as opposed to someone who would use the role as an agenda to show a backwoods, illiterate, Christian dummy — who would turned him into a caricature. An oppressive father is something you see in five movies a year.

A lot of the talk about this centers on how much it resembles a Malick film.

I think people see jump cuts and they think Malick, but there’s an entire half century of jump cuts that existed before him. They see mobile camerawork and they think Malick, but there’s Ophuls, Scorsese, Bela Tarr’s roving camera. If one chooses to just see Malick in everything that seems more their problem than the movie’s. There’s an entire history of film you could cite: Griffith, John Ford. You could look at Japanese influences, like Mizoguchi. Everyone thinks Malick is nature. But you could look at Satyajit Ray filming the water gliders in the “Apu” trilogy. The same with voiceover. You can say it’s Malick, but there’s also Chris Marker with “Sans Soleil,” which is all poetic voiceover. Same with Tarkovsky’s “The Mirror.” There’s Alexander Sokurov’s “Spiritual Voices,” which is letters from soldiers — made before “The Thin Red Line.” There are other films that exist and possess the qualities we associate with Malick before he carried those out.

He’s still a major influence on this, though.

Oh, definitely, completely. I’ve spent every day with the man for the last 11 years. I love him and I love his work and his movies will always influence me. But there are other influences. The family drama and the way it was filmed came from Ozu, and the way his films portray dynamics between parents and their children. The focus on behavior and activity, the kineticism, was a lot of Bresson. Every single day of the last year I’ve been talking about Malick, but I also want to talk about the long takes inspired by Antonioni. There’s a whole big world of cinema out there.

How much did you shoot?

We shot a lot and we shot on different formats. We shot on Super 35, RED Epic, 5D and Super 16. The goal was to always be shooting. When the 35 camera was reloading we’d pull out our video cameras, just to never let the actors escape their roles and sit down and have a muffin. The goal was to stay in character and always be capturing great vitality and great life moments. It was like a documentary.

How did you help your professional actors, who are used to a more regimented way of shooting, adjust to this more loose process?

It’s unusual, but it comes more naturally, because it’s almost more like theater, which is pure acting. The result does not end up like theater, but they don’t leave the character. You’re not shooting traditional coverage — master shots, middle shots, close-ups — and then going back to the trailer. They’re writing their own character and finding new steps in the story. I think they take to it more than they would shooting “Law and Order” or something more formulaic in the coverage — not to bash “Law and Order.”

The actors do bring a lot to their roles.

I cast them not because of what I thought they could perform but what they already are. I felt the roles were already in them. Wes is a father; Jason is the son of a sheep shearer. Brit is a writer, so she played a role that had the least amount known about her. Nancy Lincoln is a very mysterious person; not much is available about her. I knew as a writer Brit could invent and fill in gaps based on her incredible imagination.

Can you talk about the experience of shooting in the woods, on location, in upstate New York?

My family will laugh if they hear this. I’m not outdoorsy at all.

What made you want to do an outdoors movie despite not being an outdoors person?

It was rough. The cold was rough. We shot it in October 2012 and then came back in January to do winter scenes. I’d never been in cold like that before. I think it was one degree one day. Maybe New Yorkers will roll their eyes at that. And shooting was rough because you have to keep everything warm. You don’t want the mags to jam. Then with video, the batteries can freeze. It was just too cold. But the movie required it. You don’t want to shoot it on a stage.

There are many reasons I can think of why this was shot in black-and-white. I’d like to hear your motivation.

I think Lincoln lives in black-and-white. I don’t want to see him in color. That just the iconography of Lincoln; it’s monochromatic. When you turn the color off it transports your mind to the past. It also assisted with the production design, so there was a utilitarian reason for black-and-white. The art department loved t because it instantly added such texture. The actors loved it too because it presented them in a new way. Familiar faces are seen for the first time. It also just abstracts them. It has more poetry, more universality. It removes specificity. It makes you more of a symbol or an icon than a busy, loaded image with a million things to take in. Plus, we’re dealing with muskets, coonskin caps, a wooden cabin — and one immediately thinks Disneyland. In color you have this idyllic frontier life being depicted — the romance of Lincoln and early America. All that needed to be wiped off the table. The first image had to make it austere, stark. These were difficult, despairing times, ones that no one in the Lincoln family looked back on fondly. We wanted it to be more Bressonian, almost like Carl Dreyer.

The cliche around Malick is that he shoots so much no one knows how it will turn out. Most actors seem fine with, even excited by it, but some, like Sean Penn, seem a bit less so.

There’s definitely a rhyme and reason to what he’s doing, even if the actors go off and say to TMZ, “I didn’t know what they were doing.” They say that and we sit in editorial and roll our eyes.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter@mattprigge
 
 
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