Director Angus MacLachlan on Exploring Patriarchy in the Modern South With ‘A Little Prayer’

Sundance’s return to in person events after two years due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has been much celebrated since the annual festival kicked off on Jan. 19 in Park City, Utah.

But the 2023 iteration isn’t just an exciting return for the organizers or attendees. For A Little Prayer producer Ramin Bahrani, it’s been a “wonderful” experience following his appearance at last year’s virtual festival, which featured a premiere screening of his documentary 2nd Chance, about Richard Davis, the inventor of the modern-day bulletproof vest.

It’s a movie the Oscar-nominated Bahrani, who is also behind The White Tiger and 99 Holmes, acknowledges has a thematic overlap with director Angus MacLachlan’s film in its examination of men and larger social issues. “For A Little Prayer, I’m thrilled that Angus and his team will enjoy an in-person festival because the humor and emotional ending of his film plays so well with audiences that we tested it for,” Bahrani tells The Hollywood Reporter. “It’s truly a communal film.”

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It’s also a film that marks the first time MacLachlan has premiered a title at Sundance since 2005’s Amy Adam-starrer Junebug — a role he wrote and that scored the actress her first Academy Award-nomination.

Making his festival debut in a directorial capacity with his latest movie, A Little Prayer, it’s a full-circle experience decades in the making for MacLachlan, who as a drama student at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, sent festival founder Robert Redford a personal letter expressing why he believed he should be cast in Redford’s 1980 directorial debut, Ordinary People. A young MacLachlan received a response — straight from the typewriter and complete with white — that would pave the way to his relationships with Redford’s Wildwood Enterprises and later, his work as a volunteer with the festival beginning in the late ’80s.

Now attending for the world premiere of A Little Prayer, he brings with him a story embedded in his own North Carolina roots, about Bill (David Strathairn), a father who must grapple with his legacy through his family, including his son David (Will Pullen), a veteran with PTSD whose infidelity has a ripple effect on all those around him. That’s particularly true for David’s wife, Tammy (Jane Levy), who is beloved by Bill and whose treatment at the hands of his son forces the older man, father and husband to reflect on his own choices — both past and present.

Ahead of the film’s premiere at Sundance as part of the Premieres Program, The Hollywood Reporter can exclusively share a clip from the film, which is premiering at the festival on Monday.

THR also spoke to MacLachlan about his Sundance return, how he tackled the films’ complex themes, capturing elements of southern and military family culture, and casting and scoring for the quiet but emotionally powerful familial drama.

Can you talk about your history with the festival, especially in your return now nearly two decades after 2005’s Junebug?

It’s thrilling to be returning. I first came as a volunteer in ’89. That was the year of Sex, Lies and Videotape that launched the festival to a different level, and I came back three more times after that. Twice with films, a short Tater Tomater, and a feature, Junebug. Everyone always says it’s gotten so big, so different, but I am amazed that at the heart it still seems the same: warm, inviting and one still gets the sense that the staff and the festival really care about fostering filmmaking and filmmakers. Of course, my expectations going in are different. I no longer have “starry” ideas and hopes. My hopes are that our film is seen and appreciated and understood. The film itself is my focus, not the career possibilities this may lead to.

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As someone familiar with this region of America, what about it made it a good place narratively to explore this kind of story and its themes?

Well, it’s a good place for me narratively because I live there. It was shot in my hometown of Winston-Salem, North Carolina. And I want to be specific. To have a sense of place that resonates. One wants to create something that has an authenticity, and that comes from the deep, lived experiences in one’s life. And the expression of something that one feels is vital to communicate.

Were there any challenges of filming on location here? What were the advantages for your storytelling?

The challenges were the same as I imagine everyone who made a film last year: not enough time, not enough money and dealing with COVID restrictions — and a particularly hot June. The advantages were the welcoming we got when we asked to shoot in factories, museums and people’s homes. When I imagined that the family in the story lived in a specific neighborhood, we actually filmed in that very neighborhood.

You’ve chosen an ensemble, both leading and supporting, that really comes across as very real, knowable people. Can you talk to me about how you thought about casting for this all the way down to the veterans we saw in the bar?

For me, it’s really an intuitive, gut feeling. I want people who look right, feel right, can act, and, usually, have a sense of humor. There are wonderful films that utilize non-actors. But being an actor myself, I know that a trained actor can express more than one thing at the same time.

The actor, David Price, who plays the older Vet at the VFW gave a great audition, and I only found out after I cast him that he, himself, served. And, sometimes casting is merely fortune and a gift. Ashley Shelton, who plays Bethany, was a last-minute replacement for someone else who dropped out due to a scheduling conflict. She did a video audition and came in and shot a few days later. She turned out to be everything I’d hoped for and more.

How did you think about the music for this film? What did you want it to capture and speak to in terms of the written narrative and visual storytelling?

