During SXSW in 2016, Ethan Hawke and Jason Blum were riding together in Austin’s dizzying traffic when Hawke told Blum about a book he had just read with his wife. It was called The Ggod Lord Bird, and he thought they should bring it to the screen.
From there, Hawke said, “dominoes started falling.” And Monday afternoon at SXSW 2019, hours after Showtime revealed that it will make Good Lord Bird into an eight-episode limited series starring Hawke and produced by Blumhouse TV, he called the project “one of the biggest endeavors of my life.”
Hawke is set to play abolitionist John Brown in the series, which is based on James McBride’s 2013 novel set in the Bleeding Kansas phase of the Civil War. It follows a young boy who teams up with Brown, but the book and the series do not take a traditional historic view.
“Imagine if Huck Finn were a cross-dressing African-American boy and Jim were the abolitionist John Brown. And that’s the story,” Hawke said. “It’s one of the few novels of my life where you just feel staggered. The genius of it, the imagination. He tells a story of something we’re all scared to look at, the start of the Civil War…and he does it with so much wit and so much love. And it’s so unpolitically correct that you leave so unbalanced and confused, and you realize we’re all just human beings.”
Blum originally thought Hawke wanted to turn Good Lord Bird into a movie. He said Monday that TV offers nontraditional projects like this one a better home these days. “We’ll have a lot more real estate to tell the story,” Blum said.
While talking about Good Lord Bird, Hawke remembered a story about him and Richard Linklater. They were trying to pitch a movie that never got greenlit, and one studio in Los Angeles told them they wanted to “make important films.” Linklater replied that they’d come to the wrong place.
“[McBride] tells a story about John Brown and it’s not important,” Hawke said. “He’s a human being…but he’s a fanatic and a lunatic. He suffers from mental illness. It’s all human beings.
“It does that thing art can do, which is go where politics can’t because it doesn’t have an agenda.”
Hawke and Blum, who have been friends for decades, previously worked together on The Purge TV series. Their latest project is Adopt a Highway, which premiered at SXSW on Sunday.