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Ethan Hawke Wants To Make Movies That Begin At The End

Ethan Hawke and Maya Hawke attend a screening of "Wildcat" at Angelika Film Center on April 11, 2024 in New York City.
Roy Rochlin/Getty Images

Ethan Hawke has lived his life in the movie business. Most know him for his performances in front of the camera in movies like Dead Poets Society, Reality Bites, the Before Trilogy, Gattaca, Training Day, Sinister, First Reformed, and plenty more. But in recent years, Hawke has also carved out a space for himself as a filmmaker. His directorial debut came back in 2001 with Chelsea Walls, which he followed up a few years later with The Hottest State, an adaptation of his own novel from the ‘90s. Starting with the documentary Seymour: An Introduction in 2014, about the pianist Seymour Bernstein, Hawke has made a string of films about the real lives of artists.

In 2018 he directed the biopic Blaze, about the troubled country singer-songwriter Blaze Foley, who was tragically killed in 1989 at the age of 39. Then came 2022’s documentary series The Last Movie Stars, about the professional and personal lives of Hollywood’s great couple, Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward. Now, Hawke has teamed up with his daughter, Maya Hawke, for the biographical drama Wildcat, about Southern Gothic writer Flannery O’Connor, who also died tragically at 39 after a long struggle with lupus.

The film originated with Hawke’s daughter, who had become a fan of O’Connor’s writing as a teenager. It was a monologue based on O’Connor’s A Prayer Journal that got her into Juilliard, and a few years later she pitched the idea of a biopic to her dad’s production company, bringing him on to co-write the film with Shelby Gaines and direct it.

In Wildcat, Maya plays the often abrasive young writer during the period when she was trying to sell her novel, Wise Blood, and was being diagnosed with the disease that took her father’s life and would eventually take her own. Forgoing a typical biopic approach, Hawke’s film intersperses several vignettes adapting O’Connor’s short stories, with Maya and Laura Linney, who plays her mother in the film, taking on double-roles in each one. The forays into O’Connor’s fictional world reveal facets of her psyche, as well as her relationship to the events of her life and the complicated realities of the mid-century American South.

Hawke’s canny, personal insight into the life of an artist pays dividends in the film, and in our conversation he shares how that insight has evolved as he’s gotten older.

Taking Wildcat to festivals, you've talked a lot about working with Maya on the film, and her initiating the project and basically hiring you as director. I was curious, given that it didn’t originate with you, how did you find your way into the material?

You know? That's a great question. Because Maya knows me really well, and she knows that around the time that I was turning 50 I had a total dark episode of being so … I was surprised at how turning 50 really bummed me out. And it wasn't about getting older—that I knew I was going to die or something like that—but that I was so disappointed in myself. When I was young, I was so interested in philosophy and the inner life and spiritual seeking, and I was always reading different Christian mystics and Buddhist thought, Zen thought, but I’d never really taken my spiritual life, for lack of a better word, anywhere.

And here I was, 50 years old, and I was basically thinking the same thoughts that I was when I was 21. And then I had this “aha” moment where I realized that I'd put all that energy into my work. That my life as a performer was where I put any kind of trying to integrate your philosophy with your life. I didn't have a specific spiritual practice or a spiritual discipline. And that was what was bumming me out. But now I realized, Wait a second, I do have a practice, I do have a discipline. I've spent my life in the arts. And that is where I've manifested the last 25 years of my life or whatever. And I felt good about it. I called Maya up about it, I was like, “You know what, this is OK. I didn't waste my whole life. I did something with this. I put it into these characters, I put it into my love of this art form.”

It was a couple of months later that Maya was like, “You know what? Everything that you were talking about, that's what Flannery O'Connor did so well, is figuring out ways to use her devotion, her seeking, how to make it manifest in her writing.” She's like, “What if we made a movie about that?” And that was my in. A biopic isn't interesting if it's just a reenactment of the Wikipedia page. You need it to have a dialogue with you about why this human being is interesting to the filmmakers, right? So I found my in.

Filmmaking is such a collaborative enterprise, but writing, especially the way O’Connor did it, is so solitary. Was it difficult getting into that headspace to make this film?

You know, in the history of movies, I always find spiritual enlightenment is a very difficult thing to put on film. It just inherently leads you to magic realism, or, you know, you watch some actor look at a golden light and get moved to tears and you're told they had a spiritual enlightenment, but what does it mean, spiritual enlightenment? It's ripe for literature, when you can really write about the nuance of what a person is thinking. But it's purely undramatic. It's very easy to tip into cliché. And the same is true of the writing life. Like if you want to make a movie about an athlete, it's pretty dramatic, or even if you want to make a movie about an actor, you can see them act, or a musician, you can see them play their music. But seeing somebody write is difficult.

