“A World That’s Fraying at the Edges”: Braden King on The Evening Hour, Appalachia, and Collective Memory
Opening on a mountaintop, The Evening Hour pans slowly across a vast Appalachian landscape, soaking in birdsong and morning light. In the distance, a series of explosions disrupt the surrounding idyll, but only for a moment. As plumes of ash and debris hang in the still mountain air, the shot holds into a static composition, those ominous detonations newly part of the tableau.
Braden King’s second feature, his first since 2011’s Here, maintains this painterly sensibility – one of observation over action, meditation over movement – throughout its patient, precise portrait of a Kentucky mining town, its inhabitants, and the realities of life in a land the outside world has left behind. The Evening Hour focuses on Cole (Philip Ettinger), a nursing aide who’s struck a delicate balance in caring for the elderly and selling their excess prescription drugs to local addicts in order to keep them away from menacing drug lord Everett (Marc Menchaca). When Cole’s childhood friend Terry (Cosmo Jarvis) blows back through town, it upsets this equilibrium and leads Cole to question his role in the tight-knit community of Harlan, as well as his relationships with casual girlfriend Charlotte (Stacy Martin), estranged mother Ruby (Lili Taylor), and grandmother Dorothy (Tess Harper).
The Evening Hour gradually escalates its drama, as tensions between Cole, Terry, and Everett come to a head, but King’s widescreen canvases and lyrical approach to documenting this coal-country milieu suggest countless other stories of similar import playing out at the edges of the frame. Depicting Harlan, Kentucky as a ghost town in the making – flooded with opioids, drained of resources, and gripped by environmental crises – the film charts the impact of outside forces that have worked to ground the region into poverty. And yet its tone is tranquil, even prayerful, and the film’s sketching of the locals as devoted and stalwart despite their circumstances is worthy of particular notice.
Based on a novel by southeastern Ohio native Carter Sickels but equally inspired by King’s background in still photography, The Evening Hour’s filmmaking seeks a more truthful, nuanced depiction of Appalachia: one that acknowledges the region’s deep collective memory and spirit of perseverance as much as its current dire straits. The Evening Hour relied extensively on collaboration with the southern mountain communities; the director first explored Appalachia two years before filming and met locals like novelist Robert Gipe, who connected him to other welcoming residents eager to offer insights and play supporting roles in the film.
I spoke to King a week before The Evening Hour’s theatrical engagement via Strand Releasing, which began at New York’s IFC Center and Santa Monica’s Monica Film Center before expanding throughout August – a release strategy that will allow him to bring the film home to Harlan before month’s end.
Filmmaker: The Evening Hour is vividly situated within Appalachia; you shot in and around Harlan County in the fall of 2018, now almost three years ago. Do you see it as a time capsule in some ways, of a region that perhaps no longer exists in the way it did while you were filming?
King: I’ve been thinking a lot about Wim Wenders’ quote about all films being documentaries. In some sense, at least in the way I make films, I think they’re all time capsules. I purposely go out and try to shoot in actual locations. I’ve never tried to substitute one locale for another, like, say, shooting outside of Atlanta for Appalachia. A big part of the endeavor to me is almost expeditionary, trying to go out and bring back images from landscapes, locations, and regions that haven’t necessarily had a lot of films shot in them – whether that’s the Aleutian Islands in Alaska, Armenia, or Harlan County, Kentucky. There’s a constant element of wanting to metaphorically map the territory – maybe literally, in some senses.
In terms of The Evening Hour – Harlan and Letcher Counties, southeastern Kentucky – I’m going to be bringing the film back there at the end of August, and we’ll see how things have changed or not changed. There’s a lyric that I believe is in the closing credits on the film by Joan Shelley, a beautiful song called “The Fading,” in which she sings, “It’s nice to be five years behind.” That’s a reference to something you hear a lot throughout the region: it’s five years behind the rest of the country, in terms of what’s going on there. It’s an area that’s a little bit out of time to begin with and my experience is that things change relatively slowly down there, so I don’t anticipate things feeling radically different. But after the year and half we’ve all had, who knows?
Filmmaker: The Evening Hour was adapted by Elizabeth Palmore from Carter Sickels’ book, which was in turn inspired by his experiences talking to people in the southern mountains and channeling the kind of documentary impulse present in your film. How do you approach thinking about film in that way?
King: One thing I think about a lot is trying to construct things in a way that allows the viewer an opportunity to wander through the actual world the fictional characters are inhabiting along with them. And the way that manifests is by subtly and sporadically allowing the frame of the film to wander away from its story. It’s maybe a little less pronounced in The Evening Hour than it was in my previous feature, Here, but the camera isn’t always mapped in a one-to-one way to the characters and to what they’re saying and doing. There are these moments where the camera wanders off and might look down an alleyway with fall leaves rustling over it in one little corner of Harlan, for instance. Transitioning in that way from one location to another or holding on a frame that a truck has driven out of for a little while longer than might be the usual practice, let’s say, in contemporary storytelling, allows for a more cinematic and experiential sense of place. You’re creating and documenting a real world that these fictional characters inhabit, to some extent, whether or not the camera’s there. You want the world to feel more expansive than the frame in which the fictional characters are operating. A lot of that is probably influenced by my more distant background in still photography. It feels like it comes out of a still photography impulse – wanting to collect images and moments out of an instinctual response that might not directly serve a narrative but that absolutely serves an experience.
