Australian director John Hillcoat first made a big splash with critics and cinephiles in 2005 with his masterful Western (or is it an “Australian”) The Proposition, starring Guy Pearce and Ray Winstone. His adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road with Viggo Mortenson and Charlize Theron followed, and then Hillcoat’s first experience working with Jessica Chastain came next with 2012’s Lawless.
In directing for TV for the first time, Hillcoat reunited with his Lawless star and guided her and Michael Shannon to remarkable performances in Showtime’s George & Tammy. In taking on the heart wrenching nature of the relationship between country legends George Jones and Tammy Wynette, Hillcoat had to navigate the perils of the musical biopic.
In our conversation, John and I talk about how he avoided those landmines to come up with something far more emotionally textured than the typical film based on musical legends.
Awards Daily: We think of you as being Australian, but you spent a fair amount of time in the states when you were younger.
John Hillcoat: Yes. I have actually recently found out there were a bunch of Hillcoats in Texas that settled, that I’m related to. So, I do have some connection here. Also, I grew up in America–New Haven, Connecticut and also Canada–for my formative years from age four to seventeen. I was introduced to a lot of music back then. My parents were big on music. I grew up going to concerts from a very young age.
Awards Daily: This isn’t your first foray into the South. I am from Kentucky originally. I like to say that the history of my family is mostly shine runners and coal miners, so Lawless really struck a chord with me. I would imagine that the experience in that project helped inform this one as well.
John Hillcoat: I have had an affinity to the South for a long time in terms of the writers and the music and the art that’s come out of there. I also think historically the South is really the epicenter of this primal struggle that America is still wrestling with today. There’s the race struggle, there’s the economic struggle, there’s the immigration struggle. New Orleans was before New York, as you know, with the immigration of Italians and Irish et cetera, They first came through New Orleans actually before New York. There’s a rich cultural heritage and a lot of expressive art that has come out of that struggle, which is still going on today.
Awards Daily: I imagine having worked with Jessica Chastain on Lawless was helpful in becoming part of George & Tammy. Can you talk about how you came to this project and your connection with Jessica?
John Hillcoat: I’ve been in touch with Jessica over the years batting around different projects here and there for a while after Lawless. It was the COVID years when I went back to Australia and Michael Shannon happened to be doing a show (Nine Perfect Strangers) with Nicole Kidman over where I was in Byron Bay. Michael was actually originally going to be in on Lawless but the dates shifted and things changed. So Michael contacted me when I got back from Australia about it and then Jessica of course weighed in, given our history.
Awards Daily: Speaking of how dates change and things change, Josh Brolin was attached to this project for a long time to play George Jones and he retains a producer credit on the show. I love Josh Brolin, but…
John Hillcoat: Me as well. Josh and I, we’ve been in touch constantly hoping things will come together at some point. He is fantastic.
Awards Daily: But to get Michael Shannon as George Jones is not bad, huh?
John Hillcoat: Oh, Michael’s phenomenal and he’s a phenomenal actor. I think this role also brought out different sides to him that we haven’t seen before. From a casting point of view, in a way it was more interesting in some ways than Josh. Both would’ve undoubtedly nailed it. Michael did bring the sensitivity and vulnerability. The vulnerability of such a forceful character and personality as Michael’s was a great mixture to explore this particular character. They share a lot in common in some ways. There’s a shy part of Michael that shuns the spotlight, the way that George Jones wished that he was pumping gas, you know? He just happened to have this incredible voice that put him in front of the spotlight.
Awards Daily: Did it give you pause that Jessica and Michael were going to be singing the songs of arguably the two greatest country singers in the history of the genre?
John Hillcoat: Yes, indeed. (Laughs). Of course I think it gave everyone involved in the project pause, including
Jessica and Michael. I also grew up with all different genres of music. Of course I knew George and Tammy and was in awe of their voices, as we all were in awe of their voices, but we also knew it was actually an impossible task. It’s like okay, will you be Mozart and fully pull off the writing and orchestration of his music? I doubt it. The key focus for me was always this love story. The music was an integral part of it, of course, and an integral part of their lives and who they were. The music almost was like an inner narration of what they were going through. That was the primary focus. I was hoping it would never be a music biog as such. I prefer documentaries when it comes to that. It was really their relationship and their love affair through time. This doomed love that they had, that was the primary thing.
That said, the voice was a huge, huge part. Basically for Jessica and Michael, it’s like adapting a great book. The best you can do is capture the spirit of the book. You’ll never capture the poetry of the language necessarily in the same way. In this case we just wanted the spirit of the songs and the emotions of where those songs were coming from in terms of the character’s journeys. That was the key, to be a suspension of disbelief to a degree for the real fans of those voices.
Awards Daily: Jessica and Michael had worked together before on Take Shelter, which is a very intimate movie and this show is very intimate as well. I imagine that was very helpful in terms of the chemistry and the comfortability for such a, as you said, star crossed lovers relationship.