I thought it would be interesting if I could really make a movie about imagination and really go inside her imagination. That's part of the idea of having Maya and Laura play these other characters in her stories, is to see how she's incorporating reality with imagination. And in the inverse, how what she's dreaming about impacts her behavior in her daily life. And how perhaps the membrane between imagination and reality is more suspect and thinner than we might imagine.

Obviously you’re working with your daughter on the film, but you’ve also populated it with a number of other actors and collaborators, like Laura Linney and Steve Zahn, whom you’ve worked with before and know well. How does keeping it in the family, as it were, inform the work?

One of the things that's really most challenging about independent film is the relationship between time and money. If you don't have a lot of money, you can't get people together to rehearse the way you might really like to. I always say this when I'm doing a play, for example, the performance five weeks after the first preview is so much better. It's just so much more lived in, there's so many little tiny discoveries. You know that expression: God's in the details. All those details come later, when relaxation happens and you're comfortable with your collaborators. And when you don't have enough money to put people up in hotels and host big rehearsal sessions and stuff, my cheat to the whole system is to work with people I know and love. Because a lot of what rehearsal is for is creating intimacy, and creating a relaxation and a freedom to be creative together.

There's a great Mike Nichols line I love where he says, the best moments in his career, he knows them when he can't remember whose idea it was. Like these magical things happen: Was that the DP's idea? The DP said this thing, and then the actor said something else, and then then I said this, and then they said this, and then this new idea arrived that none of us had dreamt of before. But you can tell that when you're watching it. You feel a spontaneity and you feel people loving telling you the story. You feel it. If I can't afford to have the rehearsal I want, at least I can bring Steve Zahn in, who I've known for 30 years, and he knows exactly what I mean when I say this, and he's known Maya since she was a little girl, and they can just kind of go at it, and we can make something that might be worth your time and money.

So it almost becomes utilitarian? When I look at filmmaking, it often looks like a balance of, like, art, and then project management.

So, so much is project management. [Richard] Linklater has this line that I love, like, on an independent film, anytime you have a deleted scene, it represents a failure. It's because when you only have $10, if you allocated $1 to that scene, and now that scene’s not in the movie, that was $1 you could have spent on the nine scenes that are in the movie. So much of what makes a good independent film, I feel like, and Sidney Lumet used to talk about this all the time: preparation, preparation, preparation. If you can, if you're really seeing the movie in your brain, you can realize, Oh, I'm gonna cut this scene. We don't need this to get from that to that. Or you also know this scene is important. If this scene doesn't work, the movie doesn't work, and so you know you need to spend time and your resources on this scene. I don't know if you've ever read Sidney Lumet's book Making Movies, but he talks about movies with no magic. It's like he's making a rug. It's all math. It's all geometry. It's all planning. But I love that about him.

A lot of the great old directors kind of took that view of their work, or at least that’s how people like John Ford talked about it. Most of your directorial projects have been films and documentaries about real-life artists. What is it that interests you about the lives of artists? Are you trying to find something in yourself as an artist through them?

I think it speaks to the limitations of my experience. I mean, I think that really good filmmakers are making movies about something they know a lot about, and have something to offer. And my experiences in this life have been so limited. I have spent a lot of time with actors, musicians, filmmakers, writers, and things like that, and so I do know a lot about that. When I'm acting, I can play a cop, I can play a carpenter, I can play this because I know about acting, and I can study those people. But the director has to—if you're going to watch a documentary about Paul Newman, you want it to be made by somebody who knows something about the life of an actor, right? It's what I have to bring to that that might be unique as well. I've auditioned for movies, I've been in hit movies, I've been in flop movies, I know a little bit about what Paul and Joanne's experience might be. I've had friends that have become wildly famous. I've had really gifted friends that have been met with absolute indifference by society. So I can make a good documentary about that world, because I know a little bit about it. Whereas, you know, I can't make a good movie about racecar driving, because I don't know anything about it.

You don't think if you kind of put yourself in the headspace, you wouldn't be able to do your race car movie?

Maybe. But no, I think the truth is that I'm a professional actor. And I think I've wanted to protect the other expressions, whether writing or directing, I don't want to be a professional. If I want to be a craftsman, I know how to be an actor. And I can go do that. I'm gonna direct a movie, I want to love it. I think that's pushed me into what you're asking me about: Why have I made movies about singers and actors and writers? That's what I love.

