“We live in a culture right now that thinks anything that’s bigger is better, that more money is better,” says Ethan Hawke of why he decided to return to directing a feature after almost a decade with Blaze, which debuted this afternoon at the Sundance Film Festival. “Blaze symbolizes a counter current to that, of somebody whose life was not full of those seductions,” the four-time Oscar nominee reveals of country musician Blaze Foley. “He symbolizes something larger to me. He wanted his music to stand for something beyond himself, kind of like a Japanese poet who doesn’t sign their name.”
Having come to the Robert Redford-founded fest 11 times with films over the past couple of decades, and with two other films at this year’s SFF beside Blaze, Hawke is Sundance royalty. Which, in many ways, makes it all the more poignant that the Ben Dickey-led pic is the first time that the Boyhood and Before Sunrise franchise star has had a film as a director in the U.S. Dramatic competition category.
Just before the first of five Blaze screenings for Sundance 2018, Hawke spoke with me about his long journey to competition, his love of country music, and the lessons that Sundance has taught him. The Tony Award nominee also revealed a lesson or two he’s learned from Elvis Presley’s life, and if he would be getting back behind the camera sooner rather than later after Blaze.
DEADLINE: You have made 11 visits to Sundance officially. How does it feel to have your first film in competition as a director?
HAWKE: Almost my whole life, I’d bop into Sundance and I’d bop out as an actor. For the first time, I’m going to go there and be there for the whole thing, because this experience has really taught me how valuable these moments are and how hard you have to work to get to a moment like this to.
You know, I made a documentary a few years ago, but I haven’t made a feature in over a decade, and a lot has happened to me in the decade. So, it was incredibly rewarding to take what I’ve been learning and put it into use and get to make a movie the way I wanted to make it. Make it with the people I wanted to make it with and about a subject matter that really interests me. So, honestly, it just feels really good.
DEADLINE: Different good?
HAWKE: Well, I dropped out of college after Dead Poets Society, and my mother was so upset that she told me I needed to take responsibility for my own education. So, I took a portion of the money I’d made from Poets and made a short film. I shot at the Chelsea Hotel, and I wrote it, I edited it on a Steenbeck, and I had this kind of amazing experience.
DEADLINE: That’s not Chelsea Walls, though, is it?
HAWKE: No. I’m talking about this little short film I did called Straight to One, which, I guess, I made in 1991, and I showed it at Sundance around ’92 or ’93, I think. That was part of the shorts festival, and I could be a year off either way on that, by the way. Anyway, I remember clomping through the snow and being a part of the shorts festival and dreaming of getting a chance to be in competition at this festival. It’s taken a lot longer than I thought. It’s taken around 25 years. I thought I’d be there in a couple years, you know? But lo and behold, I’m finally here.
DEADLINE: With that, what is the difference for you between being here as an actor, as you have so many times, and as a director? Is it about ownership? Vision?
HAWKE: I had so many interesting nights and had my career change at Sundance, and I don’t think I just understood how valuable an institution the festival really is and how meaningful it’s been in my life. I think it’s a “yes,” there is issues of ownership. But ownership implies ego to me in some way. What I really mean is responsibility.
The great thing about directing is also the negative, which is you’re responsible for everybody – unlike when you are an actor. I mean, when you’re directing a movie, there’s no assholes on set because you hired everybody. I mean, other people may think they’re assholes, but you like them, you know?
Now I’m sitting here trying to get tickets for all these people who work so hard for nothing for me and for believing in Blaze, and I want it to do well for all of them. There’s something hard about acting, which is its a little bit like being quarterback or something. You get a lot of attention when the piece works, when you win. But if you’re smart, you know that you winning has a lot more to do with blocking and tackling than it does in quarterback playing, not to milk the metaphor.
DEADLINE: Milking something other than a metaphor, as well as directing, you appear in two other films at Sundance this year. There’s Eugene Jarecki Elvis douc-roadmovie The King and Juliet, Naked, based on the Nick Hornby book, and that premiered on January 19. I noticed they all have a musical connection or theme. Was that intentional for you?
HAWKE: (laughs) It’s weird how life happens like that, isn’t it? I don’t quite understand it. It was strange to me when Before Midnight and Boyhood finished about the same time. They came out a year apart, but in truth, we kind of finished them at the same moment. It was so weird, these two life projects.
This year, it’s funny for me being part of an Elvis doc and in Juliet, Naked I play an aging, forgotten rock star, and getting to make a biopic about a forgotten country legend. It feels planned, I know, and yet, you know, of course it never is.
DEADLINE: I’m not sure Blaze Foley is totally forgotten, but certainly under the radar even for a lot of country fans, even outlaw country fans who know their Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings backwards and forwards. Getting behind the camera for a feature for this first time in years, why was this the story you wanted to tell?
