The Truth, in Mode & Matter
Adel, Georgia, native Ray McKinnon is making one of the most compelling and beautifully written series on television, “Rectify.” We like the fact that it speaks in accents we Southerners understand. But we love it because it speaks the truth in a way that everyone can understand.
Story by Chuck Reece
Ray McKinnon works in a tent.
At least, that’s where he works when shooting outdoor scenes for Sundance TV’s critically acclaimed “Rectify" in the endless countryside around Griffin, Georgia.
I had arrived at the appointed time and spot, a banquet hall outside Griffin, which the show uses to feed its crew while on location. Getting to the set that day involved a van ride from the banquet hall to the T-bone intersection of a two-lane county road and a dirt road that headed downhill. There, I was moved into a four-wheeler and taken into the woods along the bank of the Flint River. As soon as I hopped off, several people told me to stay quiet. A publicist pointed me to a blue tailgating tent, the sides of which were covered completely with black tarps to prevent light from entering.
Inside, McKinnon, the show’s creator, sat in the center of three director’s chairs. On his right sat co-writer Scott Teems and on his left, director of photography Patrick Cady. They were studying a bank of three monitors, showing from different angles the scene being filmed about 50 yards away on the riverbank, and discussing how to frame the shots.
The publicist whispered I should take a seat in a row of chairs behind McKinnon, and she handed me a small receiver and headphones that would allow me to hear the actors as they spoke their lines. After a few more takes were shot, McKinnon stood to stretch and turned around. He looked curiously at me. We had evidently slipped into the tent without him noticing. The publicist quickly introduced me, and McKinnon held out his hand to shake.
“I’m Ray,” he said, taking my hand. “You named your magazine after me?”
Then he darted out of the tent and headed for the riverbank. In the monitors I watched him chat with J.D. Evermore and Sean Bridgers, the two actors on whom the scene focused. In the headphones, I heard McKinnon talking quietly to Bridgers, coaching him on how to deliver a three-word line: “Goddamn it, Carl!”
Watching McKinnon’s attention to detail as he shoots "Rectify" is rather like standing over a great writer’s shoulder as he works. You see small details being adjusted, points of emphasis being shifted, waves of emotion being modulated to create precisely the right effects on the viewer. He makes television the way Flannery O’Connor made fiction. The goal is not merely to write lines that move the plot along.
The goal, as Ms. O’Connor put it, is to tell the “truth, both in matter and mode.”
Ray McKinnon, at right in both photos, working with actors on the "Rectify" set in Griffin, Georgia.
A wise man from Carville, Louisiana, once told me there was nothing I needed to know about living life I could not learn by watching “The Andy Griffith Show.”
In a way, I suppose, he was right. Watch Sheriff Andy, and you’d learn how to resolve problems through reason and not force. You’d see that wisdom sometimes comes from unlikely people with names like Briscoe Darling. You’d learn both the necessity and the value of singing the occasional song on the front porch. By today’s standards, certainly, the show can seem quaint or even cornpone, but small-town Southern kids of the 1960s, at least those of us who were lucky enough to grow up in places that resembled Mayberry, recognized the quiet drawls of the parents — or neighbors’ parents — who set us straight when we got out of line. The voices and characters rang true.
But most importantly, the show’s lessons were universal. The stories were relevant to anyone who had a life to live. That’s why “The Andy Griffith Show” persists in cable reruns to this day.
Since then, we’ve seen dozens if not hundreds of “Southern” TV shows. Most of them sucked. A few have felt credible to Southern ears and eyes. Fewer still — a good current example being FX’s “Justified” — achieve a strong level of authenticity. But even though “Justified” is true to its deeply Southern setting, it still presents the South as the “other,” a strange place filled with twisted people.
But for 50 years now, I’ve waited in vain on another television series to pull off the Andy trick — to tell completely universal and human stories and do it in a distinct and authentic Southern voice.
And for 50 years, I never saw it happen.
Then, two years ago, it did.
On April 22, 2013, SundanceTV broadcast the debut of a new series, a show called “Rectify,” created by a 57-year-old, Oscar-winning writer and director named Ray McKinnon. The show’s first two seasons are now available on Netflix, and its third season has its debut on SundanceTV in two days, on July 9.
“Rectify" is built around Daniel Holden, who at age 18 was convicted of rape and murder and sentenced to die. After 19 years on death row, he is released, thanks to newly uncovered DNA evidence. The pilot episode begins with Holden dressing in civilian clothes for the first time in nearly two decades and leaving the prison to meet his family — his sister Amantha, who has consistently pushed for his release, his mother and stepfather Ted and Janet Talbot, their son, Ted Jr., and his wife, Tawney.
