Q&A: Director Marc Abraham on His Hank Williams Biopic, ‘I Saw the Light’

“I Saw the Light” a biopic of Hank Williams directed by UVA alumnus Marc Abraham, opens the Virginia Film Festival tonight.
November 05, 2015

University of Virginia alumnus and acclaimed Hollywood producer and director Marc Abraham returns to Charlottesville tonight to open the Virginia Film Festival with his latest film, “I Saw the Light.”

The film chronicles the rapid rise and untimely death of country music legend Hank Williams, with British actor Tom Hiddleston playing the singer and Elizabeth Olsen starring as his first wife, Audrey May. Abraham, who majored in English at UVA, wrote much of the script himself and also served as director and producer.

Abraham has directed one other film, “Flash of Genius,” and has served as executive producer and producer for numerous films, including “Children of Men,” “Spy Game,” “Air Force One” and “Bring It On.”

UVA Today spoke with him before the screening on Thursday.

Q. What first drew you to Williams’ story?

A. I have always been a huge country music fan. Country music, at its best, is just great storytelling. Growing up in Louisville, Kentucky, only three hours north of Nashville, I listened to Nashville radio stations all the time. If you do that, you are eventually going to find your way back to Hank Williams.

Hank was unique, he was really the first rock star of the genre. I loved his music and began finding out more about his story. As a filmmaker, I am constantly thinking about stories, and his is a great story that I felt had not really been told properly. I decided that if someone was going to tell his story seriously, I wanted it to be me.

Q. Casting a British man as one of America’s most iconic country singers was a controversial move. What sold you on Tom Hiddleston as Hank?

A. When I am casting, I really focus on gut instincts and how I respond to the actors, when I see them on screen or on stage. I first spotted Tom when he did “War Horse” (2011) and he immediately popped off the screen to me. I thought he looked a lot like Hank Williams and I got in touch with his agent. Tom was doing the British television film “Henry V” at the time; his big movies – “Thor,” “The Avengers” – had not come out yet.

Tom liked the script, and we met for dinner. I had promised my casting director that I would not cast someone without having them do a reading, but halfway through dinner I had a really strong gut feeling that Tom was the right guy. We talked about switching from a British to a Southern accent, which he said would not be a problem for him, and about his singing voice. I told him the part was his if he wanted it, and we stuck together for the next few years while I pulled the film together. In that time, he became a pretty big deal, and suddenly people knew his name and were intrigued that he would play Hank.

Q. What were some of the biggest challenges of bringing William’s story to life on-screen?

A. One of the biggest challenges was deciding where we were going to shine the light. I was not as interested in how Hank learned to play the guitar or how he wrote songs. I was more interested in showing that the inspiration and the reasons that he sang what he sang came from his personal life.

In many ways, this is a film about the relationships between men and women and the hurt that can come from those. Hank’s downfalls were his inspirations. I did not just want to show him writing songs. To me, that is like trying to show Picasso painting. I wanted to show the vagaries and difficulties of a life in the spotlight from a very young age.

The film does not have a score, which brought a unique set of physical challenges. Our actors are not lip-syncing but are actually singing in every scene, and we often had to record several songs on the same night. That is physically demanding, and from a creative standpoint, it was also important to put together a team that wanted to do the film the same way I did. I wanted to bring to life his life behind the curtain, give the audience the music and let them draw those connections. Then, the story will belong to them.

Q. Watching the film now, what are you most proud of?

A. I am really happy with the film and I am most proud of the team and what we were able to accomplish. I am thrilled with the performances. As a director, my job is to get the performances, and to me, that is the best part of it all. All of the music is authentic; we recorded all of those tracks, and my actors sang all of those songs. To me, that is thrilling.

Q. As a UVA alumnus, what does it mean to you to bring your film to Charlottesville and the Virginia Film Festival?

A. It’s great. I am coming back to a place where I have a lot of great memories. Last night, I had a drink with my college roommate of three years, who works in town. The place where you spend those four college years will always hold a special place in your heart because you left the nest and picked a spot that became yours. It becomes a part of who you are.

We just closed the Savannah Film Festival and have screened at other festivals. I have loved all of those places, but this is Charlottesville. 

Media Contact

Caroline Newman

University News Associate Office of University Communications