“Aden [Young] and I were acting in our first scene for Season Two,” Rectify star Abigail Spencer remembers. “Just before the cameras rolled, he whispered, ‘I have no idea what I’m about to do.’ And I said, ‘Me either.’”
Spencer pauses for a moment, the memory clear as day. “It’s like jumping off a cliff together,” she says. “That’s working on Rectify.”
Spencer (“Amantha”) and Young (“Daniel”) return for their third season on July 9 as woebegone brother and bleeding-heart sister on Sundance TV’s critically acclaimed, Peabody award-winning series Rectify. And for the legion of devoted fans of the show, it can’t come soon enough.
There are countless unanswered questions now that Daniel Holden has accepted Senator Foulkes’ dubious plea deal and admitted to killing Hanna. Where will Daniel be banished? Will he and Amantha patch things up? How will Janet and Ted, Sr. respond to this unexpected resolution? What happens to Teddy Jr. and Tawney now that they’ve split? Just what is Sheriff Daggett going to do after witnessing Daniel’s forced confession…and in the wake of a flood of new information? Have we seen the last of Jon Stern? Trey Willis? “Lezley with a Z”?
“We wrote ourselves into a corner last season,” creator and executive producer Ray McKinnon admits. “But when we started writing the new season, we embraced that. We’ve not followed what might be considered the expected path, or even the most appropriate. We’ve gone after what seemed to be the most interesting.”
Surprise is a descriptor that McKinnon and his writing staff enjoy, but implausibility is not. Rectify is about a small town, and there has been a murder—but this is not Twin Peaks.
“I remain fascinated with higher primates…their cowardly moments, their heroic ones. It’s how these people make sense of their lives that most charges me. The fact that the show has resonated with so many people is very gratifying. Still, it gets harder…” McKinnon pauses. It’s a Rectify moment, laden with subtext. He exhales, thinks, grins. “You can’t wrestle the goat-man again,” he says in reference to one of the series’ more surreal moments in Season One, episode five, “Drip, Drip.”
No stranger to television and film, McKinnon (Mud, Sons of Anarchy, Take Shelter) is the unlikeliest of showrunners. Born and raised in Georgia, he made theater in Atlanta before becoming a highly sought-after character actor and (this descriptor is so not Ray) Academy Award-winning filmmaker (The Accountant won for Best Live Action Short Film, 2001). McKinnon carries himself with a gentle, world-weary affability one might expect from their favorite aunt’s second husband, not a Hollywood producer.
In other words, he runs the show like it’s his family. He says “we” a lot. And he means it. “[The show] is me trying to make sense of my life, my own existential journey. It’s a form of therapy, which is not why I did it—that’s a byproduct. I just love to tell stories. And I like telling them with these talented people.”
Rectify’s second season left the family at the center of the story far worse for the wear. After son Daniel is released on a technicality from a death row prison sentence in Season One, the Holden-Talbots see the deeply bound wounds of that injustice come undone in Season Two.
Though McKinnon and company are keeping the details of what will happen in Season Three quiet, he is willing to let on that the six-episode season will explore the legal aspects of Daniel Holden’s case in more depth—though not without the overarching themes at the core of Rectify’s beating heart.
Indeed, Rectify is bigger than Daniel’s case. It’s about the lost and lonely spaces that exist within each of our families…and how we attempt to fill those spaces.
Story editor Scott Teems (Holbrook/Twain: An American Odyssey, That Evening Sun) is McKinnon’s right-hand man on this rain-drizzled day shooting on Rectify’s makeshift soundstage, which is set up in a still operational alligator skin tannery in Griffin, Georgia. During a quick break in the action, Teems reflects on the process of writing and shooting the show.
“Each new season begins with a group of introverted writers gathered in a room in L.A., talking about these characters, trying to decide where they want us to go. Then, before you know it, we’re here in South Georgia, shooting half a feature film every seven days. And it has to be good.”
Produced on a low budget (even by cable network standards), there is an astounding lack of network oversight during all phases of Rectify’s production. SundanceTV has brazenly turned the creative keys over to executive producers Melissa Bernstein, Mark Johnson and McKinnon. And that trust in creative talent trickles down.
Rectify composer Gabriel Mann says, “McKinnon offers a level of freedom that is unprecedented. I really get to play in the sandbox, and I treasure that. He is certainly in control, but is so very humble. It’s a rare combination in this business.”
Similar sentiments echo across the Rectify set, from the caterer who has set out champagne and a huge Season Three wrap cake with lunch today, to core cast members who have already wrapped for the season (like Luke Kirby and Bruce McKinnon) but are hanging out on set anyway. This is television the way fans imagine their favorite shows should be made: serving a singular vision, collaboratively, and without interference from the proverbial “suits.”
