Remaining dedicated to representing their true values isn’t always an easy task for musicians in modern society, especially since they’re so accessible to their fans on social media. But enthralling country-blues singer-songwriter, Blaze Foley, powerfully remained true to his beliefs when he garnered attention throughout the 1980s. Before the invention of the internet and his tragic death in 1989, the Texas-based musician garnered a small but dedicated following of fans for his private nature and soul-bearing songs, which is featured in the new biopic, ‘Blaze.’
The musical drama marks the return of Oscar-nominated actor Ethan Hawke to the director’s chair, after more than a decade away from helming narrative features. He also produced the movie with his wife, Ryan Hawke, and co-wrote the script with Sybil Rosen, whose 2008 memoir, ‘Living in the Woods in a Tree: Remembering Blaze,’ served as the basis for the film’s story. Rosen penned the book after she reflected on her short-lived, but passionate, romantic relationship with Foley, which idyllically began in a tree house in the Georgia woods during the 1970s. The author’s love story with the singer-songwriter is featured in ‘Blaze,’ which played during the 24 Beats Per Second section at this month’s SXSW.
‘Blaze’ tells the story of the title singer, Blaze Foley (Ben Dickey, who won the Special Jury Award for Achievement in Acting at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival for the role), the unsung songwriting legend of the Texas outlaw music movement that spawned the likes of Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson. The narrative weaves together three different periods of time, which are re-imagined versions of Blaze’s past, present and future. The different eras explore his love affair with Sybil Rosen (Alia Shawkat); his last, dark night on earth; and the impact his songs and his death had on his fans, friends and foes. The storylines terminate in a bittersweet ending that acknowledges Blaze’s profound highs and lows, as well as the impressions he made on the people who shared his journey.
Hawke and Rosen generously took the time to talk about co-writing, directing and producing ‘Blaze’ during an exclusive interview at the Gibson Guitar Showroom in Austin, Texas last Wednesday, March 14, before the biopic first screened at SXSW 2018. Among other things, the filmmakers discussed how Hawke and his wife decided to bring Foley’s life to the screen, as they felt Rosen’s chronicling of her relationship with the musician provided an emotional angle to his story. The co-scribes also praised Shawkat’s dedicated portrayal of Rosen in the film, and how the actress effortlessly showcased the author’s true connection with the title musician.
The conversation began with Rosen explaining why she was driven to pen her memoir. “Kevin Triplett was directing (the 2011) documentary (‘Blaze Foley: Duct Tape Messiah’) about Blaze, and he got in touch with me. He also sent me some of Blaze’s music,” she revealed. The writer added that she knew the musician about 25 years before the helmer initially contacted her. “So I had taken our time together, and put it in a box and then put it on a shelf.”
When Rosen then listened to the first strumming of Foley’s guitar when she initially received his music from Triplett, “I was completely haunted. So I knew I had to retrace my steps, and revisit our time together, and our relationship. I had to understand what had happened to not only us, but also him for the rest of his life,” the scribe also shared.
“So when I started writing the memoir, I felt like he just squeezed the words out of me. I had never written like that before,” Rosen admitted. “I was writing 10-20 pages a day; the material was just pouring out of me. I always felt his presence there, so sometimes it felt as though he were writing it together.” She added that she went back to Texas many times, “in order to better understand who he had become after he and I broke up after we were together for a couple of years. I think it was a way for me to heal myself. I also wanted to contribute what I knew of Blaze to his story.”
Hawke then chimed in on why he was inspired to make the biopic. “After I had heard some of Blaze’s music, I was interested in giving Ben Dickey an opportunity to play Blaze, as I thought it could be really special,” the filmmaker disclosed. “I then came here, to SXSW, just two years ago, and asked Louis Black (who served as an executive producer on the movie) what he thought a movie about Blaze would be about. He asked if I had ever read Sybil’s book, and I hadn’t.”
So Hawke and his wife read ‘Living in the Woods in a Tree: Remembering Blaze.’ “It was clear that that was the right angle for the movie. I thought, wow, that’s an amazing story. There’s something about falling in love in a tree house that’s so symbolic of first, young love. There’s something unexpected about it, as I had initially expected a story about pain; I didn’t expect a love story. So it became a movie that I wanted to make.”
Hawke felt that he had to then meet Rosen, “because I couldn’t make a movie about Blaze Foley without her. So I asked her, ‘Would you have me as a dance partner?’ So we then talked, which snowballed into making the film.”
Once the duo decided to co-write the script for ‘Blaze’ together, Rosen described her experience of working with Hawke as easy. “I had some material, as I had previously dabbled in trying to create a screenplay out of the memoir. So we put that together with many of Ethan’s ideas.”
The director echoed his co-writer’s mention of the fact that she “already had a pre-existing idea for the film that she shared with me when we first met, and I liked it. So I developed an idea of what she liked, and we figured out how to combine them with my ideas.” He added that he “wanted the movie to have the same feeling that I had when I finished her memoir…It’s very wise about time, love and healing.
