Born to Be Blue tells a semi-fictionalized account of the life of Jazz Trumpet great Chet Baker. Shot in Sudbury, directed by B.C.’s Robert Budreau and with Canadian financing behind it, it’s a subtle and unique look at the man’s artistry, struggles and demons during the middle part of his career.
A key to the film’s success is the chemistry shared between Ethan Hawke as Chet and Carmen Ejogo as his partner Jane. It’s a tumultuous tale, but one that at its heart speaks to the yearning for artistic authenticity and an attempt to overcome ones demons, or at least mask them through intoxication.
We spoke to Hawke and Ejiogo following the film’s premiere at TIFF. Both are highly intelligent, eloquent speakers clearly passionate about the project that they helped bring to life.
Do you think addiction helps or hurts artists’ creativity?
Ethan Hawke: Speaking directly about Chet Baker, what he really wanted was what he considered a jazz life – he wanted to do drugs and play music. He liked that more than his relationship with his friends and family and that’s kind of what he wanted to do. In truth the habit in us talks very loudly and it’s very hard to hear your own voice. Anybody that’s tried to quit smoking, it’s like there’s a little demon, and one of the demons for a lot of people is their own self-worth.
I don’t believe that the drugs helped Chet Baker play, I believe that he believed they did.
In sports we see this as cheating, in music we sometimes see it as the essence of the creative process
EH: Well, in sports there are rules. Lance Armstrong cheated because they have a race where you’re not allowed drugs.
First of all, I don’t think drugs enhance anybody’s performance anyway in the arts, while in sports obviously they do. Peter O’Toole thinks he’s a better actor when he’s shitfaced drunk, but he’s not. Unfortunately he developed a habit where his anxiety is so loud that he can’t perform without it.
I had a friend who directed Elizabeth Taylor and he said she had this opinion that she was better when she was drunk. She wasn’t, it’s just that she was less nervous. And she enjoyed it more drunk.
I’m correct in believing that Jane is an amalgamation of many women in Chet’s life?
Carmen Ejogo: Like the film was a combination of reality and fiction. Chet had a lot of women in his life – some of whom he married and who he had kids with – but they didn’t have any sense of self by the end of the relationship. In fact, that’s almost the constant, that most of the women really lost themselves by the end of the relationship, much like Picasso and his women. They ended up committing suicide or gave up on themselves entirely.
Within that, there would be the women that were the artists that acutualy had their own musicianship, or there would be the woman that was just the model and that was really pretty and that he’d met and that didn’t have much else going on for her. It was a range of types, but they all devoted themselves wholeheartedly once they jumped on the Chet Baker bandwagon and that was essentially what I was trying to depict first and foremost.
The departure is that my character really tries to keep a sense of self throughout and that’s really her struggle throughout the movie.
This is different than with your work in Selma where you were bringing forth a very specific character
CE: A biopic is always an odd thing to bring to the screen. When I did Selma I was trying to figure out who is the real Martin Luther King, who is the real Coretta. Yet who Coretta was to Martin is different from who Coretta is to herself. It’s all perspective and so I’m always excited to work with filmmakers that recognize that and aren’t beholden to the truth at all times.
This seems very similar to jazz. Chet would take a standard and improvise on top, to actually take the recognizable song and accentuate or bend it. In your case, in order to keep the tune sweet we not only have to believe in your motivation as a character but also that Chet’s not so much of an asshole that you would leave him. Getting that balance right, making sure that tonally, you are not just a pushover, must be a unique challenge.
CE: I was given a gift in Ethan as he quickly recognized that that dichotomy. It is very tricky balance buying into the idea that someone would possibly stay with an asshole like this. But I’m also conscious of the fact that women do it all the damn time! In so many women it’s somehow innate to be a sucker for love, to fall for not just for the artist but also for the needy man that is looking for mommy in some ways. I think Chet played on that very successfully throughout his entire life and could get really esteemed, interesting women to fall for him.
When I listen to Chet Baker’s music, I hear what he’s playing, but also that he has the capacity to leave enough space that you bring your own story to it and you bring your own romance and your own fantasies. I think that’s what he was capable of doing as a man to the women that he loved, that he allowed them to bring their own backstories, their own baggage, their own stories to work out with him and that’s not as unusual or as rare as it should be.
Do you think there’s a romanticism about suffering for one’s art
EH: I think people think that. I think that society tries to homogenize all of us and through pain, sometimes you see the fakeness of culture. That’s why so many great artists have been homosexual, that’s there have been so many great black artists. Through immense suffering you can see what’s fake and you can talk back to the culture.
That leads to the notion of authenticity – one of the challenges Chet had was he was part of the dominant culture, entering in to a subculture where he was a minority and his self-consciousness of that fact. Even Chet would think this would be better told as Miles’s story.
EH: Chet won jazz trumpeter of the year or something from Downbeat Magazine or something like that, and he told Miles that he wanted to write a letter of apology to Davis, to Cliff Brown and I guess Louie Armstrong or something. Miles said, “why would you stop there? The list of people better than you is so long.” When they were playing together in a club somebody put a Chet Baker record on in the jukebox and Miles wouldn’t play unless they opened the jukebox, took the record out, and broke it.
So why do we care about Chet if musically as you say, people like Miles are conceivably superior – what is it about Chet’s personage and his art?
