It’s been a pretty great year for Ethan Hawke. The actor has already been earning Oscar buzz for his performance in Paul Schrader’s First Reformed—a buzz which has yet to die down—and his latest film, Blaze, has been burning up the festival circuit since its premiere at Sundance last January. Hawke fans shouldn’t walk into Blaze expecting to see the actor, however. This film finds him behind the camera, directing (and writing) one of the most powerful biopics to hit the screen in years.
Though not his first directorial effort, it’s certainly his best, showcasing all the talent and skills he has been building in his 30 plus year career. His lauded effort explores the life and legend of Texas country musician Blaze Foley, bringing the unsung hero of outlaw country to a larger stage than he ever knew in his tragically too short life.
I had the chance to catch up with Hawke as he prepared to screen the film before an audience in San Antonio, Texas. We talked about the myths that surround the subject of his film, the potential for cinematic depth of the Texas country scene, and the importance of the folk tradition. He was joined by his star, Ben Dickey, as the two prepared to take their film, and Blaze Foley, to new heights.
Of all the giants and legends and stalwarts and cornerstones of Texas country music, why Blaze Foley?
Ethan Hawke: For some reason, this project, it wasn’t really an intellectual idea that occurred to Ben and I. It was through our friendship and our love of music that we got to talking about Blaze. His story is extremely unique. I mean the tragedy around his death and the love story and the way that they intersect and how hard it is to make sense out of the way that they don’t intersect seemed right for telling a story. I think that, combined with Ben’s musicianship and the actor in me saw that Ben would have something to say in playing this part. Movies love a great performance, and if you can deliver one it makes it worth your while.
I know that your connection with Texas country goes pretty deep. I was just reading your interview with Beto O’Rourke where you talk about how your first concert was Willie’s Picnic in 1976. I was wondering if you had any other ideas or designs on Texas country biopics.
EH: [Laughs] One could spend their life! Kinky Friedman certainly deserves a movie. Guy Clarke certainly deserves a movie. Townes Van Zandt certainly deserves his own movie and his own telling. I mean you could make 15 movies about Willie, and you’d intersect with Doug Sahm, you’d intersect with—I mean the list would just go on and on.
You could almost have Townes center the whole thing and have a Texas Country Cinematic Universe.
Ben Dickey: That was kind of the original daydream. Blaze poses a question in the movie, “Where does the song come from?” I’m a songwriter and I can’t really tell you where some of my favorite songs that I’ve ever written have come from. It’s a very mysterious thing. When you take it seriously, when you take the music part of it seriously, and these songs arrive, it’s rightly mysterious. When we first started talking about that, we were just sort of posing that question to each other.
Townes locked himself in a closet when he first got married and wrote “Waiting Around To Die,” the first song he ever wrote. That’s a helluva song to start your songwriting career on. You’re right, Townes could be this massive hub of the mystery of where the song comes from.
EH: It would be so fun to do a movie about his relationship with Lightning Hopkins.
Yeah you know, Ben mentioned Lightning Hopkins when we spoke last week and I had to go watch that Les Blank documentary.
BD: Isn’t it great?!
EH: Les Blank had a big influence on the way I thought about music and movies.
BD: We hid some dialogue in the movie that’s from Les Blank movies and we were in Utah showing the movie during Sundance. [His] wife came to the screening and she ran up to us and said, “Thank you for sticking that in there!” She was the only person yet to catch it.
He’s one of those directors I try to make everyone watch. I’ve made all of my friends sit through Garlic is As Good As Ten Mothers and they just think I’m so weird.
EH: I know. When I first told Richard Linklater what I was writing about and the way I was thinking about it, the first thing that he said was “You need to see A Poem is A Naked Person.”
I’m glad you said that because Blaze does have this vérité feel. How conscious of that were you while writing it?
EH: I think extremely conscious. We tried to shoot the movie on only one lens to try to create a simplicity. I wanted the acting to have a vérité feeling. You know, like a good country song, it feels true and real and almost like no thought went into it at all. It just kind of comes out. But of course, you need a tremendous amount of thought to make it seem like that. We had an amazing team of people. I mean, that’s always the fun of making a movie. When we talk about Texas outlaw country music, there’s a certain band of people that come together. Costume designers show up willing to work for less, drivers want to work on the movie who care about Blaze’s music. People show up, and they all contributed.
Structurally, the film is really interesting. I think about it almost like you would a mural, in that you can look at it up close and appreciate it while you’re watching it, but you don’t really fully make sense until you take that step back and see the whole, bigger picture. I was wondering what inspired that…I don’t want to say “disjointed,” but I guess that disjointed narrative structure.
