By Jack Egan
Multitalented Ethan Hawke wears many of hisprofessional hats in The Hottest State, a fresh take on a universaltheme: The intensity of first love and the pangs of rejection. It opensin theaters at the end of August. Hawke not only directs the film, heplays a key supporting role, and also penned the screenplay, which inturn is based on a semi-autobiographical novel of the same name that hewrote a decade ago.
Known mainly as a charismatic and versatilefilm and stage actor and, secondarily, as a screenplay author, Hawke at34 has received numerous accolades in both categories. They include anAcademy Award supporting-actor nomination for Training Day, an Oscarscreenplay nomination for Before Sunset, in which he also starred, anda Tony Award nomination earlier this year as best featured actor forThe Coast of Utopia, an eight-hour, three-play marathon by Englishplaywright Tom Stoppard staged at Lincoln Center.
The HottestState, which debuted at the 2006 Venice Film Festival, is the secondfeature film Hawke has directed. His first turn as helmer was forChelsea Walls, released in 2001. Several of the key department headsfrom the earlier film reprised their efforts for The Hottest State.They include production designer Rick Butler, editor Adriana Pachecoand costume designer Catherine Marie Thomas.
New for Hawke wascinematographer Chris Norr, previously the camera operator on directorMichel Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, who was chosenfor his hand-held shooting flair. Hawke also worked closely withcomposer-songwriter Jesse Harris on the soundtrack. Harris contributed18 original songs which were integral to the film’s narrative and weresung by Willie Nelson and Emmylou Harris as well as other notedvocalists.
Though budgeted at under $5 million, the film has apolished, energized look and comes with a distinguished cast. The twoyoung lovers are played by relative newcomer Mark Webber as Williamand, as Sara, rising star Catalina Sandino Moreno, who was nominatedfor a best actress Oscar for her role in Maria Full of Grace. LauraLinney and Hawke play William’s divorced parents. Michelle Williams andSonia Braga have featured roles.
Hawke recently talked to Belowthe Line about the production of Hottest State, prior to deploying toAustralia for the filming of Daybreakers, in which he plays a vampire.
Belowthe Line: It’s just over a decade since your novel The Hottest Statehit bookstores. How do you feel now that the film version is about tohit theaters?
Ethan Hawke: It’s something I kind of did for myselfand I feel done with it but I also feel very satisfied. I’ve never hadso little apprehension about something coming out.
BTL: Did your script change much from the novel?
Hawke:I changed it in superficial ways but it’s pretty much the same. Somepeople say I adapted the novel. I felt I shot the novel.
BTL: A number of your key crew also were with you on Chelsea Walls in 2001.
Hawke:Yes, a lot of the same people were involved and I feel indebted to themand to my entire crew on this film. They all did a great job. There’s acertain pride you take when you do a personal film like this. And whenother people you know sign on to help get it accomplished, and make abig commitment in terms of time, it makes you feel very gratified.
BTL: This was the first time you worked with your cinematographer Chris Norr.
Hawke:I was very lucky. Chris is an incredible cinematographer, and he’sgoing to be a big shot some day. I originally wanted Ellen Kuras. Ireally liked the look of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, onwhich she was the director of photography. I wanted that same hand-heldlook. But when we got to talking, she suggested Chris Norr, who hadbeen her camera operator on Eternal Sunshine, and who she said wasreally responsible for much of the film’s look. And if I wanted to havea movie shot hand-held, I should work with Chris because he was one ofthe best hand-held operators in the world and would relish theopportunity if I gave him a shot.
BTL: How did you and Chris come up with the look for Hottest State, aside from the decision to have it shot mainly hand-held?
Hawke:The only thing you can really do is talk about the language of moviesand the language of the camera with your cinematographer. Chris is avery non-verbal person. Sometimes he just has to show you what he’sthinking. But we knew we were on the same wavelength. We wanted everyshot to be cinematic and to have a certain integrity. We also wantedsome extra color saturation to make the film feel young and reflect theenergy of my two leads.
BTL: Chris shot mainly with available light, which helped give the film its naturalism.
Hawke:That’s one reason we shot as much as possible with available light. Theend result, a kind of heightened naturalism, was what we wanted fromthe start. But we also had to go with mainly available light. We onlyhad two lights to play with.
BTL: Did you rehearse your actors much before the camera started rolling?
Hawke:I come from the theater. I feel the only way you can make a movie wellwithout much money is with lots of preparation. We were incredibly wellrehearsed. Everyone always thinks that Before Sunset and Before Sunrisewere pretty much improvised. But they were also meticulously rehearsed.
BTL: In terms of the film’s production design, it doesn’t appear to have many sets.
