Full disclosure: I’ve been looking forward to this interview ever since I read the novel Ash Wednesday as a teenager. Ethan Hawke, co-writer and director of Wildcat, is an actor and filmmaker who has been as important to me as any artist in my life. The opportunity to discuss his new film––a feverish, faith-fueled look into the life of writer Flannery O’Connor as inspired by her fiction––with Hawke was both welcome and daunting.

The film stars Maya Hawke as O’Connor, alongside a stellar supporting cast that includes Laura Linney, Philip Ettinger, Rafael Casal, Steve Zahn, Cooper Hoffman, Willa Fitzgerald, Alessandro Nivola, and Liam Neeson. Ahead of the film’s release this Friday, we talk about the intimidation of adapting a great writer’s work, the joy of filming a great scene in a master shot, and inviting your audience into the conversation.

The Film Stage: What’s your favorite Flannery O’Connor story?

Ethan Hawke: You know, shortly after she died, there was a collection that came out called Everything That Rises Must Converge. And the last six stories in that collection are the last things she wrote. I mean, she also, you know, she finished The Violent Bear It Away on her deathbed, I think. But the last completed thing were these stories, and you see her evolution as a thinker. And a lot of the stories that I use in the movie are taken from those last stories. Only one of them is from earlier. I guess [the short story] “Everything That Rises Must Converge” is probably my favorite. It’s really incredible. That’s the one on the bus where they’re both wearing a purple hat. [Laughs] It’s brilliant. 

I think it’s such an interesting way to approach such an interesting character. I guess the incarnation of this is that it’s something Maya was interested in and then it kind of just forms from there? Is that how the whole thing happened? 

It’s strange how movies are born. This one was deeply mysterious to me. Maya discovered Flannery O’Connor on her own. She was about 15 or 16. And I had been a big [fan]. My mother had given me Flannery when I was young. And Maya had Prayer Journal, which was this little journal of her dialogue with God. She’s kind of trying to find herself; they’re basically journals to God. Maya was really moved by them and it created an opportunity for us to have some conversations that we hadn’t had about, “What do you believe in? What is it all for?”

There’s something almost Salinger-esque about this journal, because in a lot of Salinger’s writing there’s this struggle with the desire to be great combined with how gross that desire is. Why do you think you’re so great? Who are you trying to impress? What is this greatness in service of? Which is a real riddle. Where your own desire for excellence is your impediment to it? It’s complicated and a wonderful, real thing that I think a lot of people think about. Whether you’re talking about how Holden Caulfield thought everybody was a phony or I’m thinking of Franny and Zooey about, you know, everybody wants to make a big splash, and how annoying that is. Flannery had the same problem: she wanted to be Tolstoy, but she also wanted to be a humble Christian. And those two things were at war with each other. How could she be the person that she admired and aspire for the level of excellence that she was striving towards? This was a really fun conversation to have with your daughter, you know? It was really provocative to me. I was turning 50 and she was turning 23. Stranger Things had come out and she was really getting interested in producing her own work. She found something hypnotic about Miss O’Connor.

There’s something so incongruous about the way she looks, you know? This fragile young woman in crutches and glasses and this ferocious mind. I think Maya––the actor in her––was drawn to: “Who is this person?” And because I’m an actor, I take that instinct really seriously. And I thought I could write a movie about Flannery O’Connor. We could do this. That would be a movie I haven’t seen before. Her life was so boring, really. From 24 on she was trapped in her room. All she did every day was write and feed chickens. But I thought it would be a great launching pad to make a movie about imagination, because that’s where she lived. 

I think also perception, right? Re-reading some of her stories, one of the coolest things she did is she tells you exactly what the people in her stories think of the other people in her stories, and then she flips it, right? It’s a very provocative structure. It felt new then––as you touch on in the movie––and it still feels new now. It’s very honest. And one thing Maya does so well in the movie is listen. It’s a good movie for observing somebody observe. 

Yeah. Flannery’s greatest attribute is her willingness to see. She saw the immense hypocrisy in white America there in Jim Crow South. Whatever her flaws, she––as Alice Walker says––”there’s not a hint of magnolia in the air.” She sees the ways in which the Christian community around her is duplicitous and hypocritical and she writes about it with a tremendous wit. So it is arresting. I mean, “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” ends with one of my favorite lines in literature: “She’d be a good woman if she had somebody there to shoot her every day of her life.”

Well, to your point, I had read that story before and I was shocked re-reading it. In the movie, when you’re adapting her controversial short story “Revelation” towards the beginning, what a brazen choice by you! I was like, “Whoa! He’s wild to do that!” 

What better way to expose white hypocrisy than to put racist, bigoted lines in the mouth of our Lord and Savior? I mean, that was radical when it was released and it’s radical today. I mean, something you could imagine Dave Chappelle writing. 

