Interview with End of Sentence's John Hawkes and Elfar Adalsteins

Director Elfar Adalsteins and actor John Hawkes were in attendance at the Edinburgh International Film Festival to discuss their new film End of Sentence.

After directing a series of short films and producing some features, Icelandic director Elfar Adalstein made his feature film debut this year with End of Sentence. The film is a tender and moving father/son road trip, with a wonderfully restrained performance from Oscar-nominated character actor John Hawkes at its centre. It was one of the best films to screen at this year’s Edinburgh International Film Festival, where Adalsteins and Hawkes were in attendance to discuss the film, shooting in Ireland, returning to Deadwood and saying no to Game of Thrones.

Elfar, this is your first feature as a director – how did that experience compare to directing shorts?

Elfar – It was bigger, more complex. It was a marathon compared to an 800 metre run, you know? But I knew that going into it so there was nothing I didn’t expect, other than the post-running on a little bit too long, which was a practical thing. It was easy, difficult, strenuous, effortless, lonely, sociable and everything in between! It is why we do what we do, and I love even the challenges of doing this, otherwise I wouldn’t be doing it. It has to be a vocation, otherwise I wouldn’t be a film director.

Was it End of Sentence particularly that made you want to direct a feature or were you just looking to do something and that was what came along?

Elfar – I was always on that road. My short films, starting as producer, I always knew I wanted to write and direct. If it hadn’t been End of Sentence, it would’ve been something else, probably a home grown feature that I’d developed myself like my next feature will be. The script and the story hit home on an emotional and human level, and I could relate to it personally. I liked Michael and I thought it might suit me, it was bought by a mutual friend of ours who thought we’d be a good pair. So if it had not been End of Sentence, it would’ve been something else, but I’m glad that it was.

You mentioned Michael Armbruster, the writer. How did he come up with the story?

Elfar – He’s here in Edinburgh, maybe ask him tonight after the screening! (laughs) I believe it comes from a personal place for him, an emotional place. He was very generous in collaborating with me so we worked on the script together, analysed the themes together and dug in. We managed to find a mutual place to make it a personal endeavour and that’s very important in the writer/director relationship for it to mean something intrinsically. Otherwise, it’s not worth it to spend five years working on something!

John, how did you come to be involved?

John – In the usual way, I was sent the script. I didn’t know Elfar or Sigurjon Sighvatsson, I was sent the script and I thought the story as a whole was attractive to me. I liked the stranger in a strange land road trip idea, there’s a lot of possibility, drama and emotion right there, then you figure the father/son angle. I also really loved the role of Frank, so that’s two checks off the list. The third one is, are great people going to make this story? I met with Elfar and liked what he had to say about it and watched his short film Selfish that starred John Hurt and I was sold.

You mentioned the father/son dynamic and that was something that seemed unusual to me in that it was the son that was the stronger of the two, and he was pushing the father a bit more. Usually you’d see it the other way around. Is that something that appealed to you about it?

John – That’s a good observation – I would say so. Also I think both characters haven’t come to any acceptance of themselves as human beings and I think forgiveness is difficult for both of them. I know for Frank, you can see where Sean gets his anger and frustration, Frank has that as well, he just pushes it down. He tries not to let that kind of thing out at all until it just happens and he can;’t help himself.

How was it working with Logan Lerman?

John – Terrific. He was wise beyond his years. He tried to make the story as a whole as strong as possible, which is my approach as well, to try to figure out the story as best you can and try to figure out how you can serve that story through the character you’re playing. Not many actors take that approach – and I’m not saying it’s the right approach – but it’s interesting that we both saw it the same way. I didn’t meet him until we got to Ireland and he was a great presence to be around as a person and we weren’t afraid to be uncomfortable around each other, emotionally. We didn’t have to walk on eggshells around each other, we could say what we felt and act what we felt.

In terms of the film coming together, was it always set in Ireland or did it begin life in a different location?

Elfar – Yes, it started off as an American road trip and it was set in another country. But when I was brought in to the collaboration, I wanted to try out Ireland so Michael and I did a road trip of our own, criss-crossed the country in a Nissan Micra with him terrified sitting right next to me, and feel in love with the country! We knew from day one that it was right, it offered up so many possibilities. I feel like Ireland has a crooked smile because it’s been through so much through the ages.They sing these heartbreaking songs with a smile while they sip their Guinness. It was the perfect place to heighten the premise and advance the story.

I think it gives the film a different feel as well, because there are a lot of films that are an American road trip but transplanting that to Ireland gives it a different vibe.

John – Elfar said something interesting about not wanting to do a postcard to Ireland either though which was really great. It’s there and it really informs the piece, and it couldn’t live without it, but rather than push that too hard, you wanted to show an honest portrayal of the place.

