"Blaze” began with two friends talking about Texas musicians.
In 2015, during Ethan Hawke’s breaks from filming “The Magnificent Seven” in East Feliciana Parish, the actor-director and his longtime pal, singer-songwriter Ben Dickey, discussed making movies about singer-songwriters.
“Not just Blaze Foley,” Dickey said a few weeks ago from New York City, where he and other “Blaze” principals attended the film’s New York premiere. “Townes Van Zandt, Guy Clark, Steve Earl, Lucinda Williams. All those characters are so rich. And they already exist.”
Hawke and Dickey also considered how to capture the process of writing songs on film.
“And then,” Dickey recalled, “Ethan reduced it down to, ‘You’re going to be Blaze Foley in a movie.’ And here we are.”
“Blaze” is directed by Hawke and stars first-time actor Dickey as Foley. The film’s gradual rollout in theaters follows its January debut at the Sundance Film Festival. Dickey won the festival’s U.S. Dramatic Special Jury Award for acting.
“Ben’s relationship to music is so real and profound,” Hawke says in the film’s production notes. “I knew I wanted to work with Ben in a serious way. I knew our passions would intersect here. I knew Ben could be intimate with Blaze’s experience and really have something to say with this character.”
“Blaze” opened in New York and Los Angeles earlier this month.
Filmed in Baton Rouge, Jackson, St. Francisville, New Orleans and Woodville, Mississippi, “Blaze” boasts plenty of Louisiana talent. New Orleans singer Alynda Lee Segarra, frontwoman for Hurray for the Riff Raff, and local actress Jenn Lyon (“Claws”), appear in scene-stealing supporting roles. The New Orleans-based Lee Kyle is the film’s costume designer.
Arkansas native Dickey qualifies as Louisiana talent because he’s lived in Caddo Parish since 2014. Lloyd “Teddy” Johnson Jr., owner-operator of Teddy’s Juke Joint in Zachary, plays Blaze’s best friend, Concho.
Dickey and Segarra sing as well as act together in “Blaze.” Segarra plays Foley’s sister during scenes in the stark nursing home where the siblings’ father, played by Kris Kristofferson, resides.
Dickey had admired Segarra’s music for years, but they didn’t meet until “Blaze.” He described her as “smart and kind and funny and particular about her music and her garden. She’s like a sister to me now.”
Working with Kristofferson, a singer-songwriter whose extensive acting career includes the 1976 remake of “A Star is Born,” was magical, Dickey said. “Kris gave me an incredible gift — he told me how much he believed in me. He hugged me and called me his son. I felt like I was existing in the past, present and future of somebody else’s life.”
Other musicians in the cast include Charlie Sexton as Townes Van Zandt and New Orleans singer-harmonica player Johnny Sansone. Richard Linklater (the Oscar-nominated filmmaker who directed Hawke in “Boyhood” and “Before Sunset”), Steve Zahn (“Treme”) and Oscar-winning actor Sam Rockwell (“Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”) also play supporting roles.
“Everyone in the movie was our first choice,” Dickey said. “No one said no. That’s rare. Ethan’s been in the movie business way longer than me, but he’d never experienced that.”
Co-writers Hawke and Sybil Rosen based their screenplay on Rosen’s memoir, “Living in the Woods in a Tree: Remembering Blaze Foley.” Largely unsuccessful in his lifetime, Foley died in 1989, shot to death at 39.
Dickey’s first exposure to Foley’s music came in 1997 through Willie Nelson’s and Merle Haggard’s recording of the Foley song “If I Could Only Fly.” Several years later, he heard John Prine’s rendition of another Foley composition, “Clay Pigeons.”
“ ‘Clay Pigeons’ rang a bell, a gong, in my head,” Dickey recalled. “I said, ‘That song — good gracious.’ I went down the rabbit hole then, shocked that I didn’t know who Blaze Foley was. I was shocked at how good his other material is. And there was the mystery surrounding his death. I heard four different versions (of Foley’s murder), all of them wrong.”
“Blaze” and its soundtrack album, “BLAZE: Original Cast Recordings,” will potentially introduce Foley to a large new audience. The album includes Dickey’s interpretations of Foley’s “Clay Pigeons,” “Picture Cards” and “Cold World” and Segarra’s solo rendition of Lucinda Williams’ Foley-inspired “Drunken Angel.”
“Blaze honed his songwriting tools so sharp,” Dickey said. “He economized songs, not using too many words, but saying exactly what he meant to say. Dark and light and sexy and funny and scary. All those things. Blaze had his own style. He draped his melodies over rolling guitar picking and slow-and-easy cadences. When I heard his songs, I said, ‘Wow. Why in the world didn’t somebody help him out?’ Lo and behold, the story revealed itself.”