If a song drops in the forest and there’s no one around, does it make a sound? That was the essential question behind “Seymour: An Introduction,” Ethan Hawke’s 2014 documentary about the piano teacher Seymour Bernstein, who quit his career as a concert pianist long ago and never looked back. Bernstein believes each of us should make art for our own sake.
As did the deceased guitar picker who has become Hawke’s latest obsession. An “outlaw” country songwriter who answered to the name Blaze Foley onstage — whenever, that is, he could keep himself composed enough to make it to the stage — Michael David Fuller was an unlikely spiritual companion to Bernstein. Yet both men, however radically different, shared a belief that fame and recognition can rob an artist of the purity of creation.
“Blaze,” Hawke’s new feature film about the short life and tragic death of the all-but-unknown Foley, opens Sept. 21 at the Coolidge and Kendall Square. Hawke will appear at the former on opening day for post-screening Q&As.
The actor and filmmaker, 47, has starred in films ranging from “Before Sunrise” (1995) to this year’s “First Reformed” and will soon appear on Broadway in a revival of Sam Shepard’s “True West.” He was born in Austin, Texas, where much of “Blaze” takes place. But his parents divorced early, and Hawke was raised mostly in New York and New Jersey.
As a boy, he spent summers and holidays in his father’s native Fort Worth, so Texas has always been in his blood.
“I don’t think any of us really know what places mean to us until we leave,” says Hawke, speaking on the phone from outside the Country Music Hall of Fame, in Nashville, where he and actor Ben Dickey, who plays Foley, are about to tour the museum’s current exhibit “Outlaws & Armadillos.”
For him, Austin “keeps changing. It’s not just where I was born, but where I had a lot of my greatest work experiences,” including the long-gestating 2014 drama of growing up, “Boyhood” (2014).
“Those collaborations with [director Richard] Linklater are connected to the DNA of my existence,” Hawke says. “To boot, the music and the culture, when my mom moved away, were something I really missed. Kids long for their parents to get back together, and one way I could be close to my father was by listening to outlaw country.”
Hawke was drawn to Sybil Rosen’s “Living in the Woods in a Tree,” her 2008 memoir of the brief, wildly romantic time she spent with Foley. For a while, the idea of paying tribute to Foley was a running source of amusement between Hawke and his friend Dickey; they met through Hawke’s wife and Dickey’s girlfriend, who are close friends from childhood. Dickey is a musician, a former hardcore punk from Arkansas who has mellowed into more of an indie songwriter. He was not an actor; but the more he and Hawke talked, the more he felt he could inhabit Foley’s world.
At first, “it was a fun, crazy experiment between Ben and I,” says Hawke. “When people got involved” — when they committed to making the film — “the weight of it increased for both of us. You don’t want to let other people down.”
“The thing I was tasked to do was to take care of Blaze’s music,” says Dickey. Foley, who was murdered at 39 while trying to defend a drinking buddy from the man’s thieving son, wrote “If I Could Only Fly,” which was covered by Merle Haggard, and “Clay Pigeons,” recorded by John Prine.
“I marinated deeply in his music, learned 90 percent of his catalog,” Dickey says. “I did not want to do an impersonation, but I wanted to get into the universe of that kind of melodic musicality.” He got a lot of help from Rosen, Hawke’s co-writer on the screenplay, who tutored Dickey about her old beau’s mannerisms, right down to the limp he carried from a childhood bout with polio.
In the telling, Foley’s heavy drinking and grim determination to undermine his own success is offset by the sheer charm of his backwoods honeymoon with Sybil, who is played with freckly verve by Alia Shawkat. There’s also a cameo opportunity for Hawke’s buddies Linklater, Steve Zahn, and Sam Rockwell, who play a trio of laughably horrible Texas oilmen who want to start a record company.
Charlie Sexton plays the late Townes Van Zandt, Foley’s mutual admirer and co-conspirator inside the bottle. In a scene of brutal emotion, Kris Kristofferson needs only a few words and some genuine tears to play Foley’s estranged, elderly father.
“If you want to meet Blaze’s father, it better be somebody interesting,” Hawke explains. “I wanted Kris to sit on the movie like a symbol. I asked Charlie and Ben to do a very dangerous thing to play these legends. One way to tip our hat was to have a real outlaw country legend, and also a great actor.”
The film is a textbook example of a “labor of love,” though Hawke points out that such work brings its own kinds of peril. If Foley were around, and sober enough, he’d surely agree.
For Hawke, making “Blaze” was a far cry from taking a major acting role. “It’s not a job,” he says, “so if you fail it, you fail yourself.
“And that’s a frightening concept.”James Sullivan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @sullivanjames.