To me, the score is not only the orchestral music written specifically for the film, but the unseen singer and her songs, and the birds, and the cicadas. The orchestral music begins very sparsely and simply and does build towards the end, becoming fuller and more evident. And part of my intention was that it also cuts out at its most lush, and there is an absence. At that moment we do not hear the unseen singer anymore. Something has dropped out of Bill and Tammy’s hopes and consciousnesses. Some sense of grace that they got from hearing this woman in the neighborhood. Then we loop in the French carol “Un Flambeau Jeanette Isabella” that Bill sings at the beginning of the film with the gift of the trip to the art museum that Bill provides Tammy. He gives her something of beauty and art, and, perhaps, a wider view, or “panorama.”

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You could have chosen to tell this story entirely from Tammy’s perspective. What about getting it from Bill’s interested you?

The story encompasses a lot of the character’s situations, and at its heart, I wanted that unique relationship of father and daughter-in-law. Their love for each other is not just because they are family-by-marriage, but because they have similar souls. While Tammy is the heart center, Bill’s path, growth and final action of letting go was intriguing to me.

There is a moment the perspective shifts completely into Tammy’s — when she’s receiving abortion care. Can you talk about your process for depicting this scene both in terms of writing and directing, especially following the overturning of Roe v. Wade? 

This Sunday is the fiftieth anniversary of Roe v. Wade and we premiere one day later. It’s chilling. The day we shot that scene I was waiting for the setup and a PA came to me and said, “Did you hear?” The Dobbs decision was just announced. At that moment. It profoundly affected the actresses in that scene and everyone on the crew.

I wanted to show a woman making a very difficult decision. And [Tammy’s] line is “I’m not just for doing this for me.” She is considering the unborn child’s future life, her husband, her marriage, the entire situation. She knows this will resonate through her in-laws and her whole life. This is echoed when Narcedalia says she wants to keep her child and says, “I’m not just doing this for me.” She’s thinking she has a good job, really wants a child and believes she could be a good mother. I believe almost every adult knows someone who has faced that kind of decision, and it is never an easy one.

Bill makes a few statements about David and Tammy’s decisions at various points in the film that really illustrate how he’s evolving as a man shaped by his past and present, as well as larger cultural mindsets around patriarchy, family and marriages. Can you talk about how you tried to portray who Bill is and his growth across the film?

I wanted to look at a 72-year-old Vietnam vet. They were kids of the ’60s, so free love, drugs, politics were something these parents experienced. He understands his Afghanistan War veteran son’s experience. 

There is a true theme of “letting go” running throughout the storylines — and how hard that is. The Patriarchy (and specifically manifest in parenthood), in its best manifestation, wants to guide, to lead, to help. And sometimes it screws up, crosses lines it shouldn’t, causes damage and is ineffective. I wanted to portray a man with real rectitude and gravity. That’s why getting David Strathairn was such a gift. This is a character who thinks things are going along fine and then his life goes off the rails. He believes he is acting out of love and concern. But he can’t control things or make them better. All he can eventually do is love, and “let go.”

We see Bill trying to unpack how David is a reflection of himself or a byproduct, but there are also more poignant moments where he looks at his daughter, his wife and grandaughter where it seems he gets a picture of his impact through them. Did you want Bill’s understanding of and reflection on his own behavior to come through the women in his life as well?

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I feel Bill is stunned at what he slowly discovers about David. David has always been the “Golden Boy,” who joined the army because he saw that his father served, and felt that was something honorable. But Bill is doubting everything. When he learns of David’s infidelity, when Patti rushes home again struggling with her crumbling marriage, he asks Venida “Was I a good father? I had a company to run” — thoughts that perhaps he never really voiced before. And she doesn’t give him an easy out: “You did what you had to… I guess.” Maybe he missed baseball games, maybe he wasn’t always available, like many people with involved careers.

I think he “develops” and learns from all the tumultuous events. When he finally discovers the extent of David’s violent actions he is mortified, and yet as he says at the end: “He needs help… more than any of us can give him.” Surely Bill had pals who suffered after Vietnam.

Much of David’s storyline actually happens through other people, with one of the biggest parts being his treatment of women that at one point is touched on through a discussion of his PTSD. How did you want to balance accountability with an understanding of the impacts of PTSD on veterans? 

I have two relatives who served and suffered from the aftereffects. Their marriages dissolved. And they both are good men. I wanted to look at a character who was the golden boy. His sister was always the screw-up. I wanted David to be charming, nice, attractive, a flirt who truly loves his wife; and yet the demons emerge and he can’t overcome them. He knows he’s out of control and it’s terrifying for him. It also doesn’t excuse his behavior and actions.

You are careful about what audiences see onscreen, including violence, infidelity and personal health choices. Was that an intentional choice and if so, what fueled it?

It was a conscious choice. David says at one time to his father, “No one knows what goes on between two married people.” There is privacy within a family. And this is a military family. So withheld “need to know” information is understood. And I feel like, particularly in a family, you find out things that you were not present for. I also tend to like the oblique in my storytelling.

You carefully and quite intentionally include the perspectives of the women in Bill’s life. How did that, for you, avoid the trope of Bill’s development being boiled down to him only growing because there’s women he cares about involved? 

I truly feel that when political issues come home to roost in a family, or circle, it becomes real and human. I think it might be truer of Bill that had he not had his family, he might not have come to these places in his life. It is ultimately his love and attachment to all these people that forces him to “develop.” And that rings true to me.

Interview edited for length and clarity.

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