Renaissance man Ethan Hawke reflects on his latest film, “The Woman in the Fifth,” the current state of Hollywood, and filmmaking as self-expression.
The Woman in the Fifth, a new film from budding auteur Pawel Pawlikowski, follows in the tradition of previous Pawlikowski gems such as Last Resort and My Summer of Love—visually stunning, actor-oriented and fearless in their subject matter. With The Woman in the Fifth, Pawlikowski provides a stark and extremely stylized study of a man who attempts unsuccessfully to reconnect with his wife and child after a mysterious absence. He soon finds himself adrift in the unforgiving streets of Paris, where he struggles with his own demons. Everything changes for him once he encounters a mysterious woman who seems to hold all the cards.
Starring Ethan Hawke, Kristin Scott Thomas and dazzling newcomer Joanna Kulig (Elles, TFF 2012), The Woman in the Fifth arguably is a not a movie for everyone, but for Pawlikowski fans, it is a must-see. It will elicit visceral responses and stimulate conversation about film and life—in other words, it will deliver what they have come to expect from this innovative and daring director. We recently had the chance to speak with Ethan Hawke, who raved about working with Pawlikowski and also dished on his love of European movies, Sidney Lumet, and genre filmmaking.
Tribeca: The Woman in The Fifth is unlike any movie you have ever starred in. Had you heard about Doug Kennedy’s novel before Pawel Pawlikowski approached you with the project?
Ethan Hawke: No. Pawel came to see me when I was doing a play in London. He was living in Oxford and teaching cinema. Rebecca Hall was in the play with me, and when I told her that I was going to meet him, she kind of freaked out and said, “He’s my favorite film director.” That heightened my interest, and I went out, had a beer with the guy and immediately watched all his movies. After I finished, I thought, “Oh my God, this is a great filmmaker.” So Pawel had read the book and thought it would make a great movie, but he was searching for a way to get into the project and make it his own. There wasn’t really a script or anything, so I kind of just had to jump in. I wanted to work with him and see what that experience would be like.
TRIBECA: In high school, I remember going to my local DVD store where they had a bootleg copy of Pawel Pawlikowski’s Last Resort (it wasn’t available on DVD in America). I watched it and was blown away.
ETHAN HAWKE: He’s brilliant. Have you had a chance to see his documentaries?
TRIBECA: No, I haven’t.
ETHAN HAWKE: I don’t know if they are available in America; they were shown on the BBC. You have to try and find them, because they are brilliant. He made one about Dostoevsky’s grandson and one about the Russian Charles Bukowski. He’s better than Bukowski, just a drunken railroad worker who wrote these wonderful poems. Both the documentaries are just very good.
TRIBECA: So you became a fan of his after your meeting. Can you describe your collaborative process with Pawel? Did you have any input into the script?
ETHAN HAWKE: It’s hard to say if there really ever was a script. That’s what working with Pawel is really like. It’s kind of like being hired to go into a room and paint with somebody. That’s what it felt like. I have never worked with anyone who is more conscientious or who pours more love into every frame than Pawel. I’ve had some very good filmmaking experiences before, but working with Pawel was just different.
I’ve worked with American filmmakers who love European films, but I’ve never worked with a European director before. It was very refreshing to be on a film set and have no other goal than to help this filmmaker express himself. There was no “I wonder how this will test in Saskatchewan” or anything like that. We made a movie very much the way somebody might write a novel.
TRIBECA:The Woman in The Fifth presents an interesting blend of genres and themes, but, essentially, it is a complex portrait of an artist at his breaking point.
ETHAN HAWKE: That’s what it is. It’s Kafka-esque. It’s a guy who doesn’t have his medication in Paris. He’s in Paris, alone and broke. He’s very creative, very soulful with something to say, and he has a tremendous amount of love in him, but he’s breaking. And we witness the final moments.
TRIBECA: How did you approach playing your character?
ETHAN HAWKE: I knew the movie was going to be incredibly stylized, based on how Pawel was shooting it. It was going to be its own surreal experience for the audience. I just tried to make sense out of the character from a very naturalistic point of view. I had no idea whether or not the audience would understand that. It wasn’t the classic type of leading man role, for sure.
TRIBECA: Much like you, the character of Tom Ricks is a writer and a father. Were you able to draw on certain parallels from your own life for this role?
ETHAN HAWKE: Definitely. Whenever I have felt successful as an actor, it has been because I was able to bring myself to the character and the character to me. I feel like whenever I haven’t been able to make a role personal, it doesn’t work as well.
Fears of mediocrity, fears of being a bad father, loss of love—it’s very easy for me to relate to those feelings and try to put them in front of the camera. You have to put something alive into each performance. That’s why I was so excited to be working with Pawel, because he kind of builds the movie around you. You do it together.
TRIBECA: I think it will be very interesting to see how it plays for audiences here and audiences abroad.
ETHAN HAWKE: Yeah, I wonder. Frankly, I’m just really glad it’s coming out at all over here. I’m so happy that ATO Pictures is distributing this film. It’s not the kind of movie that is in fashion right now.
ETHAN HAWKE: It wouldn’t surprised me at all to see this movie on Criterion Collection in twenty years, but it would surprise me a lot if more than three people see it right now. I really believe Pawel will have his own section in the Criterion Collection one day. I think he’s a real brilliant dude.
TRIBECA: I think Pawel has a really interesting eye for talent. Last Resort was the first time I ever saw Paddy Considine. My Summer of Love was the first time I ever saw Emily Blunt. I felt the same way about Joanna Kulig in The Woman in the Fifth.
ETHAN HAWKE: Isn’t she wonderful? She’s great in this movie. I love her in this. Kristin and I are good, but she’s the real discovery of the movie.
TRIBECA: Can you give us a sense of what the pre-production workshop process was like?
