"It feels amazing to have your daughter come to you with a job offer."

When Maya Hawke secured the rights to make a film about the writer Flannery O'Connor — a passion project she had been dreaming about since she was in high school — the first person she pitched the project to was her dad, four-time Oscar nominee Ethan Hawke, in hopes that he would direct her in it. He not only agreed to helm the film but signed on as a co-writer and producer, too.

The film they've made is Wildcat, a kaleidoscopic biopic that follows Flannery as she struggles to publish her first novel while navigating a difficult relationship with her mother (played by Laura Linney) and dealing with the lupus diagnosis that would end her life at the age of 39.

For the elder Hawke, it was not just a chance to work with his daughter, but an opportunity to make a movie that pondered faith, purpose, and art. (The film is punctuated by vignettes based on Flannery's stories.) The Hawkes unveiled Wildcat at last year's Telluride Film Festival; the last time Ethan had attended the festival was in 2017 when was there for Paul Schrader's First Reformed.

"It's just so much more personal," Hawke tells A.frame when asked how releasing a film he's directed compares to one in which he stars. "There are things that I act in that I invest a tremendous amount in, but one of the things that's so challenging about directing is just the time that you have to put into it. First Reformed is a movie that means a tremendous amount to me, but it cost me five weeks in my life, right? Paul worked on it for years." (Shrader went on receive an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay for First Reformed.)

A.frame: You started acting when you were so young. When did you know you wanted to be a director?

Ethan Hawke: I think when you're a young actor, you have this idea that the director is in charge, and then at some point, some part of you invariably thinks, "I want to be in charge." [Laughs] But I had a really great experience when I did Dead Poets Society. Peter Weir was a master, and he was just an amazing person. He was a great leader and a great model of what a director could be. He really empowered a lot of other artisans to do their best work, that was his gift. I really admired him, and that gave me something to aspire for. I made a short film when I was 19 or 20, right after Dead Poets Society, but then I got super interested in theater and I started directing theater.

The trouble with directing movies is you have to be part hustler. If you want to direct movies about zombies and stuff like that, you can do that. But if your interests aren't wildly commercial, if you want to make "art films," you have to be part hustler to raise the money to make it. That's exhausting. Often, you fail. But I think in my early 40s, I made this documentary called Seymour: An Introduction, and that started what I would call my adult relationship to directing. Seymour, Blaze, The Last Movie Stars and Wildcat have felt like of a chapter of my life.

You directed your first film [2001's Chelsea Walls] more than 20 years ago. I have to assume that when you're moving from acting to directing, like when you move from any discipline into another, there is some imposter syndrome. In this new chapter you're talking about, was there a point where that went away and you were able to see yourself as a proper filmmaker in your own right?

Maybe so. Definitely there was a feeling when I was first doing it that you're this enfant terrible. The ego has run wild. At this stage, I feel like, "No, it's okay. I'm allowed to direct Laura Linney. I've known her for 30 years. I've studied acting for 40 years. I'm qualified to be here if anybody is." That imposter syndrome dial in your brain gets turned down.


You've never starred in one of your own movies, not in a lead role. Has that been a conscious choice?

Yeah. For me, it would just rob me of everything I love about directing. What I love about directing is creating a space for other actors to work, to have the experience that I want and to give other people a place to shine. That's the joy of it for me. I couldn't imagine wanting to sit in the editing room and decide which take I was best in. I can't imagine that that's healthy for the soul. I think with [Charlie] Chaplin and Buster Keaton and Woody Allen, comedians who have such a clear personality type, and then maybe Clint Eastwood, their acting is not the event of the movie. It's just their being. I know people who have done it to great success. It has zero interest for me.

Wildcat feels like your most cinematically ambitious project yet. Did it feel that way to you?

Definitely. Our subject matter, she was so disciplined. Blaze [Foley] was big, and wild, and sloppy, and messy, and lived his whole life that way. In a way, the movie could be that way too to match him. But Flannery is disciplined, intelligent, she's like a razor blade. I knew the film had to be built a certain way or else we'd be undermining her. The form had to match the content. You weren't going to discover the movie in the editing room. It had to be meticulously made.

What themes or ideas could you explore through her life and her work that most interested you?

The whole idea of the film is basically, is human creativity an act of worship? What is the intersection between imagination and reality? Is what we dream a part of our waking life? More and more, I've just come to feel that our imagination is real; that's how we work through ideas and heal ourselves and heal the world. It begins in the imagination. I wanted to make a movie about that. Her faith was so substantial and such a serious part of her life, and it gave her a lot of power.

