If soul-stirring actor Robert Duvall could be described as a sculptor, his best work would be his line of cutting-edge “Hollywood” — handcrafted with an exquisite Southern accent; a line of art he’s been molding and refining for several years. From his Oscar winning performance in 1983’s Tender Mercies, in which he played a country singer, to his current Academy Award-nominated role as a dramatic Pentecostal preacher in The Apostle, the emphatically kind-hearted Duvall has become the mastermind behind major motion pictures with a gripping and convincing Southern drawl.
The Apostle, also written and directed by Duvall, who has more than 60 filmography credits under his belt dating back to 1962’s To Kill A Mockingbird, takes a daring stab at the South with more heart and soul than ever imagined. The result is a clean cut that unveils honest-to-God real people, who are really no different than any of us in the South, North or worldwide. Everyday life is comprised of wrestling with and finding comfort in a potpourri of both mixed emotions and convictional spirits. Fortunately, Duvall unfolded the entire package with a quilt of music that is undeniably untouchable. Obviously soul driven and heaven sent, The Apostle soundtrack is as scorchingly hot as the movie.
“The music for this movie is just wonderful,” says Duvall with excitement in his voice, “and so is the album. I really felt the music should be important for this movie. I sometimes feel that films are overscored and have way too much music, but I wanted a minimum sense of all these wonderful hymns that even I had grown up with and known. I wanted it simply done as an extension of some of those hymns with just acoustic instruments and to keep it as simple as possible just as we tried to do with the entire movie. So the music did become an intregal part of the movie but also as an outgrowth of what these people sing in their churches — these very traditional gospel songs.”
With a star-studded lineup featuring such music greats as Lyle Lovett, Patty Loveless, Steven Curtis Chapman, Wynonna, Gary Chapman, Russ Taff, Johnny Cash, the Sounds of Blackness, Lari White and Emmylou Harris, The Apostle’s musical score no doubt played a major role in digging up the heart and soul of the film’s storyline — one Duvall has been piecing together for decades.
“It goes back about thirty years ago when I was a young actor,” he explains. “I was in Arkansas and saw one of these preachers at a church. So I figured in the future I would like to play one of those guys. I had done a lot of research, but I didn’t know where I was going to get that kind of script. So I decided that I would have to write it myself, and I did.”
Duvall’s initial step in making the movie and its music come to life was visiting a small country church in Hughes, Arkansas. By Trailways bus, it’s about 30 miles from Memphis, Tennessee. With no hotels or modern conveniences, Duvall buddied up with road workers and eventually met a charismatic little lady preacher and her husband who played the guitar. Duvall was so drawn and amazed by the community’s zeal and truly religious devotion that he knew he was well on his way to creating a movie that would not only possibly grab an Oscar nod but truly touch people.
“When the script was finished, people responded very positive toward it but there was no money to be found anywhere (to produce it),” Duvall explains. “So through the years I refined the script and kept my research going — going all over the United States studying these preachers and everything to try, when the day came, to do it as correctly as possible. So finally I just went ahead a year and a half ago with my own money because we couldn’t raise it anywhere. We just did it on our own. We went to Louisiana and had our own little company down there. We knocked out the movie in seven weeks, and then we edited it at my farm in Virginia all last winter.”
Ultimately co-starring such names as Farrah Fawcett, Billy Bob Thornton, June Carter Cash, Miranda Richardson and country/rock rebel Billy Joe Shaver, The Apostle had become somewhat of an obsession for Duvall.
“This was just something that I had never seen done before, and I wanted to see it done correctly without patronizing this whole religious group,” he proclaims. “I guess the more that the film was rejected, the more that it just spurred me on, in a way. And the more it was rejected, I felt that was maybe the reason that more should be done. Through the years, this project just became a quiet obsession knowing that I just had to do it some day — to show this world that’s so often caricatured and patronized.”
Duvall became adamant about proving to the world through his script that all religious societies and groups that had and still do blossom from the deep South — complete with holy-rolling services, shoutin’ testimonies and hard-core hand-clapping gospel music — are very American, legitimate and good, despite the fun which is often poked.
“What I’ve perceived from the secular community and some of the religious community is that they see more of the human being — they get it. I know the New York film critic and the LA film critic got it. They said ’You were trying to show people as they really are and that people are flawed and they do have weaknesses and strengths.’ So we’re showing this community as kind of a complete picture. I think that whatever I want the people to get from it is just whatever they get from it — if it’s something positive then they get that — and to show that the core of this very religious community is made up of very, very fine and good people, and that they’re all not the shams that we hear about and see on television. The base of this whole religious group is that they’re all wonderful people and a very important part of America.
