SXSW 2018 Interview: Ethan Hawke On BLAZE
Blaze Foley was never a star. Like many an unsung hero in the great tradition of truth-telling, the idea of careerism or professionalizing his craft ran so counter to Blaze’s aesthetic drive, he’d sooner drink himself to death before playing ball with industry requirements for “success”. Like his best friend, Townes Van Zandt, Blaze’s soulful country, folk, blues... music existed solely as a therapeutic expression of his personal, often haunted, experience.
Maybe this is one way to define a certain type of legend; a figure who finds confidence, not from the affirmation of superficial interests, but from the inside cosmic joke that is life, and is thus able to mine that perspective into lucidly smirking art. Chanaski once said, “I always thought I’d become famous after I was dead”, which is the case for so many great legends who lead lives of quiet glory, often coexisting with misery. Some artists are self-sabotaging about success, distrusting of its lure. Others are simply self-sabotaging. Some say that Blaze took a vow of poverty and saw everything through that lens.
Ethan Hawke’s Blaze follows Blaze Foley’s troubled but storied life as a Texan troubadour while playing alongside his carefree days literally living in the forest with the love of his life, Sybil Rose. The film, co-written by Sybil and based on her memoir, "Living in the Woods in a Tree", simultaneously depicts love in the most obscure of settings and the long shadow idyllic happiness can cast on one’s future. All the while Blaze was alone, the past was close behind, and in cross-cutting past with present of 1989, told from the retrospect of today, Hawke weaves a dense story that touches on so many facets of the life of the mindfully sensitive soul; those folks capable of feeling to profound degrees, for better or worse, and inevitably suffering for their courage to live openly.
Yet for a portrait of a man who lived to beckon death, yes, Blaze features the tragic trajectory of a tender soul, but rather than stew on the oftentimes pathetic symptoms of drug-addled depression, the film celebrates the soulful products of the dark wisdom required to sing a certain type of song, with a deep-seated fondness for the material that doesn’t let its hero off the hook. How completely one must give themselves to their craft to achieve utmost authenticity, I suppose is a personal choice that comes down to the individual creator, but where Hawke’s cinematic voice shines through at its brightest involves his own hard-earned cautioning against the borderline narcissistic romanticization of misery.
Foley wasn’t bound for glory - he was a fleeting blaze of glory and then he was gone. Dead for almost 30 years now, from the vantage point of the distant unknowable future, his short 39 year old life feels as momentary as any one individual memory - a happy time living in an honest-to-god treehouse, the day he fucked that all up, or perhaps the nights he played the perfect gig; the kind performed between the darkest hour and the crack of dawn, moments spent beyond the boundaries of woes where one finds a clarity so ephemeral all you can do is sigh.
In 2018, thanks to Ethan Hawke not only telling his tale, but making a favorite-movie calibur film with all its troubled complications, it’s possible that more people will utter Blaze Foley’s name than ever before. As is the fate of so many stubborn souls capable of turning intangibles into songs of varying forms, who couldn’t or can’t stomach the notion of cheapening their truths for a price, Blaze’s story will live far beyond his own earthly grasp. He now belongs in the club for the typically posthumously appreciated. Had he lived to see this day, while I’m sure Blaze would enjoy not having to worry about being a dime short for the bus, I doubt he’d care much for high-falutin praise that comes with belated recognition. That said, I like to think he would love Ethan Hawke’s film and Ben Dicky’s deeply invested performance as much as I do. But I can't imagine that he’d find it to be an easy watch.
So what use is any of this for Blaze Foley? What does ‘the legend’ get that s/he can keep? The perpetual building of myth and legacy is lost on the dead and it’s far too late for regrets. This is true for Blaze, but not for those who currently understand his plight as well as what Ethan Hawke is getting at with his own ballad - his finest to date. We’re on this earth to feel, whether we like it or not. Sometimes that involves suffering. Sometimes suffering yields beauty. But that’s no reason to live for your legend. You can’t take it with you.
What were your first impressions of the book - discovering it, the punch you took reading it? I'm sure it was somewhat of a punch in the gut.
Sybil's book, are you talking about?
