“I Saw the Light” made its world premiere Friday at the Toronto Film Festival, 50 years after “Your Cheatin’ Heart,” the first major film release on the life and death of country star Hank Williams, and almost anyone who cares about country music, the life and legacy of Williams is keenly interested to see if the film’s writer-director, Marc Abraham, succeeded in capturing the passion that made Williams the great talent and tragic figure whose songs and records continue to move us today.
Abraham has a couple of decades of Hollywood film producing experience under his belt, but is still new the directing game. Still, the Hollywood veteran grew up in Louisville, Ky., and listened to plenty of country music over the years.
“About seven or eight years ago, some people in Nashville came to me for advice about how to get a movie going about Hank, and the more I thought about it, the more I thought, ‘Why am I trying to figure it out?’ ” he recalled.
Although those conversations did not lead anywhere, Williams was stuck in Abraham’s mind. A few years later he started working on a screenplay about Williams, one that would give the audience a real feel for this troubled singer.
“I tried to show his attitude,” Abraham said. “I mean, he was a recalcitrant guy. So when I started working on the film, (like Hank, I thought) ‘This is the way I’m gonna do it and if you don’t like it, go screw yourself!’”
He had a couple of things going for him when he started working on the film. First, he had Troy Tomlinson, president of Sony/ATV Music, the company that publishes Williams’ catalog of songs. Before Sony, Tomlinson had worked for Acuff-Rose, the publisher that had signed Williams as a writer back in the mid-1940s. For Tomlinson, the life of Williams was a key part of his company’s — and his — institutional memory.
“After I wrote the screenplay I gave it to Troy to read and he was captivated with it,” Abraham said.“With his backing and support, I moved forward.”
Abraham’s primary source for the screenplay was “Hank Williams: The Biography,” by Colin Escott with George Merritt and William Macewen. That book, published in 1994, is thought by many to be the best of the Williams biographies, and Abraham felt confident that it would not lead him astray.
Also, he said, “I was lucky. I put the movie together with independent financing, Bron Studios in Vancouver, and Ratpac Entertainment in L.A.”
He felt they gave him maximum support and allowed him to operate without creative interference to work on a project he loved.
Sony Classics releases the film, starring Tom Hiddleston as the iconic country star, on Nov. 27.
Every real country fan knows Hank Williams died Jan. 1, 1953, in the back seat of a Cadillac. Perhaps “I Saw the Light” will give us a profound understanding of why.