“The people we cast in the smaller parts were really from the smaller churches,” he continues with pride. “Over a ten year period, I went to all these churches and just sat, watched and learned. It was a great experience because you have to really let it come from what that community is, rather than dictating what any Hollywood or New York film establishment may say — which tends to patronize rather than deal.” The positive experience from this rich Southern story begat another Duvall-produced project. He reported recently that he plans to produce a picture about the early prison years of Merle Haggard.
As much a vital part of The Apostle’s deep-stirring message is the film’s accompanying music — just as deep and just as stirring. Duvall actually tag-teams with country icon Emmylou Harris to perform the gospel classic “I Love To Tell The Story” on the picture’s soundtrack.
“I actually sang on an album when we did Tender Mercies a few years back,” he remembers. “Then there was another album I sang on. I’ve always dabbled, and my brothers are both professional singers. I just do it pretty much as a hobby. I had sung a little bit with Emmylou once before on a stage in Salt Lake City when she was there. It was impromptu. Emory Gordy is a wonderful producer in Nashville, and he just said to do it like you would do it every day. So our voices kind of melded well together. I could have been a little nervous,” he admits of singing with the legendary Harris, “but it wasn’t so much. I had already gotten up on the stage in those situations when I did Tender Mercies down in Texas and sang with some of those little local bands. But Emmylou is so terrific that she made me look good and sound good,” he laughs. “She was a great help.”
Obviously, what makes The Apostle’s message ring even louder is the music’s energy and conviction that weaves through the picture — a call that Duvall was also deeply passionate about.
“I love country music and always have,” he admits. “I love Lefty Frizzel and all those guys from way back — Carl Smith and Webb Pierce. I guess I like a lot of those older guys more than some of the newer ones. Picking the artists was kind of a mutual or two-way process. When they saw the movie, these country and Christian artists responded so positively. They wanted to be a part of it. So it wasn’t like we had to go out and beg for them. I think the movie kind of spoke for itself and they reacted accordingly and wanted to be in it. It turned out to be an all-star cast.”
In addition to Duvall’s duet with Harris, The Apostle’s soundtrack features the smash Christian song “I Will Not Go Quietly” by multi-award-winning singer/songwriter Steven Curtis Chapman. Ironically, he’s currently nominated in nine categories for the upcoming Dove Awards, including Entertainer of the Year. “It’s just been an amazing experience,” Chapman stated recently on TNN’s Prime Time Country. “I mean the whole process has just really been incredible. It’s one of those things that I believe that God has just been right in the middle of — just me even getting to be a part of this has been wonderful. This song was actually written and recorded in about three days, which never happens. It usually takes months.”
Country soul sister Wynonna also teams up with Gary Chapman to deliver “I’ll Fly Away,” one of many gospel romping cuts included on the disc, produced by Peter Afterman, John Huie and Ken Levitan. “My memory of that song was when we were literally going through life poor, on welfare, (having a) single parent (and then) the Judds. And it was the last song I sang to my grandfather before he died. So it’s like a backdrop for life. And of course, singing has to be from the soul, so that’s what it means to me,” says Wy, who’s also an incredible Duvall fan. “I told Ashley (actress and Wy’s sister) that when she worked with him, she has made it in my eyes.”
Other musical credits include: “Two Coats” by Patty Loveless, “I’m A Soldier In The Army Of The Lord” by Lyle Lovett, “Softly & Tenderly” by Rebecca Lynn Howard, “There Is A River” by the Gaither Vocal Band, “In The Garden” by Johnny Cash, “Waitin’ On The Far Side Banks Of Jordan” by the Carter Family, “Victory Is Mine” by Sounds of Blackness, “There Is Power In The Blood” by Lari White, “There Ain’t No Grave” by Russ Taff and “Softly & Tenderly” by Dino Kartsonakis.
“I don’t think I can quite put into words what I learned from making this movie,” Duvall concludes. “I’ve learned to be a little bit more tolerant and to know that there is goodness out there. We just have to reach out to individuals to find it. Another thing I’ve learned is to have more gratitude toward those people who have helped me to attain this goal.
Robert Duvall’s name will be read with the nominees for Best Actor in a Leading Role at this year’s Academy Awards on March 23rd, a tribute in itself. However, what speaks more softly and tenderly to the critically-praised actor is what he himself learned from The Apostle.