Ethan Hawke made a welcome foray into horror last year with the terrifying Sinister, and now he reunites with genre superproducer Jason Blum for dystopian nightmare The Purge.
Set in the near future, James DeMonaco’s The Purge is an intense thriller with a simple but effective scenario: crime and unemployment have been virtually eradicated in the United States, thanks to all crime - including murder - being legalised for an annual 12-hour period. While the poor are left to fend for themselves, the wealthy protect themselves with the security system sold by Hawke’s top salesman James. His family, including wife Lena Headey, come under attack when son Charlie (Max Burkholder) lets in a terrified target.
We had the great pleasure of talking to Hawke on the phone, where we discuss The Purge (in cinemas 31st May), his work with Richard Linklater, and the very exciting new project from the Daybreakers filmmakers, titled Predestination.
You’re working with James DeMonaco once more - what is it you like about him as a writer and director?
James and I met on a remake of a John Carpenter film, Assault on Precinct 13. James and I share a mutual love in what James calls ‘smuggler cinema’, which is these kind of old-school independent genre films that have a punk rock, subversive message underneath them. He wrote the script, and made it feel like one of those ’60s or ’70s action movies where on one level it’s a thriller, and on another level it’s a Philip K. Dick short story, about this wild idea in the future, where rich people don’t care about poor people and the violence that’s come to them. It’s a very subversive, strange film, and I like the way James’ brain works. Did you see his film Staten Island? [No, sorry] You don’t need to be sorry, very few people did. It’s a unique film from a very different filmmaker, and I was just excited to have the opportunity to work with him. I think he is a unique voice.
The film covers class issues, and you’re known to be quite an unmaterialistic person, so was portraying this privileged person an attraction?
Yeah, I really like the themes of the movie. The film takes place in a near future where there’s been a huge depression, and a new government has been founded that advocates violence for a day - the government shuts down, and you’re allowed to do whatever you want. This has brought unemployment down, and violence. A lot of people are against it, because what it really does is just let the poor people kill each other while the rich live in gated communities. In a way, it’s a blown-up version of exactly what is happening. It’s a slightly more radical version of how affluent people are on the treadmill watching the news while people in the Congo kill each other with weapons that are built in their country. I hope the movie works as a flat-out genre movie, terrifying and fun that will make you laugh and scream, but on another level you walk out and think, what was that movie about?
What was the atmosphere like on set?
You know, I’ve made two of these genre movies, Sinister and this, and the thing I enjoy about them is that we made them on a shoestring budget, and whenever you don’t have money to answer ideas there’s a ton of ingenuity you have to throw at it. It’s fun, and it’s old-school play, where a bunch of actors get together. I enjoy it, I laugh a lot.
Producer Jason Blum is a friend of yours - did he have to twist your arm to get you to join his house of horror?
My first director was Joe Dante, who got his start with Roger Corman, and had directed The Howling. So my education in the movies really began with the idea of what was possible with genre films. So he didn’t twist my arm, but a problem with a lot of genre films is that the acting is really bad! They rely on cheap scares and they don’t care about performances, which is why actors don’t want to do them. Jason always wanted me to do one, but I didn’t want to do one without working with a real filmmaker. The fun thing about Scott [Derrickson] is that he knows how to direct a movie for fans of the genre. That’s what got me into it, and I had so much fun working on Sinister, and Jason and I both love James DeMonaco, so we thought, why don’t we give James a shot at making one of these thrillers? So we did it!
Do you think there’s still snobbery about the genre?
Everyone’s trying to divide art into what is highbrow and lowbrow; classical music is real, rap is crap. I’ve just never seen a divide that way. There’s creative people who have something real to say, and then there’s people who are trying to sell you perfume. The movie business has been riddled with profiteers forever, so have all the arts. What I’ve enjoyed about these movies I’ve done with Jason, is that whenever people aren’t being paid a lot of money, you know why everybody’s in the room, and there’s a simplicity and clarity to that. Whenever there’s a lot of money being spent, whenever you’re working for a big studio, there’s a lot of fear in the room. They’re worried they’ll lose money, people won’t like that. With Jason’s films, we just get to play. As long as you give them something scary, you can say whatever you want to say. I’m trying to tell Jason to do a film of Macbeth. I think it would be genius - from the makers of Paranormal Activity comes Macbeth. It’s the ultimate mix of highbrow and lowbrow, I love it! The same weekend Sinister opened, I was doing a Chekhov play in a little theatre in the East Village. That’s when I love what I do.
As a fan of Daybreakers, it’s great you’re working with the Spierig Brothers again on Predestination. Without spoiling the short story source ‘All You Zombies’, can you tell us more about it?
It’s the most exciting time I’ve ever had on a film set since filming Gattaca. When I was making Gattaca, I was on the set every day, loving every bit of it, as it felt like we were doing something really original. I hadn’t seen Gattaca. When you’re making films, you’re enjoying it, but you know you’re operating on well-tread ground. I loved making Training Day, which is a great film, but it’s still hard to make an original cop movie. Making Gattaca felt really unique, and Predestination? I’ve never seen that movie. The Spierig Brothers are really talented guys, and this is a step-up for them. On Daybreakers they were still really green - they were talented, but green. The Undead was their first film, and that was thrown together on a wing and a prayer. Daybreakers was their first mainstream movie, and they learned a lot. On Predestination, I felt I was working with much more mature artists. I got to tell you, I just wrapped the movie, and I had one of the best times I had in years.
With Before Midnight out soon, how has your relationship with Richard Linklater evolved?
It’s strange to say, but I met him in ‘94, and I’ve made a bunch of movies with him, and if I knew I was only going to get to make one more movie, I would want it to be with him more than anyone in the world. I like his sensibility; he cares about people, he cares about language, he’s not really interested in… you know, the dominant thing in movies, is that most films look like an advertisement. They look like a trailer, or they look like they’re selling beer. Richard’s really interested in real life, and I’ve always been interested in that too. He’s not interested in glamorising life, or making life more than it is. It’s what makes him such a unique filmmaker.
How is ‘Boyhood’ coming along?
It’s quintessential Richard Linklater. We make a short film every year, for the last ten years, and we have one year left. It’s twelve years, following a kid from first grade to 12th grade, and the movie spans those twelve years, from six to 18. I’m very excited for people to see it, I have a supporting part in it. I’m usually in every other year as the kid’s dad. It’s been an incredible experience to make a film over twelve years, not dissimilar to Before Sunrise - we’ve done over eighteen years. Richard has this fascination with time, and it’s the main subject of his life, I think.