Elfar – For examples in Sarah Bolger’s scene when she sings in the pub, it needed to be natural and not staged. The same thing applies to the exterior world of Ireland, if it’s staged and you only show the beautiful bits, it would betray the premise of the movie.

But then you do find a lot of power in those locations, particularly when you guys are in the lake towards the end. Were there any challenges you faced in Ireland that maybe you wouldn’t have faced elsewhere?

Elfar – Well we didn’t speak Irish when we got there! No, they were so facilitating, the whole crew and David Collins and his people at Samsung. They shoot a lot of films there, pretending to be in England or the viking stuff or Game of Thrones. They’ve got a very professional film community.

John – The crew were really top of the line professionals and the actors were just phenomenal, really fine actors.

Elfar – So not really. The challenges were we were changing locations very frequently in such a short period of time and shooting out of sequence, which is obviously normal for a film like this. So moving the crew around every other day is always a bit of a challenge.

The scene on the ferry was quite a big set-piece. Was that difficult to shoot?

Elfar – Yeah it was a big set-piece, we had a few good extras on that day! (laughs) I think the guys at Stena Line who let us shoot that day, very generously, didn’t know what they were in for when we showed up with the whole crew and the actors – the circus came to town! We had a limited slot of three hours to film in and around the ship, so it was a rock and roll day!

John, when you’re choosing a role like this, what is it that attracts you to the part?

John – It either works or doesn’t, in a very subjective way. It either hits you or it almost does or it doesn’t at all, and almost or doesn’t isn’t enough anymore. When I was starting out, I was just trying to pay rent but over time I’ve lived cheaply enough so I can just choose what I want to do for the moment. I choose this one because there was something about Frank that was so fucked up and yet so decent. It’s hard as an actor to find what the truth of a character is and then cover it up with as many layers as you can, and Frank was a great candidate for that treatment. Finally things pop out and you see the real truth of the person in tiny little fragments.

The idea of going to Ireland was really attractive to me, having never been, and honestly, Elfar’s short film. I just want to work with people who know how to tell stories and sometimes you can meet people and get along, then you get to set and you don’t know. But that short film just stayed in my heart and was such a beautiful piece that I knew I was around a storyteller.

Do you feel like you get better offers or more offers since your Oscar nomination?

John – Sure, I think so, a little bit. Certainly some bigger studio stuff came that I didn’t choose to do.

Why was that? Are we talking superhero films?

John – Superhero films, yep, and a lot of TV shows that are very popular. Like you could probably name the top three most popular ones over the last ten years…

Game of Thrones? You could’ve gone to Ireland!

John – Yep, I know! The problem with that particular one was it would be, you shoot for a couple weeks here, and in a year you come back, and I don’t know what’s going to happen! Anyways, I have no regrets about any of it, it either hits you or it doesn’t. I’m just grabbed by the collar and dragged towards a piece or I’m not, I guess. I’m beaten and thrown in the trunk by it, or I’m not.

Since you mentioned TV, we have to talk about Deadwood. Is that something that’s really close to your heart, and how was it coming back after so long?

John – Wow, are you a fan of the show?

I am, but I haven’t seen the movie yet.

John – Ok so that will be the test. It was a surreal dream because after thirteen years, I’d heard several times it may happen or it may not happen, slot out the six months. How do you get twenty five people back together thirteen years later? But they did it, and most of the creative crew and craftspeople came back. It was phenomenal. I’m no person to judge because I’m in it, but family members and people who tell me the truth were really happy and satisfied, and I hope you will be too. It’s hard to take 36 hours of television and add two more, but I think it’s satisfying. It was a ball to do.

Elfar – Everyone who’s seen it is saying how good it is.

John – Even people I’ve talked to who haven’t seen the series got something from the movie. It’s got a couple of flashback moments that I wasn’t too excited about but now seeing it, they make sense and they don’t take you out of the story, just remind you of a thing or two you maybe don’t remember.

So what are you guys working on next?

John – For me, nothing!

Elfar – A shoot in Iceland, we start next year. An adaptation that I wrote from a book called Summer Light and Then Comes the Night – a beautiful novel about a seaside village that narrates the stories of the people that live there.

Do you have a cast together for that?

Elfar – We need about twelve leading actors! I have one, Ólafur Darri Ólafsson, who was the prison guard in End of Sentence. He’s great. Just an assembly of Icelandic actors. That’s the thing I will turn to in the fall, casting that and meet up and reacquaint myself with Icelandic actors after so many years in the UK. Relearn the language!

John – Elfar doesn’t know this part but an American reporter shows up in his new movie…

Elfar – You have that on tape!

End of Sentence doesn’t have a release date in the UK as of yet, but you can read my review here.