Ethan Hawke is known for many things – Before Sunrise, Explorers, his novels – but he has never been one for hardcore horror until now. In Sinister, opening this weekend (see our review from Fantastic Fest if you’re still on the fence about going), he plays a writer named Ellison who flirts with the dark side, until it threatens to envelope him completely when some creepy home movies show up in the attic. After taking on supernatural serial killings, going one-on-one with us to discuss the film must have been a breeze.
Nerdist: Daybreakers aside, this is really your first full-on horror movie, isn’t it?
Ethan Hawke: I’m not even sure I’d call Daybreakers a horror movie. It’s more like a sci-fi/thriller.
N: Was it a conscious strategy to seek out a horror movie as something you hadn’t done yet, or was it just this script happened to speak to you in particular?
EH: There are a couple of answers to that. On one level, I do like to try to shake things up and do things I haven’t done before. On another level, I have always wanted to do a horror film. I like cinema so much, and I like all different genres. I want to make a great Western; I have lots of different fantasy movies in my head. But the trouble with the whole horror genre is that some of the movies can be incredibly successful without having any good acting in them.
As an actor, there’s a certain kind of horror movie that you love, like Carrie, The Shining, The Exorcist, Alien – all those movies because they also have great performances in them. I was always trying to look for one that might have a more complex character, and also a film maker who knew what they were doing. And I think that Scott’s the real thing. I think he’s a really gifted guy, and he wrote a great character for me and it just seemed like a smart move to try to do it.
N: So much of it is you either by yourself or maybe looking at things that are going to be added later. Was that more challenging as an actor?
EH: Concerning this performance, it’s considered so isolating. There’s nothing more scary than being isolated. And, so, I loved it!
N: Were you able to relate as a writer? I know that for me as a writer a lot of the arguments he had with his wife are like arguments I’ve had, but heightened. Did you connect to it on that level?
EH: Yeah, absolutely. I mean I think anybody whose livelihood is tied to their creativity has a unique set of problems with their spouse! (laughs)
N: Did you work with [co-screenwriter C. Robert] Cargill directly at all?
EH: Yeah, he was on set the whole time. Do you know him?
N: I know him a little bit. I’ve certainly followed his reviews [as “Massawyrm” at Ain’t it Cool News] over the years. I was wondering what it was like working with a guy who’d been a critic before and now is on the creative side.
EH: I think it was so fun for him to be a part of the process, that he was just an absolute joy to be around. He was so unjaded. He loved the fact that we were there, getting to make a movie. He didn’t take one second for granted. And I like being around people like that. It helps you keep your eye on what’s important.
N: One thing, when I’m watching the movie and I think back about it afterwards, I realized that you were shooting primarily on one set, but it doesn’t feel like that when you watch it. Did it feel self-contained when you read the script and when you were doing it or did it feel like it was something bigger?
EH: I don’t know, it’s funny when you realize the whole movie really does happen in one house, because the movie feels more grand than that, because it’s so tied into Ellison’s imagination, so you’re kind of so in his head that it almost feels epic in its own small way. I don’t know, I liked it. I don’t know how to answer that. I just agree with you, I don’t know that I have anything more to say about it. It was isolating; the fact that we were trapped in that house all the time with the crew and we shot it at night so the whole thing kind of had a dream-like quality that helped me as a performer.
N: Did Scott come to you with the script in the beginning? How did it all come together for you?
EH: It’s kind of funny, actually, the answer to that question. Jason Blum and I became friends in the early ’90s. We started a theater company together. He was a passionate aficionado of horror movies. And slowly his career went that path, so he was always trying to talk me into doing a horror movie, and I just kept not finding the right one. So he and [director] Scott [Derrickson] got together, as the story goes, Jason asked Scott who he really wanted, and Scott said he really saw me in the role. Jason said “Good! Let’s go work on him together!” So they both called me up about it.
You know, Scott’s a really, really bright guy. And whenever you can be in a room making a movie with a person that knows and cares as much about movies as he does, things tend to go well.
N: Did it take much wearing you down, or not?
EH: No, it really didn’t. It’s like I said before, the trouble with a lot of genre movies is they have cardboard cut-outs of human beings inside them, and this movie so clearly doesn’t. The movie is so much about a guy’s ambition destroying his life, which is something anybody can relate to. Now, yes, you add on to it the surreal elements. Most people’s ambition doesn’t let a literal demon through the door, more of a metaphorical demon. You understand what I’m saying.