I was watching your Seymour Bernstein documentary, and there’s a point in it where you're introducing him to an audience, and you tell them, “I've been struggling recently with finding why it is that I do what I do.” You mention the superficial things like money and fame, and then you add, “I kind of knew that that was phony, that was something inauthentic to build on, but I didn't know what was authentic.” Ten years on, have you found that? Have you found the authenticity?

Well, I learned that the question is really valuable. I was really struggling back then. That was like right after I turned 40, and I kind of felt like a guy who was in his early 40s and was still doing his paper route. I've been an actor for as long as I can remember. Like, why do I do this? And am I doing it to celebrate myself? Am I doing it to be a big shot? Because I don't have any respect for that anymore. I think that what is authentic is when you're doing work and there's some kind of integration that happens when you're doing your job well. You're developing as a human. And when those things are in relationship to each other, then something authentic happens. You smell it, you know. You smell when an athlete loves to play ball and you smell it when they get a paycheck. The same is true of artists. I've never wanted to be a professional artist. I mean, I like being paid for what I do, obviously. But if you want to make money, you know, there's a lot better—I mean, if you want to make money don't make a movie about Flannery O'Connor. But I want to keep that fire alive.

Flannery O'Connor is at least more well-known. I was interested in Blaze, because actually, that was a case where I had randomly come across Blaze Foley in some Spotify playlist a few years ago. I heard his voice and I was like, What is this song? I think it was “Clay Pigeons” that I heard. And I was like, This is so beautiful. Then, a couple of months later, your movie was announced for Sundance, and I was like, No way.


Yeah, the serendipity of that. And in both that project and this one, you're telling stories about these, in different ways, quite tortured artists. First of all, do you feel like a tortured artist? But also, is there a particular attraction to you in trying to drill down on that specific facet of these people?

Well, I am interested in how we as people can turn adversity into something positive and beautiful. I think that is interesting. Blaze was very different, because a lot of his demons were self-created, you know, and self-sustained anyway. That film to me was kind of a meditation on the two different wells that you can draw from. One well for human creativity is falling in love, and a tree house, and playing guitar with the birds, and walking barefoot in the stream, all this beautiful, healthy stuff that creates great art. And then the other well, which is setting yourself on fire, indulging pain. The kind of Townes Van Zandt path, or at least in our film, it's represented by Townes, and Townes is one well, and [Foley’s wife Sybil Rosen] is another well, and it was just kind of exploring that, using Blaze Foley's life to explore what are the positives and negatives of that.

Flannery is different, because she has the reality of mortality thrust on her as a very young person, and it really elevates her thought. I think part of why her writing is so exceptional is because she was forced to think more deeply than a lot of young people from a very young age, and that intersected with her immense gifts and created all this great work.

I don't know. I tend to work from a place of joy. I'm really much more of the Richard Linklater school of thought: I love working, I like making movies, I like talking to you about it. But I am a human being. And I look around me and I see the world we're living in, and I guess I'm just kind of interested and mystified about how we react to it, and how much I think the artistic community kind of represents some kind of collective consciousness about where we are and where we're going. It kind of represents our mental health as a culture. I guess I just find the process interesting, but I've never thought of myself as tortured.

In the movie, you're inserting these adaptations of O’Connor’s short stories into the film, using that as a way to kind of unearth her own experience and psyche. How did you approach doing that without, let's say, being presumptuous about her own thinking? It felt very respectful, but it’s also quite a leap artistically.

It is presumptuous, yeah. I mean, I think the thing that's important is it's not a documentary. It's my hit on what she means to me, and that's part of why I start the movie the way that I do [with a fake 1950s B-movie trailer adapting one of O’Connor’s stories]. There's something fraudulent about making a movie about somebody, something intrinsically fraudulent about it. It's a little Brechtian idea of just reminding the audience that they're watching a movie, and that this is made by filmmakers, and these actors are double-cast. We are creating a painting of her. It's not her. It's our interpretation. I think that's important. You can't do any kind of historical fiction without being presumptuous, right? When I'm playing John Brown, I have to make assumptions about what I think he thought. And I can try to be as educated as possible, I can read his letters, and I can read what this person said, and I can read about the people who rode with them, and mine all the research that James McBride did, and I can try to make an informed assumption, but it is still an assumption.