Well, it was a punch, but it was also ... I had been, I had this idea that felt very powerful to me that I was supposed to write a movie about Blaze Foley but I didn't know what was the story. I'd been moved by Blaze's work, and the story of his death. And I had this friend Ben Dickey who I really believed, I kinda had this idea that it'd be a genius move to cast him as Blaze. You know, he's 6'4" from Arkansas just like Blaze was. And Ben, if you get to know him, he's just such a unique personality like Blaze, and such an old school troubadour kind of person. And I thought, what a great movie it would be.
But I didn't know what the movie was about, and I didn't want to make - I'd just done the Chet (Baker) movie, and I didn't want to make another movie about drugs, you know. So I didn't know what it was. And I actually was at SXSW two years ago, and Lewis Black - I did an interview with Lewis Black - and I asked him, I said, "Hey, did you ever see Blaze Foley play?" "Oh, I've seen him, I mean, I reviewed his shows for the Chronicle," and I said, "Well, what's the story there, what's the movie?" And he said, "Well, have you read his wife's book?" And I said, "I didn't know he had a wife." He said, "Well, he didn't really, but he kinda did. And you gotta read her memoir."
And so my wife and I ordered two copies of the memoir. We just sat and read it and dogeared it. And I had thought it was going to be a kind of normal, "I knew a rockstar" deification of the artist kind of memoir. And it wasn't that at all. It was a memoir about her - about a young woman and about an older woman - and the relationship to Blaze both as a man and as a ghost. And it was a very interesting book. And I thought, well this could be a movie. And so then it just started taking shape - that it could be this love story along with some other things. And it happened pretty effortlessly.
I mean, I haven't read the book, but that almost makes me think of Suze Rotolo, Dylan's girlfriend during his ‘freewheelin' times’ - the title of the book is A Freewheelin' Time, meaning when all was gay and lovely before shit got heavy.
And that was Blaze and Sybil's time together. They lived in a tree house. I kind of saw it as kind of a Walden Pond like experience where this universe where the masculine and feminine are perfectly integrated and boy and girl live in peace and harmony. And then there's this crashing down from Eden as you start to say, "Hey man, I wanna be a rockstar."
Right. I mean, I love when Sybil says, you know, "Let's go out in the real world," and he's like, "Oh, this isn't the real world?"
"This isn't the real world?" That's one of my favorite lines too, yeah.
When did you have the brilliant, inspired idea to cast Charlie Sexton as Townes Van Zandt?
That is an inspired idea. I mean, here's the funny thing, and it's strange to confess this because what happened was, we worked together on Boyhood. And I was just impressed with him. He was taking acting classes, he loves acting, he loves movies. And the whole time I was playing Chet Baker, I kept thinking, "God," you know, "Charlie Sexton would crush this part. They should've cast Charlie Sexton." And then this idea of a Blaze Foley movie came around. And I thought, "Oh, shit. Townes Van Zandt. Who could play Townes Van Zandt but Charlie Sexton?"
And then the funny thing is that I reflect on it, Charlie and I have a scene in Boyhood, in the background of the scene is a Be Here To Love Me poster in the background of our apartment. He plays my roommate in Boyhood, and we have a big Townes poster, and I thought maybe the idea started all the way fuckin' back then!
I never made the association til after we were done, but my subconscious probably made it.
Yeah, yeah. Oh, that's great. What was his process like? He really got it, I mean, the timbre of his voice, just everything.
It's a really brilliant performance.
It is, all around, but...
One of the troubles with a lot of movies or when people see somebody honestly, authentically has a relationship to music that is very powerful and meaningful - they can spill that blood onto the screen for you. I mean, you know, if you cast a great actor as Townes Van Zandt, I mean, Laurence fuckin' Olivier, the work - they couldn't come close to what he brings in this first shot. I mean, his face, his energy, and he helped elevate the script a lot.
I had a lot of fans' ideas about what the life of a musician is like. The romanticization of, I had a line in the script, you know, it's a classic kind of line, it's like, "You gotta live the song," you know. And Charlie said to me one day, he said, "You know, that is such a stupid line." He said, "You don't have to live it, you gotta die it." And I was like, "Alright, that's in the fuckin' movie." Those are insights that only a very specific kind of person would know.
