For years, Ethan Hawke had been wanting to make a film about Blaze Foley, who died in 1989. But it didn't come together until one night, when his friend and musician Ben Dickey played a song for him, and he found his star.
The first time actor Ethan Hawke’s daughter picked up a bow and arrow, she hit a bull’s-eye.
That’s how it was for Hawke to film his friend and musician Ben Dickey in the starring role in “Blaze,” a biopic about the late outlaw country singer Blaze Foley that will be released in Seattle, at the SIFF Cinema Uptown, next Friday, Sept. 21.
“He’s got a beginner’s mind,” Hawke said of Dickey. “He’s something else. He’s a force.”
Hawke and Dickey were in Seattle earlier this year, when “Blaze” was featured during the Seattle International Film Festival and Hawke received an award for “Outstanding Achievement in Cinema.”
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For years, Hawke had been wanting to make a film about Foley, who died in 1989. But it didn’t come together until New Year’s 2016 when Dickey played a song for him, and he found his star.
Hawke and Dickey have known each other for 15 years, and were brought together by Hawke’s wife and Dickey’s “sweetheart”; the two women met in first grade.
“We cut up and misbehave together,” Dickey said of his friendship with Hawke.
Dickey, 41, a musician who has played in bands called Shake Ray Turbine, Amen Booze Rooster and Blood Feathers, released one album called “Sexy Birds & Salt Water Classics” a couple of years ago. He had always been happy to hear Hawke’s stories from movie sets, never thinking he would be part of one.
Then in the first hours of 2016, the two men were sitting together, “sober as judges,” as Dickey put it. Dickey picked up a his guitar and started playing Foley’s signature song, “Clay Pigeons.” Those few minutes were enough for Hawke.
“You should play Blaze Foley,” he told Dickey.
It didn’t matter to Hawke that Dickey had never acted before; Dickey and Foley had a lot in common. Both were from Arkansas. Both settled in Texas for a spell. Both loved music and played it beautifully. And both had only reached a certain level of success because of a reluctance to play the industry/celebrity game. They were devoted to art and art alone.
“He played outlaw country,” Dickey said of Foley. “Outliers, you know. All those folks to whom Nashville said ‘No thanks,’ and the rest of the country said, ‘All right.’
“Really, it’s the story of Willie Nelson,” he continued. “Texas embraced Willie Nelson when he was 40. That’s when it happened for him, but he had been in Nashville since his early 20s. Hustlin’, hustlin’, hustlin’.”
Dickey was also, like Foley, big and bearded and unassuming. Hiding a little behind coats and under hats, even though they had the biggest personality in the room.
“When I stand like a Marine, I’m 6’5″,” Dickey said. “But I am usually about a 6’4″ lope.”
Said Hawke: “Ben is so un-self-conscious.”
He paused to take in his friend, who was posing for a photo.
“There’s a problem,” Hawke said after a moment. “People talk about it with women all the time, and they’re right to. But it’s happening with men, which is an obsession with body type. Everybody looks like they haven’t had a carb in 25 years. And I think part of what I love about working with Ben is that he’s such a grown man and he looks like a man and he acts like a man.”
Once he decided that Dickey was his man, Hawke scheduled filming to start in three months.
“There are very few things in my life that have come together this fast,” Dickey said. “I marinated in the music for two months.” (At one time, he could play 95 percent of Foley’s catalog).
In the meantime, Hawke set to writing a screenplay with Foley’s former partner Sybil Rosen, adapting it from Rosen’s 2008 novel, “Living in the Woods in a Tree: Remembering Blaze.”
They shot the movie last summer in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, where Dickey still lives. In an interview with The New York Times, Hawke remembered telling Dickey he was just doing screen tests that first week, and shot him talking with co-star Alia Shawkat, who played Rosen. (“We truly fell in love,” Dickey said of Shawkat. “She’s a wonderful person.”)
Hawke didn’t tell his friend that he was planning to use that early footage all along. But it didn’t take much time for Dickey to catch the rhythm of the role. Foley’s demeanor and diction. The language he used. And those songs.
Dickey remembered the first time he performed in front of Rosen: “It’s a psychedelic thing to play someone in front of someone who was in love with them,” he said. “But I felt very safe that I had her permission to play Blaze Foley.
“Ethan gave me a lot of confidence,” he continued. “And I took a lot of care with Blaze. The movie is about love and community and people. And if you’ve got a friend who looks like they’re veering off the road, help ’em out.”
“Blaze” has given Dickey more exposure and possibilities than he ever imagined.
Last week, he released a new EP called “It’s All Different,” produced by Charlie Sexton, who plays Townes Van Zandt in “Blaze.”
And he has already completed work on a second film called “The Kid,” a film about a boy who witnesses Billy the Kid’s encounter with Sheriff Pat Garrett. The film was directed by Vincent D’Onofrio and stars Chris Pratt and Hawke. Dickey plays Jim East, a member of Garrett’s posse who trailed and captured Billy the Kid.
“It’s pretty darn cool,” he said.
Would he like to do more?
“If I’m lucky enough to participate in a way that I can,” he said, “then I would be thrilled to.”