Ethan Hawke and Sybil Rosen tell the powerful story of Blaze Foley, a flawed man whose music lives on, in their new film, Blaze.
Despite his undeniable talent, seventies crooner Blaze Foley wasn’t particularly successful—nor was he all that likeable. But that doesn’t mean his life isn’t rich fodder for a film. While Foley may currently be just a footnote in country music history, that’s bound to change when his biopic Blaze, written and directed by four-time Oscar-nominated actor Ethan Hawke, hits theaters. With a pervasive melancholia, Blaze presents an unflinching portrait of a man who had all the goods to blow up big, but whose drunken pugnacity derailed his career. Sure, outlaw rebellion has its place, but too much, too soon is bad for business. Foley learned this the hard way.
Long before he was murdered in 1989 at age 39 (his killer was acquitted on the grounds of self-defense), Foley burned through the goodwill of the suits who created a boutique record label especially for him. Yet despite his sparse recorded musical output, his uncompromisingly honest tunes found underground longevity through covers by artists like Merle Haggard and Lyle Lovett.
Hawke got his first taste of the booming-voiced singer while road-tripping through Nova Scotia with his country singer-pal Ben Dickey, who portrayed Foley in the film, in his acting debut.
“Ben played me a CD of [folk singer] John Prine covering ‘Clay Pigeons,’ and I thought it was one of the best country songs I’d ever heard,” recalls Hawke. “As I looked into who wrote it, the story of Blaze’s life became as compelling as his music.”
Hawke drew further inspiration from a memoir penned by Foley’s once lover Sybil Rosen, entitled Living in the Woods in a Tree: Remembering Blaze Foley. As the title suggests, the Jewish actress from Virginia and the burly singer from Arkansas shacked up in a treehouse in the Georgia pinewoods, where they spent many lazy days—she as his muse; he as an aspiring songwriter. But when they ditched their private Eden to pursue music stardom in Texas, the relationship crumbled, mainly due to Foley’s binge drinking and surly discontent. But Rosen, who shares a screenwriting credit with Hawke, bears no regrets.
“Blaze and I saw each other. It sounds simple, but it’s a powerful thing to be seen,” says Rosen, who’s portrayed in the film by indie actress Alia Shawkat.
Together, Rosen and Hawke spoke with Script about telling the story of a flawed man whose music lives on.
Note: This interview was edited for content and clarity.
Script: Let’s calibrate this interview by discussing your personal consumption of country music.
Ethan Hawke: I’ll go first. My personal consumption of county music is extremely high. I travel a lot, so listening to country music is a consistent habit. In fact, I struggle to force myself to listen to other genres of music, because there’s something comforting about the old friends you have with your musical relationships. But ironically, editing the movie beat up my love of country music, because I was listening to it all day long, and I needed to take a break. Just the other day, I found myself putting on country music for pleasure, for the first time since the release of the movie.
Sybil Rosen: I listen to a lot of the country music that Blaze introduced me to in the seventies—artists like Wild Man Fischer, Frank Zappa and Jackson Browne, so I have a personal connection to that type of music, which is part of our story.
Script: When you wrote the script, did you calculate how much of the overall sound mix would include Ben Dickey’s vocals?
Hawke: It was our decision early on to use Blaze’s songs as fence posts that could unite the different time periods throughout the film. Because we were dealing with non-actors like Ben, whose musical artistry levels were exceedingly high, I knew music was our get-out-of-jail free card, where if scenes didn’t work, we could make them work by turning the movie into a long Blaze Foley music video. But it turned out that a lot of the natural acting worked, so we didn’t have many obstacles in editing.
Script: Many scenes were connected by a sonic through line, where Blaze started out singing in the treehouse, then you’d cut to him singing a more polished version of the same song in a bar. How did you ensure Ben Dickey’s pitch matched, scene to scene?
Hawke: It was a challenge for Ben to make sure each of the songs were played in the same key. But the great thing about this project was that it was so homespun—we were all living together during filming. We’d all sit around in the holding areas and play music, so we knew the different styles each song had to be played in, during each time period—either more loosely or more articulately. Some things didn’t end up working because of that.
Script: Sybil, your book describes how Blaze often stayed out all night, or left town for long stretches, but he apologized for his absence in songs like I Should Have Been Home, which features the following lyrics:
I got home at daylight
I know I been gone too long
Woke up at eleven
And I found that you had gone
Drank a pot of coffee
And I wrote you down this song
I should have been home with you
How does it feel to be the subject of this expression?
Rosen: You have to understand that Blaze had a rambling instinct that compelled him to keep moving. He also had tremendous stage fright. The stakes were so high when we moved to Austin, that he needed to go to places where he could be invisible and get used to performing, so these separations were consensual. I believed in him so deeply, and I encouraged him to do what he needed to do. But I didn’t hear a lot of Blaze’s songs at the time, so I didn’t know exactly what experiences he was turning into songs. My relationship to his music was more planted in the songs he wrote specifically in the treehouse.
Script: And what was your reaction to seeing your treehouse recreated for film?
Rosen: It was much bigger than the actual treehouse, because it had to accommodate the crew and the camera equipment. The actual treehouse we lived in was really tiny. I always felt like Blaze was a giant, living in a hobbit house. He was always bumping his head. But the first time I walked into the film version, I was captivated. The intention everyone put into building it gave it beautiful resonance and magic.
Script: Ethan, can you discuss the sweat equity it took to get this film made?
Hawke: I can’t even tell you. People wonder why big-shot directors who began their careers making independent films don’t go back to making those early, low-budget films. The reason they don’t is because it’s so hard. Nobody deliberately wants to work that hard. The pervasive anxiety is like a guillotine. As a director, you’re asking all of these gifted and passionate and opinionated people to join you. It’s like beckoning them aboard a ship, and then you set sail, and you’re responsible for captaining the ship and landing it into port, and you don’t want to let anyone down.
A few of weeks before shooting started, the anxiety in my body was at such a high level, that if I could have undone it all, I would have. So many things had to go right. It couldn’t rain on a certain day. It had to rain on one of three other days. Is the treehouse going to get built? How are we going to get period cars? How do we find exteriors for an eighties movie, with no money? I wasn’t scared that I wouldn’t be able to do it, I was scared that the universe wouldn’t allow it. However, when a movie turns out well, a flow happens where things beyond your control start going right. It’s a mysterious and rare phenomenon.
We didn’t think of anyone else besides Alia Shawkat to play Sybil, because we needed someone with experience and talent, who loved the arts and could work with Ben, but we didn’t know if she’d be interested. So I had a Skype call with her, and as I began telling her about Blaze, she immediately started singing ‘Clay Pigeons.’ She knew the song! I told her I’d send the script, and she said, “Don’t worry about it—I’ll do it!” I’m so indebted to all of these people for bringing their talent. By the way, you ask really interesting questions.
Script: Well, I know how much deliberation goes into every decision—every camera set-up and every hair and make-up choice—and there are unique stories behind each of these thoughts. Generic questions like, “Why did you want to make this movie?” feel reductive to me.
Hawke: Reductive is the right word. And people don’t mean to be reductive, but they are. And what you said about make-up choices is true, because when you don’t have money for hair and make-up tests, it’s a scary thing. The wrong choice or gesture can unmoor the whole ship.