Blake Foley: Ethan Hawke Biopic About 'Clay Pigeons' Singer-Songwriter - Rolling Stone
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Blaze Foley: How a Forgotten Texas Songwriter Became the Year’s Best Biopic

With ‘Blaze,’ Ethan Hawke decided to break all the rules by telling the story of an obscure singer who died in 1989

Actor Ben Dickey was working as a chef when Ethan Hawke offered him the part to star as Blaze Foley in the film about the late singer-songwriter.

Rett Peek

Even Blaze Foley’s closest friends didn’t know much about him. The eccentric, burly Texas songwriter – who wrote country classics such as “If I Could Only Fly” and “Clay Pigeons” before he was shot dead at 39 years old in 1989 – was known to embellish the story of his background, and his death was clouded in mystery. “I heard he got shot at the unemployment office taking a bullet for another homeless guy,” says Ethan Hawke. “I remember waxing poetic about that one night. . . . Then we found out that’s actually not true.”

Those mysteries set the actor-director off on a major research project – and the result, Blaze (opening in Austin, Texas on August 17th and begins rolling out everywhere else starting September 7th) recounts the heartbreaking story of Foley’s descent from promising songwriter into homelessness, drugs and despair. The film, which Hawke directed, has received festival praise for using real musicians – singer-songwriter Ben Dickey plays Foley and Bob Dylan sideman Charlie Sexton plays Townes Van Zandt – and live performances with no studio trickery. “We could have cheated,” says Hawke. “But people can smell that.”

The real Blaze Foley in the 1980s. Courtesy of the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum

Before writing the film, Hawke, 47, discovered Living in the Woods in a Tree, a book by Foley’s ex-wife, Sybil Rosen, about how they met at an artist community in Georgia in their mid-twenties and spent an idyllic year living in a treehouse. Foley eventually ended the relationship to focus on his growing career. But fame never happened – the master tapes to his first album were stolen, and he started using crystal meth. “I wanted to make a movie about the two wells of creativity,” Hawke says. “The one with that Whitmanesque Americana: pregnancy, life. And there’s this one with narcissism, self-hatred. Why, when things are good, do we fuck them up?”

Hawke used Rosen’s book to write a 40-page treatment that he sent to Arrested Development‘s Alia Shawkat, who’d play Foley’s wife (“It was like watching a saner version of myself, or a more healed version of myself,” says Rosen, who would end up co-writing the screenplay). He also gave it to Dickey, an Arkansas-born musician; he had been paying the bills as a chef in Philadelphia when Hawke invited him to stay with him around New Year’s Eve 2015. At one point, Dickey picked up a guitar and began mimicking banter from Foley’s album Live at the Austin Outhouse. The next morning, his host asked him if he’d play Foley. “I said, ‘It’d be a lot of work. . . . Would you do it?’ ” Hawke says. “He replied, ‘Fuck, yeah.’ The electricity went through my back — I’m really supposed to do this.’ ”

“Dude, I was so nervous, it was ridiculous,” says Dickey. He learned most of Foley’s 60-song catalog and immersed himself in his story, which ended when the drunk Blaze drove to the home of an elderly friend and confronted the man’s son, whom Foley believed was stealing from his father. He was found bleeding outside their residence; the son was later acquitted of murder. (Hawke recounts a moment when he lent Dickey his stepfather’s acoustic guitar, which was sitting in his basement. “We look at the inception date on the guitar and it was February 1st, 1989: the day Blaze died.”)

Dickey and Hawke on set in Louisiana. Josh Hamilton

Josh Hamilton

For Rosen, who was on set, watching scenes from her relationship with Foley play out again in front of her was surreal. “There was a sense of reliving the experiences and at the same time wondering if I’m really just seeing them for the first time,” she says. “I also learned that grieving is bottomless.” Dickey’s performance won him a Special Jury award at the Sundance Film Festival. While he was at the Utah fest, Hawke was approached by Gurf Morlix (whose musical partner Lucinda Williams wrote “Drunken Angel” about Blaze), an old friend of Foley’s who’d been hostile to the idea of a biopic; Hawke had been terrified to show him the movie. “He said, ‘Well, it’s the best music movie ever made,’ ” says Hawke, “ ’and that’s a very low bar.’”

In This Article: Ethan Hawke, RSX


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