Blaze of Glory: Ethan Hawke captures the life of legendary roots musician Blaze Foley

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Roots musician Blaze Foley was revered by a small circle of insiders when he died in 1989. In the Sundance Selects release Blaze, opening nationally Sept. 7, director and co-writer Ethan Hawke reimagines Foley's life as an unjustly neglected artist who was done in by his own refusal to compromise. It's a cautionary tale that celebrates Foley while acknowledging his failures and contradictions.

It's also the rare musical movie starring real musicians. Hawke's longtime friend Ben Dickey, a singer, guitarist and songwriter, plays Foley. Guitarist Charlie Sexton stars as Foley's friend, the singer-songwriter Townes Van Zandt.

"Ben and I have been friends for about 15 years," Hawke says in a telephone interview. "We were driving together, and John Prine's cover of 'Clay Pigeons' came on his mix tape. I said I think this is my favorite John Prine song, and Ben said, 'No, that's Blaze Foley, he wrote that song.'

"I was intrigued, and for the next decade or so I would ask people about him. I got so many different answers—that he was shot in a bar fight, that he was killed in an unemployment line, that the song 'Pancho and Lefty' was written about him. Lots of things that turned out to be not true."

Coming across the memoir Living in the Woods in a Tree: Remembering Blaze by Sybil Rosen gave Hawke new insights into the musician. (Rosen would go on to co-author the screenplay with Hawke. Alia Shawkat portrays her in the movie.)

"In Sybil's book Blaze was so much more interesting a person than I thought he was," Hawke remembers. "I didn't want to make another story about drug addiction. Having the story be their love affair, the tree house they lived in, all of a sudden I thought this would be fun to write about."

Hawke approached the project as a fiction rather than nonfiction film. To help contain the many lives Blaze lived, he decided to explore several storylines concurrently, switching back and forth in time and place. In one timeline Van Zandt and Blaze's friend Zee (Josh Hamilton) share stories about their departed friend in a radio interview. Another depicts how Blaze and Sybil met and fell in love. Much of Blaze is built around the last concert he gave, one that was recorded in a dive bar in Austin called the Outhouse.

"I know people enjoy a beginning, middle and end narrative," Hawke concedes. "But as someone who's been making movies for thirty years, my brain resists. One of the goals of the screenplay was to find a kind of representation of past, present, future, and how they actually affect one another. How the past changes as you remember it."

Hawke's experiences playing Chet Baker in Born to Be Blue convinced him that he needed actual musicians in Blaze. "The whole time I was doing that part I knew that I couldn't get at the most essential element of Chet, his relationship to music. I could get aspects of Chet that I understood, but I kept thinking, boy, if you're going to do a movie about musicians, you ought to cast musicians.

"But with two basically non-actors, Ben and Charlie Sexton, as my leads, I just didn't know how well they'd be able to act," he goes on. "It was a huge variable about what I would be able to achieve as director. The ability to intercut stories gave me a lot of freedom with their performances. It created a path that could allow for a tremendous amount of spontaneity in front of the camera. The storylines also provide a kind of musical nature to the movie. I started calling Blaze my country-and-western opera."

Hawke was struck by the correlations between Blaze and Ben Dickey. Both were from Arkansas, both wrote idiosyncratic music impossible to pigeonhole.

"Movies love an intersection of person and part," he says. "Ben knows Blaze's music backwards and forwards, he could pick it like Blaze and sing every one of his songs beautifully on call. I was watching him play 'Clay Pigeons' and starting thinking 'What if?' So I sent him to Vincent D'Onofrio, my favorite acting teacher in New York. Vincent called me back and said, 'You've got to do this, this guy is an incredible actor.'"

As shooting approached, Hawke worked out several "rules" for Blaze, a practice he watched Paul Schrader using in First Reformed. While they are admittedly made to be broken, rules can bring a unique energy to filmmaking. In First Reformed, a different aspect ratio served to charge compositions by cinematographer Alexander Dynan. In Blaze, Hawke wanted the music first and foremost to be filmed live.

"For my whole life, whenever you have music in a movie, you do this thing that is incredibly fake," he says. "You pre-record the music, and then everybody just kind of air guitars along when you're shooting. It's always bugged me.

"We went through a lot of headaches to be able to record all of the music live," he adds. "When they're playing on a porch, that's really Charlie and Ben playing. We put some mikes up there with them, so if birds are singing in the background, that's what you hear. And it was important to not make the music sound too good. Like in the Outhouse, Charlie said Blaze wouldn't have been able to afford backup musicians. So we went with that stripped-down sound."

Hawke set other rules as well. Every timeline in Thomas Hayek's production design has its own color scheme. Hawke told cinematographer Steve Cosens that he wanted to use one camera body and one lens. And he did not want to shoot coverage. No master shots, no cutaways or corresponding close-ups unless absolutely necessary. ("I think we shot one insert where we changed the lens, but really, it's 97.9 percent that one lens.") It's an incredible risk to take, especially while filming musical performances.

"Steve shot Born to Be Blue, where I did probably the most improvising I've ever done in my life," Hawke says. "He was amazing, he created an energy that encouraged improvisation. For the lack of a better word, he's very centered, a very Zen person, and you feel safe around him.

"I knew when I cast Ben that the way to get an exceptional performance from him was in part through the cinematography. Certain cinematographers are not actor-friendly. They take a lot of time to light and it becomes all about the photography. I needed a guy like Steve who could disappear, who could encourage Ben and Alia to excel and be playful."

