Ethan Hawke on “Predestination” and His Favorite Science Fiction

Time-Travel Thriller ‘Predestination’ Opens in Theaters January 9th

Jan 09, 2015 Web Exclusive
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In the Spierig Brothers’ Predestination, Ethan Hawke plays a nameless temporal agent tasked with preventing a crime which occurred 15 years in the past. He travels back in time to numerous periods throughout the 20th century, where he works not only to stop a serial bomber from killing thousands of New Yorkers in the early 1970s, but to paradoxically ensure his own existence. The film is a cool, mindbending thriller anchored by subtle, shifting performances from Hawke and newcomer Sarah Snook. And unlike so many sci-fi literary adaptations, Predestination is remarkably faithful to its source material: a Robert Heinlein short story titled “—All You Zombies—” which was written more than 50 years ago.  

Ethan Hawke rolls into the new year on a wave of critical acclaim for his role in Richard Linklater’s years-in-the-making Boyhood. Looking ahead into 2015, Hawke will star Andrew Niccol’s drone thriller, Good Kill, and in Anarchy, filmmaker Michael Almereyda’s modern retelling of Shakespeare’s Cymbeline. This spring will also see the release of Hawke’s debut as a documentary filmmaker, with Seymour: An Introduction, about concert pianist Seymour Bernstein, who walked away from fame for a quiet life as a music instructor.

Hawke spoke with us about the film, his other recent projects, and his love of science fiction.

Austin Trunick [Under the Radar]: The Spierig Brothers sent you an e-mail about this project on Thanksgiving—and they got a response back from you within a day. What about it snagged you so quickly?

Ethan Hawke: They sent me the full script. I just believe in [the Spierig Brothers.] I made this film with them, Daybreakers, which was kind of just an old school genre movie. I’ve been doing this long enough that I know when people are really serious about making films; I can tell what they look like and talk like and sound like and think like. I really believe in them, and I take them very seriously. I had this suspicion that whatever they tried to do next would speak a lot to what kind of filmmakers they would be.

I was so impressed that they were taking on a Heinlein story. I was not aware of what the story was—in fact, the name of the story is “—All You Zombies—”, which of course made me think it was a different kind of movie than it is.

So, I wanted to work with those guys again. There are several directors in my life I’ve worked with more than once; obviously Richard Linklater, who I’ve made eight films with. He and I have a close, working rapport. But you know, I’ve made a few movies with Andrew Niccol and I’ve made a few with Antoine Fuqua. I find that when you work with people more than once, there’s a connection that you can start to build on. There’s a level of trust that, as an actor, really helps you do your best work.

So, I just wanted to work with [the Spierig Brothers] again. When I read their script—the funny thing is, I can’t think of another time in my life where this happened to me—there was no way I could talk about the script with anybody, particular the people who wrote it, without reading it twice. [Laughs] I wasn’t sure what part they wanted me to play. I wasn’t sure what was happening, but I loved it. I loved the tone; the mood and the feel of it. Most scripts are so clearly pandering—they’re aspiring to be TV shows. It was fun to see something that was so un-formulaic and so wild in its very DNA.

It’s certainly a complex, unusual script. Did that present a particular challenge to you, as an actor?

Somebody once asked me if we shot the movie in sequence. I was like, well, what is the sequence? Everything about the movie is confusing. Most rehearsals are a couple weeks you spend getting to know each other and your character. With this movie, we just ended up spending weeks graphing it out; what happened when, and what does it mean. We wanted the movie to be even better on the second viewing. That was the challenge of this film.

You’ve hinted in several interviews that you’re a fan of classic science fiction authors, like Heinlein, Asimov, Bradbury, and Philip K. Dick. Can you share any of your favorite sci-fi works? Are there any novels or stories that were pivotal to you as a reader, or even as a writer yourself?

You know, one of the best ever that rarely gets mentioned in that category is Slaughterhouse Five. It’s one of the great time travel books of all time. It’s a magical book; I just revisited it. And Sirens of Titan, too.

Let’s see. I love A Scanner Darkly. Linklater made that one into a movie. I love Fahrenheit 451 by Bradbury. But do you know what else I loved? Some of the best science fiction when I was a kid growing up was Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone. They were always so thought-provoking. But I mean, all of those names you just mentioned—those were the people. I’m surprised there isn’t more of an explosion of science fiction now, because so much is happening with technology. I think in the 1950s, people were so overwhelmed by what technology was going to do to us that there was so much thought going into what the future might bring.

One of the things I love about Predestination: you see the 1970s, but they aren’t the 1970s as they happened. They’re the 1970s that Heinlein imagined they were going to be back in the 1950s, which is kind of awesome.

Something that’s pretty incredible about this film is that it’s so faithful to the original story. Outside of adding things to make 10 pages stretch into a feature, what was in that 50-plus year-old short story is what made it to the screen. Often filmmakers are eager to lift a high concept and toss out the remaining source material, but that’s not the case with Predestination. What about Heinlein’s story do you think has kept it so relevant half a century later?

It just has the seed of genius, whatever genius is. All of science fiction, at its best, is not really trapped in the superficial trappings of ray guns and space suits—the best ones really get at political ideas and human ideas, and really force you to think about them in a new way. 

I do think the Spierigs were smart not to tackle some masterpiece novel, but this little kind of ditty of a short story because it’s obviously got that weird touch of Heinlein, which is both high and low at the same time. And yet, it’s not this masterpiece in which you have to throw out whole, wonderful, essential storylines. It’s just this little riff that they could build upon. It’s like they turned the short story into a novel using that special element; that seed that was so special, coming from Heinlein.

Jumping aside for a moment, I want to ask about Seymour: An Introduction. It’s your first documentary. Are there things you learned about filmmaking from it that you hadn’t picked up while making your narrative features?

That’s an interesting question, and I’m sure the answer is yes. I think what happened to me was I didn’t try so hard … A lot of times when you’re making a movie and you’re the director, you feel this pressure to be the DIRECTOR, in all-caps, and to have a vision. One of the things that’s incredible about working with Richard Linklater is he rarely has a vision. He kind of asks everyone to have a vision. He really collects, and talks, and thinks, and has an open mind. Because I didn’t really have an idea of what [Seymour] was supposed to look or sound like before I started, I just kind of let it happen. That’s part of what is working for people. There’s a simplicity to it.

I did a movie with Sidney Lumet—I got to do a series of Q&As with him promoting that movie. He would talk about how many of the flashy directors people like that he really doesn’t like. He was even critiquing the films of Godard, saying “I don’t really like that because all I do is walk out of the movie thinking about Jean-Luc Godard. I don’t think about the movie.” I love a movie that makes me lose myself. That’s one of things that I think Rick [Linklater] does so well, and Sidney Lumet does so well.

Could you foresee yourself ever wanting to make your own genre film? Is there any particular genre you’d like to explore in your own way?

You know, I’ve always been curious about directing a western, because it’s so iconic. Westerns are a little bit like Shakespeare plays, and I’ve directed a lot of theater. I don’t think I could direct a horror movie. There’s a geometry and math to comedies and scary movies. The artistry is a little bit like a haiku poem. What makes a good Hitchcock film, and what makes a good Charlie Chaplin, what makes those—you know, I took my kids to see a Buster Keaton movie. It’s just amazing that such an old film can make a crowd of people laugh. The joke is 100 years old now, and it still makes people laugh because it’s math. There’s a certain kind of genre film that has a math to it; a math that I don’t understand. I can do it as an actor because I like playing human beings and I understand that, but directing them is different. But, I sometimes feel like a western I could do.

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For more information about Predestination, check out its Facebook page



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