Producer Ryan Hawke on an Authentic Life and Her New Film:
Seymour: An Introduction
Ryan Hawke wears many hats: mother of two, committee member to arts’ associations and public service organizations, board member with The Alex Fund, which provides educational opportunities to disadvantaged Romanian children, Vice President of Under the Influence Films, wife of actor, Ethan Hawke, and cherished family friend. She grew up in Princeton and later graduated from Barnard with a degree in Urban Studies. Her most recent endeavor in the arts was as a producer of the documentary Seymour: An Introduction, a portrait of Seymour Bernstein, pianist and teacher, written and directed by her husband, Ethan.
While sitting in my back yard one September morning, she talked about her experience with this film, which has been shown at the most prestigious film festivals including this year’s New York Film Festival. A.O. Scott of The New York Times called the film “affectionate and searching.” Ms. Hawke’s description of the film intrigued me, warranting a more focused discussion. The following is an excerpt of a two-hour interview where work, art, teaching and the need for authenticity took front stage.
WRR: How did you get involved with the film?
HAWKE: Our film company fell into this project quite naturally. At a dinner party, Ethan was seated next to a man in his 80’s named Seymour Bernstein whom Ethan was just smitten with. Ethan was pleasantly surprised at how honest and insightful Seymour was, particularly, on the subject of stage fright and performance anxiety. Ethan’s friend, Dr. Zito, who had invited him to the dinner party, asked Ethan if he would consider documenting Seymour in some way, but Ethan thought, “Well, I don’t do documentaries, I don’t have a lot of time, and I’m not sure that’s the project I want to do,” so he kept suggesting other people to direct it. Finally, they all came to the conclusion that the only person who could do it would be Ethan. He became so engaged with the subject that he didn’t want to stop. He had an idea that we could follow through with and I have just been facilitating that relationship and the filming of Seymour.
WWR: Would you describe the film just as you did while sitting in my back yard?
HAWKE: Basically it’s a meditative piece about life in the arts from the point of view of Seymour Bernstein who was a concert pianist and decided to quit playing in public, became a teacher, and is still a well respected teacher. We are exploring his ideas that he shares in a responsible way, as he isn’t dogmatic or judgmental. He expresses his feelings that having a life in the arts is something that artists have to integrate into their whole life, and if they don’t, it can be detrimental to both their art and their life.
He feels, therefore, that art is something that requires practice and dedication, and he’s very dubious of the commercial aspects of art in our world, particularly in America, which is essentially why he quit. I think those issues spoke to Ethan and through the lens that Ethan is giving Seymour, there is an exploration of what a person’s life can look like when art is in it as a hobby or a career. And it’s got beautiful music, which was a natural way of scoring a film and having people emote along with the story.
WWR: He is such a gifted teacher. I’m sure he has taught me to listen to music more thoughtfully.
HAWKE: When he’s giving his first lesson in the master class, you actually hear the difference, for example, when he is explaining how far to press down the keys. He has such joy when he teaches which ultimately is one of the reasons he is so successful. He wants his students to succeed.
WWR: I’m sure you are familiar with the saying, “Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach.”
In the United States, it’s an adage that people hold on to, but Seymour manages to turn it on its head because he is both a superb pianist and extraordinary teacher.
HAWKE: I think that is something that Ethan did intentionally in the film. As somebody who has tried different art forms, who is forging a path, constantly reassessing what he wants to do and how he wants to do it, he is a little surprised that he hasn’t found more mentors. Even in the business world people find mentors, but it’s not as natural in our country when you are 45 and in the middle of your career to ask questions about what direction to go in or seek out a friend’s help. This idea that someone could actually offer advice from personal experience is rare. We’re supposed to act as if we know how to proceed in the best way.
WWR: What do you feel you learned from Seymour?
RYAN HAWKE: He speaks so frankly that it doesn’t have any B.S. in it. He is a leader simply in the way he lives his life. I find his demeanor and joy for life really attractive and he has led a pretty simple life. He’s lived in the same place, he has relationships with his family, his students and his friends, and since he retired from playing publically especially, he spends a lot of time in his home playing and teaching piano.
WWR: In the beginning of the film, Ethan bravely raised the issue of his own stage fright and the question of whether one can be authentic in a commercial world.
HAWKE: It seems to me that many people don’t entertain those ideas seriously. Yet the positive reception of this film actually proves that they do relish the opportunity to explore these issues. And Seymour continues to ask the hard questions. It’s a real treat for Ethan to have someone who will make that a priority.
WWR: At one point in the film, Ethan says, “I feel safe with Seymour.” What is it about Seymour that would make someone feel safe?
