Hank Williams, widely considered country music’s greatest singer-songwriter, is the fascinating subject of the Hollywood South-shot “I Saw the Light.”
Hiddleston (“Thor,” “The Avengers”) shares many scenes with the actresses who play the women in Williams’ life — especially Elizabeth Olsen as Audrey Sheppard Williams, the singer’s first wife and inspiration for many of his heartbreakingly sad songs.
Marc Abraham, the veteran producer who wrote and directed “I Saw the Light,” said Williams’ tenacious love for Audrey challenged and confused him.
“I wanted to spend time with men and women in the movie,” Abraham said last week from Los Angeles. “I believe that gives great insight into Hank Williams as an artist.”
Abraham, a country music fan since his childhood in Louisville, Kentucky, described Williams as a pioneer whose soul-baring expression in song set the stage for Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, Neil Young, John Prine and many other singer-songwriters.
“Hank Williams was one of those rare artists who was ahead of his time,” Abraham said. “He was willing to be completely open. He didn’t know how else to do it.”
Abraham has been captivated by Williams’ story for as long as he’s known it. Williams released 33 hit songs before his death at 29 on New Year’s Day in 1953. After his death, MGM Records released seven top 10 hits by Williams, three of which reached No. 1.
“I always found his story to be romantic and tragic,” the director said. “It always touched me. Being a serious country music fan, you hear all these stories, but it’s not just country artists. It’s actors, directors, any artist. There’s damage, drugs or alcohol. It’s often painful. Artists can be very lonely. They can be humiliated. Hank had all of that.”
Abraham, whose dozens of producer credits include “Robocop,” “The Thing,” “Children of Men” and “Bring It On,” loves sad stories.
“So much of what gets written about great poets has to do with love,” he said. “The beauty and the pain of it. Hank’s songs ‘Hey Good Lookin’ and ‘I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry’ were written about someone who caught his eye and then hurt him.”
Abraham’s attachment to Williams’ rise-and-fall tale helped him make the jump from producer to writer-director.
“For years, I’d been trying to get to the point where all I do is write and direct,” he said. “So when this story, which is dear to my heart, came along, I made a life decision. I turned down producing jobs. I said, ‘That’s it. I’m going to write and direct.’
“The things I love the most are casting and directing and working with the actors. I don’t want to give that up. I want to continue finding young talent and working with great actors. As a producer, I got to know many actors. I got to like them, and we became friends. But as a director, it’s a more intimate relationship, one I revere.”
In “I Saw the Light,” Shreveport stands in for Los Angeles, New York, Nashville and New Orleans, where Williams married his second wife.
Shreveport’s Municipal Auditorium, home of the Louisiana Hayride stage show and radio broadcast, substituted for Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium, the original home for the Grand Ole Opry. Northwest Louisiana also played itself in a few scenes.
Filming in Shreveport, where Williams was a regular at the Louisiana Hayride, kept the film real, Abraham said.
And, because Abraham wanted his actors to sing rather than lip-sync, Hiddleston spent five weeks in Nashville working with singing coach Rodney Crowell, the film’s executive music director.
“Seeing actors lip-syncing takes me out of a movie,” Abraham said. “I knew Tom could never sound like Hank Williams, but having him performing, understanding the songs and caring about them — that’s powerful. Fortunately, I got an actor who had the chops to do it.”