Yeah, sure. It’s an interesting way to approach it. You can obviously do something like Terence Davies doing Emily Dickinson in A Quiet Passion, where it’s a totally different approach and more postured and precise. So it’s interesting that you incorporate O’Connor’s stories into the film. You’ve directed a few things by now, and they all have these interesting elements to them. And one thing I noticed on this film is that a lot of the scenes are in a master shot, right? There’s not a lot of coverage. It works because it adds some sort of tension to a lot of those scenes. Do you come to that in the editing or is some of that economical?

It’s a form-meets-content thing. Flannery O’Connor was so discerning and so disciplined. She worked with a scalpel, the way that she carved up these short stories. And I knew that I needed to be very… it’s against my nature. I’m a shoot-from-the-hip kind of person…

Like in Chelsea Walls you’re discovering that movie in the hotel.

Even with Blaze, I’m just in there with a camera goofing and playing around and then I kind of try to sculpt the movie later. You know the only scene [in Wildcat] with any proper coverage is a scene with Liam Neeson. But the whole movie’s built that way. I want it to be kind of like a fever dream that’s leading us to this event and then a fever dream takes us out. Also, as an actor, I’m in love with body language, and one of the experiences I had on First Reformed was learning the power of a master. If you overuse the close-up it really loses all of its power. And you see that in television all the time. They just: close-up, close-up, close-up! And they’re wonderful close-ups, all of ’em. But they start not to mean anything. The language of what the frame is communicating. 

This is going to sound more critical than I mean it to, but don’t you think it’s almost like a pop song thing? Like the watcher is conditioned to be like “we want the wide, tight, medium, wide” coverage.  

We’re conditioned to want it. And what I learned on First Reformed was: you kind of use that conditioning. They’re waiting for it, they’re waiting for it, they’re waiting for it. Don’t give it to them. You can look wherever you want to. You are invited to be a part of this conversation with me. You can see her face; I’m not going to manipulate this image for you. I kind of admire Peter Weir on my first movie––or it was my second movie––he was a great mentor to me. He used to say: “A good movie should have one to three close-ups.” You have to invite the audience to participate with you and to not overuse the tools in your toolkit. But the close-up is such a powerful tool that everybody just goes to it right away. You see it in Killers of the Flower Moon, how discerning Scorsese is when he he does the slightest little lift-up when he pushes in. He truly is just a genius at that. 

That’s a good point, though. It didn’t even occur to me and it’s a credit to you. Of course, that Liam Neeson scene is such a pivotal moment in the film. And it is different.

It’s different because it’s the only one with normal coverage. I viewed it as the fulcrum of the movie. That’s the pivot point. So we’re just going to sit for a second and have a proper movie right here. A dream is going to take us there.

When you’re prepping for something like this, are you re-watching Wise Blood, the John Huston movie? Are you re-reading “Wise Blood”?

I did, yeah. Wise Blood is a fascinating movie. John Huston was heavy on my mind in this because I think he has my favorite last film of cinema history. 

Oh, The Dead.

The Dead is such a great film. And he made it with his daughter [Angelica Huston] and so I thought, “All right, that’s a great North Star for us.” And it’s also an intersection of cinema and literature the same way we’re kind of going for. And, you know, “The Dead” short story. There was a lot to build from. It was ironic to me that he also made the other Flannery O’Connor film, which is a batshit crazy film. And he says an amazing thing. He read the book and thought it was nihilistic, and then he realized making the movie: “I think this movie’s secretly religious! I didn’t even mean to make a religious movie and I did!” [Laughs]

What I love about that part of Huston’s career is that it’s post-Fat City and he’s just old renegade John Huston. Kind of re-discovering the form a little bit. It’s cool.

Yeah, he’s just having fun. I rewatched Fat City too not too long ago. Really interesting movie. He’s such a wild card. You never know what you’re going to get with him. He seems to just be enjoying his life, doesn’t he? 

It’s interesting how different the adaptations are. And obviously the source material, you know, is different. I suppose the Cooper Hoffman section. What story is that? “Good Country People”? You’re in a Wise Blood area there. 

In that world, you know. [Laughs] I mean, a guy selling Bibles steals a woman’s wooden leg––it’s as despicable as mankind can become. But when you read her story, she’s as critical of the young woman as she is of the young man, you know? She’s manipulating that situation. She thinks she’s playing him, and he plays her. 

And back to the no-coverage point. Hoffman running away and then dropping the leg. [Laughs] That is such gold.

I love it. You should’ve seen me in the middle of the field cackling like a hyena. 

His performance is so great. The double-back to get the leg is such a winner. 

It’s amazing. Cooper’s a great young man and seeing him and Maya act together moved me to no end. They both were totally willing to dive into the heart of these people. 

Because you worked with Philip Seymour Hoffman and one of the great masters who shot in masters, Sidney Lumet. 

