In Toronto, Ethan Hawke talks about his Chet Baker 'anti-biopic,' 'Born to Be Blue' - LA Times


 
 
 
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In Toronto, Ethan Hawke talks about his Chet Baker 'anti-biopic,' 'Born to Be Blue'

Glenn Whipp

LOS ANGELES TIMESglenn.whipp​@latimes.com  

Over a breakfast interview last December, Ethan Hawke was, as he put it, a little "weepy," having just finished shooting "Born to Be Blue" about jazz legend Chet Baker.

"I spent the last six months practicing the ... trumpet and listening to Chet Baker and trying to be heroin-chic thin," Hawke said. On the latter challenge, Hawke, biting into a piece of toast, added, laughing, "I can’t do it. I’m 44 ... years old, and without really shooting up, it’s hard to get that thin."

The primary topic on the table that morning in 2014 was "Boyhood," but as is always the case with a talkative actor, the conversation detoured through various back roads, many of them leading to a shared love for Baker's music. 

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"Born to Be Blue" premiered this week at the Toronto International Film Festival. Written and directed by Robert Budreau, it eschews the music biopic trappings for an impressionistic approach to the photogenic jazz trumpeter's chaotic life and pure, vulnerable art.

It next plays as the opening movie at the New Orleans Film Festival on Oct. 14. It currently does not have a U.S. distributor.

Hawke had to leave immediately after the premiere to return to Santa Fe, N.M., where he's shooting a remake of "The Magnificent Seven," a reunion with his "Training Day" partners Denzel Washington and director Antoine Fuqua.

Here's what he had to say about "Blue" that December morning, along with a follow-up thought offered via email.

My favorite music biopics are "This Is Spinal Tap" and "Walk Hard: the Dewey Cox Story," which I guess is my way of saying I don't much like most music biopics.

No disrespect to them, but a lot of interesting movies like "Ray," they try to do so much. "He was born on this day. And then this happened. And then this wife came along." Part of why I did this movie is that it's the anti-biopic.

How so?

It's fictional. It's imagining a moment in Chet's life. Did you read Geoff Dyer's book "But Beautiful"?

It's one of my favorite books.

That book is phenomenal. So I read it, and this guy Robert Budreau read it. And he thought, "What an idea. I’m going to take the legend of the person, the mythology and create a story about not as he was but how he could have been." And the dream of the movie is that by liberating ourselves from nonfiction, we get at an essence of who he really was.

Dino De Laurentiis approached Chet to have him play himself in his own movie. So we say: What if that had happened? So I’m playing Chet Baker playing himself in a movie. And our movie goes back and forth between the biopic we’re making and the reality of it and this fictional affair Chet's having with his co-star (Carmen Ejogo), who's the actress playing my wife in the movie.

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The boilerplate on Baker is that he squandered his talent and betrayed himself and others with his drug addiction. But the facts of his life and his art don't entirely support that.

I interviewed tons of people about Chet. So many people who loved him, they hate [the James Gavin 2002 biography] "Deep in a Dream," which paints him as this drug-fiend loser. Which, yes, he was like on occasion. But if he was that horrible, why does he have all these 20-year friendships?

That book makes you hate him. People who talked to that author were so happy I called. "This guy, I talked to him for three days. I told him about 10 years of great times I had with Chet Baker. I did include the one time he robbed somebody, and that’s all he included."

And the same friends who saw [the 1988 documentary] "Let’s Get Lost" say that’s a lie. "[Director] Bruce Weber manipulated him." Or: "Chet was just trying to play Bruce to get whatever Bruce wanted."

There's no shortage of opinions and legends surrounding this guy. 

And you take all that in. I loved listening to the music. I loved reading about Chet. When somebody’s gone, and they leave this vacuum, there is this continued dialogue. I can have a dialogue with his work. And I did, and I loved it.

You know, I was supposed to do a Chet Baker movie when I was 26 with Rick [Linklater]. We had a whole script and were going to make it. "A Day in the Life of Chet Baker." A day in 1956.

You would have been the beautiful Chet.

Now I'm the ravaged Chet.

It happens.

Well, I'm still alive. That's what that says. Which I'm very happy about.

Via email:

Now that you've seen it, do you think you nailed the vibe of "But Beautiful"?

It's not for me to say, but it's a good sign that some people seem to notice that was the attempt. I am positive the film will irritate the ... out of some others, but I feel proud of the film and felt it works kind of the way jazz music loves to take a standard and riff off it. We took the standard legend of Chet and dug in and explored and riffed. 

Twitter: @glennwhipp

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