Blaze is very definitely an actors' film, shot in an environment Hawke and his crew built carefully to protect the performers. "You spend your life as an actor having your work compromised. Constantly," Hawke says. "Because a lot of directors are scared of performance. You can control props, you can control visual effects, you can control bombs going off. But human beings are messy and sloppy and strange and uncontrollable. So I just tried to create a set that was the way I wanted most of my sets be like. Give the opportunity to act and have that be the priority on set."

Hawke's last film was the documentary Seymour: An Introduction, about Seymour Bernstein, a classical pianist who turned away from a touring career to focus on living a better life.

"I learned a lot about acting from that documentary," Hawke reveals. "When you're filming people who aren't acting, why does it look different than when they are? And why is it so hypnotizing when you capture a bit of real life? Charlie and Ben are musicians and artists who understand performance. So I could kind of use their beginner's mind about acting to a better impact if I just kept things as real as possible. Let them sit on the front porch and tell jokes until everyone felt really comfortable, and then we'd photograph it."

The subject of the documentary Be Here to Love Me, Van Zandt was notorious for sabotaging his career. And in Blaze, Foley follows a similar path into drink and drugs. In fact, country music is littered with the corpses of stars who died too young, from Jimmie Rodgers and Hank Williams to Mel Street and Keith Whitley. But Hawke points out that tortured geniuses exist in every musical genre, from jazz to hip-hop to pop. He even played one in Born to Be Blue.

"That self-destructive streak, it's one of the questions I think the movie is posing," Hawke says. "It was also part of Seymour, he talks a lot about certain sparks of genius that are actually narcissistic and self-destructive, and a different kind of talent that nurtures others and the self."

For Hawke, part of the appeal about making a film about Foley’s life was that he was a working artist, not a "genius." Artists like Van Zandt may not have been satisfied with life as it is. They drew from a dangerous well of creativity, one that is ultimately negative.

"When I was about 23 I saw an interview with Townes where he said if you want to be a serious artist you have to give up everything," Hawke recalls. "Family, friends, work. And I remember being just absolutely petrified by it because I admired him so much. And there did seem to be some truth to these people who pour kerosene all over themselves and this unbelievable art comes out.

"But then you meet someone like Richard Linklater. He loves life, he's so easygoing, a good person to hang with and be around. He fights for the community and he cares about other people and he makes great, valuable art. So it's not true that there's only one way to do it. It's a question of what you want your art to be in service of. If it's in service of yourself, then you can kind of set yourself on fire, and if it's in service of others, then you want to live a long time and be in service of the art form itself."

In Blaze, Foley stands in the middle of a spectrum between the positive creativity of artists like Thoreau and Whitman and what Hawke calls "a well of narcissism and self-loathing. There's two loves in Blaze's life, his love of Sybil and his love of Townes, and Townes was a dangerous guy. I have this long close-up of Blaze watching Townes play 'Marie,' which is one of the greatest country songs ever written, and Blaze is just hypnotized by the darkness."

Toward the end of the movie, Hawke gives an account of a disastrous performance by Foley in New York City. Foley followed it up by throwing a party with Van Zandt so debauched that it bankrupted his record company.

"They thought it was really funny," Hawke says. "I think it's incredibly dangerous for young people, because they think that kind of behavior creates those songs. The fact of the matter is those guys were actually so talented that the songs came despite that behavior. You know, this movie is called Blaze and it uses Blaze Foley to tell a story. But in a lot of ways my favorite characters are Sybil and Zee, the survivors."

Hawke sees a connection between artists like Van Zandt and River Phoenix, a friend and his first scene partner. "I remember going to My Own Private Idaho and being worried for River. There's something staggering about his performance, something so vibrant and alive it was actually scary. In the same way, there was something ferocious about Phil [Phillip Seymour Hoffman], something exciting but also dangerous in his work."

When Foley died in 1989, he had released a single album and a couple of singles. His only widely known song was "If I Could Only Fly," covered by Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson on an album of duets.

"Merle said once in an interview that that was the best country song written in the last ten years," Hawke says. "And Blaze had that ripped out of a magazine and taped to the inside of his guitar case. It meant so much to him. 'If I Could Only Fly' is his masterpiece."

It was also a turning point in Foley's life. In Rosen's memoir, she wrote that when he played it for her, she knew two things simultaneously. One, he had finally matured as an artist, had finally written a song that was going to last. And also that they were breaking up for good.

"While we were making the movie, I had this huge breakup scene written where they talk and talk," Hawke remembers. "And as I was cutting it, I really realized that Blaze's words, the words of that song, say everything. They say everything better than I could ever say it. So we ended up that the whole breakup scene is just Ben crying and playing that song."

In recent years, Hawke has searched for equilibrium, a way of balancing his career and private life. "These last five years have been really good for me," he says. "I'm getting to do the kind of work I always wanted. I've also spent a lot of time thinking about authenticity and contribution and what roles a good father, a good husband play. All those questions about where you place your values."

Whether he's working as an actor, writer or director, Ethan Hawke goes all in. And in Blaze he's found a subject that dovetails with the key questions in his own life. It's a tragic story told with tenderness and understanding, because, as Hawke puts it, "There's so many Blaze Foleys in the world, you know?"