He was so meticulous about that. And he really taught me, more than anybody else, that every deleted scene is a failure. That you shouldn’t have any deleted scenes. We don’t have enough money to make this movie, and it’s a failure of your preparation to have a deleted scene.

One thing that occurred to me. I remember reading Ian McEwan’s novel Atonement many years ago and having this thought: “I don’t actually think I could think of sentences like this.” I got angry. And I don’t usually get that way. But I couldn’t even conceptualize a world where this page could exist in my head. As a writer, when you’re approaching Flannery O’Connor, is there any intimidation there? 

Absolutely. I felt like the only way to overcome the intimidation was to be a scientist and just study her. Often the ways in which she ends her stories are beyond the wall of my talent. I’m like, “How would you even think of that?” It’s like three layers past where my brain would have gone. And when you said that: I think sometimes I’ve watched Daniel Day-Lewis. It’s somewhere beyond jealousy where you’re like… I bet it’s how musicians feel about Miles Davis or something. Sometimes there are a couple people in a generation who are just playing a slightly more sophisticated game.

I felt that way about Flannery. She has this line, she said, “I’d rather have one reader in a hundred years than a hundred today.” And I think that she really was writing for somebody about now. She was writing for us. She really wasn’t worried about what the knuckleheads around her thought. It takes such guts, such guts to have that level of faith in your own barometer, you know? 

Wildcat is made with that kind of an abandon in some respects. There is this meta-textual thing, but it’s not like Born to Be Blue, for example, which is a great little movie in which you play the great jazz musician Chet Baker. That film is more directly addressing about what is trying to be achieved. There’s more of an abstraction in Wildcat

I’m not really making a biopic yet. This movie ends before the woman is 25 years old, before she’s ever published one book. I’m trying to have a dialogue with you. A meditation on: is human creativity an act of worship? What is imagination and how does it impact reality? If thought leads to action, I find all of that really interesting. Somebody who spent a great bulk of my life living in my imagination––that becomes a very real place to me. And so, like the quote that I start the film with: is there a difference? Some people find the movie hard to follow because they don’t know when it’s imagination or reality. And whenever people would say, “Can you make it clear?” I would say, “Well, that would defeat the thesis statement of the movie.” The statement of the movie is that imagination is reality. That’s a different equation. You know, you could shoot one section in black-and-white. You can make it super easy to follow if you wanted to. But that’s not the point. 

I want to ask this as we’re wrapping up, especially to someone like yourself. You have so much work––whether it’s stuff you directed, written, starred in––is there anything in your career that you would tell people “seek this out,” this little-seen thing. Or even if it’s a big thing, something that you think deserves more love. I was going to bring up stuff like Waterland, which I think is underrated…

I do too! Another literary movie. That Graham Swift novel. That’s a really well-directed film, Waterland. Stephen Gyllenhaal directed that. One of my secret favorites that a lot of people haven’t seen is a sci-fi movie called Predestination. I think Sarah Snook is incredible in that film. If you’re a movie buff, it’s hard to make a good time-travel movie. I’ve spent my entire life leaving time-travel movies going, “Wait a second: that didn’t make sense.” Because the math of it breaks your brain. But I really like Predestination. I had a cop once pull me over. I said, “What did I do wrong?” And he was like, “Eh I just recognized you driving by and I got to ask you about the end of Predestination.” [Laughs]

Would you ever want to direct a bigger project? Or is the directing more as passion befits you?

It’s funny; I ask myself that. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve gotten more craftsman-like about acting. When I was younger, everything had to feel like it was really personal to me. And now I can enjoy, “Let’s work in this genre. Let’s work in that genre.” So I’ve always wondered whether or not I could apply that to directing. The problem with directing is: it’s really time-consuming.

It’s so much of your life, yeah.

You have to just love it so much and you have to talk other people into doing it. I said to Richard Linklater once, “I can’t wait. Someday I want to direct a movie where everyone gets paid, where I’m not calling and asking everyone for favors.” But he said to me, “Ethan, it’s never going to happen. Your interest is never going to take you there.” 

I’ll leave with this. One of my favorite quotes is something you said on Jeff Goldsmith’s The Q&A podcast a million years ago: you said that one of the things you love about Richard Linklater is that you’ll watch movies and you’ll be critical and he’ll always find something good to say about it. 


I say that to everybody. It’s one of my favorite quotes because the older I get, the more I work, the more I watch, I’m like: that’s exactly it. 

I’ll tear some movie shreds and he’ll be like, “What about that scene in the parking lot? Wasn’t that incredible?” And I’ll be like, “That was incredible.”


That’s hard to do. That’s the humility that comes with age. Making anything that’s worth somebody else’s time and worth sharing––I mean, most of us are not Flannery O’Connor or Herman Melville. We just have to slog at it and a little humility goes a long way.

Wildcat opens in theaters on Friday, May 3.

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