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Ethan Hawke Has One Fix to Make Film Schools Better: Teach Directors About Acting

Hawke wants aspiring filmmakers to know that great directing means "thinking like an actor" and "not being afraid of your actors."

Ethan Hawke poses for a portrait in New York to promote his film "BlazeEthan Hawke Portrait Session, New York, USA - 06 Sep 2018

Ethan Hawke

Amy Sussman/Invision/AP/REX/Shutterstock

Ethan Hawke is an Oscar-nominated actor (“Boyhood”) and screenwriter (“Before Midnight”), plus a director behind well-reviewed films like “Seymour: An Introduction” and “Blaze,” so aspiring filmmakers will probably want to sit down and listen to his advice on film schools. The actor recently joined the Film Society of Lincoln Center for a conversation about “Blaze,” and the discussion touched upon one thing Hawke can’t stand about film schools today.

“This drives me crazy. Every film school you go to they always teach cinematography,” Hawke said. “They say it’s a visual medium, and it is a visual medium. If you think about the history of cinema, and how many great film directors were cinematographers, not very many actually. If you think about it, how many great filmmakers are actors? It’s a lot: Woody Allen, Orson Welles, Spike Lee, Warren Beatty, Robert Redford, Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton.”

Hawke’s fundamental change for film schools is for programs to priortize teaching acting to aspiring directors. “Acting and directing are the same,” he said. “They are an interpretative art, they are about taking great writing and sharing it. It’s about saying, ‘To be or not to be? That’s a great line, let me explain to you why.’ It’s not about picture.”

“It bothers me that film schools don’t teach acting. That’s what bothers me,” Hawke continued. “They love cinematography. Is cinematography super easy to understand? It’s two dimensional. You can sit back behind the monitor. You don’t have to get messy.”

Hawke referenced his time working with Denzel Washington on “Training Day” as proving to him the necessity for directors to “think like actors.” Hawke said Washington was a “logic police” on set, constantly asking the director questions such as, “How many bullets are in my gun? Does that make sense? Why would I do that?” Directors who understand acting, Hawke argued, know the advantage of thinking practically.

“The reason Denzel does it isn’t to screw with the director, it’s to be in the mindset of the audience,” Hawke said. “Audiences are smart. How many times do you watch a movie and go, ‘Why is she walking in there?’ And you think, ‘Why did the actor not tell the director, “I don’t want to go in there, the boogeyman is in there!”‘ Thinking like an actor, not being afraid of your actors, it’s super controllable…Actors ar messy, sloppy, and they’re people. They got skin and they smell weird sometimes. It’s hard. You gotta be open.”

Hawke most recently starred in “First Reformed,” which A24 released over the summer to critical acclaim. The actor is expected to be a dark horse in the Oscar race for best actor this year. You can watch Hawke’s comments on film schools in the video below. Click here for Hawke’s full appearance on the Film Comment podcast.

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