“We hurt ourselves with our egos”: Ethan Hawke reflects on his success at Locarno 2018 press conference
Actor and director Ethan Hawke is this year’s recipient of the 2018 Excellence Award from Locarno Film Festival. The filmmaker’s career broke through in Dead Poets Society, and he went on to star in Reality Bites and the Before trilogy, earning Oscar nominations for Training Day and Boyhood. The star recently earned widespread acclaim for his performance in Paul Schrader’s First Reformed. Hawke reflected on his life and work during a press conference overlooking Lake Maggiore.
Hawke spoke about his feelings of receiving a valedictory award at a stage in his career when he seems to be making more films than ever. He referenced Sidney Lumet: “Everyone wants to give me a lifetime achievement award, but nobody will let me make another movie.”
“They want to put me out to pasture, grazing in a field and at film festivals. So on one level, I feel completely undeserving and on another, I think about what Richard Linklater told me: that I shouldn’t get too high on myself and that these are mid-career check-ins.”
“You’ve made it to this stage and in the next one they’ll hate you and say you’re washed up. Then you hang in there to get into the next round where they invite you to be head of a jury.”
“There was an article back home that talked about the success of First Reformed, and with Blaze coming out I was poised to have a Matthew McConaughey moment. Linklater left me a message that was so sweet, suggesting that it was an insult to both of us, as I would have had to have been washed up before!”
Hawke spoke at length about his prolific output. “I’ve tried to solve all my problems with working, like when my first marriage fell apart. It’s strange to be 47 and have made films for 30 years.”
The actor’s career has progressed in tandem with other performers of his generation. “I saw Christian Bale in a movie recently. I felt a sense of pride. The first time I was jealous of Bale was when I was 19. I’d been the youngest client at my agency until they signed him. The next year there was this other guy [Bale]. I was like, who the hell is that?”
On his documentary Seymour: An Introduction, Hawke outlined his motivations to do the project. “Some people have a mid-life crisis and buy a Porsche or do lots of drugs. I had a mid-life crisis and decided to make a film about an octogenarian piano player.”
“One of the things I find interesting about piano players if that you have mentors deep into your life. One of the problems with contemporary culture is it helps 18-year-olds to be 35. But there’s not a lot of energy for teaching 40-year-olds how to be 80. There are not universities for it.”
Hawke explained his reasons for making the film: “Some people feel like they have to find a flower on a mountain which speaks and tells them to go to Istanbul and find the cup of Christ. Then they feel their life would have mission. Seymour is good at showing you how you’ve already been given that mission. My takeaway was that you just have to accept yourself.”
Hawke discussed his experiences with various directors. “Being on a Richard Linklater set is different to being on an Antoine Fuqua set. Paul Schrader gave me one of the parts of my life. But being in his film is different to being in Before Sunrise. It’s a totally different job. It’s who you are inside that will help you tackle the vicissitudes that come at you.”
Working with Andrew Niccol on his first feature, Hawke reminisced: “it came out of the gate with something to say. Studios don’t make movies like Gattaca anymore. Now if you had a script it would be made with an eighth of the budget. It would be done in half the time. I spoke to Niccol after the movie came out and he didn’t have one good quote, not one superlative [for the marketing]. It was being pulled from cinemas.”
On the possibility of a new Before film, Hawke was keen but had reservations. “There’s a symmetry to those movies. It starts with a couple in their 40s fighting on a train, and you pan over and it’s two young people. Our characters turn into that couple. There’s something beautiful about it, that we’re caught in some kind of space-time-continuum. It has a sense of completion as a trilogy.”
“But I could imagine revisiting Jesse and Céline in a totally different way. After Amour, Julie [Delpy] wrote to me and said that they had already made the sequel! I had a dream about the fourth movie and it was entirely erotic. It would make [Monica] Bellucci blush. Julie just wrote back saying, ‘too late’”.
Hawke discussed his critical hit First Reformed from Paul Schrader. The director, according to Hawke, is “a sensationalist who loves sex and violence. But that’s not only him. He puts the art into it.”