One of the problems that we suffer from breaking down churches and resisting organized religion is it's very difficult to replace it with anything. It often gets replaced with ego and worship of the self, or worship of money, or worship of status. Her discipline and her faith really brought her somewhere, and the fact that she combined the two without ever proselytizing. Her work feels incredibly personal, incredibly deep, and it felt like the greatest manifestation of her faith is in this art that we all have. I mean, it can make you laugh 70 years after it happened, so it's still alive. I just got really interested in that idea, and I was like, "Is it possible to make a movie about that?"


If people don't know the origin story of this movie, they might assume that you signed on to direct this and then cast Maya. But this started with Maya and she brought it to you to direct. That must have been quite a meaningful moment both as an artist and a dad.

Absolutely. The first person to ever hire me to direct was my daughter. My other projects all generated out of my own personal interests, and this one came to me through her and through our shared love. We love talking about the history of art, and artists in America, and faith and all the prickly thorns involved in that. That is something that really interests us. It feels amazing to have your daughter come to you with a job offer.

Was there a readjustment process needed to go from father and daughter to working as director and actor?

No. Her childhood was fraught and the things that have happened in our lives, it forced us to hopefully be stronger. It's that famous line about being stronger in the broken places, and we've been through a lot together. One of the safe places for us is creativity — talking about movies, talking about bands, talking about acting. She'd be backstage in my dressing room at Lincoln Center when I was playing Macbeth, talking to me about how Act II went. This is not new for us. I would listen to her write her songs when she was 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, telling her, "I don't like the third verse. Cut that line." So, no. This is where we live. This felt really wonderful, actually.

You know better than anyone what Maya is capable of as an actor. When you're directing her, how do you know when you've got the take and when to push her to do one more?

Funnily enough, she pushes herself harder than anyone. Part of my job was not letting her whip herself so hard. She wanted to communicate something with this character, and it was very personal to her. One of the things that's really difficult about making a movie is it's actually not the best that you can do. It's the best you can do on a given Tuesday, when it's raining, and you lost the location that you wanted, and the focus puller has the flu. You're always dealing with the messy sloppiness of actual life. Most of us are just trying to fight the clock and fight the bank account, so there's a certain bit of forgiveness you have to have with yourself, and playfulness, and you have to let go.

She didn't need to be told to work harder or be more ferocious on herself. I know I'm her dad, and so you'd think I'd be sitting there loving everything that she did, but I really am her hardest critic. I see through when she's not at her best, and she's just learned to trust me. I think that when I was happy, she was happy, because she knew I was discerning that way. We had so many other great artisans on set. I wasn't going to let it not be its best. Because she really does whip herself.


When you think back on filming, is there a moment or a memory that has come to encompass your experience on Wildcat?

There's something about independent film that is so exciting, really. We had a house we shared together. Maya graduated high school about seven years ago or something, so we haven't lived in the same house in a while. And to have her in the kitchen with the script, and inviting people over for dinner, and rehearsing, and talking about all the themes that this movie brings up, it was this exciting time in our lives. I remember all the planning and work that went into it, and it was pretty incredible to watch her and Cooper Hoffman. The finale of the film is Flannery's story Good Country People, and I got to watch these two young people be so passionate about what they do. I was watching the next generation learn what storytelling can be, and that was pretty thrilling.

Directing encompasses so much, obviously beyond working with the actors and hustling to get the movie made in the first place. Is there a part of the process that you've really taken to, whether that be working with the production designer, shot-listing with your DP, being in the editing room?

I came in to directing as an actor, so everything was oriented about acting. I'd spent a lot of time in my life on film sets, but my whole relationship to a film set was as an actor. When I did the The Last Movie Stars, which was, like, six hours long, I spent a lot of time with the editor. I had this editor, Barry Poltermann, and I learned a lot about editing and how editing is used to tell stories. That was the biggest surprise to me, and it became my newest toolkit. I think it really affected the screenplay of Wildcat. It affected the way I saw it on set. I've always loved cinematographers. I mean, actors, we just love cinematographers. They're people that can create a beautiful image! It's so exciting. Acting and photography had always interested me, but I've never known anything at all about editing. I really discovered it as its own art form with The Last Movie Stars, and that really changed me.

Blaze wasn't that long ago, The Last Movie Stars was two years ago, and now with Wildcat, your time between directing projects seems to have become less and less. Do you have a philosophy on how you hope to balance the things you want to make with the roles you take in other directors' projects?

It's really embarrassing, but I've had no agenda my whole life. I've just followed my intuition. Each one of those projects that you mentioned happened in their own way for their own reasons, and I just tried to listen to that really fragile voice inside me. It's like a wavering compass, saying, "Go that direction, go that direction." It usually has to do with other people. In this case, it was Maya. I did that whole Marvel project [Moon Knight] because I met Oscar Isaac at a coffee shop, and I walked away like, "I like that guy. I want to work with him. I'm going to do that." I'm glad I did. None of it really makes any sense, but it's accumulated into my life. And I've learned to trust it.

By John Boone


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