The following questions and answers are excerpted from a conversation that followed the NBR screening of Old Henry.
The locations are incredible. How did you find them?
Potsy Ponciroli: This film was really created out of the location. We were scouting for another project on a piece of property in Watertown Tennessee, which is about forty-five minutes outside of Nashville. And once you cross that forty-minute threshold, the landscape completely changes. It’s huge rolling hills and gorgeous tall orange-ish colored grass. So we’re scouting for this other project and this property is huge, 2500 acres, and we come over the hill and we see this old house. It’s over a hundred years old and it sits up on these stones and we walked down and around and through it, and then it started to get dark out. I live near Nashville and it’s more of city/suburb, and I’ll say the country gets really scary at night. The sun started going down, and I kept thinking, what would you do if someone came right now? You’re out there alone. That was the genesis of the story and it was built upon that location. The film was actually shot within 300 or 400 yards of that house, all on this property. We got to throw our base camp up and leave it and stay plugged in for twenty-one days.
you want to embrace the mythology at the same time as you’re trying to embrace the three-dimensional man
How did you come to cast Old Henry?
PP: This movie is what it is because of Tim. He read the script and we had a Zoom call that lasted about an hour and a half, and just really got to know each other. At the end of the call, he asked if I would be willing to go back into the script and look at this character and really build it with him. And I said, absolutely, that would be amazing. We talked probably every day for a month, pouring over stories of the old west and talking about different movies while really building out this world and this character. This was one of my favorite parts of the whole process—getting to know Tim and really collaborating with him on who Henry was, how he had lived and how he would sound. We went back to some books and found the way people spoke back then and took some words like “briggazine” and “knuckle and skulls.” These are words that we don’t use anymore but they fit in this world and it was a great experience digging down into this character with Tim.
Tim, what was that process like for you?
Tim Blake Nelson: In part because of COVID, I had almost a year from when I’d agreed to do the film to when we were shooting. So that involved a long process with Potsy developing the script. Potsy asked me come on as a producer fairly early and work with him in that capacity. I am not an actor who ever asks to be a producer, because too many actors leverage that desired title and don’t necessary earn it. So I agreed to become an executive producer on two conditions: one, if I really do the work, which is to develop this with Potsy, and two, that Potsy always had the last word. Because I believe that the best films are made by directors who have final cut in all respects. And I really wanted that for Potsy and it was gratifying when I met the actual producers on the movie and they wanted that too. This was a group of people that came together in support of one guy’s vision. I luxuriated in an entire year to really work things out with Potsy. We did research the character extensively and a lot of his vocabulary and mannerisms are historically accurate. Pretty much everything you see there is deliberate. For the first six months we did that, and then leading up to playing the role was more about physical preparation. There’s the historical antecedent of—I can say this since you’ve seen the movie—of playing a guy that’s an older Billy the Kid. Making him physically right and believable was important. He had these very distinctive teeth and a drooping eye, but he was also described to move in a particular way, smile in a particular way (which he seldom did), and his voice had a particular way about it. Finding that physical reality but letting it seep in slowly so in a way, the audience never sees it as a performance but as a real guy. And it was an enormous advantage to have the time to do that and also to have a leader in Potsy, who really believed in that process.
This is really a film about fathers and sons. Can you talk about working with Gavin Lewis?
PP: When you’re casting a teenager, you’re casting a really wide net because a lot of them haven’t had time to develop their careers yet and it’s hard to find the right person. We saw a lot of actors but there’s something about Gavin that really stood out… he has this old-fashioned vibe to him but he also feels a bit modern, and that fit in with this timeframe. It’s 1906, so the modern world is there, it’s outside of his door, but it’s outside of his reach because his dad is holding him back to protect him. I think Gavin really embodied that so well. He was eager to be there and listen and be a part of everything. In between takes he was always just the friendliest kid in the world and so happy to be around this thing we call a job. It’s pretty great when you find people that have a true love for filmmaking like that.
TBN: It helped that in both our on-screen relationship and off-screen he looked at me like a grizzled old ham. He had a lot of questions about when I was, you know, working with Mary Pickford (laughs) and what it was like working in the silent film era. We had a great natural relationship, he’s a terrific kid.
What sort of preparation did you do to play this historical character?
TBN: I read everything I could. There was one image available of him, and that image was incredibly helpful. It’s a full-frontal image and it’s Billy the Kid presenting himself as he wants to be seen, because he’s posing for a portrait when he is already notorious, or infamous. There’s a mythological feeling to it that’s almost purer than seeing a picture of the man that’s more candid, because of who and what he was and what he is in the iconography. Since this is a western, you want to embrace the mythology at the same time as you’re trying to embrace the three-dimensional man. It was a process of refracting everything I read through that photographic image. And being able to get right into the face and really see it and then try to get three-dimensional through that and imagine what the decades were in between. It was a challenge, but a really fun one. And luckily because of having played Buster Scruggs, I was already pretty good with a pistol because of the prep work I did for that film. Then it was a question of using that as a foundation but converting it into a character who really sees the pistol as a tool, the use of which needs to be restrained rather than a tool which is something about flourish and flash. It was a combination of reading and feeling my way through, and Potsy and his producers embraced the idea of having the time to do that. They let me come down three weeks early, which on a small production like this, it’s an enormous privilege.