Blaze director Ethan Hawke and star Ben Dickey on the complicated life of Blaze Foley
(This story has been updated and corrected to more accurately reflect the career of Howard Lemuel Green, Hawke’s grandfather. Also, an incorrect reference to Hawke’s mother being on the board of the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth has been removed.)
Ethan Hawke spent a lot of time in Fort Worth when he was growing up.
His parents met in school in North Richland Hills and married in college. They were students at UT-Austin when Hawke was born in 1970. They divorced when he was 4, and Hawke spent his school years with his mother in New Jersey, and his summers with his father.
The press notes for “Blaze,” Hawke’s new directorial effort about semi-obscure musician Blaze Foley, mention Hawke’s first concert: His father drove him from Fort Worth to Austin for Willie Nelson’s Fourth of July picnic in 1976. In the press material, Hawke says that inspired a lifelong love of outlaw country music. But during an interview with Hawke and “Blaze” star Ben Dickey in Fort Worth, it’s the car his dad drove that Hawke remembers best.
“Whatever age you are, the cars you love are the cars you saw as a kid,” Hawke says. “What I remember most about [the trip] was the Barracuda. How cool my dad looked in that car. I was 6, and he just seemed like Aragorn or something. The stuff that legends are made of. So my interest in that music was something personal. It’s about my relationship with my father.”
That love for outlaw country helped fuel the unconventional biopic about Foley, whose songs were covered by Merle Haggard, Lyle Lovett and others; who inspired Lucinda Williams’ “Drunken Angel” and other songs; who developed a friendship and musical partnership with Fort Worth-born Townes Van Zandt (uncannily played in the movie by Austin musician/producer Charlie Sexton). “Blaze” is a biography, it’s a love story and it’s a bit of a tragedy.
According to the Texas State Historical Association’s website, Foley (born Michael David Fuller) in Arkansas, spent time in Irving, Hurst and Arlington as a teen. He drifted a lot, settling in Georgia with Sybil Rosen, whose memoir “Living in the Woods in a Tree: Remembering Blaze Foley” was the primary source for the movie (Rosen and Hawke share screenwriting credits). After a brief time in Chicago, Foley and Rosen moved to Austin, where they split up and he became part of the ‘70s and ‘80s Austin music scene. The movie reveals early on that Foley was fatally shot in 1989, lending a melancholy tone to the often understated film.
And yet Foley remains largely unknown. Hawke and Dickey are out to change that with a blitz across Texas to promote the film, including appearances at screenings in cities as far-flung as Houston, Lubbock and El Paso. On Wednesday, they introduced a matinee screening the movie for troops at the Naval Air Station Joint Reserve Base Fort Worth, then introduced an evening screening at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, then drove to Dallas for a Q&A after a screening at the Magnolia Theater. And they also appeared at a Fort Worth fund-raiser for Democratic Senate candidate Beto O’Rourke.
In between all that, Hawke and Dickey sat down for an interview and photo/video shoot with the Star-Telegram at the Ginger Man on Camp Bowie Bouelvard in Fort Worth, to talk about the movie and share some Fort Worth memories (turns out Dickey, an Arkansas-bred musician making his acting debut in “Blaze,” has a few of his own).
On trying to capture Blaze’s personality while not making a conventional biopic
HAWKE: A lot of people in music, they have a two-dimensional label that’s attached to them. Johnny Cash is X, Hank Williams is Y, Ray [Charles] — there’s a kind of cookie-cutter label that they have that makes them easy to comprehend. And none of those people are actually that.
We’re dealing with a character that most people don’t know anything about, so they have no iconography to make sense of the landscape, and our goal is to put a three-dimensional person on screen, so that he wouldn’t be one thing..
DICKEY: When he was young and he was meeting Sybil Rosen, he’d tell a story about “I lost 150 pounds.” He’d shed a skin. And when we meet him in the movie, he’s [[in] a different skin, and when we get to the end of his life, he’s a different person. Substances and circumstances drove things that were framing finding who he was at the time. He was a joy to be around, from a lot of accounts, and a terror, from other accounts. I’ve met a lot of people who knew Blaze, and they say, “You know, I never saw that rough side of him.” Somebody else says, “Man, I loved his music, but he was a horror.” That duality could even fall back to some mental illness and depression and addiction, which I think Blaze was flirting with if not waist-deep and neck-deep in some of that stuff.
On discovering Foley and his music
Hawke and Dickey are longtime friends who met through Hawke’s wife and Dickey’s “sweetheart” (the term he always uses), who had been friends from childhood. It was Dickey who introduced Foley’s music to Hawke.