John Hillcoat: That’s the amazing thing about the story in a way. Tammy had always had her sights on George before they even knew each other. Then when they finally came together, George was in a different place and was a mess and sort of came unraveled. Then by the time he got his shit together, Tammy was unraveling. Throughout their lives, they were the strongest connection out of anyone that they’ve ever had in their lives, and yet they couldn’t quite pull it off. I always thought of this as an experiential journey where we’re behind the closed doors and very up close and personal with a lot of it, so that chemistry was critical. Of course that really helped that they had worked together before and that they were comfortable and the trust was there between them. Trust is everything and it’s heartbreaking if that gets disrupted.
Awards Daily: There’s often this impression that Nashville can be a bit of a songwriting factory where folks are singing other people’s songs all the time. You did a great job revealing in this show that Tammy was a real songwriter. George was less of one. It made me think of how people don’t necessarily think of Loretta Lynn or Dolly Parton as songwriters either. Was it valuable to you to show that Tammy may have had a certain level of artistry that George didn’t possess?
John Hillcoat: Yeah, but there’s a difference. For instance, Elvis Presley never wrote his songs and that didn’t hurt his career. (Laughs). I think some people’s gifts channel in different directions. Some are more gifted songwriters than singers. There’s a mix. But, to your point actually, the big thing there was that Tammy was a woman. In the seventies, Nashville was still very much entrenched, especially in country music and that part of the country. There were very few—relatively few—successful female artists. Of course there were exceptions like the great Patsy Cline, but they were a needle in a haystack. George was also a needle in the haystack in terms of his extraordinary voice. Everyone from Frank Sinatra to Johnny Cash recognized that. To have that songwriting sensibility as well as the voice, for a woman, was extraordinary in that climate.
Awards Daily: George Jones’ interpretive skills were incredible as a singer. The scene for me that was the most jaw dropping from an emotional standpoint, was the recording of “He Stopped Loving Her Today” with each of them on the other side of the glass in the studio. So close but yet so far. Tell me about shooting that scene.
John Hillcoat: That was a key moment, because we always knew that was George’s greatest song. It’s very iconic.
It’s like Tammy and “Stand By Your Man.” You have these two incredibly iconic songs that were key moments, but really to land it in their emotional journey and in terms of the narrative of where those characters are in their lives and what they’re going through, was the key for that. My big trepidation coming into this was the amount of music and songs. It was how to take each performance, each song, put it in a different context and make it come from the love story and the character story as opposed to just a performance in a music biog way. So, of course there was the notorious incredible struggle behind the history of this song.
There were over 400 takes. Billy Sherrill literally had him locked up in the studio where he stayed every night. He was a mess. He was totally destroyed on drugs, alcohol, and the loss of not having Tammy in his life. This really brought it all to a head. Billy was savvy enough to know where great music came from and he was a very Machiavellian character. It was really that manipulation of their emotional lives, and that actually carries all the way through the people around them, the songwriters, the producers–they all had their hooks into these raw talents, and they all manipulated and exploited what was really going on in those people’s lives. In this case, Billy knew the only way to get it out of George was to have Tammy roll up, knowing that they were separated. Of course, Tammy was devastated by not only the power and the emotion and the message of that song to her directly, but also she knew she was being totally used and manipulated and was pissed off at that. It was devastating, a very different dynamic, and that’s what made it so interesting, rather than your typical live performance or your typical recording. That was the struggle, to root all those performances into a narrative character journey and the emotions of what was happening to these characters. Likewise the whole design of which songs were going to be in studios and the way we shot them, that was really important, the way we had them connecting directly with each other, looking into the lens. That was to make it extra intimate. So often we only saved those moments for special times like that.
Likewise with the lighting, we started the whole journey with them where it was all warm, naturalistic lighting. It was outdoors or indoors, but the audience were literally mingled, almost a reflection of themselves on stage. There was a real intimacy between the audience and the performers. In time, as their success grew and the pressures grew in their lives, there was this separation and the audience became more distant. We tried to visually show that. We tried to have more moments in the studio just between the two of them. When we did go live, we kept the audience distant. The mirror of this was when Tammy was at her lowest. This was when George was at his lowest and then rose to the occasion. “Help Me Make It Through the Night” in Nashville at the Grand Ole Opry, we tried to shoot it in a similar way, ideally mirroring exactly that dynamic, but in that case it was George watching her. The lighting and the colors were critical. We were held up getting that deep, crazy blue light and there was a comment of oh, just film their performance. It’s just about their performance. But actually, that blue light was every bit as much about the performance and the character and what they were going through emotionally. It was a synergy that we were working on, that I was fighting for. Those two moments, the way they mirrored each other, the way we shot them, the way we used the barrier of the glass between them. We were also trying to amplify their trappings of fame and success and the illusion of fame and power and success.
Awards Daily: I very much noticed the use of a bluer light as Tammy’s descent continues.
John Hillcoat: We never used that earlier on. Like that was very deliberate.
Awards Daily: The reception of the show has been terrific. You know musical biopics are really challenging to pull off. I imagine you feel good about having pulled it off.
John Hillcoat: I’m very pleased that the show has had this reception. This is my first time doing TV and first time working in the music biog world. Especially with my background, I have so many musician friends and I’ve been blessed to work with so many incredible musicians throughout my life. So this was a huge weight on my shoulder as well. I’m always trying to push things as far as they could go. And, you know, I wish that I could have pushed it further than what’s actually there. But I’m very pleased that people have managed to respond to it.