Constructing the Sentence

John Hawkes and Elfar Adalsteins on motivation and midges in their road trip drama

by Amber Wilkinson

John Hawkes and Logan Lerman as Frank and Sean in End Of Sentence. John Hawkes: 'I do feel that Logan and I approach material in a similar way, so far as a way into things. I don't meet that many young actors who have such an interest in the piece as a whole - to kind of go from the outside in'
John Hawkes and Logan Lerman as Frank and Sean in End Of Sentence. John Hawkes: 'I do feel that Logan and I approach material in a similar way, so far as a way into things. I don't meet that many young actors who have such an interest in the piece as a whole - to kind of go from the outside in' Photo: Courtesy of EIFF
Elfar Adalsteins feature directorial debut End Of Sentence – starring John Hawkes and Logan Lerman – had its world premiere at Edinburgh International Film Festival last week. Hawkes and Lerman play Frank and Sean, an estranged father and son in this warm and gently observed drama. Sean is in prison when his mum (Andrea Irvine) dies, but on his release, he finds himself on an uncomfortable road trip with his dad to honour her last wish to have her ashes scattered in Ireland, with the pair of them picking up a sparky unexpected passenger Jewel (Sarah Bolger) along the way. On a sunny day in Edinburgh, we caught up with Hawkes and Adalsteins to chat about meditative roles, motivation and midges.

Amber Wilkinson: How was it to come from the producing side to directing.

Elfar Adelsteins: I did two short films and one of them travelled a bit. It was always my sneaking ambition to start with producing and sneak through the back door. I always new what my vocation was and this is the starting point of me working as a director on features.

AW: Was it what you hoped it would be?

EA: It was everything and anything. It was difficult, it was lovely, it was heartwarming, it was heartbreaking, it was social and it was very lonely at times. It depends on what place in the production progression you pick.

John Hawkes: Or what day, randomly, that might have felt lifting or depressed.

EA: Being a director is a strange occupation, if you can call it an occupation, because your projects are few and far between, so your projects might take from two to seven years - that's not uncommon, especially if you write them as well. So, you learn patience and you learn that you need to have a few projects on the go as well.

AW: It’s a completely different experience for an actor, of course, because you do one film and then you're on to the next?

JH: That's true.

AW: How was it for you coming to this? It's quite a meditative role. Not that you haven't done that kind of role in the past, for example with The Sessions. But this is a very quiet role. Was that what attracted you to it?

JH: I think what attracted me to it, was just what always attracts me - which is to try to find a really great piece of writing that has a role I feel I would be suited for or could serve. And then to be surrounded by amazing people telling that story. So I got the first two checked off the list from reading it and then meeting Elfar, it felt right.

I have no regrets about it at all, it was a great experience. Frank is not a showy kind of role but I just really related to his underdog sense, his kind of covering so much of what the truth was about him. There's a lot of anger and frustration in a person who has need to quelch that and stomp it down. He's trying told things together with his son but he's a character who doesn't have the tools to solve their problem is something I'm always really attracted to.

Elfar Adalsteins in Edinburgh
Elfar Adalsteins in Edinburgh Photo: Courtesy of EIFF

I spoke to Elfar early on about self-pity and how I really wanted to avoid that and asked him to keep an eye on that. What you want to see is a character who is ill-equipped and doesn't have the tools, still trying to solve the problem and continuing on rather than wallowing in their grief. So, from the outset of the film, which begins at a funeral, I wanted him to somehow, be, "I'm okay, it's going to be okay." And, of course, it isn't.

AW: And, in Logan Lerman's Sean, you have the younger character to spark off from. I was thinking, even as actors you're very different in the sense that you came quite late to acting on screen whereas he has been acting on screen since he was a child. Do you find it helps in creating characters on the screen when you're different characters in life?

JH: I think so. I do feel that Logan and I approach material in a similar way, so far as a way into things. I don't meet that many young actors who have such an interest in the piece as a whole - to kind of go from the outside in, to try to figure out what is the story and how do we serve that story as actors. I think that's where he came from in his work and that was very sympatico with my approach to the film. Logan's terrific. He was a really wonderful person to collaborate with.

<>AW: How was it to work with a first-time director?

JH: I wouldn't call Elfar a first-time director because he's produced features and part of the reason I said yes so quickly, was because after meeting Elfar and really feeling that he was a smart, warm human being - I like those qualities in people. Beyond that, was seeing Sail Cloth - the short film he made with John Hurt. You watch that and say, "Here's a person who knows how to tell a story." and that's who I'm interested in working with.

AW: Is it daunting to come to something when you have actors who have a wealth of experience behind them or is it just an excitement for you to be getting to the point where the film is finally going to be made?

EA: I've worked with another John before, John Hurt (on Sail Cloth), and then the great John Hawkes. They're two great character actors. I would be lying if I said there wasn't a mixture of admiration, trepidation and excitement. All these emotions create some sort of an energy within you and I try to use that as fuel. If you aren't a little bit timid of the project ahead, you shouldn't do it. If it doesn't challenge you, if it doesn't push you, if it doesn't make you uncomfortable, scared and sometimes small even, then I don't think it's worth it. You need to go out of your comfort zone and that's why I wanted to do this film because it resonates with me because we all have father and son stories in our past.

[Adalsteins breaks into coughing fit] I may have swallowed a midge. I'm laughing because we had a plethora of midges attack us at the lake, so we had very little time to shoot and it was very challenging.