I mean, it made me wonder, you know, you're a multifaceted creative person, but to what extent do you agree with that - that you have to die to an extent? I mean, for an actor, inhabiting so many different roles, I can't even really imagine the many lives you've lived, breathed, died…
There's a thing my friends and I used to call, when I was first falling in love with acting, early twenties and stuff - I used to call them silver bullet performances, meaning like, did you take it in the heart? Did you, you know, like Denzel Washington's Malcolm X is a silver bullet performance, you know? Pacino in Dog Day Afternoon, De Niro in Raging Bull, you know? Some people have more than one. But I'm always like, going for that Now there's a healthy way to die and an unhealthy way to die. Meaning, I think what Townes is talking about that moment is a very dangerous way to think. Because it involves a tremendous amount of narcissism.
He frames it that way. But there's a lot of narcissism in it. Is the art in service of you, or are you in service of the art? And you can spin it around and be effective either way. But I like to think of it as dying, like there's - in Kazan’s book, "A Life", he talks very much about how any great work of art has to have some blood in it. But in healthy relationships, you have leaves that are ready to fall. You let those suckers fall and that's how you're reborn, you know? And in unhealthy, you actually light yourself on fire. And you know, suffer.
I thought that way a little bit when I saw My Own Private Idaho. Yeah. That was a silver bullet performance. But maybe too much so.
Right, I mean, you gotta learn to maybe take it back a notch. It should've been 'If Only WE Could Fly', not I”
Exactly. Yeah, that's exactly it. And that's the larger- you could expand on that.
Yeah, of course, I mean, there's so many. It's a film full of loaded lines that just get ya.
Good. You know, I spent the morning, I did a podcast with Townes' son. JT Van Zandt interviewed me.
Oh, wow. I can't wait to listen to that.
It was really heavy, man.
What was the heaviest thing he had to ask about or wanted to talk about?
Well, exactly what we're talking about. About - he spoke very beautifully about only now, when he was younger he could see all the ways in which his father hurt him, which are many, and they're powerful and perhaps unforgivable. But then there's this other way that his father created something beautiful and only knew one way to do that. And JT is very profound in a way about how much he loves- how glad he is those songs exist. And his father didn't have much else to offer, but he did have that. And to not take that seriously is to not even see his dad. So it's an onion, you know, for him. It's a really profound onion.
It's a paradox.
And I was trying to get at that with the movie, which is that there's this healing, beatific place where creativity comes from, the tree house, where it's this well of creativity. And then there's this well of narcissism and of pain and of studying your own pain and hurting yourself. And they both can create. But one destroys, and one enlightens.
I mean, I can't spoil the film but I love the last scene of the film so much. And as somebody who found myself at Bukowski's gravestone like three weeks ago-
Yeah, yeah. I was in San Pedro. And you know, there's cigarette butts and everything-
“Are those your beer cans?” You know, it's weird that you say that because I was just at, coincidentally, for no good good reason, I mean, literally I just stumbled upon it - I was at Bukowski's parents' grave.
How weird is that?
Where are they buried?
And I was actually filming a movie at this grave site and somebody was like, "Hey, you know, Bukowski's parents are buried here." I was like, “Really?”.
I know this came from so many places for you, but where do you think, like, at the end of the day, where did… let me put this another way. In the introduction to Sybil's book, she says, "The dead are patient. They have a way of waiting for you, waiting until you're ready." - I'm paraphrasing, but I don't think you would've made this movie ten years ago.
Oh, god no. And if I did, I would've done it all wrong.
You know, ten years ago I would've played Townes. I wouldn't understand, I would've screwed it all up. And that's one of the great things about getting older is your sight expands a little bit. And also, you know, seeing, telling his story through her eyes makes it palatable. Because the darker stuff, it's funny, the stuff that hit the editing room floor was a lot of the darker stuff. Because I realized in filming it that we've seen it.
Everyone of us who has a friend who hurt themselves with drugs and alcohol knows exactly what that looks like. And once you know he's going down there, you just kind of ... it's like, I don't need to shoot two hours of footage of him drunk, throwing up, at strip clubs humiliating himself. You see it once, you go, I know exactly. You see that beard, I like that cut when he tells the record executives to fuck off and then you cut and then the beard happens. Okay, dude. That's what happens when you tell the record producers to fuck themselves ...
I mean, goddammit, my favorite moment might be, and it's a film full of favorite moments, but when Townes is fucking it up, just like too much junkie business on the stage playing Pancho and Lefty - ‘aw, but that's the way it goes’.