HAWKE: He’s really open in a way in which, I guess, some seniors struggle. He doesn’t seem to be getting more closed off to different kinds of people or experiences. His desire to talk to other people and be curious, I think, makes him somebody one feels comfortable sharing with, particularly in the realm of a life in the arts, the feelings of shame, of questioning, and of insecurity. Seymour is extremely non-judgmental. In that way, he is a rare bird because many people who are in the arts want to fluff themselves up as much as possible, to make themselves feel they are doing the right thing and doing it well.
WWR: In a scene with Michael Kimmelman, pianist and New York Timeswriter, Seymour says, “I’m not sure a major career is a healthy thing to embark on.” Kimmelman challenges him, reminding him that it was Seymour who had said it was an artist’s duty to share his or her talent with the world. What do you think about this confrontation?
HAWKE: Seymour is encouraging Ethan and his students despite their anxiety, nervousness, and fear, to continue doing what they do. Seymour found a way to continue doing what he does despite his anxieties and fears, but he is not completely practicing what he preaches since he no longer performs. I don’t see a problem in that but there is some irony there. He found a way to do both in that he pours his talent into his students and if those students can overcome those problems, then, ultimately he is still sharing his art. But it poses an interesting question. What is our obligation to our talents, and what is our obligation to the world?
WWR: What stands out to you about working on this film?
HAWKE: It’s kind of embarrassing, but it’s how impressed I am with my husband. For example, the concert where we have Seymour perform is his first concert after 35 years. It was for a small audience that we coordinated. Ethan realized that having the concert as a touchstone, a critical moment to build to, gave the film structure and an arc, which is something that I wouldn’t have thought of. His experience in that way is always impressive. And then, I found the film beautiful but not in a conventional way where you’re seeing bright and shiny objects or expansive landscaping; instead, I was pleased with how it looks which isn’t something I know how to do either.
Then, there was continuity to his life that made the film have continuity. We did interviews of him in his home, which is where he spends most of his time, where he teaches, so that became a nice cornerstone as well.
WWR: It isn’t easy to get a film like this distributed, so how did it happen?
HAWKE: That’s where Ethan’s success is a giant boost to the film that other people don’t have and we don’t kid ourselves about that in any way, shape, or form. Ethan has worked closely with John Shloss of Cinetic Media. He saw the documentary and we knew that if he liked it and wanted to work with the film, he could find it a home.Then, Ethan has worked closely with Jonathan Sehring, president of IFC Films, which is distributing the film. We credit John Shloss with helping the film get into important festivals. It was having an advocate that knows the film world and that people trust. So we really just got lucky.
WWR: Seymour says, “The real essence of who we are resides in our talent, whatever talent there is.“ What talent resides in you?
HAWKE: Producing this film is somewhat emblematic of me-that is helping other people’s work get realized. There are many different ways to do that. I think we all have multiple talents. I’m good at seeing the way things are organized poorly or well and at supporting people.
WWR: Producer Lauren Schuler Donner of You’ve Got Mail said that she is there to solve problems. What problems did you have to solve?
HAWKE: We didn’t have too many major last minute issues because we are so small. Most of the scheduling was easy to do because I have “access to the director” and Seymour was very responsive. There were challenges but most of them have been with the aftermath of the film, for example, dealing with licensing the music and the images.
WWR: Michael Phillips who produced Taxi Driver said, “A producer’s job is to have a sense of what is important and what’s not.” Did you have to do that type of sorting out?
HAWKE: Working with Cinetic Media has been helpful as they have a lot of experience and they can help us confirm what we think needs to be done as opposed to small worries that we can put in the background. Definitely that is what all we producers have done and I would be remiss if I didn’t mention those producers who contributed so much to this project, Greg Loser and Heather Smith.
WWR: What, if any, obstacles did you have to overcome on this project?
HAWKE: One obstacle was situations where we realized we didn’t have the right equipment, for example, enough cameras for the master class. Ethan’s schedule is probably the biggest obstacle, but he was committed to it and everyone else made themselves available. We are incredibly lucky that we were able to finance this film, which could have been the most challenging obstacle. Unless you are independently wealthy, it can be a huge uphill battle.
WWR: What were you personally hoping to get out of the experience and what do you hope audiences will take from the film?
HAWKE: For me, it was an easy way to help other artists achieve their goals. I’m mostly excited for the other filmmakers to be able to have more work that is interesting and satisfying to them. As for audiences, I hope they will realize that if people want to do art, they need to put in the time and energy and part of the reward should be doing the art and not how it is received. It’s such a simple old message, but I think that we need to be reminded work has to be a reward in itself.
Judith Zinis was a 2013 Fulbright Scholar in Greece where she taught film studies at the University of Athens and researched Greek-American filmmaker Gregory Markopoulos. As a professor at Ocean County College, she has developed and taught Film of the Sixties, World Cinema, and From Literature to Film. At Mathey College at Princeton University, she presented several examples of Greek Cinema. Recently, she published an article on the 2014 Tribeca Film Festival for the publication Urban Agenda.