EH: So I think the character, his relationships, his longing for better days, to hang onto his youth, to hang on to a perception of success, his inability to see what was good about his life and only see what was bad about his life – all these sort of real character situations that could be inside a drama, but they were placed inside a horror genre, which I think that’s such a good genre for them.
N: Even though you can relate as a creative type to him, it feels in some ways like the opposite of you. I know in previous interviews you’ve said you’re not interested in being a star; you’re interested in doing character work and not necessarily being likable. This guy really wants to be the star and be liked. Was that an interesting flip for you?
EH: I say all that, but part of the reason why I say all that is because I know what happens. I mean, we all teach what we need to learn, right? I say all that because I know all those feelings pretty intimately. We all want to turn down success but have it come anyway.
N: I was talking to Joe Dante the other day, and remembering that Explorers was your first movie. What was that like, to get your start on that level of coolness?
EH: To be honest, in my mind Joe is a big a part of this movie. My whole education about horror films is through Joe. I got to sit and watch The Howling with Joe Dante when I was 14 years old. I got taught about Roger Corman from him, and I learned all about the genius behind B-movies. So in a lot of ways, I thought about him a lot while we were making this movie.
You know, what I took away from him was that the best B-movies have a kind of punk-rock vibe to them. They function both as a genre film, but also with some kind of underlying, alternate message. I’ve always thought the best John Carpenter films all work on several levels, and I think Sinister aspires to be that kind of movie.
N: I feel like it speaks so specifically to the writer’s experience, it resonated with me perfectly.
EH: Yeah, I loved the last line of the movie!
N: When you finally saw the movie (assuming you have seen the final cut), how much more was in there than you knew would be in there? Is it possible for it to be scary to you, having lived out the scenes?
EH: I think I probably felt the way a comedian feels watching one of their movies. You don’t laugh, but you watch the audience and hope they laugh. We made the film on such a tiny budget, and one of the things that happens when you don’t have a lot of money to throw at things is you have to be incredibly prepared. We didn’t shoot a lot of extraneous stuff. That movie is very well-built in rehearsal. I knew very much the inside and outside of that movie. So for me, when I got to sit down and watch it at the South by Southwest Film Festival, the fun of it was watching it with an audience and watching how they responded to it.
N: How different was it from what you might have visualized on set? Was it pretty much all there, or was a lot added in post that sort of gave it a new spin?
EH: No, it was all there. What makes a good director is they get their collaborators on the same kind of “dream page” that they are, where you’re all seeing the same movie in your head. That’s how you can help each other make the movie. With the bad directors, the DP is making one movie, the actor is making another movie, the music supervisor is making a different movie – when that happens, you have a big jumble of a mess. But Scott had us all on the same page.
N: I know for me, the sound mix really did it. I saw it in an almost empty screening room, and it sounded like kids were running behind me.
EH: Scott had a lot of that music picked out even before we shot the film, so I could listen to the music before we shot it, so I could really know the mood.
N: So you’re directing a documentary right now, is that right?
EH: I’ve got one I’m working on; I’ll probably work on it for a couple of years. The next thing I’m directing is an adaptation of Brecht’s first play Baal that I’m going to do in New York this winter with Vincent D’Onofrio.
N: As a movie or a play?
EH: As a play.
N: Do you find putting together a documentary is a whole different challenge from the fiction films that you have done and are doing?
EH: Absolutely. Documentaries are really changing because we all have so much access to film things. You can video things in your phone and it can look beautiful these days. The ability to make a documentary has increased now. Because of that are 10 million; there’s a glut of them. It’s difficult to get them distributed. But that’s a separate problem. I met this beautiful piano player. This pianist is 85 years old. He has some mystical ideas about art and music and life, and I found him inspirational, so I’ve been trying to document him.
N: Now that you’ve done this great horror movie, do you feel like horror is out of your system, or can we expect to see some more?
EH: You know, it’ll be curious to see what kind of offers I get after this. I like working with good directors. You know, I don’t have a burning desire to make any kind of movie, except to say I’d still like to make a bald-faced comedy, and I’d really like to do that. I’d really like to make a Western. I have interest in that. But really, I just like to be in a room with talented people. So if the way to do that is to make another scary movie, then I’d make one, if it was written by somebody great.
Sinister opens in theaters Friday. The soundtrack won’t be out until October 30th.