Ethan Hawke has grown up on camera. He made his debut working alongside River Phoenix in Joe Dante’s cult sci-fi movie “Explorers” and then received his big break in the blockbuster “Dead Poet’s Society.” With his 20s came arguably his most identifiable role: the world-traveling romantic Jesse in “Before Sunrise,” a role he revisited in his 30s with “Before Sunset” (earning an Oscar nomination for Best Screenplay) and will return to in his 40s with next year’s “Before Midnight.” But first he must his get terrified in this weekend’s “Sinister.”
In Hawke’s horror movie debut, he plays a true crime journalist whose latest case — the unsolved ritualistic hanging of an innocent family — takes on supernatural properties when he discovers a demonic force is involved. And when he moves his family into the belly of the beast, literally moving them into the victims’ home, the horror get ratcheted up with some of the most genuinely frightening scares in recent cinema.
Moviefone spoke with Hawke about “Sinister” and iconic horror movie moments. During our chat, he revealed new insights on “Before Midnight” and looked back on his early days, starring in ’80s classics.
So why did you finally decide to take the plunge into horror movies?
The truth is that one of my first movies was with Joe Dante and he’s a big horror movie aficionado. He has a passion for it and I always knew I wanted to make one someday, but I wanted to make a really good one. I thought that Scott Derrickson’s “The Exorcism of Emily Rose” was truly terrifying and I thought this script was great. I thought that it had a good chance.
One of the reasons”Sinister” is so unnerving are those Super 8 clips of the murders and Derrickson’s art direction. You don’t see that kind of aesthetic in most horror films. How did those Super 8 clips shape your performance?
We filmed them first so that I could watch them. I definitely agree with you, it sets the movie apart. There’s something absolutely terrifying about those clips and also something elegiac and beautiful about them. Whereas most movies, that use any found footage, have such a harsh naturalism to them that they stop being poetic and cinematic. They may succeed at being scary but they don’t succeed at being anything but scary.
The opening shot of “Sinister” really took me back, that’s a strong message to make for the opening of a movie.
That’s a show stopper right there, man.
And the movie also felt very much in the spirit of the original “Amityville Horror.”
The movie plays under huge, ancient iconic images: the haunted house, the tree, the black dog, the attic. It’s almost corny imagery, almost cliche. But Scott mixes it all just right I think.
What iconic imagery from horror films have stuck with you through the ages?
I don’t think any of us have recovered from watching Linda Blair’s head spin around. I think that was kind of a life changing event. There are a couple of images I have of Sissy Spacek in “Carrie” that are kind of life altering. And the first “Alien” and seeing that creature in John Hurt’s stomach. And then of course, there is the whole generation that hasn’t recovered from “Jaws.” I also loved Scorsese’s “Cape Fear,” when DeNiro bites that woman’s face.
Speaking as a writer, when it comes to choosing projects, do you find yourself being choosier when it comes to scripts? Are you able to divorce the “writer” from the “actor” in your head?
It’s all storytelling. Acting, directing, writing, it’s all about trying to tell a good story. It doesn’t matter if you’re doing “Before Sunrise” or “Sinister,” the same rules apply in a lot of ways. Are the characters real? Do you care about them? Obviously, one film is being romantic and the other is trying to scare you. But what I think works about “Sinister” is its absolute simplicity and the way it uses all of this iconic imagery in the same way a good romance does. For my mind, whenever a movie has too many bells and whistles on it, that usually means it doesn’t have any ideas. Every now and then somebody combines them both, but that’s pretty rare.
Speaking of romance, it seems like this whole process of making “Before Midnight” was done secretly. When we spoke to Julie Delpy last month, her on-record statement was that it is still being written. Why did that secretive approach come about?
Well, we had to be careful not to actually lie. We were still writing it up until the last bit of shooting. When we made the first movie, the Internet didn’t exist. We wanted the ability to make this last movie without too many people knowing about it because these movies rely on a certain kind of fragile chemistry. We know expectations are high and that invariably we are going to let people down because the movie won’t be what everybody wants it to be. But we still wanted to make it and we felt the more private we kept it, the better.
By revisiting the character of Jesse in different stages of your life, does it feel like it’s becoming more of an autobiographical representation of you?
It feels like a parallel life. It’s like a shadow self. There are some ways that I’m like Jesse and there are some ways that I’m not. What’s so fun about it is that it’s so tied into my friendship with Rick [Linklater, director] and Julie. All three of us have been able to pour different parts of us into those characters and it’s just been a luxury to get to make those films. I can’t believe anyone cares at all. They seem so personal to us that the only way to try to make a good third movie is to continue that process of not trying to please anybody else but just trying to tell the truth and be as honest about these characters as we felt we could be.
It’s funny that you mentioned Joe Dante and “Explorers” earlier because we just spoke to him a few weeks ago for his new movie “The Hole.” He said it’s hard for him to watch “Explorers” because it’s unfinished in his eyes, but how do you look back on it now?
That was my first movie. I remember River Phoenix being impressive. I remember those two guys, and it was just a powerful experience for me because of that. It’s funny that Joe thinks the movie is unfinished. I know that he says that, but he always misses how much he succeeded with that. He got frustrated because they undercut his budget at final hour and the studio stopped believing in the movie. But it’s still a wonderful film and people have told me that they’ve seen it a hundred times.
Has there been a project of yours that you didn’t think had an audience connection only to be surprised at the number of people it clicked with?
“Explorers” would be number one. When it came out, it seemed like nobody in the world saw it at all. Then over the years, it had such meaning for people and that’s nice. One that I’m most amazed at is “Gattaca.” And “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead” didn’t seem to get that much notice when it came out but more and more people love that movie. That’s the fun thing about making movies in this age that we live in. If you make a good movie, the chances are that over time people will find it. It will find its fans.
As time has gone by, it’s easy to forget how much of an impact “Dead Poet’s Society” made on audiences. At that age, how did you process all of that?
God, it was difficult. It was such a weird experience. What’s difficult about it is watching the effects “celebrity” has in your life. You don’t really notice until a couple years later; you don’t really notice it as it’s happening. It’ll happen so incrementally. That was an unbelievable experience. I made so many friends. Peter Weir taught us so much about movies. The movie had such an impact on audiences that it kind of teaches you the great value of art and how it can affect people. And I loved it. To be honest, it could have been a negative but I remember Norman Lloyd — he played the headmaster — he worked with Orson Welles and some of his first early experiences were with the Mercury Theater Company. He said he didn’t know until he was much older how special that experience was. We didn’t know how special the experience of working with Peter Weir and Robin Williams was until we were older.