Hawke:A large part of the production design work was finding locationsbecause we didn’t have that much money. Rick Butler did subtle littlethings. In an early scene there’s the meeting between William and hisparents, and he arranges the two Coke bottles on the table. Later whenhe meets Sara, we found a building with a sign on it that’s framed bytwo Coke bottles. They mirrored the earlier scene. And we ended withsomething that used found art and that’s a piece of Americana. Thatkind of thing doesn’t cost any money — it just requires a littleadvance preparation and ingenuity.
That was typical of the kind ofwork that Rick did. He had such a small budget. At times there weretears running down his face as he tried to find a way to make somethingwork. But he usually succeeded. There were a few sets built, forexample the lobby of the Mexican hotel. We did it in Brooklyn. For theroom in the hotel, we used the Chelsea Hotel in Manhattan.
BTL: How long was the shoot?
Hawke:We shot for 34 days, mostly in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn.And then we shot for about 10 days in El Paso, Texas. We used El Pasofor both the scenes set in Fort Worth and in Mexico. I saved my ownmain acting scenes for the last few days of the shoot. With such a goodcrew, I figured I could sign off as director and just be an actor andessentially let Chris Norr run the set.
BTL: Your movie remindedme a bit of The Last Picture Show in its feel and the combination ofbravado and fragility of the two main characters.
Hawke: I’m gladyou noticed. The Last Picture Show is one of my favorite films, and itwas one of the first movies I showed to Chris when we were in prep. Iwanted some of that to be in the first scene of The Hottest State,which starts in Texas where the train goes by and there’s the loneDairy Queen . I thought this should remind the audience of The LastPicture Show. That scene doesn’t really happen — it’s William’s fantasyof his parents’ first meeting, so he views it like a movie. Also, MarkWebber even looks like a young Jeff Bridges in Last Picture Show. Hehas a similar “aw, shucks” quality like Jeff, and he’s funny andhandsome.
The book by Larry McMurtry that was turned into The LastPicture Show was also an inspiration for my original novel. Larry isone of my influences artistically. When people ask if this film isautobiographical I tell them it’s semi-autobiographical. That’s howMcMurtry’s novel also feels. When I write, I feel I’m most comfortablein the genre of semi-autobiographical fiction.
BTL: How involved were you during the film’s edit?
Hawke:Completely. I think any good director is. My editor Adriana
Pacheco waswith me on Chelsea Walls, as you’ve noted. I really believe in her.During editing, you spend a lot of time together — you and the editorare writing the movie again as you figure out the pacing and the tone.She helped me tremendously. I watched the movie again the other day — Ihadn’t seen it in a little while — and kept wanting to re-cut scenes inmy mind. Then I remembered why we did a particular edit and realizedAdriana was right.
BTL: Do you spend a lot of time in the editing process?
Hawke:Yes I do. I don’t know how directors like Steven Spielberg get a movieedited in just a few weeks. For me, editing is like writing. In my twoexperiences as a director, the editing phase has been luxuriously slowbecause both were done on very low budgets. So there was no pressure tohurry up the editing like the director of a big Hollywood movie thathas to be ready for the theaters for Thanksgiving or July Fourth.
Butwhile editing, I had a pipe dream of getting my film to premiere at theVenice Film Festival. When it was accepted, based on an early cut, Ifinished up the movie. But I would have taken another month editing ifI hadn’t been accepted.
BTL: The music by Jesse Harris, consistingof original songs sung by Willie Nelson and other greats also servesthe story line in the movie.
Hawke: Yes, I wanted the music to beall original songs and to function like a Greek Chorus, guiding andframing the narrative. I wanted to have one songwriter, but I wanted alot of energy and different voices. And that’s what Jesse, who is goodfriend of mine, was able to do, commenting on the action. For example,he writes this song about reaching your hand out to touch the past —don’t look back, don’t look back. It’s all so fitting with what thecamera does. He also wrote all the songs, from the one Willie Nelsonsings that opens the movie through the song Catalina sings near thevery end of the film.
BTL: Did Catalina actually sing her song?
Hawke:In the end, no. Catalina and I had been working on whether she wasgoing to do the singing or not. She was taking guitar and vocallessons. But she then said, “You’re going to end up altering my voiceso much with technology, that it’s really not going to be me.” So wefound a young Argentinian singer to do the vocals while Catalina was onscreen. I think it worked out well.
BTL: Along with your acting and writing, do you want to continue to direct?
Hawke:I do. I enjoy doing different things. Sometimes I think Clint Eastwoodis my hero, and that I’d like to make some genre Hollywood movies tofacilitate a maverick career. And sometimes I think I’d like to be likeBob Fosse and make just a handful of films, but make them all personal.They are both heroes to me.
Written by Jack Egan