August 10th, 2005
Hank Williams
Filmmaker Interview - Morgan Neville

WITH DIRECTOR MORGAN NEVILLE

What got you interested in this project? What drew you to Hank Williams?

Everything about Hank Williams interests me. His music, his life. His death. His impact. It’s the kind of subject that one hopes to find. Although there is a cottage industry in books about Williams, there has never been a thorough documentary. That made me feel there was room to do something.

Did you learn anything that surprised you about Williams while making this film?

He is one of those rare American figures who seems to elude simple description. The longer we spent working on Hank, the more his character refused to be pinned down. During his life Hank wrote virtually no letters, gave few interviews and often gave people conflicting ideas about who he was. This has allowed people to project fifty years worth of mythologizing upon him. We went looking for the human side of Hank in the myth and was surprised by many things we found — he was a friend to African Americans in a time and place where that was not the norm, he loved guns and was an avid fisherman, he was a mischievous prankster to his friends, and a voracious reader of both romance and horror comic-books.

Are there any interesting anecdotes about the filming or, interviewees?

We drove eight thousand miles making this film, spent months shooting throughout the South, not only tracking down the people who knew Hank who were still around, but mostly spending time in the places he did. So much of his world has been erased. Most of his homes in Montgomery and Nashville have been torn down. Most of the clubs he played at and studios he recorded in are gone. We had to look hard to find traces of Hank’s world, but they were there. We found it in places like the Sacred Harp singing in Alabama churches and at Arkey Blues’ Silver Dollar Saloon in Bandera, Texas.

Could you describe the production process, anything about how you chose to shoot the film?

We were determined to do make Hank a multi-dimensional character. This meant that we had to mount a vast research campaign. We talked to hundreds of individuals. We flew all over the country going through collectors’ dusty, forgotten storage spaces. We placed ads in magazines and on TV looking for fresh material on Hank. In the end we did find well over 100 photos of Hank that have never been seen. We also found never-before-seen footage of Hank that even his family and longtime collectors had never heard about. I felt this was extremely important to make Hank come alive even to people who felt they knew everything about Hank.

In addition we talked to over twenty people who new Hank and had never spoken on camera before. Obviously, Hank’s widow, Billie Jean, was at the top of the list and she gave us a run for our money. There was a reason nobody got to her for fifty years. Finally, through a nine-month campaign of letters, 2am phone calls, flattery and two trips to Shreveport, we managed to get her on camera and she was worth the battle.

Were there any additional interviews you picked up along the way, and why you picked them up?
We were surprised to discover many people who knew Hank almost everywhere we went. We interviewed several of them and one or two ended up in the final cut. In Alexander City Alabama, we found a pair of sisters from a black gospel group whom Hank had tried to get to tour with him, over the objections of his management. In Knoxville, we found a porter who helped Hank to his room the night he died. In the end we did about forty interviews, only half of which are in the film. I always feel bad about this. We have, however, placed a copy of everything we shot at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum for research.

Were there any problems along the way with the production that you had to deal with?

Hank died half a century ago and many of his friends and bandmates are of advanced age. We felt that we had to hurry to make sure that we got all of the voices we could for the film. Five years from now, it just wouldn’t be possible to make the same type of film — an intimate one — about Williams, and we knew it.

What do you think is Williams’ legacy? Is he as influential now as he ever was?

Hank’s influence is only growing. Hank wasn’t even the biggest star in his day, but he’s the one people are still listening to. Fifty years after his death, his records still sell half a million copies a year. I think it’s because of more than his larger than life persona. His songs are both deeply personal and universal. Just about every major singer/songwriter owes Hank something. And most of them will say it. His influence is there in Bob Dylan, Beck, Neil Young and Elvis Costello, not to mention every country singer. He’s become a symbol of many things, particularly, purity and soul in country.

  • Dan Bartlett

    I would very much like to get in touch with the filmmaker. My father was one of the first MC’s of the Louisiana Hayride. Hank and my father were friends. In the film there is a clip of home movie that features Hank on stage and a brief flash of my father jumping in the air onstage. I would like to know more avout that film clip[ and perhaps arrange to have a copy. Please email me with any contact information that can be shared reasonably.

    My father was also the most popular DJ on KWKH at the time.

  • Jeff

    Mr. Neville,
    Thank you so much for the time and energy you put into this film/documentary. Very well-done homage to one of my heroes. The American Masters film Hank Williams: Honky Tonk Blues, is still available on Netflix. And yes, the Billie Jean interview was something! But really, the entire production was first class.

  • Cudge Hiatt

    About thirty years ago (1978-1979) I watched a show I believe was on PBS in California. It was Hank Williams sitting on a stool with a microphone and just His guiatar. Hank talked about how each song came about and what they meant to him and then would sing it. This was the most powerful and most passinate film I ever seen to this day . At the end Hank was explaining how he was kicked off the Grand Old Opry because of his behavior and how he had quit drinking and was on the road to getting his life in order, and that he was schedulded to appear on the Opry the following week. Then a message rolled up the screen that said that Hank never made it to the Opry becaused he had died in a car crash on the way to preforming thier. The passion Mr. Williams displayed in this documemtary was unmached by even Elvis. I consider this footage of Hank to be possibly the greatest footage of a person and entertainer ever recorded. Have you ever viewed it or heard of it. I would like to fine out more about it.

Salinger

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