“So I thought, if we can make a movie about that subject, in the same way that the memoir did, but in a cinematic way, it would work.” Hawke added that screenwriters have to pen stories that fit their forum. “Movies love spontaneity and capturing moments. It’s an nostalgic medium that captures little moments all of the time. So we had to collect something for the actors to run away with.”
The filmmaker then further delved into the process of allowing the cast to have creative freedom and spontaneity on the set. “We had the good fortune of having two of our four main leads be musicians before they were actors. So they were nervous about acting, which made them very vulnerable about acting, and that was wonderful,” Hawke admitted. “But they were also extremely alive, and very comfortable in improvising, in a way that a lot of actors aren’t.”
Further speaking of the improv on the set, the director noted that “Ben and Charlie (Sexton) were super-comfortable with moving things around. If you lock them in, they start to think they’re acting, and it all falls apart.”
One of the other key cast members who Hawke praised was Shawkat, and he admitted that “we’d be lost without her. I can’t say enough about her, and the fact that she’s the glue that makes the movie work. I really think it’s her showing Sybil’s love of Blaze that makes the audience overlook the (title) character’s faults. We love him because we respect her and her opinion. So we start to see him through her eyes.
“I think a lot of young actresses don’t want to take a chance on a male co-star who’s never acted before,” the filmmaker confessed. “She’s having a great life as an actress right now, and it’s a really exciting moment for her. She didn’t have to do this, but we really needed her; we needed a really strong female voice at the center of this movie, or it would have toppled over,” a sentiment that Rosen agreed with through a nod. “She wasn’t scared of anyone or anything. She was so supportive.”
The memoir scribe jumped in and shared that “People ask me all the time what it’s like to have someone play me. But it was Alia. She made the experience so simple for me, emotionally. I never really thought about it. We emailed each other a little bit before (before the production began).”
Rosen added that “There’s a story that I’ve been wanting to tell, so I’ll tell you! Alia and I did a scene together that didn’t make it into the movie. It was a mother-daughter scene; I played her character’s mother in the movie, who’s my mother in real life, which was crazy! When we were shooting the scene, we were sitting really close by the fire, and my right arm and her left arm were right next to it, as we were facing each other. We shot the scene for a couple of hours, so by the end of the day, when we went to take all of our make-up taken off, we saw that we had the same red streaks on our arms,” the writer revealed. “It was amazing, because it was like having a mirror image on our arms that we emotionally felt with each other…It was one of those remarkable moments that she and I share.”
“That was one of the moments that made us feel as though the project was carrying us,” Hawke chimed in. He added that he had never seen Shawkat in any of her other projects before she signed on to play Sybil. “You and I (motions to Rosen) were talking about the script, and getting that first document ready. I had a couple of ideas about actors I wanted to go to. My wife said to me, ‘Every time I read (the script), I see Alia Shawkat.’ I was like, ‘Who’s that?'”
The director continued the discussion of casting the actress to play Rosen by saying, “We live in an amazing time that allowed my wife to send me a link to a show Alia was on, and a link to an interview she did. My first thought was, wow, she does look like Sybil, but can she act? Then I watched her show, and I thought, she’s amazing and gutsy! I then clicked on the interview, and I thought, wow, what a cool person.”
Hawke then called Shawkat’s agent, and asked if the actress would be interested in reading for role. “He said, ‘She’s busy in L.A., and she won’t be available for a meeting until December.’ But we were going to be mid-shoot by then, because the production was happening fast,” the filmmaker divulged.
“So we Skyped instead, and she had just woken up, because it was about 3:30am in L.A., and she immediately lights a cigarette. I was like, ‘My name’s Ethan Hawke,’ and she was like, ‘Yeah, I know who you are,'” the helmer revealed with a laugh. “I then said, ‘I want to make a movie about Blaze Foley,’ and she said, ”Clay Pigeons’ is one of my favorite songs.’ Most people, especially her age, don’t know who Blaze was. So for a young woman to say that ‘Clay Pigeons’ is one of her favorite songs really clicked for me.”
Hawke added that Shawkat “also asked who was going to play Blaze. I told her that a friend of mine who’s a musician from Philly was going to play him, and she said, ‘That sounds smart,'” which garnered a laugh from Rosen. “She said, ‘Okay, I’ll do it. It sounds cool. Send me the script, but this is going to work out,'” which also drew a laugh from the filmmaker. “I then asked her if she was going to be available in December, and she said, ‘Yeah, probably, call my agent. It’ll be fine.’ The next thing you know, we were all working together in New York. She was there doing camera tests.”
Hawke then spoke about how he feels like Foley’s life story is relatable to everyone in some way. He explained that “We were continuously working to find the right title for the film. I was like, this is ‘The Ballad of Blaze and Sybil.’ I could almost picture a phrase like Sybil loves Blaze carved on a tree. We all know that feeling of falling in love in a place like the tree house, and wanting to carve I love you in the tree.”
Rosen also chimed in on the magical nature that her relationship with Foley has taken on. “Everyone has a tree house, and I think that’s such a draw to Blaze’s story,” she admitted. “I take a lot of buses, and I somehow often end up talking about Blaze. But most people have never heard of him, and don’t know his music. But the people who do know him always remember the way that he died, and the tree house. I think it’s that mythical thing that pulls us in.”