In 1991, 21-year-old Ethan Hawke was shivering in the woods of Park City, Utah, playing a sergeant in the small World War II drama “A Midnight Clear,” when thousands of people suddenly invaded town.
“That was the first time I’d ever heard of the Sundance Film Festival,” says Hawke today. “I thought, ‘Aw, this will never work.’”
The indie film revolution hadn’t happened, but it was about to. That week, while Hawke strapped on a helmet and tromped through the slush, Richard Linklater premiered an experiment called “Slacker.” “Some wacky kid made a punk rock movie that beat the system,” says Hawke. “It was an event. You had to see it.”
Hawke was inspired to direct. “I was suspicious of my ability to sustain an acting career,” he admits. So he spent his “Dead Poets Society” salary shooting his first short, a 21-minute romance named “Straight to One,” and submitted it to the 1994 Sundance, now that he knew what it was. “Straight to One” got in — as did his other movie that year, the Ben Stiller-directed “Reality Bites.” Hawke had to dash from the scrappy shorts section to wave at his big premiere. Afterward, he and friend Steve Zahn rode up a ski lift to stare at the limitless horizon. “It was an awesome moment,” says Hawke. “My whole life as an actor was changing for the better.
“At that time, I was Captain Snow Actor,” laughs Hawke, the guy then best known for retching tears into the ice outside “Dead Poets Society’s” Welton Academy and nearly freezing to death in “White Fang,” “A Midnight Clear” and, of course, the cannibal survival pic “Alive.” Now, being in the Utah snow meant he was one of the cool kids of indie film — though “I’m sure they were making ‘Alive’ jokes behind my back.”
No matter. The next year, “Before Sunrise” opened Sundance, hailing the Hawke and Linklater partnership that would help define the festival’s next two decades with such films as “Waking Life,” “Boyhood” and the “Before” trilogy. At the “Waking Life” premiere, Linklater asked the Eccles Theater: “How many of you are on drugs?” Several people whooped. Grins Hawke, “I thought that was pretty funny.”
Today, Hawke’s a Sundance veteran. (Variety is honoring him with its Indie Impact Award on at a private dinner Jan. 20 with his cast at the AT&T/DirectTV space on Main and Heber.) Or rather, a Sundance survivor.
One festival, he and horror producer Jason Blum jumped into a car to do snow donuts. Hawke wasn’t wearing a coat or shoes, and neither man had a cellphone. They drove out to a middle-of-nowhere field, spun around a few times, and got stuck. “At first it was funny,” says Hawke. There were “Alive” jokes. But as the car’s heater burned up their gas, the two panicked and started to dig. Eventually, Hawke tore down a fence to wedge wood under the wheels — his frigid toes covered only in socks. He was late for that night’s premiere.
This year, he’s returning to Sundance for the 11th time —12th if you count that year he attended on accident. But it’s Hawke’s first time in the U.S. dramatic competition as a director. His biopic, “Blaze,” stars guitarist Ben Dickey as an unsuccessful musician’s musician named Blaze Foley, a shaggy, soft-hearted drunk who kicked around Austin until 1989 when he was shot in the chest.
“I call him the Snuffleupagus of the outlaw country music scene,” says Hawke. Foley stood 6-foot-4 and wore suits made of duct tape. “Costumes made out of duct tape, cowboy boots made out of duct tape,” says Hawke, whose budget for “Blaze” included dozens of rolls. “It does fit the sensibility of independent filmmaking.”
Foley was forgotten soon after he died, except by pals, including Lucinda Williams and Townes Van Zandt, who kept him alive in song. “Almost every biopic you see is about a famous person, particularly in the arts,” says Hawke. “Blaze got no pats on the back and he just kept at it. I know so many actors like that, and dancers, musicians, filmmakers, and it’s hard.
“Sometimes you go to Sundance and you’re all the news. Sometimes nobody cares about you,” continues Hawke. “You have to be strong and humble.”
And you have to stick by your friends, seeing their movies and putting them in your own if you can. Linklater and Zahn have small parts in “Blaze,” alongside a mix of new and old faces such as Kris Kristofferson, Sam Rockwell, Alia Shawkat and even Josh Hamilton, who starred in “Straight to One” nearly 25 years ago.
“It’s really interesting over these years to feel these different waves,” says Hawke. “During the ’90s, I remember everyone was just moaning that we weren’t in the ’70s.” Around then, Hawke told Rolling Stone he was summoning the courage to write Robert Redford for advice on how to sustain a career with integrity.
Did he ever send that letter? No. “But it’s so weird how people don’t change,” says Hawke, chuckling at himself. “I was just saying to my wife the other day how much I want to write Redford! I’m slowly starting to understand just how massive his accomplishment has been. How hard it is to keep making stuff that’s relevant. What he’s accomplished, not just for himself but for others. I guess I wanted to ask him for advice before. Now I just want to say, ‘Thank you,’ because his best advice is his life.”