ETHAN HAWKE: It was more like a series of long meetings than an actual workshop process. We went through a lot of different ideas about who this character should be. Slowly, we began to make sense out of it. We brought Kristin into the mix and started figuring out who her character was and what she represented. We discussed the symbols that were at play and how to manipulate them. We asked ourselves what role sexuality plays in the movie, and whether Margit represents a whore figure. It was just really fun.
TRIBECA: It sounds like a completely unique movie-making experience.
ETHAN HAWKE: Totally. I was even a little emotional when we wrapped. I felt like I had been able to bring all my limited knowledge of European movies to the set and work in what seemed to me a different milieu, for lack of a better word. European filmmakers really care.
TRIBECA: Well, I think the European influence is evident in your own work. Chelsea Walls and The Hottest Statedon’t feel like your typical American indies.
ETHAN HAWKE: I think that’s why I was so moved working with Pawel and his cinematographer, Ryszard Lenczewski. The Hottest State, even if you hate the movie, is filmmaking as self-expression, and so is The Woman in the Fifth. Neither aspires to be a hit movie. Kundera just came out with a brilliant book of essays in which he candidly observes: “Big business has completely eaten this art form.” I agree with him. Similarly, it’s as if the most commercial version of Random House has displaced all of literature and the works of artists like T.S Eliot, Kafka and others are available only in hand printed pamphlets passed out on the street. That is what is happening to the movie business right now.
TRIBECA: It is a difficult time right now in the industry, especially in terms of distribution.
ETHAN HAWKE: In truth, I don’t want to be melancholy about it because I think we are just in transition. Soon, talented people will explode and find their audiences. The fact that if you and I could potentially make a great film in this room with the right camera and the right idea, if we had the brains for it, is really exciting. So I think the shifting nature of film distribution is a good thing. It has been fascinating to watch this industry change.
I firmly believe that people who make interesting films should be able to earn a living doing what they love. I was lucky enough to work with Sidney Lumet and was just thinking about how long he survived in Hollywood and how much the industry changed between 12 Angry Men and Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead. He passed through so many different periods that it’s just amazing. I wonder, if I make it to 86, how stories will be told and distributed.
TRIBECA: You already are experimenting with different possibilities for movie making and distribution. You have two upcoming projects with Blumhouse Productions, which I think is such an exciting company.
ETHAN HAWKE: I do, too. I’m trying to learn from them because I think their approach is so interesting. In a weird way, we’ve now entered a period that is a lot like the 1950s. If you want to make an independent movie nowadays, it has to basically be a Hollywood movie in disguise or rather a Hollywood movie made cheaply. If you embed subversive themes in say a zombie movie a la Roger Corman, you can make really interesting art. I think that’s just a really exciting way to work, and it creates some kind of leverage and opportunities for growth in other areas.
Tribeca: Beginning with Daybreakers (and perhaps even Gattaca), you seem to have entered a stage in your career that involves exploring genre films. The two Blumhouse Production films—Sinister and Vigilandia—are good examples. What initially drew you to these projects?
ETHAN HAWKE: Well, Gattaca was the start of it, in a roundabout way. I started to realize that I have certain limitations as an actor, in that I’m not some giant, shape-changing, amazing character actor. What I really can do to shake up my work is to be in different kinds of movies. I love so many different types of movies. It’s funny. Ray Bradbury’s recent death made me remember talking about Fahrenheit 451 while we were making Gattaca.
I’ve always had an interest in trying to do subversive genre films. Sinister is really good and makes for an interesting movie. I can’t wait for people to see it. I’m also really proud of Vigilandia. It’s almost like a Philip K. Dick short story. It’s really political, which is what I think the sci-fi genre does the best. You can basically talk about political themes but with a different vantage point. Audiences cannot easily tell if the film is skewed to the right or left, because it is this futuristic thing. You don’t have a knee jerk response to the alien race being mistreated or mistrusted, but the metaphors inevitably start to work.
[A breakfast platter is brought in while the interview continues]
TRIBECA: This is a pretty nice spread you’ve got here.
ETHAN HAWKE: Can I tell you something? I love this hotel [Loews Park Regency]. The first time I came here was when they put me up for my screen test for Dead Poets Society. I had graduated high school, and I was going to college at Carnegie Mellon. I had taken the bus into New York to audition, and when I got a callback to do a screen test, the studio put me up here. I remember calling all my friends from high school and they came and slept over. After the screen test, we had this giant celebration.
TRIBECA:Dead Poets Society is such an iconic movie. I’m sure you know that they show it in high school English classes, so it continues to garner new fans. I have enjoyed watching so many cast members go on to have solid careers. Robert Sean Leonard has been so successful on House and was recently back on Broadway with Born Yesterday. I really loved that moment in Chelsea Walls when he sings “Softly and Tenderly, Jesus is Calling.”
ETHAN HAWKE: Isn’t it great? He’s so beautiful in that moment. That’s my favorite moment of the movie. I would like to work with Bob again now that House has ended and his schedule is open.
TRIBECA: I read somewhere that you might be working with Pawel again on a film called Epic.
ETHAN HAWKE: I hope so. The trouble with the internet is that everything you are thinking about doing is public knowledge. We have been working on a concept for a film called Epic. I really want to make it, but Pawel feels that we need to get it better. We are talking about hopefully making that movie a year from now if we get the script ready. It’s a romantic comedy.
TRIBECA: That would be an interesting genre for the two of you.
ETHAN HAWKE: I know [laughs]. We were at the Rome Film Festival with The Woman in the Fifth, which, as you know, is very serious. So we were talking about it, and one of us said, “Wouldn’t it be great to make a comedy?” Pawel has a phenomenal idea, but he does things only when he is ready. He is not a professional film director who produces films on demand. He has to have something to say.