EDITOR’S NOTE: This interview was originally published as part of indieWIRE’s coverage of the 2009 SXSW Film Festival.
Scott Teems’ “That Evening Sun” premiered at this year’s SXSW Film Festival, where it won both the audience award and a special jury prize for its ensemble cast. Since, its gone on to win awards around the U.S. festival circuit, from Atlanta to Newport to Nashville to Sarasota. Freestyle Releasing is releasing the films in theaters this Friday – with an awards push for star Hal Holbrook, who stars as aging Tennessee farmer returns to his homestead and must confront a family betrayal, the reappearance of an old enemy, and the loss of his farm. Director Teems – making his feature film debut – talked to indieWIRE about the film before its premiere at SXSW.
Please introduce yourself…
My name is Scott Teems. My kids say I look like Jesus. It would probably be more accurate to say Gregg Allman. I was born and raised in the suburbs of Atlanta, studied film at Georgia State University for a couple years before transferring to the University of Georgia, in order to get a real degree (and to please Mom). I attended UGA for about eight seconds before realizing that a real degree would be of no use to me, for I had no intention of ever getting a real job. So I transferred back to Georgia State, where I (eventually) graduated with a degree in Film & Video.
After college I left Atlanta and ventured north with my new bride to New York City, where we lived for five years. It was cold there so we left. Since 2005 we have made our home in Los Angeles, where everything is brown and/or on fire. We like it here nonetheless. There’s snow in the mountains twenty minutes east of my house, and the beach is a half hour drive west. That’s just silly.
What were the circumstances that lead you to become a filmmaker?
In the seventh grade I had to do a book report about sharks. Because we were creative (read: lazy), my friend Drew and I decided instead to make a music video. We re-wrote the lyrics to Michael Jackson’s timeless ode to the parking garage, “Bad,” then filmed ourselves singing it. We got high marks from our teacher, Mr. Williams, despite his disapproval of our incessant crotch-grabbing (which we defended as true to the ways of Jacko), and I fell in love with the power of the camera. The next year I made four or five short films in Mrs. Harrison’s eighth grade class, in lieu of written reports (“Mercules & Jerkules” was a personal favorite — an epic tale of Hercules’ peckerheaded little brothers), and the romance with cinema had begun.
How or what prompted the idea for your film and how did it evolve?
I’m an avid reader, and my heart rests well when my brain infuses it with Southern Fiction. Flannery O’Connor is tops on my list, but she’s given close chase by Thomas Wolfe (not the guy in the white suit), Walker Percy, and Breece D’J Pancake (who is from West Virginia, which is kind of its own planet, but I claim him for the South and will fight you if you say otherwise). Pancake’s “Time and Again” is the greatest short story ever written, by the way.
In the early part of this century I was beginning to discover a new batch of Southern writers, guys who, for several years now, had been taking up Flannery’s torch and hoisting it aloft, big and bright for all to see. Guys like Larry Brown, Barry Hannah, Allan Gurganus, and Tom Franklin, to name but a very few. William Gay was a part of this group, but I hadn’t yet had a chance to read him. I picked up his short story collection, “I Hate to See That Evening Sun Go Down,” and read the title story on a short plane ride from LA to San Jose. On the tarmac I called my friend and producer, Terence Berry, with whom I’d been looking for a project to develop, and said, “I’ve found it.” Three years and several hundred financier rejections later, we got the money.
Please elaborate a bit on your approach to making your film.
I’m a big believer in creativity through limitation — which is a good thing, because we had some severe limitations on this film. That is not to say we were penny-pinched. Quite the contrary, in fact. I give much praise to the production company, Dogwood Entertainment, who fought long and hard to get me everything I asked for, and never once told me “No” without first making every possible effort to pull it together. That kind of unconditional support is rare on a first film. The limitations came simply from the size and scope of the film we all wanted to make, relative to the modest budget we were able to secure. So creativity became the order of the day, and I believe the film is better for it.
That’s the blessing of indie film — the people are there because they want to be. They want to find solutions, they don’t want to create more problems. They want to stretch themselves, to push each other, to collaborate, and to create something of value and worth. If you have the right people involved, limitations will spurn them on toward something greater, not drag them down into something less.
What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in developing the project?
When your lead role is an 80-year-old Tennessee farmer, you’re knowingly writing yourself into a very tight corner. There are only a handful of recognizable actors who can even play the role, much less ones that can get you any kind of financing. But we forged confidently ahead throughout the three years we were seeking financing, because we knew that eventually an actor would recognize the opportunity this project presented — a lead role of substance for an actor in his 80’s — and sign on to take this journey with us.
But as the years progressed it began to look less and less likely we’d ever find the right actor. I’m the first to admit that I had long ago typecast Hal Holbrook in my mind as Mark Twain, and it took some doing to shake that image from my head. But then we saw Into the Wild, and we knew we’d seen Abner Meecham, in the flesh. To be hopeless and then, in the blink of an eye, to be given hope again — it’s a remarkable experience of grace. I don’t think even Hal knows this, but if he hadn’t said yes, that was pretty much going to be the end of the line for us. So thank you, Hal.
What are some of your favorite films?
If no cinema existed except for Kieslowski’s “Three Colors” trilogy, the world we be fine by me.
How do you define success as a filmmaker, and what are your personal goals as a filmmaker?
I guess success for me means being able to step back and look at a work I’ve created and say, “I believe this is true. I believe this is honest. I believe it was made for the right reasons. And I believe it has value in this world.” Those are my personal goals as a filmmaker as well as my definition of success.
What are your future projects?
My next project is to go into the house and coerce my two-year-old to eat her broccoli. Then I hope to direct another short story adaptation — but we’re currently negotiating with the agents, which is not unlike having your nipples pierced repeatedly with a rusty nail. Awesome!