“It’s a miracle this show exists,” Clayne Crawford (who plays Teddy, Jr.) says. “SundanceTV may be the only network willing to give Ray so much creative control. Every time, Ray’s singular vision wins out.”
But it is McKinnon’s unusually collaborative process that completes the miracle and earns high praise from his devoted cast.
Jake Austin Walker (playing Jared Talbot) adds, “Ray gives his actors so much freedom to explore, to try new things. It’s so inspiring to work in this environment.”
Abigail Spencer even goes so far as to say “I’m not there to be good. I’m there to explore. Everyone else is, too.” She adds, “You really can’t lose when egos and outside pressure is out.”
Aden Young goes further. “I don’t want any acclaim,” he says. “That’s not why I bring my entire family from Australia for three months every year to work on Rectify. I’m here—we’re here—to do great work…to bring Ray’s vision to life.”
Young pauses to check in with one of his small sons who is dashing around the set like a kid in a candy store. “My favorite episode of Rectify is probably the second one in our first season (‘Sexual Peeling’). When I read that scene…you know the one [referring to a scene where his character Daniel masturbates alone in his bedroom]. That sold me. This was going to be fearless television. I was hooked.”
“No one is better or less equal at Rectify,” McKinnon explains. “We’ve all been on sets that felt impersonal, or even aggressive. You know, like a job. Where the work is being driven by fear. But not here. I need everybody.”
“One of the problems with Southern comedies is that the Southern characters don’t have a sense of humor.” Ray McKinnon is holding court on one his favorite topics. “I like to think that on Rectify, the Southern characters are in on the jokes.”
Scott Teems adds, “Rectify is a show about people—not just Southern people.”
But there is no denying that the show’s setting, the fictional town of Paulie, Georgia, located in the heart of Dixie, plays a significant role in the way the series unfolds. Deliberately, patiently. But not magically, like Terrence Malick. Rectify is grounded in red clay, tall pine forests and the sweat of a Baptist tent revival.
This is McKinnon’s Deep South, a world that finds its literary roots in Flannery O’Connor, Walker Percy, Tennessee Williams and its cinema heritage in paths worn by Robert Duvall (The Apostle, Tender Mercies), Billy Bob Thornton (Sling Blade) and Victor Nunez (Ruby In Paradise).
John Huston’s 1979 film adaptation of Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood may be Rectify’s nearest of kin, but McKinnon’s approach is far more organic than Huston’s. He leaves spaces for his characters to live and breathe. And there is palpable joy in the process of discovery on set, which comes across on screen.
Spencer describes the moment she realized the process of making Rectify would be different. “I was watching J [Smith-Cameron, who plays Janet Talbot] and Aden shoot a kitchen scene during Season One, episode one—and I started crying. It just hit me, this is what I’m on. It was terrifying. And thrilling.”
Clayne Crawford says, “It’s been clear from the start how different the writing is on Rectify. It’s all subtext. That’s how Ray writes for actors. He gets inside of our characters, then never lets us speak what we think or feel. Plus, what doesn’t work, goes. There’s no ego.”
He smiles. “If we get on set and the scene’s not working, we just know…Ray’s gonna come in and rectify it.”
Ray McKinnon likes the long take. It gives his actors time to work the scenes, and allows him the time to listen, to really see if what is happening on the screen is what is intended. As he and Teems watch the monitors, they are transfixed. On the screens, there is a soft, touching scene played to gentle perfection by Adelaide Clemens and Aden Young.
McKinnon is thinking aloud, now…processing.
“Yeah?” he whispers.
“Hmm.” Teem replies.
McKinnon calls cut, flips off his headphones, leaps over a tangle of thick black cords and goes straight to his actors. Something’s amiss.
Clemens’ line is “Where is God, Daniel?” Young’s response is “God is in your toes, Tawney. God is a rain frog.” It’s a dream sequence, so the poetry is apt. But there’s something off in the delivery. And they all know it. For a moment, they just sit together in silence as first assistant director Polly Mattson rallies the crew and cinematographer Patrick Cady tweaks the lighting for the lens flare McKinnon has requested.
This is the rewrite happening: McKinnon making a slight adjustment to Clemens’ wardrobe, Young—ever the “magic spaceman”—looking off wistfully, the three of them in whispered conversation. Clemens offers something that appears to be just the thing. McKinnon looks at her, smiles. There is another exchange. The actors nod, businesslike…their game faces return.
“Let’s try another one!” McKinnon shouts as he dashes back to the monitors. He eases into the chair next to Teems, slides his headphones back on.
“Just another example of really good actors saving you,” he says.
The cameras roll.
“Where is God, Daniel?”
“God is in between the seconds.”
McKinnon is nodding now. So is Teems. This is the real-time making of Rectify. Filling in the spaces…in between the seconds.
Chris White writes and directs independent feature films. His latest, a showbiz comedy about looking for Bill Murray, is called
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