EH: It is disjointed. Thank you for saying that, but that’s exactly what I would hope. I just want it to feel like memory. Sometimes I said, “I want it to feel like a broken window that we’re trying to put back together.” Like a really beautiful piece of stained glass and someone shot a bullet through it and you’re trying to piece it back together.
In regards to that feeling, how much was [co-writer and Blaze Foley’s ex-wife] Sybil Rosen an influence?
EH: She’s the spirit animal of the movie. She gave it insight. Her vision, in the memoir, of a relationship and time and how time intersects with country music and what a beautiful idea that is. Ben and I’s friendship made us start hunting for Blaze and it was finding her that let the movie really happen.
BD: I had confidence going in to take care of Blaze’s music and I was scrambling to put together some sort of arrangement and preparation and some sort of idea to take care of the other part of it. Sybil really supplied me with the confidence [to take] care of Blaze by being myself. Blaze and I are both from Arkansas and people, you know from Texas, Arkansas, Louisiana, people tell stories. They tell tall tales and funny tales and sexy tales and dirty tales. He was that, I grew up around that. Sybil’s love for Blaze came through to me very clearly in a really beautiful way. Her perspective on what it is to be alive, and being loved, and being lost and being in grief and being hilarious bits of laughter, she gave me a let of permission to sort of let go and become a version of Blaze.
When you think about Blaze Foley, he’s an artist that isn’t really super well-known outside of certain circles—although I do think more people know his music than they’re even aware; “Clay Pigeons” has certainly been covered by everybody—but this movie is probably as close as he’s ever gotten to being huge and well-known on a larger stage. Do you feel in any way like a caretaker of his music and legacy?
EH: I feel part of a tradition of torch passing. I feel honored to be a part of that. I know that, in a certain way, none of us have any right to tell each other’s stories but yet we need to. We need to. There’s something about true folk music that needs to be shared and needs to be shared in the right way. I do feel a part of that tradition.
Ben was telling me about how he first connected with Blaze through his father. I was wondering how you first connected with him.
EH: Well the first connection was made through Ben. Like Ben, I first heard of him from John Prine’s cover of “Clay Pigeons,” and then I was made aware that [the same] guy wrote “If I Could Only Fly.” You hear whispers that he’s who Lucinda’s “Drunken Angel” is about. The whole thing starts to take on a myth-like quality. Particularly before the internet when you really had no idea how he died. There were so many rumors about he was shot in a dumpster, he was shot in an unemployment line, in a bar fight. There were so many different stories that I heard that were so intriguing. And then the real story was actually even better than the fake stories!
So how did you go about separating myth from fact?
EH: We really didn’t. Part of the whole idea of telling the story from multiple point of views was—hopefully the audience is aware that any story has a point of view, that there is no all-encompassing truth that matches up for everyone. If different people made a movie about Blaze Foley, it would be a totally different movie. This is how Blaze intersects with Ben and me. This is the Blaze that Sybil saw in her memoir. So, it doesn’t pretend to be the truth. It’s hopefully giving it a spiritual truth.
The movie almost plays out almost like a musical. How did you guys pick the songs that you were going to use?
EH: It was so much fun. It was a like a musical. One of my favorite days of rehearsal, we sat in an empty restaurant before it opened with a sound engineer, Ben and myself, and we walked through the whole script as if it were a musical. Which songs. We’d play the whole song and think about it, what was the best verse? Largely, part of it had to do with which songs Ben was most drawn to, and how they intersected in telling [the story]. A lot of Blaze’s wit and political songs didn’t make the film because we had to focus on ones that told his story. We were creating a music, so certain songs fit our narrative better than “Springtime in Uganda.”
BD: I learned pretty much every song and when it got closer to going down and location scouting, I made of list of about 30. Ethan and I would sit and pull songs out and get it down to about 24. Then we had like the prime 12 that were gonna be portrayed at The Outhouse as our windows into the past. It was hard, really. Man, I love so many of the songs that we didn’t pick. But the ones we did pick have conduits throughout time and were able to take us on a journey.
Are there any songs that you regret not being able to include?
EH: I really wanted to include “My Reasons Why,” “Rainbows and Ridges,” “World War III”—
BD: “Faded Loves and Memories.”
EH: There’s a few that are really on the short list that if you told me when I started filming that they didn’t make the movie, I would be shocked. But you know, the movie has its own life and nothing ever turns out exactly as you plan. We all know that.
Blaze is now playing in select theaters.
See our one on one interview with Blaze star Ben Dickey here.
Read our review of Blaze here.