The final scene of the movie is with Cooper Hoffman and Maya. That's the one story we really do pretty much from beginning to end. You know, the Bible salesman steals a woman's wooden leg, which is just such a genius story. But I really started seeing that as her most confessional work. And so I felt like that was a great place to end our movie, because she's kind of confessing her doubts about faith, how self-centered she was, how arrogant she was. She's confessing it all for you, and how hurt she is. She's both a victim, and she's also an abuser. She's trying to play that young man, she thinks she's so much smarter than him, that she's going to work him and take advantage of him. So it's a really complicated story, and I kind of just let the story speak to me about what I was trying to say with the movie. We're just exploring those weeks around when she was first diagnosed and how she came to accept her situation, which was being trapped in Milledgeville, Ga. So I came up with a structure that helped the audience through to that final beat. This whole movie is like working toward the final beat.

Zooming out a little bit: You're making these films, they're independent films. How are you feeling about the kind of state of independent cinema these days?

I read a lot about it, I hear the other things people are saying. Sometimes I think we've made it so easy for people to watch movies. It used to be a big deal to find some cool Fassbinder movie. And now you can find it anytime, day or night. And because of that, is anybody seeking it out? It's never been easier to make a movie. You and I can make a movie on our phone right now. But it's never been harder to get people to see it. Because they're spending $150 million on something and advertising the hell out of it, and there's only so much time we have. More and more it seems like what people want from their experience with movies is to be entertained, and maybe be put to sleep a little bit. Whereas, if you look at a much older artistic form, like literature, there's a place for airport reading—like, I got an hour to kill, I want to read it—and there's a place for Dostoevsky and Flannery O'Connor. I think that cinema is going to find that place. It's just changing. I'm fascinated. I'm super fascinated to watch how the Coppola movie [Megalopolis] plays out.

You haven't seen it yet.

I haven't seen it yet, but I find it a really intriguing moment for movies. Like we all know he's a master, but what is the point of him making a movie? I read articles, like, It didn't sell for a billion dollars, as if, had it sold for a billion dollars, that would have meant it was good. Most of the movies that I've done that have aged the best are ones that tested badly in their initial debut. I've said this before, but the world is not a reliable critic. Time is a more reliable critic. So I'm really interested about this moment, the positives are huge. There's so much work out there, and people are able to tell stories, so I don't want to be cynical. And at the same time, I do feel like we've devalued our work. You know, people watch stuff on Netflix, they feel like it's free. You see kids watching a movie with the subtitles on while they're playing a game on the phone while they're talking to somebody else, and then they think the movie is boring. Because they didn't pay attention!

You know, there's that old thing about in the theater. It's kind of like a little myth or whatever: You're not supposed to break the proscenium. You're not supposed to cross into the audience. It's kind of a silly superstition. But on the other hand, it's also saying, What happens up here is important. You can't cross this membrane, you'll violate something. It's the same way great writers really think about how many consonants and how many vowels and how many words end in D. They see really deeply into the nuance of the art form. And I feel sometimes we're devaluing the art form. Just click it, click it, click it, click it. It's why for those of us that love movies, why we love to sit in the movie theater with other people, is to talk about it afterwards. It's my favorite. Paul Schrader's had this line I just love, which is that a really great movie starts when the end credits roll. That's when it starts! And the job of the movie is not for you to love it. It's to have a good conversation afterwards.

When you were talking about the Coppola movie, I was thinking about your work with Schrader. You did First Reformed, and for Schrader that was coming off of a long period of people not quite trusting him as an artist. Then all of a sudden, it felt like we'd been neglecting something there. Is that the sort of thing that guides your process and the movies you choose to make?

Yeah, you're trying to stay awake. No matter what art form you're in, you're wanting to be relevant and speak to your time. Ultimately, it’s all any of us are doing. It's kind of a line from Wildcat, we're all building sandcastles. So what matters is our time together, and how we spend it, and how we communicate with each other, and how we take care of each other. That's all that really matters. There's so many great things that are happening in film. But it's also scary, because so much of it feels like it's designed to make money, and I'm always suspicious when people are selling things. Because, you know, putting asses in seats is not the goal. The goal is making something substantive happen when they're there.

It's having a connection.

I want to put asses in seats, I can sell crack, you know, get a lot of people to show up. I am always suspicious of the accumulation of wealth as some barometer of success.

Well, I really appreciated the unusual approach you took with this film. I'd read a bit of Flannery O'Connor before, but watching the movie really made me want to read more.

It's fun. You know, if you're going to take a swing, you want to swing. I wanted to give something that wasn't ordinary. And she deserves it. She's such an exceptional artist. I like provoking people with her. She's an interesting conversation.

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