From there, the story has unfolded across two seasons as Daniel learns to live in a town and in a family that has advanced two decades without him, while he was dead in every way a man can be while he still draws breath.
As for the show’s creator, McKinnon, most of my television-watching, movie-going friends recognize his face before his name. He’s been working steadily as a character actor for a quarter century. He first appeared on the big screen playing one of the Alabama troopers who pull over Daisy Werthan and Hoke Colburn in “Driving Miss Daisy.” Since then, he’s appeared in more than 70 movies and television series. He was Vernon T. Waldrip, the second husband (with “bona fides”), in “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” He played Coach Cotton in “The Blind Side,” the Rev. H.W. Smith in HBO’s “Deadwood” and Linc Potter in FX’s “Sons of Anarchy.”
That’s a pretty good run in Hollywood for a guy from Adel, Georgia, a town of 5,000 about 50 miles north of the Florida line. McKinnon’s mother, now 94 years old, still lives there, and he speaks fondly of his childhood.
“I grew up in the town, but you know, throw a rock and you're in the country,” he says. “I loved it. In some ways, it really was a bit like Mayberry. I rode my bike everywhere. My dog went with me. Nobody was concerned about a child riding off at six years old with his dog to go see his friend. As I got older, though …” — and here he pauses to chuckle for a moment — “I saw there were a lot more layers going on.”
Unlike the authentic, but somewhat formulaic half-hour morality tales Griffith and company shared with us every week, the mode of “Rectify” is much different. It’s focused on the layers, showing far more than it tells. It’s steeped in ambiguity and perspective, as if it’s exploring a world for the first time rather than telling us a story it already knows.
And in the process, it raises many questions about Southern life, small towns, and wounded families stuck in time. But for us at The Bitter Southerner, it raises an even bigger question we often grapple with ourselves:
Can a Southern artist today present his culture truly and with respect, its good and its bad, and still tell a story people all over the country and around the world can identify with?
Ray McKinnon and the gaggle of Southern-born writers and actors who help him build “Rectify” prove that the answer is yes. Resoundingly, finally, and at long damned last, yes.
Actor Aden Young plays the show's lead character, Daniel Holden.
As soon as "Rectify" premiered in the summer of 2013, it drew critical raves.
Time magazine TV critic James Poniewozik wrote, “The easy thing – and probably the more popular thing – would be for ‘Rectify’ to make its story about giving its characters and us an answer: revealing Daniel at the end of the first episode as a secret psychopath, or focusing on the hunt for the real killer, or throwing us one twist after another to keep us off balance. That might draw more viewers, on a bigger network than Sundance. Instead, it tells a deliberate, meditative, beautiful story.” A few cranky critics snubbed it — The New York Times’ Mike Hale called it “slow and tepid” — but they overlooked the fact that the show gains its realism through its pace.
Indeed, “Rectify” does unfold slowly, which can be challenging to TV viewers used to the fast-paced instant gratification of most shows. “Rectify" asks us to pay attention, but it rewards us richly. To use Flannery O’Connor’s words, its “mode” — its pace — feels real to the truth of the story. What would any family do when confronted with similar circumstances? The true impact of such an upheaval would play itself out in different lives in different ways, slowly, even over short periods of time. If you had a 37-year-old son back in your kitchen after 19 years on death row, wouldn’t you pause every now and then, because you just couldn’t find words for what you were feeling?
A more perceptive critic, Grantland’s Andy Greenwald, wrote last year, “There’s a quiet, deliberative quality to ‘Rectify’ that sets it apart from nearly everything else on television.”
Then, earlier this year, the appreciation for the show’s approach to storytelling rose to an entirely new level when the University of Georgia gave “Rectify” the prestigious Peabody Award.
“‘Rectify’ addresses issues of forgiveness and retribution, of rehabilitation and rebirth, of loss and how to resume a life interrupted, and it does so with focused attention, quiet beauty, and a deliberate pace,” wrote the Peabody jury. “For giving its characters the time to unfold and its viewers the path to find their ways through the ambiguities of Daniel’s uncertain innocence, a Peabody Award goes to ‘Rectify.’”
McKinnon is humble about the acclaim. He recognizes that the proliferation of cable and online networks is creating more opportunity for ambitious television shows like his.
“This is a really unusual time in television and in serial storytelling,” he says. “They (SundanceTV) are letting us do it the way we feel like is the way to do this, with very little interference. For me, I just feel like it's a story I would want to see. And that's the only thing I can go by.”