“The first pages of the script talk about the books on Reverend Toller’s desk and almost all of these, my mother had given me. I felt like I’d been prepared for this role. Thomas Merton wrote in the 60s and he was already seeing an obsession with celebrity, a public self that creates a fake self. With social media, everybody has a public self. TS Eliot and Andy Warhol wrote about this, the fake self. It helped me deal with celebrity.”
“One of the last times I spoke to River Phoenix, he talked about how people perceive you. It’s very hard to know how you are when people are labelling what you’re not. He couldn’t believe how fake the Oscars were. He said: ‘you can knock these statues over; they’re not gold, they’re paper. Most people are voting for movies they haven’t seen.’ You have to accept the phoney nature of the world and move on.”
On Boyhood losing out at the Oscars, Hawke is pragmatic: “You want the work to be worthy. But you don’t get caught up in seeing other people’s definitions of the authentic way to live your life. It’s always a bit better when you don’t win the Oscar. Because if you don’t, everybody spends the rest of your life telling you how it should have. If you do, people spend the rest of your life saying how it shouldn’t have.”
“I hate it when life moves the goal line. We made a movie with all our friends over ten years about the subtle changes in growing up. And this movie made its way into the commercial marketplace. That’s a miracle. There’s a politics to winning. Don’t give your heart away too easily. I spend my life making little indie movies that no one even hears of. To make [Boyhood] into a defeat would be a waste of time.”
Making intelligent cinema for a mass audience preoccupies Hawke. “The Trojan Horse [method] is a great way to make a movie. Get Out is a good example. They get you to come to the midnight popcorn movie which is really about race.”
“The Purge is similar. The movie presents itself as: ‘in the future when rich people don’t care about poor people, and they’re on treadmills watching people be burned alive and switching channels to find something more entertaining… in the future’. There’s something punk rock about that [deception].”
With Predestination, Hawke “tried to make a time travel film that didn’t fall apart the second time you watch it. We spent two weeks in a hotel room trying to work it out. We really cared. There’s no high or low art. There’s good and bad movies. Did the people who made the movie put their best love into making it?”
“Sinister was my first horror movie, which I did because it was interesting. A lot of men let in their ego. They let it destroy their home. They feed the wrong demon all the time. It’s a metaphor about a marriage, about how men prioritise the wrong thing. That was fun to do. If it was about blood splattering, I wouldn’t do it.”
Austin, Texas is the setting of his newly directed film Blaze, showing at Locarno. Hawke spoke of the city’s allure: “the thing about cities is they become focal points. People come to see the legends. I think I was inspired by a natural love of music and people I’ve spent my life with. I didn’t know Blaze. I knew people like him. I felt qualified to write that story because I’ve swum in that water a lot.”
“I’m just trying to follow my gut. With music, it’s where I find the pulse. I’ve never been paid for it. It’s non-verbal. It’s pure.”
On festivals, Hawke noted how critics have become “curators” in a saturated film market, in which anyone can make and release their work. On superhero films, Hawke had reservations on the critical acclaim for Logan: “It’s still about people in tights with metal coming out of their hands. It’s not [Robert] Bresson; it’s not [Ingmar] Bergman.”
Finally, the star spoke about how he’s changed as a man. “Being proud of being good doesn’t really make sense. If you were good, pride would be an obstacle. When you’re young, you don’t want to be perceived as good, because that doesn’t have an edge. Young actors want to be interesting.”
“My mother and father are both spiritual. As soon as you depart from superficial success, they’ve shown that they wouldn’t love me any better, even if I won Best Actor at Venice. It’s not how they grade. My father loves me just as much as his other sons. As a young person you find it kind of corny, but as you get older you realise that’s reality. We hurt ourselves with our egos, with our self-importance.”
Photo: Pier Marco Tacca/ Getty Images
Read more reviews from our Locarno Film Festival 2018 coverage here.
For further information about the event visit the Locarno Film Festival website here.