Ethan Hawke on The Hottest State


Continuing this week’s theme of New York actors turned director, Ethan Hawke is back with his second feature film The Hottest State, an adaptation of his first novel which was published over ten years ago. One certainly might wonder how much of Hawke’s novel and movie is autobiographical, as they watch the story of William, a young Texan played by Mark Webber who moves to New York to be an actor after his parents split up. There, he meets and falls for a pretty young singer/songwriter named Sara (Catalina Sandina Moreno), experiences his first true love and his first shattering heartbreak when she mysteriously breaks up with him. In an odd bit of turnabout, Hawke plays William’s estranged father back in Texas. spoke with Hawke about the movie and how he’s changed as a director in the last five years. (After the interview is a link to a sidebar piece with Hawke and singer/songwriter Jesse Harris talking about the film’s soundtrack music, which plays a large part in the tone.) Was it harder adopting your own novel as opposed to adapting someone else’s work?
Ethan Hawke: It had been long enough. It’s been 10 years since I worked this book, so a lot of times it felt like I was adapting somebody else’s novel.

CS: Would you go back and change anything in the book or did you wish you did things differently as you went along?
Hawke: Sure. The other problems was things I wanted to change that I still couldn’t figure out how to, but mostly the great thing about adapting a book into a movie is that you have this wealth of material to work with, to try to create a 2-hour piece. I also had other versions of the book. If I was in need of a scene, a different moment or a line, I could go back and pinch something. “Oh! I really didn’t want to cut that out of the book. That didn’t fit in one thing, maybe it will fit here.” I knew the characters so well, having worked on the book so long. I knew what the characters would be like, if they went to buy a hamburger, what they would say.

CS: You’ve been living with this project for so long, writing the novel, then going back and adapting it as a screenwriter, then making it as a director. Is it somewhat cathartic and are you glad it’s over?
Hawke: It’s certainly… sh*t, man. F*ck.

CS: Did you have something to work out with this?
Hawke: I did, obviously.

CS: Was it sort of an obsession for you?
Hawke: Yeah, and a little bit of that had to do with, I don’t know, just the personal nature of it I guess. It also had to do with the fact that I wrote this so young. I wrote this book a little too soon. There’s a story about Somerset Maugham that I always think about with this. He wrote “Of Human Bondage” when he was 23 or 24 and he couldn’t get it published anywhere. It had a different title. It’s a story of first love and everything. He couldn’t get it published and he re-visited it 20 years later. He pulled it out of the drawer. And he just started re-working on it. And it turned into “Of Human Bondage.” What was the central part of the novel, it’s now just the most exciting part of it, but it’s just literally 5 chapters of a larger novel. I sometimes think that’s probably what should’ve happen to me.

CS: The film includes a lot of strong women, including both of their mothers, while the fathers were non-existent to both of them. Can you talk about that decision?
Hawke: This is the kind of literature and material about women kind of giving themselves over to love and getting hurt. It happens to men too, and there’s very little that’s said about it. I remember when I was a young man, I really wanted to read a book about this. There’s that great Mark Twain quote about the point of art is to alleviate shame. I think about that when people cringe when they’re watching William leave his messages. People cringe just because they’ve done it or they know it, and those are the kind of movies I like, the ones that make you feel like you’re not alone in the world. You said that men are wimps and I don’t think so at all. That’s the danger. It’s to show vulnerability or sensitivity is to now not be strong, which is very dangerous. Ultimately one of the things I like about the movie, one of the non–verbal element that I like about the movie…at the end of the movie, when William is driving away in the car at the end of the movie, he seems like a grown up. At the beginning of the movie, he seems like a boy. Something happened. It’s in Mark Webber’s performance and it’s in the story. Becoming a man requires understanding. It does come out in these wimpy ways and in these different things but he doesn’t know himself at all. How to deal with hurt, you know? When Jesse and I were first starting to talk about this, what led us to the opening track of the movie which is Willie Nelson doing, “Always Seem To Get Things Wrong”, I had this idea. There’s this old Johnny cash song called “Before My Time.” “I’m not the first to cry in my bed or in my beer.” Guy gets his heart broken. The song is a traditional song. It’s so old, the song itself. There’s something about the song that captures the same spirit. It’s just a very old story of boy finds girl, boy loses girl, boy finds self.

CS: Was it important to have the two mothers be very different?
Hawke: I love women and I gave myself the challenge of trying to write formidable women. It’s hard to do. I’ve had a lot of strong women in my life and I find them really interesting. Let’s face it, women raise kids in this world. So many of us are raised by women. It’s hard for women in that they don’t a lot of positive male figures. It’s hard for men, that they don’t have a lot of positive males. It’s changing, but it’s still pretty prevalent.

CS: You also have two formidable actresses in those roles, too.
Hawke: I love Laura Linney and I love Sonia Braga. Their work is some of my favorite.

