Ethan Hawke Things I've Learned
Ethan and Maya Hawke behind the scenes of Wildcat. Courtesy of Oscilloscope Laboratories.

For Ethan Hawke’s fifth feature film as a director, he directs his daughter Maya Hawke as Southern Gothic literary legend Flannery O’Connor in Wildcat — a biographical drama that weaves scenes from her stories into everyday life.

“I have been watching Maya turn into an extremely exciting and formidable artist over the last 25 years, and the film was her idea. She kind of had a passion for this character that she wanted to play, and the actor in me really loves that — when a movie is kind of built around an actor’s fire, so to speak, I find that really exciting,” he says. “What was it like directing her? It was perfect.”

The elder Hawke has starred in unforgettable roles: the shy Todd Anderson in Peter Weir’s Dead Poets Society, the troubled pastor in Paul Schrader’s First Reformed, and most recently, as a father who is rendered useless without technology in Sam Esmail’s Netflix disaster movie Leave the World Behind. He’s been nominated for an Academy Award four times: twice for best adapted screenplay, alongside Julie Delpy and Richard Linklater, for Before Sunset (2004) and Before Midnight (2013), and twice for best supporting actor in Antoine Fuqua’s 2002 crime drama Training Day and Linklater’s 2014 Boyhood.

Since his 2001 feature directorial debut Chelsea Walls, which followed artists living in New York’s famous Chelsea Hotel, he’s often focused on the lives of creatives, making documentaries like Seymour: An Introduction about the pianist Seymour Bernstein; The Last Movie Stars, a docuseries about actors Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward; Blaze, a biographical drama about Texas outlaw music legend Blaze Foley, and The Hottest State, a story about an actor who falls in love with a singer-songwriter.

Wildcat is another portrayal of an artist. 

“I got extremely interested in how I might be able to use O’Connor as a kind of launching pad for a film in the conversation about where human creativity and faith intersect. Is human creativity an act of faith?” he wonders.

Below, Ethan Hawke Tells Us What He’s Learned About Making Movies

As told to Margeaux Sippell

Ethan Hawke Things I've Learned
Ethan Hawke (left) behind the scenes of Wildcat. Courtesy of Oscilloscope Laboratories.

