Ethan Hawke is no Johnny Come Lately. After a career spanning over three-decades as a film actor and director Hawke may be having his best year ever.
We’ve already seen Hawke in one of the great performances of the year as a conflicted priest in Paul Schrader’s First Reformed, and later this month Hawke appears in another movie Juliet, Naked playing a retiring singer-songwriter.
This week marks the opening of the Hawke’s directed ode to folk singer Blaze Foley titled Blaze, which opens at the River Oaks Theatre.
“My alternate title for the film was Letter to Merle,’” Hawke tells a crowd gathered at Rockefeller’s for a concert honoring Foley with musicians Ben Dickey and Jack Ingram a week ago Sunday. “And to be sitting next to a performer who opened for Haggard on this very stage is an honor,” says Hawke referring to Ingram. “To be sitting on the same stage that Foley and Haggard played is a very beautiful thing.”
While not a regular music venue per se in the new millennium, Rockefeller’s was a pivotal concert hot spot in the late 1980s and 1990s Houston scene. Personally your humble scribe saw everyone from Ray Charles, Buddy Guy, Robert Fripp, Jane’s Addiction (the tickets were literally a dollar), Adrian Belew and the Bears and many others back in the day.
Dickey a singer-songwriter from Arkansas makes his movie debut playing Blaze Foley in Hawke’s film. Between the desperation and loneliness of Foley’s lyrics and the bouncing energy of Dickey’s personality it’s a match born in movie heaven.
“My grandfather always used to say ‘If someone asks you if you believe in magic you reply no, I rely on it,’” Hawke says. And that best describes his journey through the life of Foley in a movie that celebrates the songwriter’s brilliance while also depicting his flaws.
Foley was shot to death in an altercation in Austin in 1989. Foley had gotten into an argument with the son of a friend of his. Foley felt, rightly, that the son was unfairly cheating his father by stealing his pension checks.
A constant companion of Foley was Texas music legend Townes Van Zandt, played in Blaze by Charlie Sexton. Sexton co-starred with Hawke in the seminal film Boyhood (2014). Van Zandt died eight years after Foley mainly due to drugs. If Foley hadn’t been shot that fateful night in the Travis Heights section of Austin he no doubt would’ve died before Van Zandt because of his own inclination for liquid self destruction.
Hawke was inspired by the book by Sybil Rosen “Living in the Woods in a Tree: Remembering Blaze Foley.” Rosen was a constant companion of Foley although as his drinking increased their relationship ended. “The book is not so much a chronicle of their time together as an examination of the shades of love two people experience,” Hawke says the following morning in an interview conducted in a now vacant Rockefeller’s.
The movie Blaze utilizes actual quotes from Foley such as “I feel like a panther ate me and shit me off the side of a cliff.”
The majority of the film was shot with a single 30mm lens although Hawke utilized a slow motion mode to shoot a wedding scene. “An eight-second moment takes minutes,” Dickey says. Dickey has clear blue eyes, a smile and maintains a cool demeanor as he sits next to Hawke and myself.
Several of Foley’s songs are front and center throughout the film including “I Should Be Home With You.” The song encompasses several sequences, including Blaze stumbling home drunk and painting the lyrics on the wall of his apartment, yet the scene doesn’t play out like a music video. “I wanted to advance the narrative through the music,” says Hawke.
Plus the song rocks at a fast pace as opposed to Foley’s recorded version of the song that proceeds at a snail’s pace. Many of Foley’s songs were unavailable for years after his death and have only been recently released. “We took the beat and made it a gallop,” says Dickey.
Blaze premieres this weekend in Houston at the River Oaks Theatre. Hawke and Dickey will be in attendance at the opening day on Friday, August 24. The duo will host Q&A’s after the 3:55, 7:00 and 7:30 pm screenings.