JH: It was literally millions, you could hardly see for them. I kept thinking they would read on camera.

EA: To finish your question about famous actors, it is because you admire their work. They're the kind of actors who have a bigger scope of their emotional landscape available to them. They can go places very few people can go within themselves. Working with those kind of people, you step on the set in admiration of them.

John Hawkes and Sarah Bolger as Frank and Jewel. John Hawkes: 'Frank is not a showy kind of role but I just really related to his underdog sense, his kind of covering so much of what the truth was about him'
John Hawkes and Sarah Bolger as Frank and Jewel. John Hawkes: 'Frank is not a showy kind of role but I just really related to his underdog sense, his kind of covering so much of what the truth was about him' Photo: Courtesy of EIFF
AW: Back to the midges, that must be quite hard if you're doing an emotional scene and something crazy from the environment happens like that. Are you just used to that after years in the business?

JH: It seems like it's almost always like that. There's always a barricade or some sort of fence between you and where you're trying to go and I think those are valuable things. I don't think we needed midges to make the scene work - we probably would have got more takes and things - but you take what you can get when you're shooting in location in a beautiful place. It's a trade off.

AW: Were you tempted to shoot in Iceland at all?

EA: Potentially Iceland was in the picture at one time but Ireland was chosen was the location with the support of the Icelandic Film Centre - in post-production.

AW: They're obviously supporting their homegrown talent, though, which is important in the modern world.

EA: That's right, everything from the editors to the music composer and cinematographer were all Icelandic. It was a great mixture of Icelandic and Irish talent. There are a lot of similarities between the countries and only one letter that separates their names.

JH: It's just a consonant away.

AW: That sort of road trip environment must throw up quite a lot of challenges for a director and an actor - things like shooting in the confined spaces of cars and the moving around a lot.

EA: That was one of the challenges of the shoot. In 26 days, we always had a different location and it's quite tricky to move the crew around. And shooting in cars, you're limited to four to six set-ups and that's it. But by the same token, we made it happen. But we had to shoot everything out of sequence. The beginning of the film is the lats thing we shot.

AW: How is that for you as an actor, when you're taking your character on an emotional journey but you have to go from A to G and then back to B again?

JH: Shooting out of sequence is part of being a film actor, I guess. That's where I guess I learnt early on to really get a handle on the piece as a whole and not plan too much and not decide too much but ask the right questions and try to get an idea of what the story is and how you can serve that.

AW: You've had got a really eclectic year on the go at the moment, with Deadwood and the Nicolas Winding Refn serial Too Old To Die Young. Is there a difference when you're in something like the Refn, which is a very long because it's episodic and doing this in a very concentrated way?

JH: Yes, it was nine months for the Refn. It does feel different because there are different work methods among different directors and different approaches. They're all different - some are more different than others.

AW: Is that part of the appeal?

Elfar Adalsteins: 'If it doesn't challenge you, if it doesn't push you, if it doesn't make you uncomfortable, scared and sometimes small even, then I don't think it's worth it'
Elfar Adalsteins: 'If it doesn't challenge you, if it doesn't push you, if it doesn't make you uncomfortable, scared and sometimes small even, then I don't think it's worth it' Photo: Courtesy of EIFF
JH: Sure. I've been a carpenter and I've been a waiter and I've done a lot of jobs that don't offer such a varied experience, I suppose, and don't involve travel usually. So it's fun to go places and learn things away from home.

AW: Had you been to Ireland before?

JH: No, never.

AW: Did that help, because of the character who is also a fish out of water?

JH: Yes. There's a lot of humour in the film and not all of it revolves around the fish out of water stranger in a strange land. But, you know, it's really funny, Americans maybe don't travel as well as a lot of other people. We're confused by plumbing, electricity, automobiles - these are basic things you take for granted and suddenly it's, "Which is the button for this toilet?" and "How do I plug my thing into charge?" All these things suddenly are different. I, of course, have travelled enough to know what was coming but certainly Frank wouldn't have. So there's a lot of humour to be mined in those situations. It's not slapstick, slip on a banana skin type of humour but more comes from just simple truth.

AW: And did you have any issues with the ashes in production? You are carrying them around in various ways in the car.

EA: We had a few urns to work with.

JH: They were precious though.

EA: I think at some point you start to look at the urn as a human being or a subsidiary character, so it because precious.

AW: What's next for you both?

JH: I do a lot of other creative things that don't grab a lot of attention and don't travel the world but I'm always trying to write and make music and make any kind of art and help other friends do the same. I don't really have anything much on the docket at this point. I'm reading some things but I'll probably spend visit my family this summer and drive around the States seeing them. It's been a busy year.

AW: Sometimes it's nice to take that step back and be creative in a different way.

JH: They all inform each other. I feel if a journalist goes to an art museum, they walk out a better journalist and if a novelist goes to see a dance performance they become a better novelist. And if an actor goes to a museum he or she walks out a better actor.

AW: And how about you Elfar?

EA: I'm shooting a film next year Summer Light And Then Comes The Night - it's an adaptation I wrote from a novel, a beautiful novel by Jón Kalman Stefánsson. I'm doing that in Iceland with Ólafur Darri Ólafsson, who has a small cameo in this film as a prison guard. It's an ensemble, so there's a lot of actors, all Icelandic, and it's set in a little fishing village and about the trials and tribulations of living at the boundaries of the inhabitable world. It's a labour of love that's been six years in the making.

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