HAWKE: You know, the success of Dead Poets Society happened when I was 18, so the path for me and a life in the arts was created pretty easily. I’ve always stared at these other artists and other people who have made their way through such adversity, and I’ve been kind of hypnotized by their story and probably felt guilty about it, honestly.
Also I’m a huge outlaw country music fan, whether it’s Kristofferson or Willie or Merle Haggard, or what have you. At some point, I discovered Blaze Foley. In a lot of ways, he was just absolutely whatever the pure flame is. He didn’t have any of the superficial accoutrements of success, but he was the first great poet, and other people like John Prine and Willie recognized it. But through luck and bad behavior and a little misfortune, he never had that opportunity for his talent to thrive. So, as I fell more and more in love with his music and I started seeing parallels in so many people’s lives, so many people that have to fight for their creativity through extreme adversity, I just fell in love with his story and what he symbolizes.
DEADLINE: Which is what, beyond his tunes?
HAWKE: We live in a culture right now that thinks anything that’s bigger is better, that more money is better. What’s funny about the Elvis doc is Elvis kind of proves the point of what fraudulent thinking that is. That if you make money your bottom line, you’re going to end up fat and with a heart attack sitting on the toilet because you can’t go to the bathroom. Blaze symbolizes a counter current to that, of somebody whose life was not full of those seductions. He symbolizes something larger to me. He wanted his music to stand for something beyond himself, kind of like a Japanese poet who doesn’t sign their name.
That’s antithetical to our way of thinking, of always trying to take credit for everything, trying to put our stamp on it. This kind of beauty of just making art and giving it away, there’s something very beautiful about that, and I just wanted to make a movie about that man.
DEADLINE: You co-wrote the film with Sybil Rosen, who penned the book Living in the Woods in a Tree: Remembering Blaze Foley about their relationship. How did that come together and what was it like for your return to feature directing?
HAWKE: It’s kind of strange, so let me tell you the long story of it, and you can make of it what you will. I had made this documentary a couple years ago about a piano teacher, and I had played Chet Baker, and kind of immersed my life into music, and the funny thing about that is jazz and classical music is not something I know that much about. My first passion has always been country music and I have a friend of mine, I’ve known him for about 15 years, named Ben Dickey. I’ve loved his music so much over the years, like when I first met him, I thought I was discovering a 25-year-old Neil Young. I have long thought he was so amazing, and I watched him over the last decade or so have an incredibly difficult time in the music industry.
So, one day, he was singing in my house, and he started playing “Clay Pigeons,” a song of Blaze Foley’s. That when I realized, he’s 6’ 4”, he’s from Arkansas, he’s one of the most charismatic guys I’ve ever met, and if I could teach this guy to act, we could make the most incredible movie about Blaze Foley. So we started talking about it, as you do, and we were kind of in love with the idea. But I didn’t know what the story would be. I started doing some research about him and found out that one of his lovers had written this book about being in a relationship with him.
I’ll tell you, I didn’t expect that much, but I read it, and it was instant in my mind what this could be.
All of a sudden, I could see the movie, about how I could coordinate what I wanted to say through Blaze Foley through this amazing love story and what she had to say. I called Sybil up, and we just started working on it. She’s been amazing. She’s really been the guiding light. If the movie had a spirit animal, she was it. She led us all, and it’s very much her story, and it’s a great way for me to take what I’ve learned about filmmaking and acting and music with her story, We just collaborated from the time we first introduced ourselves over the phone to the final cut. It’s been a great experience.
DEADLINE: You spoke earlier about how long it’s been since you directed a feature. Are you now energized to direct again, sooner?
HAWKE: Look, you know, for me, I just feel like a cat. I’m always trying to stay alive and land on my feet, and I know that I want to dedicate my whole life to telling stories. So when I can work with world-class directors or great playwrights or an incredible scene partner, then all I want to do is that. When moments happen to me like what happened to me with Blaze, it seems obvious that what I need to be doing is direct this movie. I’ve always just been trying to struggle to find balance in my own life and art with that, so I really don’t know how soon I might direct again.
DEADLINE: What’s in your claw now?
HAWKE: I know that I’m longing to do some theater right now. I know that I would love to tell you I’ll spend a large portion of the second half of my life directing films. It’s a high like no other, and it’s funny, it really humbles you.
I sat there at the final mix for Blaze thinking so many things have to go right that are beyond your control to make a good film. You start thinking about movies like Goodfellas or Raging Bull and Malcolm X. I bow my head in awe to some of the movies that have been made in this world of ours. But I would love to make more of them, of course. But, you know, I’m not really a professional director. I’m a professional actor. I really just direct for love, for lack of a better word.