When I visited the set in Griffin, where “Rectify" has been shot since the beginning, I had lunch with McKinnon, his most frequent co-writer and story editor, Scott Teems, co-executive producer Marshall Persinger and cast members J.D. Evermore, who plays Sheriff Carl Daggett, and Sean Bridgers, who plays Trey Willis, a high-school friend of Daniel’s who may or may not have been involved in the still-unsolved murder.
To a person, all Southern. Teems is from Lilburn, Georgia, and Persinger is from Chattanooga, Tennessee. Evermore is from Greenville, Mississippi, and Bridgers is from Sylva, North Carolina. So I asked McKinnon what seemed like a logical question: Did you set out to make a Southern television series?
“Well, no,” Ray said, sitting over a plate of pork ribs. “I approached it like a piece of fiction. I wondered what it would be like to go through that experience, people who are in jail for decades and then DNA says they didn’t do it, but the prosecution still says that they did. I just wondered what that would be like — that experience of being freed from such strict conditions.”
And that, in essence, is the trip you take when you start to binge-watch “Rectify.” It is a compelling, universal story that is allowed to unfold slowly. Like life does.
With the help of a friend, I got my hands on a copy of McKinnon’s script for the pilot episode of "Rectify.” This is the first “action line” at the top of the script:
DANIEL LUCAS HOLDEN is waiting in a HOLDING CELL at the GEORGIA DIAGNOSTIC STATE PRISON in Jackson, Georgia. At 18 years old, Daniel was sentenced to die. He has spent over 19 years on Death Row. That's 233 months, 1012 weeks, 7084 days of waiting. Waiting to die. Waiting to live. Or waiting for a miracle. Today his waiting will end.
One brief paragraph, and you know precisely the hard emotional place in which you will meet the lead character, Daniel Holden. That place is not necessarily defined by the geographic location of that holding cell, though it’s there. It’s defined by time — time moving and time standing still.
I interviewed five of the show’s cast members, and all of them talked about the experience of reading that pilot script and feeling as if they had stumbled on a precious jewel.
Actor Clayne Crawford, an Alabama native, plays Ted Talbot Jr.
Clayne Crawford, who was born and raised (and, after many years in Los Angeles, resides once again) in Clay, Alabama, plays Ted Talbot Jr., Daniel’s stepbrother. As the series begins, Ted Jr. is the very picture of the small-town, middle-class businessman. He works in his father’s tire store, favors khakis and polos, goes to church with his wife Tawney but otherwise thinks little of his spiritual life. He likes beer, sports and cookouts. But as the series unfolds, Daniel’s presence in the little town of Paulie eventually challenges every fear Ted Jr. harbors.
Crawford recalls the day he read McKinnon’s pilot script.
“I had a stack of probably 35 scripts,” Crawford says to me from the farm he recently bought back home in Clay. “I literally took everything else and slid it to the side. It just grabbed ahold of me in such a way. I saw this guy Teddy, and I saw a guy who I knew. Growing up in this town, I knew the real side of him and why guys like him acted that way. I knew why they put up these facades and act like dickheads. It was all insecurity. I thought, if I can bring that to this guy and show that it's because of pain he acts this way — fear of losing and wanting to be loved — and trying to ground him in true human emotions that we all deal with and fears that we all have, I thought I could have a unique opportunity.”
Floridian Abigail Spencer plays Daniel Holden's sister, Amantha.
Abigail Spencer, a native of Gulf Breeze, Florida who plays Daniel’s sister Amantha, agrees with Crawford’s assessment.
“I’ve been very particular about being in Southern stories because I find most of them outrageously false,” she says. “If you get a good one, it’s amazing. I felt tremendously responsible for that.”
Indeed, she opts more often for parts where she doesn’t have to wrestle with the inauthentic writing that so often accompanies movies and television shows set in the South. She’s more likely to take roles like Suzanne Farrell, Sally Draper’s schoolteacher (and one of Don Draper’s conquests) in the 2009 season of “Mad Men,” or her ongoing role as Dana Scott in USA Network’s drama, “Suits.”
“I have a really strong bullshit detector for Southern roles,” she says. “But when I read Ray McKinnon, I was like, did we grow up together? It felt so similar to my point of view. I knew Amantha’s inner life. I knew how she walks. I knew how she talks. And I felt like I knew Ray — his pain, his sadness, his joy, his comedy.”
As McKinnon works on set, you can see him consistently coaching his actors to find the precisely right emotional pitch in every carefully written line.
At the beginning of our conversation, Crawford had told me, “I don't know if I've ever seen the South so well depicted on anything — where the people are human beings and not characters.” But even Crawford, a proud Alabaman, has to admit that the power of the show’s unfolding stories rises above their settings. “Family's so uncomfortable,” he says. “That's why we all act the way we do around each other. We're all that way. We're all insecure. We're all afraid of losing what we love. These things that make up Teddy, I think they live in everyone. Ray's not afraid to explore those feelings.”
