Hawke As Linklater: Exploring Form & Story

It’s 1993. Ethan Hawke is in a theatrical production of Jonathan Marc Sherman’s “Sophistry”, co-starring with Anthony Rapp, who has just finished filming Dazed and Confused. Rapp has invited Hawke to an early preview screening of Dazed, which Hawke has claimed to have ‘flipped out’ over. Richard Linklater, in turn, has seen “Sophistry” , and he and Hawke begin to chat at an after-party one night.

Hawke says that they spent whole night chatting, ignoring everyone else at the party, and that their conversation concluded with Linklater sending him the screenplay for Before Sunrise, the first film of what has now evolved into a trilogy. Hawke, ecstatic, contacts his agent, says he’ll do it but he has some issues with the screenplay, which at this point wasn’t set in Europe and had many more monologues that didn’t make their way into the completed film. Unbeknownst to Hawke, Linklater wasn’t offering him the part, but an audition.

Hawke arrived at the audition, where he discussed the role with several other women before being opposite Julie Delpy, who at this point had already toured the world after starring in films by Jean-Luc Godard and Krzysztof Kieślowski, and their chemistry was just right. Linklater, who had claimed he wouldn’t make the film unless he found the right pair, had now found Jesse and Celine.

School of Hawke

Since Before Sunrise, Linklater and Hawke have worked together on seven features, including the aforementioned romance trilogy, a western, a film that takes place in real time, a documentary, and a 12-year epic. It’s difficult to think of another director/actor collaboration that has covered quite a breadth of work, and that has not only covered a huge range of narratives but actually explores the very art form of filmmaking.

The two have grossed almost $50 million dollars worldwide, and yes that includes the $17 million lost on the much underrated The Newton Boys, and ended up producing such a broad-scoped collective oeuvre. Many other popular director/actor collaborations explore multiple fictional narratives, allowing both the filmmaker and actor to showcase their skill sets and talents, but they tend to constrain themselves within the parameters of the basic narrative form.

Looking at the Before trilogy offers much more retrospectively than you’d imagine. In the early ’90s, you would have assumed Linklater cast Hawke as Jesse because of his doe-eyed charm, and that the industry spotlight was on him after working as a child actor in Explorers and Dead Poets Society before turning in a role in the so-called Gen-X Breakfast Club of the ’90s, Reality Bites. But due to the frequent nature of which Hawke and Linklater work together, it suggests there is something more intrinsic at play.

Before Sunrise is based on a real life encounter Linklater had with a woman, where they wondered around aimlessly over the course of one night, talking about philosophy, culture and life. Therefore, it’s only natural to assume Linklater must have seen something of himself in Hawke, when he eyed him for the role of Jesse. They are both Texas-born creatives who, despite a 10-year age difference, both elicit a sensitive side to masculinity, both are fathers now and have a devoted shared interest in cinema.

Hawke As Linklater: Exploring Form & Story

The relationship they share in the Before trilogy evolved between them, as Linklater invited Hawke and Julie Delpy to collaborate on the next two, to which they all co-wrote the screenplays for. The reason to create a sequel to Sunrise, which Linklater jokingly comments was the ‘lowest grossing movie to ever spawn a sequel,’ must have been due to the relationship between the three of them. Linklater has said that they recurrently talked about where Jesse and Celine would be, whether they met at the train station, where they were in their careers or just where they were in their lives, so it seems that a sequel made sense to them artistically.

The evolution of Hawke’s character in this sense could be seen as the growth of and alternate life for Richard Linklater, where Slacker never happened and he novelised his experiences of that night rather than applying them to a screenplay. It’s obviously speculation, but due to the philosophical intentions of his later work it certainly provides evidence of his interest.

Praised and Amused

Further evidence of this representation of Hawke as Linklater could be seen in Boyhood, where Hawke plays semi-absent father Mason Sr. to Linklater’s own daughter Lorelei Linklater. Boyhood takes place in real time over 12 years, and portrays growing up in adolescent Middle America in the mid-’00s. Boyhood is the truest attempt at period storytelling; there is no retrospective nostalgia placed on the era or time, as it was created in the present and accounts for what is was like then – Dragon Ball Z, Lady Gaga videos, presidential elections – all these things that felt like a big deal at the time but don’t provide much nostalgia in hindsight.

The relationship between Mason Sr. and Lorelei’s Samantha isn’t biographical to Linklater. But it shows his daughter growing up, with his distinct portrayal of naturalism. She isn’t the protagonist, but she is always there and present. Lorelei has been quoted since the film’s release as saying she’s embarrassed by the film and finds it uncomfortable to watch. Now, it’s an obvious comparison, but the reaction is pretty similar to looking at childhood home videos or photos. But in Linklater’s case his home video is a 12-year small town epic.

Hawke As Linklater: Exploring Form & Story

Linklater has seen Hawke as his go-to guy for his experiments, whether it be a western of a documentary. On a recent Hollywood Actors Roundtable, Hawke commented on his decision to work with Linklater so regularly. He said “when you’re working with a world class filmmaker, I don’t ever feel like I’m taking a risk”. It’s this admiration which suggests a work ethic.

Hawke and Linklater clearly get each other, and they understand their experimentations and intentions. It’s why Linklater would invite Hawke to be in Before Sunrise then The Newton Boys then Waking Life then Tape. Each of those films are different artistically, but they’re examples of the mutual respect the two share. These films aren’t going to earn money on paper, but they’re going to explore a theme or a form, and to be able to produce these films and get them financed you need collaborators who are willing, understanding, and, fortunately in Hawke‘s case, have some minor star power.

It’s evident that Hawke must’ve recognised something in Linklater when they worked on Before Sunrise; he’d already made fourteen films at this point and hadn’t had something artistically fulfilling yet, but he took the risk. And it’s evident in his career that he is a risk taker. Hawke’s entire filmmaking career has been a foray into multiple genres and forms, and it seems that he is always willing to try something new. With Linklater as a through line in his career, it seems as though he knows he can achieve some fulfilment with him.

In regard to their next collaboration, Hawke was asked earlier this year by CinemaBlend if any further collaborations were on the horizon. Hawke commented: “you know, we’re always working on something. I think we have three different things we’re talking about right now. I’m not sure which one is going to pop into the chamber first, but there’s a script we co-wrote together, there’s a script by the guy who wrote Me & Orson Welles that the two of us want to do, and then there’s another kind of more mysterious, further-down-the-line project we’ve been working on. Any one of them, both of us are trying to get one of them made this year, for sure, so hopefully it will happen.”

How many of Ethan Hawke and Richard Linklater’s collaborations have you seen?

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