CS: (Spoiler Ahead!) But we never see them in a scene together. If only you had William and Sara get married at the end of the movie…
Hawke: That would be very funny. I had an idea once that I would close the movie… Right now, it’s like she’s rehearsing before showing the bar as empty. That idea came late. It was originally he showed up and it was like a concert and Sonia Braga was going to reappear, and it would be funny and everything, but I didn’t do it. (Spoiler Ends)

CS: Do you think that people who’ve gone through a similar thing as William might be able to relate to the movie? Was that something you personally were going through while writing the novel?
Hawke: Oh certainly. There was something very cathartic for me when I first started writing it. There’s a certain kind of person that doesn’t relate to this movie at all, but if you’ve been through a similar experience about this. If you have some tendency to be obsessive, to give over to this thing, then it strikes a chord.

CS: Do you feel that the people who might not relate to this movie might be women like Catalina’s character?
Hawke: One of the things I like about Catalina’s character and maybe this doesn’t come off, but I get the distinct impression from the movie and some of it’s in the writing, she keeps telling William that she’s been William. She’s just recovering from a relationship herself and it’s probably what I wanted to reflect with the Michelle Williams relationship. Mark Webber is to Michelle Williams’ character, he’s the cold heartless one. He’s doing to her what’s been done to him. I’m just trying to show that all of us play all these parts. He’s the uncaring one, can’t commit, can’t give in, and depending on the people in our lives, we often choose people to love that won’t love us back.

CS: You’re also describing rather effectively a dynamic that occurs especially with someone at that age range, where they’re just starting to deal with relationships and sex.
Hawke: It’s very much the dynamic. If he had come back from Mexico and she had been loving and enduring, he might have broken up with her two weeks later. We’re not telling the story of true love where it’s meant to be. We’re telling the story of young love where when you’re learning how to be an adult. It’s not like where William and Sara would be a great married couple at 60. I think it’s pretty clear off the bat, these two don’t have that much in common, but there’s some chemistry there. Some basic old fashioned male-female chemistry. This is not, the line in the movie is, “I didn’t meet the woman that I want to grow grey with.” We impale ourselves on people sometimes.

CS: New York locations like the Chelsea Hotel where you shot “Chelsea Walls” are changing almost daily. How do you capture that and make sure it’s not changing while you’re shooting?
Hawke: That’s about photography in a way. Things that you want to photograph, what’s worth documenting, whether it’s people…the use of the word, model, as not as somebody who’s advertising, but a model.

CS: I like that there’s no cell phones in the film.
Hawke: There’s no computers or cell phones.

CS: And it doesn’t matter.
Hawke: The substance of our lives doesn’t change. That’s the neat thing about doing theatre. You do these plays by Chekhov. You do these plays by Shakespeare. You know, you do contemporary plays. The human experience doesn’t change very much. The essence of it, of our emotional work and our inner life, that’s the real stuff of our life, not whether we have a cell phone or not, yet these extraneous things somehow seem to take up so much of our day, when you think about it. Isn’t life so different since we’ve had cell phones? There’s actually a line in “Before Sunrise,” that I always loved, which is we always talk about all these things that save us so much time, but you never hear anybody say, “With the time I’ve saved with my PC this year, I’m going on a zen retreat, and I’m really going to really find myself!” Somehow, the time just gets eaten.

CS: How do you think you’ve grown as a director since “Chelsea Walls?” Do you feel you’ve learned a lot from watching the directors you’ve worked with since then?
Hawke: I don’t know. I really don’t know. I had a little bit more money this time, so that was nice.

CS: There’s one scene where the two are walking through the city, which reminded me of a scene from “Before Sunset.” Did you learn from Richard how to block and film something like that?
Hawke: Definitely. I pinched my use of color from Alfonso Cuaron. I pinched a lot from Richard Linklater. There’s a kind of moodiness to some scenes that I know I’ve pinched from Peter Weir. I’ve been a student to all these people. You hope that you grow. Mostly the way that I grew I think, was by having a better time. I had fun making this movie. The first time out, you’re so nervous about every goddamn thing.

CS: Does this make you want to go back to making more films whether it be from a novel you’ve written or something else?
Hawke: I’d really like to finish the third book. That’ll probably be my next endeavor. I kind of throw myself back into theater. Theatre and “The Hottest State” have occupied the last five years of my life. Making this movie, trying to make the movie, raise the money for it. “Hurley Burley.” For some reason, I’ve been gravitated back to the theater right now and I don’t know why that is.

CS: What’s involved with finishing that third book?
Hawke: I’ve been working on it for a couple of years. Just tinkering, daydreaming about it, writing notes down. At some point, I have to get serious about it, but I have to slow down a lot to do that.

CS: That’s the toughest part.

During the interview, Hawke was joined by composer, songwriter and producer Jesse Harris, and the two of them talked about the film’s score, which you can read about here.

The Hottest State opens in New York and Los Angeles on Friday, August 24.