I know. So good. It's like, I just find that really moving. I just love that story, and also of two guys who can't take care of themselves but try to take care of each other. Even JT said, "My dad would always try to take care of Blaze. And Blaze would try to take care of him." They had some understanding of each other - of a kindred spirit.
Right, I mean, it goes beyond the universality of the blues, I guess. But you know, that's why people tap into the blues to an extent. Somebody's felt this way before me.
Yep, I'm not alone.
Yeah, this is the blood that's running through all of us.
Can you talk a little bit about “the value of zero” and what that means to you?
Well, one of the things I like about the line is it is a little mysterious. And I hesitate to make it one thing. Because what I like about the line is on one level, it's kind of like, almost something you'd imagine St Francis might say. In owning and possessing nothing, you're actually free. And even possessing no relationships. And the value of zero, giving yourself over completely.
I almost feel like in the movie, Townes is taunting Blaze into death. You know, he's taunting him. You know, will you give it all up? You know, that thing, that famous story…. you fall out of a window everybody will think you're nuts, but the truth is you know something that no one else knows. And that's kinda like, "Well, you wanna get shot and killed? That'd be a good song." You know, that can be Blaze's blues, wouldn't it. You know?
JT told me this great story. Blaze and Townes were supposed to play a show together two nights after he was killed. And at the end of the show, Townes said, "You know, I know that Blaze is dead, but I keep just thinking he's late. He's just the latest he's ever been." I felt like, well, that could be a line from the movie too. And the value of zero to me is a lot of things. It's both a temptation to darkness, and it's also very wise. And I'm not sure which is right.
Well, let's maybe end off on the dichotomy between legend versus star. You know, what does a legend have that a star doesn't?
Good question. We both know what he means, you know? And it's authenticity. There's a problem. As soon as you take the money, as soon as you perpetuate your own celebrity, you're engaged in a falsehood. And Blaze and Townes didn't do that. And that's why so many of us look up to them. And it's kinda beautiful, even though there's another element of self destruction.
In a world where everybody you meet seems like they're on the hustle, it's so - it's what I love, I mean, have you ever spent time with a monk or something? You're like, wow, they're not gonna get ahead. They're not gonna be a millionaire. They're not gonna be fabulous. They've totally- they're not chasing that carrot.
And there's something, you know, I did this documentary, Seymour: An Introduction, which is about this pianist. In some versions of the script it was in there, but in the movie, I have him, you know, they go see Blaze play and they're talking. Part of what that was, late in his life, they were supposed to go on tour but Blaze didn't wanna sign the contract because he literally thought it was being advertised like hillbillies on parade and he didn't think they were serious about the music.
He didn't wanna sign any contract. "I don't wanna have to be there, I'll be there if I wanna be!" And it was strange, it was so much like Seymour. Seymour's this Jewish intellectual from New York. But Seymour, when he was younger, got a record deal with RCA. But they just wanted him to play Rachmaninoff, but he didn't like Rachmaninoff. And he wouldn't do it. And I thought, you guys, there's this streak of authenticity over everything that is both beautiful and is like cutting yourself at the ankle.
Like, just play the Rachmaninoff album - you know, normal, your mom would say, "Play the Rachmaninoff album, then you can get what you want. Do the tour, be hillbillies on parade and then you'll get your record deal and then you can write the songs that you want." You know? And my joke is that Townes Van Zandt, John Cassavetes, Charles Bukowski, Jack Kerouac are responsible for more bad art than anybody else, because they make it look so easy to be authentic.
You know, "I'll just write a song about my friends. I'll just get drunk and write a song," or, "I'll just write about my farts and it'll be poetry." No, strangely ... I'm starting to put Linklater in that camp too, you know. Linklater makes something super simple look easy, you know? It's like, "Ah, let's shoot a movie about the night I graduated high school." Okay, cool. It's not any good though.
True say. Well, I think I'm getting the boot, but thanks man. It was a pleasure to talk to you. Your film really moved me.
You know what's funny about being here, I can't shake memories of The Newton Boys. Because when we were doing rehearsals for The Newton Boys, they gave Linklater like, a deal here. (Pointing) Matthew was right there, Dwight Yoakam was here, D'Onofrio was up there… It was like, such a different time.
Time, it passes.