EH: Because superior in the arts is a ridiculous word actually, because really whether he’s better, he had something original to say too. They both did. Miles is definitely better, but I put on more Chet Baker records myself, because I’m moved by them. That’s the thing about Chet’s singing, is that it’s not good, but it is moving.
Moving because it’s authentic?
EH: Because it has real emotion and it has some truth to it. Yeah, authentic. Chet Baker can really only do one thing, but he could do it brilliantly.
Authenticity was very important to him and yet he created this image of himself.
CO: He’s a complete dichotomy, all oxymoronic, the whole story. He’s somebody that’s this purist. By the time Miles was doing Bitches’ Brew, that’s not even music for Chet, while at the same time he was desperate for Davis’ approval. His notion of authenticity was maybe a defense mechanism because he was never going to be fully accepted and it wasn’t really until he became more cult that he finally found his place, yet still not really among Black jazz musicians from what I know.
Jane is a woman with her own significant talents who has fallen for man whose personal proclivities are trumped by his genius.
CO: We allow collectively and individually for that to happen all of the time. I can think of so many filmmakers as an example who have overstepped the bounds of morality and appropriateness but that we give them a break because they are geniuses. We stick by them, it happens all the time, and you can’t help yourself because you recognize that what they are bringing is so special and you’re not going to get it anywhere else.
When I was younger I’d think that if you don’t give them the space to be all of their mess that they won’t be the genius anymore. I don’t personally buy in to that as much anymore because I think as you get older and you’ve really done your 10,000 hours that it starts to become a honed skill that you can manipulate and play with, it’s not just something that has to be inspired and channeled. I don’t give people a break anymore of giving carte blanche to do what they want and be abusive to anyone they want for the sake of their brilliance.
How connected were you to Chet Baker and his music before you started working on this?
CO: I first found Chet Baker through a photograph and then that led to the Bruce Webber documentary Let’s Get Lost. So I really found Chet much like James Dean, through his image. Apparently, James modelled himself after Chet and I kind of also fell in love with the aesthetic before the sound. I said before I think there’s something about his music’s simplicity with him leaving leaves gaps to be filled that really appeals. Apparently women and gay men were his biggest fans! I don’t know what it is about gay men, but I definitely know what it is for me as a woman, that is appealing and why that speaks to me and resonates.
How hard is to bring to screen that ephemeral notion of music, the subtlety of it all
EH: All I could really do is bring a love of it. When I was doing my trumpet lessons I just wanted more time. I wanted to push shooting and had all of this stuff I wanted to do. This guy who was my teacher was like, listen, if we had three years, you wouldn’t be close.
You know, when Willie Nelson plays the guitar, it’s different. There are millions of guitars all over the world, this one guy picks it up and he can do something you can recognize, it has a voice. Chet Baker had that with the trumpet, and so did Miles Davis, obviously. That’s so unique and so beautiful, but I can’t do that.
Will Smith can’t box like Muhammad Ali, but he can play the love of boxing. I can play the love of trumpet, and I can communicate the feeling that there was one avenue where this guy put all of his love, all of his humanity, and he couldn’t get out and reach his family and other people. I have known that in my life.
You have mentioned before a love for Ska, which in the UK was very much an amalgamation of Caribbean and white culture, leading to charges of appropriation but also calling into question what it means to be “authentic”. As a performer, how do you find your authenticity? And how do you find when you are doing performance that you are being you in the performance, not being the character?
CO: God, you’ve really hit the nail on the head with what makes me tick essentially, because that’s been the thing that I’ve had to struggle with in being bi-racial. You can’t categorize me as a person because, yet the authenticity of my experience is that I really have grown up with all of these worlds happening simultaneously for me.
The way that you see me in every single movie I’ve ever made is in the choice to make the movie in the first place, for sure. I see a linearity in everything I’ve done, and I would hope that a person seeing Selma will understand and not be surprised that it was the same person that made The Purge: Anarchy or Sparkle. I feel like there’s something in all of those that’s about identity, that’s about them and us, that’s about finding your voice, that’s about redemption, that’s about acceptance.
There is this line where Chet tells you must be fucked up because your profession is to be an actress. Can you relate to this line?
CO: I was overhearing someone who was saying that he only dates models because actresses are just too screwed up. Keep it simple. To speak for myself, I think that I’m constantly observing behavior and to then regurgitating it. That is a slightly odd process, and I’ve been doing it since I was a kid. It’s a slightly odd thing as it gives you license to shape shift in that way and get paid for it. Your attachment to reality can get a little off kilter sometimes.
If you find one of these roles that you think is authentic, would you work with one of those people of terrible character but unbound talent that you’ve talked about before?
CO: I’ve asked myself about that because truly, some of my absolute idols in terms of some of the great filmmakers are exactly those people.
Would you be reticent to work with them?
CO: I don’t think I could do it in part because I’m a mother. That’s where I draw the line. If it’s like adultery or whatever, I mean, you know, we’re all a bit blurry and messy and I can handle that, but when you’re talking about kids being part of the conversion in the mix, then I feel that I have an obligation to be morally consistent in my art as well as my real life.
I’ll be less coy and use names – you would not work with the likes of Polanski, but you would work with David O. Russell?
CO: Is Polanski still even making movies? That’s all I’ll say, I’m not going to answer that.