But things really started with Dickey’s father. Dickey turned him on to singer-songwriter John Prine in 2004, and his dad was stunned that he’d never heard of the musician. On Prine’s next album, he covered Foley’s song “Clay Pigeons” and Dickey’s father asked him about Foley.
DICKEY: [I said], “Well, he was friends with Townes Van Zandt.” All I knew about Blaze at that point was, he’d died, and he wrote “If I Could Only Fly,” and Merle and Willie thought he was really cool, and he was mysterious.
So my dad sent me all this information, including a CD, about Blaze. I was living in Arizona, and I was a day away from heading to Nova Scotia to see [Hawke, who has a home there]. It was a CD that had a bunch of Guy Clark, but it had six Blaze songs at the top of the CD. And he also sent me some literature about Blaze. One of the things that struck both of us was, we thought the music was amazing ... how did we not know these songs? They were so great. But there were four different accounts of the way he died, and that reminded me of Robert Johnson. And none of those ended up being true.
HAWKE: When we first started talking seriously about making the movie, I actually had the wrong version. What I thought we were going to dramatize — it wasn’t till I read Sybil’s book that I was like, “Oh, Sybil very clearly lays it out.” There were so many characters around his funeral, and so much hyperbole and weirdness that went around “Drunken Angel,” Lucinda’s song, that legends just kinda grew.
On their Fort Worth and Texas memories
HAWKE: Anybody who comes from a childhood of divorce, when you grow up in that, there’s some strong feelings that you can’t really shake. I got off at DFW Airport, and I’m 47 years old, and I still get racked with emotion about the goodbyes and hellos I’ve had at that airport. Trying to park — my dad would get so upset: “This damn airport! Departures only!”
I remember once, one Christmas, he gave me all these presents. This was pre-9-11, so it makes no sense now, but it made a little sense then. He let me put all my toys in a guitar case. One of them was a musket. They wouldn’t let me bring it on the plane. My father just got so angry. “It’s a musket! It’s a Daniel Boone musket! He’s 8 years old!” But they said, “No, no muskets allowed.” But I knew what he was really upset about was saying goodbye.
That airport, just arriving here, is just loaded for me. The heat here is so specific. I feel that heat and my brain goes back. You feel the heat off the pavement at night. It’s still cooking. It’s a big part of my psyche, more than you might imagine for a person who lived in New York City.
[Hawke’s grandfather, Howard Lemuel Green, was county judge in Tarrant County from 1968 to 1976, and was often seen at diners such as Eden’s and Paris Coffee Shop. According to a 1995 Star-Telegram story, Hawke continued to visit Fort Worth even after he became famous, keeping a low profile and declining to do press when he was here because he wanted to keep his personal and professional life separate. For more on Hawke’s Fort Worth history, read this essay he wrote for Texas Monthly in 2005.]
DICKEY: My dad is from Palestine, Texas. His brother and his sister all lived in the area. I have cousins who still live here. I came to Texas when I was a kid, every year, sometimes two or three times a year. I always loved being here. I always loved the way the road changed as soon as you went on I-30 across from Arkansas, you’d see little flecks of iron in the road. The way the road signs were different and everything was bigger and you could go 80 miles and hour on two-lanes and people’d come out to get their mail while you blew by them.
I remember going to the Cotton Bowl for the first time, the big Ferris wheel in the background. All that stuff’s ingrained. When [Ethan and I] first met, we were like, “What’s your favorite cafeteria, [Little Rock’s] Franke’s or Luby’s?” We had stuff to talk about. I grew up in Arkansas, my parents were divorced as well. They were both good to me. I had those goodbyes in those airports and the “See you next time” that’ll probably be in 10 weeks.
On their state-crossing publicity tour
HAWKE: I’ve never done a release like this. A full-on grassroots release. What I don’t like movies is the way they cut you off from the audience. When you do a play, you see the audience every night, and they might hang around and ask you to sign their program and say something like “It was funny when the fly crawled up your nose.” With movies, someone will come up to me and say — you know, “Traiining Day” might mean a lot to them, but I have no idea when they saw it, I wasn’t there. Getting to watch Ben sing “Clay Pigeons” on a stage where Blaze played, getting to walk around Houston and text Gurf [singer-songwriter-producer Gurf Morlix, who performed with Foley] and asking where they played, it’s pretty fun. Just showing the movie at the base today — it’s so not what I’ve ever done before.
Blaze opens Aug. 24 at the Landmark Magnolia in Dallas and at the Angelika Film Center in Plano. It will run Sept. 28-30 as part of the Magnolia at the Modern film series at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth.