Movies

Ethan Hawke On His Flannery O’Connor Biopic ‘Wildcat’: “I Don’t Know Who Cares About Literature Anymore … But I Know I Do”

Wildcat, directed and co-written by Ethan Hawke and starring Maya Hawke (Stranger Things, Little Women) as Flannery O’Connor, opens this weekend in New York and LA. One of nation’s most evocative, brilliant and ambitious writers, O’Connor was diagnosed with Lupus at 24 and reluctantly settled in with her mother, played by Laura Linney, at a dairy farm in Georgia, continuing to write until she died in 1964 at age 39. Raised in the Jim Crow south, where her work is set, she chronicled cruelty and hypocrisy in luminous prose.

The film premiered at Telluride and debuts theatrically this weekend in New York and LA via Oscilloscope. Four-time Oscar nominee Hawke spoke with Deadline on Wildcat‘s backstory, how it weaves between the author’s life and her fiction, and the current challenged state of indie film – “It’s never been easier to make an independent film. It’s never been more difficult to get anyone to watch it.” (The Q&A has been lightly edited for clarity.)

DEADLINE: Flannery O’Connor’s an incredible writer, maybe underappreciated. Her story ‘Good Country People’ blew me away years ago when I first read it. How did you come to her and to this movie?

ETHAN HAWKE: It’s really kind of a cross-generational movement. My mom sold college textbooks in Atlanta, Georgia, when I was a kid and she fell in love with Flannery O’Connor’s writing when we were down there. So I grew up in a household where I thought she was wildly famous, my mom just talked about her so much that I thought everyone read Flannery O’Connor. Maya discovered her on her own through a great high school English teacher. It gave us something to talk about together, we just both loved it. And then as Stranger Things started to blow up, and Maya started getting more and more interested in taking responsibility for the kind of things she puts into the world, she approached me about making this movie. It was kind of amazing that I’d been talking about Flannery O’Connor with my mother, and now I was talking about her with my daughter. It’s been a long road.

DEADLINE: So when you decided to make it, was it hard to figure out how? She was very reclusive.

HAWKE: She got sick very young, and she spent the bulk of her life trapped in her house with her mother. She said to somebody once that if anybody tried to write a biography of me it would be very boring. And I thought, yeah, it would be unless you wanted to make a movie about the power of imagination and what can be accomplished with imagination, that she would be a great launching pad for such a film.

DEADLINE: By morphing the action back and forth from her real life, to her stories?

HAWKE: Right. You brought up ‘Good Country People’. She herself has said that’s her most autobiographical story. I selected the ones that really explored her relationships, especially with her mother. so we’re seeing some continuity of characters as this film is unfolding. [In ‘Good Country People’ a creepy bible salesman seduces a disabled woman and steals her wooden leg.]

DEADLINE: What did you find most fascinating about her?  

HAWKE: Like a lot of people, we don’t know the right place to put ambition. You know, what is the ambition in service of if it’s really just in service of making yourself seem more important. That hardly seems a cause worth a life’s pursuit, and she was really struggling with that. She was extremely ambitious. She didn’t just want to be a writer. She wanted to be Tolstoy. And that seemed extremely arrogant to her. And that was in conflict with the humility she was striving for in her religious life. And I find that very compelling and really interesting.

DEADLINE: O’Conner was courageous in her portrayal of the Jim Crow South. But some of her private letters had racial epithets. How do you think of that?

HAWKE: That whole conversation is an interesting one, but this country is a racist country. You can’t tell the story of America without stumbling on these wounds. And the people in the generations before us grew up from this soil, and all of those wounds are self-evident when you go back to the past and explore it. Not everyone is Martin Luther King. Not everyone is a champion, but it doesn’t mean that their lives don’t have anything to offer us. Alice Walker said ‘A country doesn’t throw its geniuses away.’ I thought that if Toni Morrison and Alice Walker can find their way through to forgiveness, I think some of us lesser souls can. [Both are admirers of O’Connor’s writing.]

DEADLINE: What was it like working with your daughter?

HAWKE: It was wonderful. I love acting and I love when an actor has a strong passion to perform and to do something, and hits on a character. She approached me with this idea — the idea that she had spent her life watching movies about men being complicated, nuanced characters who didn’t have to be likable. The whole movie would be about their relationship to themselves and their work. And she’s like, ‘I would love to see a movie about a young woman that has that same confidence.’ I found that very compelling. And she’s at a place in her career where, you know, I’m working with my adult daughter. [Others have done it – he mentioned John Huston’s The Dead, written with son Tony Huston and starring daughter Anjelica Huston, one of Hawke’s favorite films.] If you take it really seriously, you can build upon shared enthusiasms and, like a good band, you can use your own intimacy to dig deep into making something worth people’s time. And that’s what Maya and I wanted to do.

DEADLINE: Anything hard about it?

HAWKE: It’s a little hard going public with it. Releasing the movie. You know, the fear around … a relationship that is so sacred [being used] to promote a movie. And that’s the only part that’s awkward. The actual making of it was just one of the best times of my life.

DEADLINE: The film opens this weekend in New York and LA before expanding, are you hitting the road with it?

HAWKE: I’m just kind of taking the month of May and traveling around the country doing Q&A’s in different cities. If you want to release a unique movie, you kind of have to do it in a unique way.

DEADLINE: I saw you’ve done a handful of screenings before opening weekend, often sold out. Are they Flannery O’Connor fans?

HAWKE: I don’t know who cares about cinema anymore. I don’t know who cares about literature anymore. But I know I do. And so I’m interested to see. I’m kind of just going all over the country talking about the movie. And I’ll see if anybody’s interested.

DEADLINE: What are your feelings about the indie film landscape right now?

HAWKE: I’ve been doing this long enough to know that it’s always in flux. And you hit moments where things are easy, and it’s easy to get interesting things made. And then you get moments where it’s really difficult. And the ways the medium intersects with the public is changing. Streaming has changed everything. Covid, the strikes, everything, have knocked people backwards.

There’s huge money being made [by some]. And that has some positive impacts on the community and a lot of negative ones because [there’s a] danger of giant groupthink and turning the whole medium into McDonald’s. That’s the fear. But I also know that every time there’s a setback, all it does is set up a breakthrough. So everything is in transition. I’m happy that I’m getting to do work that I believe in. But I don’t know. Just like everybody else, I wake up in the morning reading articles about it myself.

How is interesting work happening? Is it happening on streaming? What’s the future of independent film? It’s never been easier to make an independent film. It’s never been more difficult to get anyone to watch it. It’s really hard for producers. People can easily lose their shirt trying to take a risk. But if we don’t take risks, we really sacrifice a lot. The job of the artistic community is to provoke interesting conversations. But if you don’t make people money, you don’t get to do it. It’s always been a riddle.

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