McKinnon directs Young.
Scott Teems, who has essentially been McKinnon’s right-hand man through seasons two and three of "Rectify,” has been working in Hollywood since 2005. After a few years there, he wrote a screenplay based on the late Tennessee writer William Gay’s short story, “I Hate to See That Evening Sun Go Down.”
He didn’t know McKinnon, but was a fan — not only of Ray’s work as an actor, but also of his lesser known work as a writer and director, particularly the 2004 feature film “Chrystal” and McKinnon’s 2001 Oscar-winning short film, “The Accountant.” He knew McKinnon ran a production company, Ginny Mule, with his longtime friend, the Alabama-born actor Walton Goggins, who is best known these days for his ridiculously good portrayal of Boyd Crowder, the hillbilly dope kingpin in the FX series “Justified.” And Teems wanted to approach Ginny Mule about making a feature film of his screenplay, “That Evening Sun.” The story centers on an old man named Abner Meecham, who decides to leave the nursing home to live out his days on his family farm, only to discover his son has rented it without his knowledge to a man named Lonzo Choat, the goodness or badness of whom is quite uncertain.
“When I wrote that movie, I didn’t want to shy away from its Southerness, but I knew I was working with a story that was already pushing that envelope,” Teems says. “Characters like Lonzo Choat, if they’re not grounded, quickly become stereotypes. I wanted Ray and Walt to be my bullshit detectors and make sure I was doing it right.”
As such things happen, Teems’ producing partner had a chance meeting with McKinnon in a Mexican restaurant in Los Angeles, and McKinnon agreed to read the script. Not only did Ginny Mule give “That Evening Sun” the green light, but McKinnon himself took on the role of Lonzo Choat and Goggins played Paul Meecham, the old man’s son. They cast the great actor Hal Halbrook to play Abner Meecham, and the film went on to snag best-of-show awards at film festivals all over the country.
“It was a beautiful moment,” Teems says. “It was really the beginning of my career. Ray’s been the most instrumental person to me, and he believed in me and what I was trying to do. He gave me the confidence to keep pressing on. Now I’m able to kind of serve his vision on this show. I’m honored to do so.”
“Rectify” co-writer and Ray McKinnon’s right-hand man on the set, Scott Teems.
Teems sums up his job on "Rectify" this way: “I’m on set every day and helping Ray sculpt the show. Ray believes in having multiple sets of eyes. One person can’t see everything. Things move too fast in television.”
“Rectify” unfolds like a great novel, but it is forced by the realities of television to present itself in absolutely precise increments. Every episode must come in at exactly 44 minutes.
“You have to learn to give yourself lots of room for editing,” Teems says. “Having this finite time makes you have to really discover what is important while not losing the essence of what makes our show special. As Ray says, it’s those moments when the characters let their guard down. It’s the quiet moments, the nonverbal exchanges.”
In practice, that means there is no room for the actors to improvise on a "Rectify" script. Actors love being given the opportunity to improvise, but to a person, every cast member I interviewed says that on "Rectify,” they would have it no other way.
“There's a rhythm to the writing,” Crawford says. “It's just how human beings talk. Everything's there. All the thoughts, all the feelings. You read it three or four times and you've got it memorized.”
Where the actors have their greatest effect on the show is in their interpretations of the action lines the writers give them between sections of dialogue. Consider this one from McKinnon’s pilot script, which comes just after a young prison guard hands Daniel a suit, shirt and tie and says, “I’m supposed to take your prison clothes”:
With that, Daniel begins stripping. Without any self-consciousness. The Young Guard turns his back to Daniel to give him privacy. Daniel continues undressing and then stops and looks at the Young Guard. It's the first time any guard has turned his back on Daniel in 19 years. It is surreal to him.
As a result, in actor Aden Young’s performance, you see the surrealism of the moment not through the lines he speaks, but through his facial expressions and tentative movements.
Watch the scene described above, in which the character Daniel Holden prepares to dress for the free world after 19 years on death row.
“The writers have a lot of freedom to write the scene,” Teems says. “It’s very uncommon. Basically, what you’re doing there with those action lines is you’re writing the subtext. A lot of writers say that’s wrong, that you should write only what you can hear and what you can see. I think that’s bullshit, because in the TV medium, every week you have guest directors. All you’re doing by writing the subtext is giving people more information. The guest director is interpreting the script. How someone is thinking and how they’re feeling are absolutely important.”
I ask McKinnon how he feels about violating the screenwriting maxims about how to write action lines.