Filmmaker: Right, and it forms the film’s rhythm. I feel like the design of The Evening Hour requires a real immersion within the setting, and that the lived-in nature of your portrayal of Appalachia came about as a result of significant collaboration with people in that area. Why was it important to you to involve the people of Harlan County?
King: First and foremost, I literally don’t know how to drop in like a space explorer from Mars or something and shoot a film without being oriented within the landscape in which I’m working. I just don’t know how to do it. And I don’t understand how other filmmakers do it. I started traveling around the region in 2016, trying to figure out where we were going to shoot this film. And that involved weeks of driving alone around southeastern Kentucky, and southern and western West Virginia, to look for the landscape and community that felt right. As someone who didn’t grow up in Appalachia and who arguably didn’t have a great deal of experience there before I made The Evening Hour, I felt like I needed to educate myself and that I had to understand the lay of the land. How does the landscape change when you cross the border from eastern Kentucky into West Virginia? What’s different in southern West Virginia, versus further up near Huntington? And how does northern Kentucky horse country differ from southeastern Kentucky? I’m at such a disadvantage as a director if I don’t know the answers to those questions or feel oriented within the landscape and the territory. Part of that process also involves something that ends up happening inevitably when you’re exploring in the ways I’m trying to describe, which is that you start meeting people. You start where you are and use what you have and contact the people you know, and one thing leads to another. And someone you know maybe knows somebody like Robert Gipe down in Harlan, who I then look up and sit on the porch with for a few hours. Robert knows someone else over in West Virginia, who I go to talk to. You hear about a bar down the road that you try to go check out.
All this stuff adds up to a process of following the breadcrumbs, and if you’re listening and paying attention and looking, answers start to announce themselves. I discovered that there was a community of people who were open to a production like this coming in and excited about it. Especially if you’re coming in as an outsider, and you’re interested in trying to create a respectful and accurate portrait of a place and its people, there’s a lot of humility that has to go into that, a lot of listening and collaboration. And at the end of the day, it’s easy to do, even though it might be a little more laborious and time consuming, because it’s what ultimately makes for the best film. It also makes for a pretty great way of being in the world for a little while – looking, learning, listening, collaborating, traveling and making new friends.
Filmmaker: Did you specifically ask cast and crew members to engage with locals in any way?
King: A lot of them did that on their own. Because of the way we had location scouted and met people, there was a lot of permeability between the production and the community. There was a very blurry line by the time we were shooting. There was no bubble that separated the actors or any of us from where we were living and working. There’s not a lot of infrastructure down there for a film shoot, of any scale, let alone the scale of this movie, which wasn’t massive but wasn’t exactly nothing. And so we were living in a lot of rented houses, and there was one little inn in town. I suppose there’s a way to bubble yourself off, but it would be impractical on the budget level we were working at to try to do that. Why would you want to anyway? Given that we had a lot of people filling in assistant roles and second roles on the film who were from around Harlan, and then so many of our background actors and day players came from open calls we did within the community, it was just inevitable that everyone ended up getting woven together.
Filmmaker: How did you involve the community outside of filming?
King: We all made this movie together. It’s not that I involved the community, per se. They invited us in and we asked them to help us and in the end we made The Evening Hour together.
When I was about three quarters away through the edit of the movie, I took a trip back down to Harlan with the film to do a feedback screening. It was really important to me that we didn’t lock picture without getting input from the community in which we shot and the people we collaborated with. So I went down and we showed the film. The screening was in the local community college screening room. We showed the film and we had a pretty long discussion afterwards, probably talking for about an hour and a half, and then we all went over to the VFW and had a couple drinks and kept talking. There was a guy that stood up at some point and said, “Look, I just want to tell you, there have been a lot of people that come down here to this region to make things. They come down here, and they come down full of good intentions. They shoot their stuff, they leave again, and we never see them again. You’re among the few who’ve ever come back. We notice. And I just want to thank you for that.” Now, I don’t tell that story to blow our own horn on this production. The point of it is that the movie got better because we took the time to go do that. We took the time to go listen and learn. I got input from that screening that I never could have gotten from a feedback screening here in New York. And that learning and listening and collaborating made it a better film.
Filmmaker: When you see films set in Appalachia that veer into poverty porn, so much of the issue appears to be that the setting is window-dressing. It’s an aesthetic that’s used rather than a world that’s allowed to authentically exist. What harm do these films do?
