Ethan Hawke directs daughter Maya in Flannery O’Connor film ‘Wildcat’

It will be featured Nov. 3 at the Rome International Film Festival.
Maya Hawke plays Flannery O'Connor in the film "Wildcat," directed by her father Ethan Hawke. RENOVO

Credit: RENOVO

Credit: RENOVO

Maya Hawke plays Flannery O'Connor in the film "Wildcat," directed by her father Ethan Hawke. RENOVO

When actor Ethan Hawke lived briefly in Atlanta as a child in the late 1970s, he recalled his mother embracing the Georgia gothic author Flannery O’Connor, who died of lupus in 1965 at age 39.

“I grew up in a house that kind of worshipped her as one of the lions of Southern fiction,” said Hawke in an interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

More than three decades later, his daughter and actress Maya Hawke fell in love with Savannah-born O’Connor herself in high school. “It became a meeting point for us,” he said. They both found O’Connor’s exploration of the shifting South in the 1950s and 1960s intriguing and achingly personal.

Maya, now 25 and known as sassy Robin in Netflix’s “Stranger Things” shot in metro Atlanta, was able to convince her dad to co-write a script and direct a movie about O’Connor. The final result, dubbed “Wildcat,” is an unusual blend of O’Connor’s real life and depictions of several of her short stories. Maya plays O’Connor as well as a few of her story characters. Emmy-winning actress Laura Linney plays O’Connor’s mom Regina and key short story roles as well.

Ethan Hawke will be at the Rome International Film Festival in Rome, Georgia on Friday, Nov. 3, to discuss the film and screen it. (Day passes are $120 and a four-day festival pass covering Nov. 2-5 starts at $175 at riffga.com. Individual tickets for Hawke’s appearance will go on sale closer to the date of the event.)

Ethan Hawke directed "Wildcat" about Flannery O'Connor starring his daughter Maya. It is being featured at the Rome International Film Festival on Oct. 27, 2023. FRANCOIS BERTHIER

Credit: FRANCOIS BETHIER

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Credit: FRANCOIS BETHIER

Given that O’Connor spent much of her life in Georgia, it would have made sense for the movie to be shot in the state. But Hawke said he had trouble finding quality crew in Georgia willing to get paid modestly for an independent film like this.

“I would have loved to have shot in Georgia,” Hawke said. “Nothing would have made me happier. But the tax credit is harder to get than you think. And crew in Georgia are used to higher paying jobs. They all seemed to be doing Marvel movies.”

One of the people who has control of O’Connor’s estate lives in Kentucky so Hawke checked the state out, found good locations and enough crew to make the movie earlier this year.

The Hawkes didn’t want to create a traditional biopic. Instead, “Wildcat” is what Hawke calls “an intersection of faith, imagination and creativity.”

The movie starts in 1950 when O’Connor has to move back to Milledgeville, where her family moved when she was in her teens after a brief time in Atlanta. She’s forced to leave New York City and live with her mom on a farm when she comes down with lupus. The film weaves her life with those of her characters in short stories such as “Good Country People,” “Revelation” and “Everything That Rises Must Converge.” O’Connor battles her own health issues, her Catholicism in a town full of Baptists and the expectations of the people around her.

Her stories don’t necessarily please the small town denizens of Milledgeville and one woman chortles over the Mammy character in “Gone With the Wind” while O’Connor rolls her eyes. “Everybody expected Flannery to be like Margaret Mitchell but her writing and approach to characters were nothing like Mitchell,’ Hawke said.

Laura Linney, left, presents Sam Rockwell with the award for outstanding performance by a male actor in a supporting role for "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri" at the 24th annual Screen Actors Guild Awards at the Shrine Auditorium & Expo Hall on Sunday, Jan. 21, 2018, in Los Angeles. (Photo by Vince Bucci/Invision/AP)

Credit: Vince Bucci

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Credit: Vince Bucci

Hawke was thrilled to get Linney to join the film. Hawke and Linney first worked together on Broadway in 1992. “I’ve known her my whole adult working life,” Hawke said. “I admire her tremendously. She knows Flannery’s work and has a deep understanding of these people and who they are. This world seemed right up her alley. I also wanted Maya to experience working with her and see excellence up close.”

The Hawkes debuted “Wildcat” at the vaunted Telluride Film Festival in Colorado early last month. “Telluride was just incredible,” he said. “There are real cinephiles there. They also embrace a real sense of experimentation and playfulness with film there.”

Ten days later, reaction at the Toronto International Film Festival, he said, was less kind given the quirky specificity of “Wildcat.” ”I felt like I had submitted a Philip Dick novel to The Economist,” Hawke said. “It felt like the corporate forces of the world. It was all about sales. What will be the next big movie?”

So far, Hawke has yet to find a distributor for the movie but will continue to screen “Wildcat” at various film festivals like Rome. When Seth Ingram, who runs the Rome festival, approached him to come to discuss the movie at the festival, Hawke readily said yes.

“I was sad we were not able to shoot in Georgia so this was a wonderful opportunity to go where Flannery is from,” Hawke said. “It struck me as a good idea.”

Hawke acknowledges that not everyone sees O’Connor’s work and legacy the way he does. A 2020 article by Paul Elie in The New Yorker titled “How Racist Was Flannery O’Connor?” highlights some of O’Connor’s less than flattering comments about Black people in personal correspondence with friends and family. Loyola University Maryland took O’Connor’s name off one of its dormitories for precisely this reason.

In Variety magazine, Hawke wrote an essay explaining why he chose to do the movie. He noted how the film explores O’Connor’s complicated feelings about race, having been born in the Jim Crow South, and how her viewpoint evolved over her life. He hopes the film also captures O’Connor’s sardonic sense of humor, her amusingly dark view of humanity.

“I tried to present her by using her own words from her own work,” Hawke said. “The audience can make it what they will. A tree is grown from the soil and water where it’s planted. Flannery was planted in her time and place. ... That’s the wound of America. Flannery was smart enough to know what a terrible wound that was. She turned a brutal eye on white hypocrisy. She wrote about what she knew and the people she knew.”

He then quoted O’Connor’s line, “The truth does not change according to our ability to stomach it emotionally.”

“A lot of it,” Hawke said, “was really ugly.”

For Hawke, “Wildcat” gave him an amazing opportunity to work closely with his daughter. “The whole movie,” he said, “was built on the back of Maya’s passion.”


IF YOU GO

Rome International Film Festival

Nov. 2-5. full weekend pass is $175, day passes are $120 with some á la carte options. Various locations around Rome. riff.ga

“Wildca,t” starring Maya Hawke, screens Nov. 3.

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