Ethan Hawke Messes With Your Mind

Hawke talks Predestination and the joys of the speculative genre

Movies Features Ethan Hawke
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Ethan Hawke  has been a really, really busy guy here recently. He’s in the midst of figuring out the festival and release strategies for his first documentary, the wonderful Seymour: An Introduction. He’s already shot five movies that will release in 2015, including the highly anticipated Sundance film Ten Thousand Saints. And that’s on top of promoting the six movies he was in last year, including a little film you may have heard of called Boyhood. As he prepared for a likely Oscar nomination for that film, he joined us recently to discuss his new mind-twisting sci-fi time cop thriller, Predestination. (Warning: Some spoilers lie herein.)

Paste Magazine: Alright, Mr. Hawke, how’re you doing brother?
Ethan Hawke: Good man, how’re you doing?

Paste: Good! Good to talk to you—you’ve have a whirlwind few months here!
Hawke: It’s just been a terrible year. You know? (laughter) Nothing seems to go right.

Paste: Well I’m sorry I didn’t get to see you in Atlanta when you were filming, but we’ll make that happen at some point soon.
Hawke: Are you in Atlanta right now?

Paste: I am, yes.
Hawke: I had such a great time. I love Atlanta! I lived in Buckhead for awhile when I was a kid.

Paste: I remember you had that Atlanta connection! That’s really cool.
Hawke: I went to Sarah Smith Elementary. But no, this guy Noah Buschel is a really interesting filmmaker, and it was fun to be down there. His first film was a film about Neal Cassady, and I flirted with the idea of doing that movie, but I ended up not doing it. But we kind of became friendly, and I’m happy to get the chance to work with him now.

Paste: Well I don’t know how “spoiler-y” they want us to get in this interview about Predestination. Do you know how much I can talk about the plot?
Hawke: You can just follow your own gut. It’s a funny movie because it’s a hard movie to—I never really worry about people spoiling the plot because the movie’s so experiential, first of all, and the plot is so confusing! (Laughter) One of the beautiful things about the movie is that it’s an old-fashioned science fiction movie, where it’s a real mind bender. So if you map out the plot, it’s still hard to ruin. Making the movie had the same problem, which was if we cast a known actress in this transgender role, you would spoil the fact that you’re not supposed to know who it is.

Paste: Right.
Hawke: You know, if you cast Cate Blanchett or somebody like that in that role you would know…the whole aspect of the movie that is transgender would be ruined.

Paste: Sure.
Hawke: I find Sarah Snook’s performance so exceptional.

Paste: Oh it’s fantastic! And y’all have a great chemistry together, especially in those bar room scenes, which could come across as such exposition-heavy dead time. But you both really liven it up.
Hawke: It’s one of the mysterious things about this movie that’s so unexpected, the way it uses those bar scenes that are so uncommon for a genre movie to sit still long enough to do that. But it proves essential, and if those scenes didn’t work I do think the movie wouldn’t have worked at all.

Paste: Agreed. You know the other thing I think that this movie had? You could imagine the movie based on this story being a little bit like a stoner, three o’clock in the morning conversation, that kind of meandered and didn’t have a lot of point. But I loved how every scene propels the viewer into the next scene. And not only in the writing, that’s in your performances, as well. Did you shoot in sequence, or how did you get in the specific place you needed for each scene?
Hawke: It’s funny that you say that. Talking about the movie is so hard. Most of my life I’ve wanted to shoot in sequence. What we did in rehearsal was actually sequenced to the movie. Because actually how you watch the movie, you watch it out of sequence a little bit. What I had wanted to do was put it in time-sequential sequence and shoot it that way, so that we all really understood it. But of course shooting a film in sequence is so hard. The library’s only open on Sundays, or whatever it is.

But it was one of the hardest movies of my life…I really wanted it to make sense the second time you see it. For me, a lot of my favorite movies that deal with time travel, the second time you see it they kind of fall apart. You go “Well wait a minute, the villain was born in ’42 and time traveled to ’38 his mother wouldn’t”—you know what I mean? The whole thing wouldn’t have existed! It ends up breaking down. We have the good fortune of basing it off Heinlein’s story, which gives the movie a kind of seed of genius to it. I mean there’s something genius about Robert Heinlein at its best. If you adapted it from one of his novels what you would end up having to do is cut out a lot of things, versus his [short] story, which is so slight we were able to just flesh it out. The movie in a lot of ways is better than the short story, because it’s a richer, more fully imagined version of it.

Paste: Absolutely.
Hawke: I love this one part—not to be a spoiler. But Sarah and I are playing a symbiotic character, let’s say…and the movie kind of works in this two-act structure where she has this scene opposite herself at the midpoint of the movie and I have a scene opposite myself at the end of the movie. You know where we’re actually acting with ourselves as we travel in time. What’s actually fascinating to me about that is hers is a love scene and mine is a murder. It’s kind of essentially what the movie is about, this push-pull between how much we all want to respect and love ourselves and how the other part of ourselves is always sabotaging ourselves.