King: Look, we’re dealing with a region that has a history of natural resource exploitation and extraction, that over and over again has had outsiders come in, take, and leave again. And that absolutely extends into the cultural realm. I believe it’s a profoundly disrespectful and irresponsible practice as a maker to go in and take and leave again. Furthermore, working in that way doesn’t help you make a good film. It hurts the actual endeavor if you skip over doing the kind of work and spending the kind of time I’m trying to describe. These are conversations that happen extensively on the nonfiction side of the fence, and I think maybe they need to happen more on the fiction side of the fence. There’s a deep responsibility that comes with telling the stories we tell. There’s a very real responsibility we have to think about the impact of the stories we’re telling. Narrative is a tool that we as humans use to order our experience and orient ourselves in the world and in our lives. And when we tell stories unthoughtfully too often, there’s a cumulative effect that throws a culture’s compass off.
Filmmaker: I lost track of time watching The Evening Hour. There’s a fullness to its sense of place that’s quite subdued and lovely, and it feels remarkably immersive. There’s this sense it’s almost swimming through time. Tell me about how you achieved that aesthetic.
King: I was always very focused on at least a slight de-specification of place and time in The Evening Hour, and I mean that both in terms of not necessarily specifying exactly what time period the film takes place in, but also not necessarily directly articulating what the various time jumps within the movie are. Sometimes you may be turning the page over the next day, and sometimes you may be turning the page over and it’s two weeks later. And we don’t always announce what that interval is. You have to figure it out, based on what’s going on with the characters and the story. There was a great deal of effort put into trying to make the movie flow in a way that was lyrical and musical, where you could ride along with it almost like a song.
Filmmaker: You and cinematographer Declan Quinn chose to shoot digitally on the Arri Alexa Mini and used LiveGrain software to emulate the feel of film grain. I know you also went for old lenses, Super Baltars, to get that sharp center and softening of focus out to the edges. I love the philosophy of that: you coming into Appalachia with a more modern camera but working to move the film back through time with your lens and technical choices. Tell me more about the look of The Evening Hour.
King: Every creative or aesthetic decision is a storytelling decision. We’re dealing with a place and a world that’s fraying at the edges and disintegrating a little bit. And so I think that to go in there and shoot with, like, ultra-sharp contemporary lenses wouldn’t have been right tonally, and I don’t think it would have told the story correctly. I was also constantly finding spots in the back of frames where there’s evidence of man’s impact on the landscape, whether that’s a romantic scene that takes place in the backdrop of a surface mining operation, or the different subtle images of decay even in some of the frames that take place within the city. There are very few, if any, pristine and untouched landscapes in the film, even starting from the opening shot. We’re telling the story of a community and landscape that’s been disrupted. Along with production designer Debbie DeVilla and location scout Alan Forbes, we were constantly trying to find ways to echo that idea and those themes within the frames, locations and landscapes in which we were shooting. This even extends into the sonic textures present in the soundtrack. We’re telling the story of a distortion within this landscape, a distortion within this community, an upset that’s happening. Even in the most beautiful pieces of score, it was important that there was a little bit of a tear, a little bit of distortion, some sound that was echoing that tension within the story.
Filmmaker: The mood and pacing of The Evening Hour, that sense of swimming. also adds to the sense of characters who feel like they exist within a larger world rather than the world feeling like it’s a part of character, which often happens when a film is locked into one individual’s narrative and point of view.
King: I don’t think that films are necessarily all about their stories all the time, or that they should be. We’re living in a moment where films and audiences are very focused on the narrative information plane and what characters say and do, versus, say, a more equal balance with aesthetic and cinematic experience. We are in a moment where I think a lot of films are read and judged solely on the basis of “what happens.” And for whatever reason, the idea of giving oneself over to aesthetic experience and tone or a kind of musicality or simple enjoyment of image isn’t necessarily at the forefront of the way we’re creating and experiencing and reading films right now. Having come from a visual art and music background, I look at those things as having equal importance. I find myself very happy when I’m sitting in a film and I don’t totally understand what’s going on and can just let the images and experience wash over me.
Filmmaker: There’s a certain humility in trying to intrigue audiences to see and feel transported to a world that will exist in their memory, even after the story of the film has played out: a world that you believe will still exist actively off-camera. In The Evening Hour, you feel that these characters will continue to move around, that the world will continue to exist, even though the film is fading and there’s this sense of it disappearing. That’s almost the most active, dynamic element of the film: its sense of fading.
King: I have a conviction, and I’m not necessarily saying we accomplish this in The Evening Hour, but my conviction is that one of the highest forms of cinematic language is when you can create something that feels the way your memory of something feels. And when you’re able to echo the way images, sounds, light, even smells, to some extent, function in memory, I think you’re getting at something really powerful. You’re moving towards something that film and cinema are maybe the most capable of conveying. And that may be a thing that I end up obsessing about and working at my entire life. When Malick’s at his best, the movies function in that way. And I believe if I’m not mistaken, you know, Kubrick made a comment that reaching toward music might actually be the most powerful form of cinema. There’s a really brilliant Armenian Russian experimental filmmaker named Artavazd Peleshyan, whose films are on YouTube, films like “The Seasons” or “Our Century,” that are made with a cinematic language that we’ve never seen in the West, but that really feels like music or memory. So there are all different ways of getting toward that goal. But I think the ultimate, highest, and best use of cinema probably has more to do with experience than it does with story alone. Or that at the very least, those two things need to be as balanced as they possibly can.