Interview – Ethan Hawke and Ben Dickey – Blaze
In the 1999 article “A Walking Contradiction: The Legend of Blaze Foley,” “Lost John” Casner described his friend to author Lee Nichols of The Austin Chronicle as “a fighter for the things he believed in. Frankly, sometimes when he’d had too much to drink, he was a fighter for things that he believed in at the moment.” In Blaze, Ethan Hawke’s feature about the enigmatic singer-songwriter-rapscallion-poet-tortured soul, he and newcomer Ben Dickey pluck out such contradictions from Foley’s heart on stage and examine them in sharp focus: the inspiration from the tiniest spark in a dimly lit pool hall, the bittersweet memories of family and love that emerge from a familiar sight or smell, the fear of either inheriting heartache or creating it as part of the artistic process.
The MacGuffin had the opportunity to sit down with Ethan Hawke and Ben Dickey before the Houston premiere of the film on August 13 and went long on giving Foley his due, their influences, and the romanticization of the outlaw.
MacGuffin: Since this picture is about someone relatively unknown, did that give you freedom in its structure about Foley’s life rather than Johnny Cash or Ray Charles?
Ethan Hawke: Yeah you have to tip your hat to so many tropes or the fans won’t like the movie, and we had the freedom, I think, to avoid imitation. If you’re doing Johnny Cash and you don’t [imitates Johnny Cash] then people get upset. Even with Jim Morrison, there’s a certain impersonation that kind of has to happen or people will resist you, but we didn’t have that obstacle. We could pay homage to the ones that kind of spoke to us. It’s not like people would get mad at us if we didn’t.
MG: This film reminded me of Willie Nelson’s early 80s films like Songwriter and Honeysuckle Rose.
EH: I love Songwriter – we talked about Songwriter (gestures at Dickey) when I was telling Ben that he could do this. That movie’s kind of meandering and strange, but there’s something about their performances that are authentic and they smell right in a way that a lot of movies don’t, so I thought, well, shit, you know, if Ben could bring that kind of authenticity to the music, and I could build the kind of movie to my liking around it, it could be really special. But Songwriter was a big inspiration.
MG: Did you look back on any musical inspirations, either music-driven films or musicians when you were preparing for [your role]?
Ben Dickey: About fifteen years ago I ingested the entire Mississippi John Hurt canon of music, and revisited [him] again just because his songs or most of his recorded numbers are finger picking and there’s a lot of power in his simplicity. As far as performances go, there was Orson Welles being himself on camera and, oddly enough, I studied Jonathan Winters because Blaze had that childlike hilarity that [Winters] had but he was also morbidly depressed just like Jonathan. I watched a bunch of stuff from Jonathan in the 60s and early 70s, just for his facial expressions and the little games he would play and the way he would tell stories. [Hawke] introduced me to some Cassavetes films that I was not really aware of, but most of my hypnotizing places came from music.
MG: The part at the beginning where Blaze is so mad at the studio owner that he spits reminded me of Jack Nicholson in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest – he just wants to be obstinate, almost like a bulldog.
BD: He growls and he snarls.
MG: Yes! Well, that reminded me of Oliver Reed in real life [Dickey laughs] rather than in a specific movie. I wondered Where is he getting this portrayal? because I had not seen enough of Blaze to recognize what was spot-on.
EH: The fortunate thing about exploring a lesser-known figure is that it could be Ben’s performance. You’re not trying to copy something.
MG: You’re not trying to match tic for tic.
BD: In the interviews I have seen with him, his voice is deeper than mine, but as far as the music went, I wanted to get pretty darn close to what he was trying to do.
MG: The way you strung your words together almost reminded me of Bruce Springsteen doing blues riffs – not in concert, just him and a guitar –
BD: I like that.
MG: Even though he’s Jersey and Blaze is from the South.
EH: Yeah but he’s so influenced by the blues, listening to the same records you’re listening to.
MG: You were talking about [Blaze’s] depression and it almost seems overwhelming at times to him, especially being a creative person. He gets inspiration – like he talks about little sparks – and you did a lot of your shots, especially the God’s eye shots of the Texas countryside. Where did you get a chance to film?
EH: Due to government kickbacks, it became impossible to shoot in Austin. That was my first choice: to go to the scene of the crime, literally. So we shot in Louisiana. That landscape is perfect, and Baton Rouge is kind of frozen in the 80s. It was perfect for our budget level; Louisiana is very film-friendly and made it really possible for us.
MG: I could not tell it wasn’t Texas; I was trying to figure out if it was out by Enchanted Rock.
EH: You know, it’s funny because that’s where we would have gone because we can’t shoot in Austin. We would have gone to places like Enchanted Rock.
BD: Well, western Louisiana is like east Texas.
EH: I would look at the frame and always remind myself Where are we? There wasn’t anything that offended (he then mentioned that Beth, Ben’s sweetheart, would point out things that didn’t look like they belonged in Texas).
MG: Little Onion, or Sybil Rosen (Foley’s ex-wife and forever muse), does a monologue at the beginning about loving an unfortunate man over a fortunate one. Do you think the misfortune in Blaze’s life is [due to] bad choices, bad luck, bad timing…?
EH: That’s the question, right? That’s the question: do we create our own luck, or do we not? In some ways, we do; in others, we don’t. That speech is from “Ivanov” (an 1887 play by Anton Chekov) which is about a suicidal man on a mission to end his life. What I find interesting about it is how none of this stuff is new, yet is speaking directly to Blaze and Sybil’s relationship and how there is something some people need more than love. Why is that and what would that possibly be? Sometimes people learn too late that there wasn’t anything they wanted more than love. I was trying to tap into the aspects of Blaze that are not literal, like Blaze as Falstaff or Blaze as a prototype of a bipolar creative personality – the Blazes of the world. Different people are placed in communities, different poets: we serve a purpose for each other. A man like Blaze is very useful; unfortunately, he was as drawn to the dark as he was to the light, and he got caught in the undertow.
MG: Now, playing Devil’s Advocate: Blaze tells Sybil early on that he doesn’t want to be a star – he wants to be a legend. Your story features a lot of his friends talking about him to the point of exaggeration, maybe?
BD: Legend making.
MG: Do you think that influenced some of Blaze’s more sensational behavior: he wanted to create his legend as he was going?
EH: I think that people do that, consciously or unconsciously. You see that in Bob Dylan creating legends around [himself], in Kerouac or some filmmakers. It’s a dangerous, dangerous game to play to see yourself in third-person and try to write your story, because writing the story of the poet who burns out has a romanticism to it, but you know, that’s not nearly as good as the story of the poet who lives to ninety-seven.
MG: My last question relates to that romanticism. The part where they go to the state home to see Blaze’s dad, he says “These are my bones, these are your bones, too” [Dickey clarifies that Blaze says that line.] Knowing what happened to his dad and how his father treated him, and with the drinking, the carousing, and the behavior, was his father’s specter over him more fatalistic or more proactive in his creative process?
EH: That’s a beautiful question and I’m so happy that you asked because that’s why it’s in the movie. It’s hanging over him and a fear of madness is a very intense thing in a person’s life if they have it. If you experience heavy mood swings, you fear the next one. If you know that your father struggled with a demon and hurt you, and you might hurt other people, it undermines the ballast of your ship. That scene, for me, is about him taking a good, hard look at something he’s running from. My hope is that it’s clear to the audience at the end why he’s talking about that.
[Hawke had to step out.]