That’s what I love about science fiction. At its best, it allows you to talk about really philosophical ideas about being pretentious. In a lot of ways this movie is about the interconnectedness of man and about how there’s a mask of feminine inside every person and how our life is a war between those two genders. And yet at the same time, it’s just a time travel cop movie! (Laughter)

Paste: I had a great conversation with Brit Marling a few months ago specifically about this. How science fiction can—truly speculative, thoughtful science fiction—can approach these things from angles that are just not possible in realistic fiction. It really is a way of using the form that is unique to the form.
Hawke: Absolutely. That’s what I love about it. And that’s well said.

Paste: Talking about the two sides reminds me of the…(groans) I know I’m going to get the details wrong, but the Zen master who says inside of you there are two men…what is it?
Hawke: Oh, there are two wolves!

Paste: Two wolves—that’s it!
Hawke: That’s exactly it—there are two wolves! One wolf is greed and hunger and violence and jealousy and fear and the other wolf is forgiveness, compassion, empathy, love—I love that story!

Paste: And the student says “Well which one wins?”
Hawke: And the master says, “Whichever one you feed.”

Paste: Yes!
Hawke: And so this movie, my favorite aspect of it…it’s very rare that you get sent a script that you have to read twice before you can even talk about it. At the end of the movie, when my character has to face off with himself and he’s faced with the older version of himself, and you kind of get hit with this thought that the only way the cycle will stop is if he doesn’t kill the criminal, you know?

Paste: Yeah.
Hawke: Because the criminal is himself. Anyways, I love it about it. You know when I first read it I thought of that film Brazil. Did you ever see that?

Paste: Oh of course, yeah!
Hawke: Yeah I love that movie so much, and a good sign is when you feel like your mind’s been bent in half.

Paste: Gilliam’s new movie’s really good, too—The Zero Theorem. Christoph Waltz is the star. It’s really good.
Hawke: You remember Baron Munchhausen? I mean, no one makes a movie like that anymore.

Paste: Absolutely.
Hawke: I think that’s probably why I liked Predestination when I read it—most movies are always trying to sell you something. And this movie is just unapologetically out of its mind, the way that Brazil and Baron Munchhausen and…

Paste: Repo Man!
Hawke: Oh God! Exactly! Repo Man! Fuck I love that movie!

Paste: You remind me of the great Kerouac quote—“the only ones for me are the mad ones”.
Hawke: Oh yeah! (Laughter)

Paste: You have a history—admirably so—of taking the clout and juice from your career and using it to foster young directors in their work. And something like Predestination it might not be getting so much attention without you—tell me about that one. Sort of cultivating young talent and lending them your credibility.
Hawke: It’s one of the biggest parts of an actor’s life. You know, we’re all only as good as our material. It’s very hard to have a great game of tennis without a great partner. For me, one of the fun things about aging—I’ve been professionally acting for 30 years—is meeting the spirit brothers and just believing in them. Getting to help them get their movies made. When a movie isn’t obviously selling or isn’t obviously appealing to a certain dynamic, it’s always hard. And you know what else is hard is, if you don’t do anything that makes any money you don’t get any chances to play anymore. So it’s a really delicate dance. For me this last year, I was at the South by Southwest Film Festival with two movies, with Boyhood and Predestination. And for me it’s been the perfect…I don’t know if you’d call it a symbol or emblematic of what I’m trying to do with my career, which is to do interesting art films and interesting genre films.

Paste: Sure.
Hawke: Genre films, what’s wonderful about them are there’s not some corporate trademark where you’re selling a toy. And you can sneak ideas in and at the same time you can make a movie that people want to see that is a good fun popcorn movie, you know? Because there’s a certain kind of person who never wants to watch Before Sunset, you know?

Paste: Yeah! (Laughs) Ok we have time for one more question, let’s talk about your documentary Seymour: An Introduction, which you know I love. Tell me about its path moving forward. And by the way I’m running the Sarasota Film Festival now, so if you are not out by April, boy we’d love to run it at the SFF!
Hawke: Alright, I’ll mention it, because I think we come out in May. The date keeps moving around. I mean the hope is to get the voice of this movie out there. I have this suspicion that there are a lot of people out there that would love to hear what Seymour Bernstein would have to say. I’ve been shocked at how many people have been moved. It’s been fun to meet an 87-year-old man who loves his life who’s really wise and smart and really can articulately remind you that the point of life is not to win!

The Oscars are a great example. I feel that Boyhood is a part of that dialogue. It’s like being an unseeded team in the NCAA going to the Final Four. (Laughter) It just feels so crazy; it just makes me smile. I’m just so happy about it. But at the same time, one of the things that’s caused me to work in the Seymour documentary is we’re all inundated with this feeling that life is about winners and losers. But you know, life is how we live it, and what are we living it for and there is no finish line and nobody does win; ultimately we all lose! (Laughter) And so I’m excited about sharing the documentary. And you know I have family so that could be really fun. My wife is the producer on this movie, and we’re thinking about that, so I’ll put the feelers out and try to follow that lead okay?

Paste: Thanks so much for your time!
Hawke: Great, talk soon.


Michael Dunaway is the producer and director of 21 Years: Richard
Linklater a New York Times
Critics Pick starring Matthew McConaughey and Ethan Hawke; Creative
Producer for a major regional film festival; Movies Editor of
Paste; host of the
podcast The Work; and one hell of a karaoke performer. You can follow him on Twitter

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