Father-daughter duo and collaborators, Ethan Hawke and Maya Hawke, brought their film Wildcat, an exploration of the life and work of American writer Flannery O’Connor, to the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) on Monday night.
Written by Ethan and Shelby Gaines, produced by and starring Maya, Wildcat is a meticulously crafted look at a young novelist struggling with her own faith, ambition and isolation, and how that impacts her art.
To introduce the film to the Toronto audience, after the star arrived to the city by Greyhound bus due to flight cancellations, Ethan thanked several individuals who worked on Wildcat, including his daughter.
"Thank you for your ... blistering intelligence and commitment, and most of all I want to thank you for the job," Ethan told Maya. "She hired me and I did my best to come through for you, but if you see anything else tonight, you're going to see a young artist just circle around her father and spring out the door, pat him on the a— as she goes by."
"This is one of my favourite performances I've ever seen and I can't wait for your guys to see it."
While the praise is coming from her father, which of course raises the "nepo baby" debate, Maya is absolutely striking as O’Connor. The actor navigates the character through a narrative that combines both biopic-style history, including O’Connor's lupus diagnosis, with adaptations of the writer's work.
Interestingly, Ethan doesn't have a history of being a biopic fan.
"I used to be the kind of 20-year-old that would sit around, smoking cigarettes in cafes, talking about how bad biopics are," he said. "And I've made like made a million of them."
"But I've started to see other human beings' lives as these windows. ... I started to see Flannery as a window into really using her life as an opportunity to really talk about creativity and faith, and the intersection of that."
'My general goal was to find some ability to be original'
The actor-director explained that his mother was the first person to give him O’Connor's work to read, but he put that behind him until Maya had an interest in the writing.
"I left all that behind until Maya started started falling in love with Flannery O’Connor, she has her own relationship to it, but she came to me with Flannery's prayer journal and that was a beautiful meeting ground for the two of us," Ethan said. "It was a way to talk about your inner life, a way to talk about a life in the arts."
"Maya learned a lot from this and she .... had a relationship with this character and what a complicated person she was."
Maya added that from her perspective developing this film, it has been interesting to "find structure in life."
"Growing up as a human being, on the planet, in a kind of post-routine culture - I didn't grow up all going to church on Sunday, I didn't grow up where there was a set of moral boundaries that everyone had to follow," she explained. "I grew up in a very flexible environment, which was an incredible privilege, but what that can lead to is a sense of purposelessness. Like wait, so what God do I serve? Where do I put my effort, my work into something bigger than me? How do I make sure I'm caring about something, other than my own self-actualization and myself?"
"When I found Flannery I found a young person who was negotiating intense ambition and intense self-doubt, and a powerful creative mind, trying to find where to root that. I was fascinated by it and it made me think differently about myself, and it gave me something to bring to my dad that I thought he hadn't read yet. ... My general goal was to find some ability to be original within a household that was wildly creative and experimental already."
While some may assume that Ethan would find a role for himself in the project, acting alongside his daughter and a cast that includes Laura Linney and Liam Neeson, that's not the case. But he did admit that he thought about it "every single day."
"My wife is my producer and she would say, 'Are you serious about filmmaking or are you not? They need a director, they don't need a hambone.' She protects me from my worst self. But I definitely wanted to," Ethan said.
With a cast filled with people that the Hawke family has known and is close to, Maya said that did lead to one "betrayal" in this version of O’Connor's life.
"The one betrayal that I think was made of Flannery in this movie is that she was a very lonely person and this was one of the least lonely experiences of my life," she said. "It didn't feel like family, it is family."
"Some relationships were made on this set, very few. Most of them were preexisting and are people who have been in our lives and around us, and who we love and value and like to act with. ... That was the great betrayal and great fortune of this process, I think."