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  1. A lot of the first-time directors I’ve worked with often fall prey to what I call the talent myth or the Orson Welles complex. Everybody wants to kind of believe this narrative that they’re born a genius and that if everybody else would just get in line and make their dreams come true, then glory would follow. There are a couple born geniuses a generation, and to assume that you’re one of them is true folly. You can’t have confidence without experience. If you are pretending to be confident, that’s the worst kind of person to be around, as far as I’m concerned — a kind of false bravado. Some of the best directors I’ve worked with are shockingly humble. There’s this kind of myth of the auteur. Richard Linklater and Sidney Lumet are shockingly humble people, always interested in learning. So my advice would be that you make the movies in layers, you know? You make the movie while you’re writing it. You make the movie while you’re scouting it. You make the movie while you’re casting it. You don’t make the movie on the shoot days. That’s one coat of paint. There’s a lot of room to make mistakes. If you’re humble and you keep working, you can fix them. You don’t know what you don’t know. So the thing about being a first time director is you just have a ton of blind spots, and the more you surround yourself with good people, competent people, experienced people, the more blind spots you’re going to see.
  1. Anytime you make up rules in the arts, you’re proved a fool. Because then all of a sudden, Bob Dylan appears at 19 spouting unbelievable truths with no experience. Like, where did that come from? How do you write some of those early songs? Our generation has grown up with movies and television as the primary art form of our age. It’s no longer literature. I mean, we grew up thinking in images, and we’re all making movies in our head all day long. And so focusing on what makes each shot remarkable. Why should anybody pay money to watch this image, and how do the different departments connect to each other? The really great filmmakers really understand the unity between performance and costume and photography and music and editing. When all of the tools are being used, you can make something incredibly powerful, but they all need to be focused to the same end, and they all need to be disciplined and discerning. And then sometimes you need to throw it all away and just have fun. I mean, it’s such a mysterious game, making films. The older I get, the more weary I become of advice.
  1. A lot of people have this idea that they’re chasing magic. A lot of directors, young and old, are scared to rehearse or they think they know what the word rehearsal means. Rehearsing really means, you know, put simply, to re-hear. It’s about us being together and inviting the collective imagination to take place. When people hear rehearsal, there’s this old stagecraft idea in their head, like people are going to get out and block the scenes and get on their feet and act it out. There’s this real fear that you’re going to lose that magic spark that happens between actors when things happen for the first time. And first of all, it’s just not true. People are good at it. It’s like saying, that magic spark when Michael Jordan can hit a free throw. No, he hits a free throw all the time because he practices. One of the great experiences of my life was on the Before trilogy with Rick and Julie. Rick has this film education that’s huge, as far as his knowledge of Bresson and Fassbinder and the history of cinema, and he’s a real scholar that way. It’s really fun to be around somebody with that kind of depth of knowledge about the camera and its use in storytelling. Julie and I had a lot of experience with the theater, and we really enjoyed rehearsing. The whole trick of those movies is creating the illusion of improvisation, which really — those are the most rehearsed movies I’ve ever done by far, and people think they’re improvised, or that we just kind of did it, you know? And it’s because Rick isn’t afraid of being in a room together and talking and seeing, ‘Why would you want to make this movie? Let me tell you why I want to make this movie. What do we think the secrets are here? And what are we trying to do?’
Ethan Hawke Things I've Learned
Maya Hawke as Flannery O’Connor in Wildcat, courtesy of Oscilloscope Laboratories
  1. I was in a bookstore once — not a kid, I was probably like 21 or something — when Sidney Lumet, his book Making Movies had come out. I just sat on the floor of the Barnes & Noble and read the whole thing. Because he’s so practical — he talks about making movies the way somebody might talk about making a rug. It’s just all brass tacks. And, yes, sometimes magic happens, but it really, it happens for those who work hard a lot. I love Dylan’s whole line about that. It’s like, yeah, sometimes inspiration comes, but it comes a lot more often if you’re constantly writing songs, trying. So I think there’s a big misconception around the rehearsal process and how to prepare for making a movie, and how directors and producers can invite their collaborators into their mindset, because they’re kind of scared that your ideas are going to negatively impact their idea so they’ll be forced to change, and they don’t want to change. And with the best directors I’ve known, they know that they are in charge, so they’re not fragile about it. They’re willing to listen and hear, and you can collectively make a director’s vision a lot stronger. My favorite Brando line is that you have to spiritually marry your director and just become an extension of their imagination, and then you can really help them make their movie and find ways to express yourself inside their movie as opposed to being in opposition.
  1. I’ve made a lot of movies with Richard Linklater. So, when we’re on set together it doesn’t feel like such a big deal, so the pressure comes down. Elia Kazan used to write about this a lot — and this is what I mean about mistaking what rehearsal is. Kazan would spend a lot of time getting to know his actors, just getting to know each other, feeling comfortable with each other, not feeling like you work for each other but understanding what the clay of their life is, what made them want to be an actor, what’s driving them. Now you can get inside their process with them, and they can get inside yours. That’s rehearsal. You don’t need to be staging the scene the whole time. Sometimes it’s better to go watch a movie together, go bowling together and talk about your last breakup together and create a kind of safe space for people to be vulnerable and funny and passionate. But it’s safe because it’s in service of this project.
Ethan Hawke Things I've Learned
Maya Hawke as Flannery O’Connor in Wildcat, courtesy of Oscilloscope Laboratories
  1. I’ve spent years and years of my life on film sets. I mean, I made my first movie in 1984. That’s 40 years ago. I’ve made a lot of films and I’ve been in a lot of plays, and I’ve put a lot of hours into this profession, and so my vantage point is largely as a performer. But because of that, I’ve seen so many sets that are really well produced, and I’ve seen so many that are really poorly produced. I’ve seen brilliant directors, and I’ve seen egomaniacs fall on their face, and I’ve seen egomaniacs triumph. I’ve seen people who are really kind and funny and sweet make really bad movies, and I’ve seen them make really good movies. You start to realize that there really are no rules. It’s about figuring out who you are, and what you might have to offer, and what your strengths might be and accessing those strengths and having humility to know where the weak spots in your education are.
  1. The thing that I don’t understand — and this makes me sound old — but what I don’t understand about young people today is why they don’t watch more movies. I mean, they’re perfectly willing to binge watch, for weeks of their life, something they know is really super okay, and the Criterion Channel is right there. Like, they could be watching Badlands as we speak. They don’t know who Fassbinder is and they don’t know who Éric Rohmer is and they don’t know who Kurosawa is. They think they’re modern and they haven’t seen Do the Right Thing. Are you kidding? It’s on your damn phone, watch it! But they’d somehow rather watch some TV show that came out yesterday that they won’t remember. I say all that not to sound crotchety, but there’s so much excellence in the past, so many of these thoughts of what we’re all going through emotionally and what we’re looking for — authenticity in our lives and healing — all these common threads of humanity people have been talking about for centuries. Cinema is a young art form, but it’s 100 years old now, and there’s a lot of great work, and you can rip it off madly. The fun thing about having a great DP is the more you explain what you’re trying to drive at, they can turn you on to, ‘Well, you know who’s also into that idea — let’s watch this film. Let’s steal that shot. That’s a great shot.’ I really enjoy that. But I’m always amazed at how often young people who say, ‘I love movies and I want to make movies’ don’t actually watch movies.
  2. I’m really interested in how a person’s work can inspire and motivate them forward in their own life right now. That’s what I love. I love when I find a part or a film like Wildcat where the work on it feels like it’s connected to the work of my life.

Wildcat arrives in theaters May 3, from Oscilloscope Laboratories.

Main Image: Ethan and Maya Hawke behind the scenes of Wildcat. Courtesy of Oscilloscope Laboratories.

This story originally appeared in the Spring 2024 print edition of MovieMaker Magazine.