Ethan Hawke is ‘Born to Be Blue,’ an Interview with Dir. Robert Budreau

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Led by Ethan Hawke, Born to Be Blue is trying to expand beyond the limitations of past music biopics. The film opens with legendary producer Dino De Laurentiis approaching musician Chet Baker to develop a film about Baker’s life. At the time, the jazz musician was down on his luck in Europe and jumped at the opportunity.

Using a film-within-a-film style of storytelling, writer and director Robert Budreau invites audiences to watch a black-and-white documentary-style performance before cutting away to reveal a scene within a scene. Through this unique structure the biopic feels unlike its predecessors, as the long takes, natural dialogue and alternating plot of the film feel as improvised as the music it portrays.

Can you tell us about your 2009 short, The Deaths of Chet Baker?

While I was developing the feature idea, I was approached by Bravo Television to develop a side project, The Deaths of Chet Baker. Because this short focused on his deaths and the film focused on his life, it was a nice way for me to introduce myself to Chet Baker and his music, while I was developing the feature.

My original interest in Chet Baker comes from my love of jazz and how he is such a fascinating character, full of contradictions. His story, set in 60s America, raises a lot of issues, like addiction and race—issues that are still relevant today.

Can you elaborate a little more about your research for these films?

I think the research was typical. I scoured the public domains and there is a lot of information on Chet Baker, because he spent quite a bit of time in prison.

I watched everything I could online and read every biography I could find. I talked to people. That led me to decide on an approach unlike other biopics.

I’ve grown tired of the clichés within the genre so when I found out that Chet Baker was approached by Dino De Laurentiis to star as himself in his own movie, I fell in love with that idea.

I wanted to use that idea in a Charlie Kaufman-esque way to go against the traditional biopic while also exploring the backstory in a different way. I signed on to do the movie because I wanted to do something that wasn’t traditional.

During my research, I also discovered this missing period of his life in the late 60s where he lost his teeth. For a frame, to tell a story that way, I could keep the narrative limited to a few years, which I really liked.

These scenes feel very vivid. Do you spend a lot of time writing the descriptions or were these mainly adaptations from real events?

I think because I write and direct myself, my scripts are very minimal. I see it in my head and I know that I can flush it out. Things change. I’m not overly descriptive in terms of screenwriting, even though the visuals on this film are quite lush. But that’s also the advantage of directing your own script.

As a character, Chet Baker seems to toe the line between rock bottom and having everything he’s ever wanted. What’s it like writing a character that lives within such a dynamic?

I think it’s tricky because you don’t necessarily want to display that character as bipolar, but you also want to make sure there’s enough space in the writing to show the different facets of the character.

When Ethan Hawke came onto the project, we talked a lot about the different dimensions of the script and how we could find the highs and lows. In particular, we did not want to display addiction as black and white. We wanted to show it in a non-judgmental type of way, which is not often the case in these types of movies.

What type of cinematic influences inspired you to make this film?

I think my favorite film of all-time is Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull. I think that led me into moviemaking. It also came up for Ethan and I on this film, because although it was a biopic, most people don’t know who Jake LaMotta was and it certainly has expressionistic, impressionistic qualities. It’s not really a movie about boxing; it’s about violence.

Raging Bull was probably the most influential film for me as a filmmaker, and it just so happens to serve as a great influence here as well. Some of the other biopics out there that don’t take the most conventional routes are also inspirational for me, but that’s the one I most admire.

If Raging Bulls centers on violence, would you consider Born to Be Blue to be about addiction, or something else entirely?

Born to Be Blue certainly explores addiction, but it also explores race, and the types of choices that artists have to make. But, addictions, and the mysteries of addictive behaviors, are certainly at the heart of the film.

Can you provide some details about the timeline for this film, in terms of conception, writing, and filming?

I worked on the script for three or four years, on and off, while doing other things. I started putting the finances together, but these types of passion projects take years. It was a year or two apart in terms of screenwriting, starting and re-starting things.

We brought Ethan on in the spring of 2014 and we worked on the script all summer. We shot it in the fall of 2014 over a 25-day shoot in Canada. We then posted the movie for about the half of the year in the UK. Then it was ready to premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival September 2015.

After the research phase, what are some of your writing rituals?

I try to get up in the morning and get some things done before things get too busy – I also produce so I will often get interrupted throughout the day. By getting up early, I don’t have to worry about carving out time later in the day for myself.

I also tend to write quickly and then do tons of rewrites as opposed to trying to get it perfect the first time, so I’m very much a re-writer.

What do you find to be the most difficult step in the writing process?

Often, the most difficult thing is knowing what to write. It sounds obvious, but I think when you try and short cut rather than plot out, that can be difficult.

Sometimes, tuning into the language and dialogue can be difficult. But I find that workshopping with actors can improve the dialogue, so I don’t worry too much about that in the beginning.

Is there anything you wish you would have known prior to making this film or any advice you would like to pass on to those entering the field?

Things always take a lot longer than you think. You have to be prepared for endless rewrites and its important to stick with your project without getting too discouraged or bogged-down by it.

Try to find a group of people that you trust. Get feedback and try to get a sense of what battles to fight for and which ones not to fight for. When making a movie, you can often get pushed into strange decisions in writing or casting by financiers because you need to get it made, but rather than always sticking to your guns, it’s important to remember that it’s a practical business and you need to get things made. I tend to write from a practical place, knowing my potential limitations.

You mentioned that some of your dialogue either comes about or gets improved on set. Does any particular scene come to mind that was enhanced spontaneously on set?

There are a couple of scenes in the dressing room at the end of the film between Chet and his manager, Dick, played by Callum Keith Rennie. Those were scenes where, the night before, Ethan, Cal and I roughed up some of the dialogue to make it sound a little more organic.

I think it really paid off because it’s such an important scene and it really sets up the movie. To his credit, Ethan is a really great writer and a very smart filmmaker, so he brought out a lot of great ideas and I was very open to remodel things and take his input.

Was Ethan Hawke always the actor you had in mind for this role?

Ethan was always my first choice. The project went through some different iterations and that usual thing, but it was so satisfying in the end, to land Ethan, who I always wanted. The partnership felt right and worked so well.

In addition to Raging Bull, what other films do you watch year after year?

It’s almost cliché, but films like Vertigo—where everyone knows its one of the greatest films of all time—I think there are certain personal, yet enigmatic aspects to a film like Vertigo where it just draws you back in time and time again. Vertigo is one of those movies that I feel like I need to watch every year.

There’s also a film called Strike (1925) by Sergei Eisenstein. One of his early films, before Battleship Potemkin, which is kind of like a jazzy, black and white thing. There’s something about that film where I need to watch it every year. It’s very inspiring for me.

Is there anything else you would like to share about Born to Be Blue?

I hope people get a chance to get see it. I think the thing I worked hardest on was an attempt to freshen up the musical biopic genre a little bit.

I also wanted to let the music inform the film. You do write the script as a template and a framework, but I do think it’s important to rewrite in the editing process as well. I rewrote all along. I think it’s fun to rewrite in the editing process, especially with a jazz movie like this.

Congratulations on the success of the film. Can you share any details about any upcoming projects?

I have a couple of things that I’m kicking around. I have a 1940s spy thriller, which is set in the last two days of the US Presidential election during World War II, when Roosevelt was running  for office . It’s a project called Charlotte Bader. I’m adapting a Dennis Lehane crime drama called Consumers, which is a political thriller, so there are numerous things percolating right now.


This article was originally published in Creative Screenwriting Magazine.

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