“Who said? Who made that rule up?” he asks. “I'm sure he’s teaching a seminar right now, exploiting a lot of wannabe writers for their hard-earned dollars with all his steadfast rules. I think if it helps you understand the story better and makes it a more compelling story, then you do whatever you do. I think it's all in the execution. For me, when I was trying to understand these characters as I wrote them, that's just the way it kind of came out. I wasn't really concerned with what people's expectations were. I was more concerned with both my trying to understand this journey and also articulate how I felt about it, and how these characters felt about themselves.”
If you are Southern and have never seen “The Accountant,” McKinnon’s 2001 film that won the Oscar for best live-action short, see it immediately. McKinnon plays the title role, an accountant who has taken up the mission of helping Southern family farmers keep their land away from bank foreclosure, through less-than-legal means if necessary.
The film includes a multi-scene monologue by McKinnon’s character that is perhaps the single greatest summation I’ve ever heard about the corporate commoditization of Southern culture. There is no way to do justice to McKinnon’s brilliant performance of it here, but here’s a section of it, so you will understand what I'm talking about:
First they take away the little man’s ability to produce his own food, by devisin’ a system where he’s got easy credit with easy terms. Once they get him hooked, then they change the rules. Suddenly, they want their money and they want it yesterday. So this little farmer works hard, plants more crops, adds more hogs. But then like magic, the price drops. Supply and demand, they say.… That’s when a farmin’ corporation comes in, takes this fellow’s land, leavin’ him no choice but to go to town to work for some manufacturing corporation. Or retail. But they ain’t done with him, ’cause see, boy, this farmer still has his culture, and that scares ’em. His roots — based in independence, even rebelliousness — his “countryness,” if you will. So what do they do about that? That’s where them multimedia corporations step in. They begin to bombard their new company man with caricatures and stereotypes of hisself. “Gomer Pyle,” “Dukes of Hazzard.” “Beverly Hillbillies,” “Hee-Haw,” and so on and so forth till finally he can’t trust his own reality. He don’t know what it is no more. He starts actin’ country instead of bein’ country.
I tell Ray it’s hard not to read that monologue from “The Accountant” as a manifesto of sorts, a declaration of Southern pride that comes from a completely different and far more authentic place than any Old South lost-cause mythology.
“Well,” he replies, “I definitely felt like I had something to say through that character. The character is definitely more convicted than I am, and saw things more black-and-white than I do. This is something that I was feeling, and the fact that it's resonated in the way that it has with others is mentally gratifying beyond anything that I ever would have thought.”
But McKinnon sees clear differences between his work on “The Accountant” 14 years ago and his work on “Rectify” today. “I was a younger person then and in some ways a different person,” he says.
To my eyes, in “The Accountant,” McKinnon was saying something about the South that resonated beyond him — and even far beyond the region — but the story specifically addressed the Southern condition. In “Rectify,” he tells a story whose “Southern-ness” is a function only of its setting. That the setting is rendered with such grace, realism and respect just flows naturally from the storyteller.
Ray McKinnon is of the South, yes, but his storytelling is of the whole world. And his show, therefore, has become a kind of living, breathing monument to the duality of the Southern thing.
“I’m a human being on the planet,” he says. “Below that I’m an American, and then I’m a Southerner, and I’m an Adelian, and I’m a McKinnon, and I’m a mama’s boy. It’s all of those things. I am more interested in the human experience rather than just the Southern experience, because even though that’s part of the human experience, I feel like sometimes you can shut people out by claiming real estate in a certain culture.”
In that tent on the day I visited the set, I watched McKinnon and Teems stage the final shot on the riverbank. They take as much care with the visual details as they do with the words. A second assistant director stood in the tent’s entrance, hollering McKinnon’s and Teems’ instructions to the crew on the riverbank, who in turn relayed them to the actors.
Sean Bridgers, the aforementioned actor from Sylva, North Carolina, was visible in the monitors.
"Tell Sean to move a rat's hair to his right," McKinnon told the assistant, who sent the command down the line. Watching the monitor, I watched Bridgers move almost imperceptibly to his right, and I marveled silently at how that one tiny repositioning changed the feel of what I was watching.
Bridgers delivered his lines perfectly, imbuing “Goddamn it, Carl” with the precise mix of anger and resignation McKinnon and Teems had been looking for. McKinnon called cut.
"Brother knows what a rat's hair is!” he exclaimed loudly, raising his fist to celebrate his confirmation that “a rat’s hair” means the same thing to a Carolina mountain boy as it does to a flatlander from Adel. “Hell, yeah!”
Photos courtesy of AMC Networks & Sundance TV