“Do you know anyone who became a movie star at 87?” joked Seymour Bernstein, the subject of Ethan Hawke’s documentary directing debut, Seymour: An Introduction. “Here I am!”
Seymour: An Introduction chronicles the life and musings of Seymour Bernstein, an acclaimed classical pianist who gave up performing at age 50 to find his calling as a mentor and teacher. Bernstein and Hawke have a camaraderie and respect for each other that is touching to witness. They obviously enjoy being in each other’s company—which is fortunate, because aside from the substantial time Hawke spent promoting Richard Linklater’s Boyhood in 2014, they have have been on the festival circuit together since Toronto and New York.
The pair also still enjoy discussing the film. They never interrupt each other, though they occasionally amplify or add to what the other said, joking with each other in what has become a sort of vaudeville act. “It’s the most amazing adventure for me,” Bernstein said of making and promoting the movie.
Bernstein is a natural on screen, offering a charismatic running commentary on the art and craft of music and performance. Hawke makes an early appearance in the documentary to talk about how his meeting with Bernstein, three years earlier at a dinner party, dovetailed with the filmmaker’s quest, brought on by a bout of performance anxiety, to find authenticity and meaning in his art.
But it’s Bernstein who is the star of this film. His wise, witty comments and stories about his life and music are entrancing, relatable to anyone who is passionate about any pursuit.
The day of our interview, the Internet was burning up with news that Hawke was going to reteam with Training Day actor Denzel Washington and director Antoine Fuqua for a remake of the 1960 western The Magnificent Seven. (The film was originally inspired by the 1954 Akira Kurosawa masterpiece, The Seven Samurai.) This was news to Bernstein, who enthused during the interview, “Oh, no kidding! Really? Oh, how exciting.” Not a movie buff, Bernstein got the movie confused with the Tom Cruise film The Last Samurai, until Hawke set him straight.
Hawke said of the Magnificent Seven remake, “It should be fun. I love cowboy movies, and Antoine Fuqua and I have worked together twice before, so he’s one of my favorite directors,” he said. “It’s a big swashbuckling Western and it has a chance to be a great film.” Bernstein nodded and smiled.
MovieMaker Magazine (MM): Ethan, talk about how directing this film affected you.
Ethan Hawke (EH): The wonderful thing about directing is that you don’t have to work for anybody. It’s why people love the job so much. You get to work on a subject matter that you really want to work on, and have an excuse to spend a lot of time with someone you admire.
Seymour has a wonderful quality of bringing out the best in people and making you contemplate the best aspects of yourself. The life of an actor is tough. I work and travel a lot. With four kids, my life is always busy. To carve out the time and make this a part of my life? It’s very rare, even as an adult, that you make any new friends. And we’ve become friends over the course of this experience. We’ve been through something special together.
MM: Has the experience made you interested in playing music?
EH: I’ve always been interested in playing music. But I also think that the music in the movie is operating as a larger metaphor for whatever your talent is. It’s encouraging you to get in touch with whatever part best expresses yourself.
Seymour Bernstein (SB): It’s as though music is presented in the documentary as an ideal to emulate. It’s a beautiful form, a human expression, written down by the greatest minds that ever lived, like literature and Shakespearean plays. As Ethan said, music becomes a metaphor for life itself. The idea occurs to a person, while working on this art form, that the disciplines you gain through it must not remain with the music. It has to then be directed into your personal life. That’s the message of the movie: You direct music into everything you do.
MM: Ethan, you’ve just wrapped the Chet Baker movie Born to be Blue. Did you have to learn to play the trumpet or any other instrument?
EH: I’ve played instruments my whole life. I just haven’t played it at a high level. I mostly played the guitar my whole life.
SB: I went to see him in Macbeth [at the Lincoln Center] and he was sitting there with his guitar. He played the guitar so wonderfully. I didn’t even know he did that.
EH: It’s something that started on Dead Poets Society. Also, Jack Lemmon inspired me. I did one of my first movies with him [Dad, 1989], and he would have a piano brought to the set. While they were lighting and stuff, instead of going to his trailer or talking on the phone or doing things, he would just sit in costume and he would play different pieces on the piano. He felt that it helped him stay in a creative state of mind. It kept his mind focused.
He had a very musical nature—when you think about his acting, it was very playful and always very musical, but I also think it calmed his nerves. Playing the guitar does that for me.
MM: Seymour, what did you learn about yourself in making this movie?
SB: I’m twice his age, so I already learned a lot about myself before I made the movie. [Both laugh.] But what came out first was how Ethan would say the same thing during almost every Q&A session: “Seymour speaks in whole sentences, with colons and everything.” I never knew that I spoke in whole sentences. I just discovered that because he observed it. And I say to myself, “Well, isn’t that great? I speak like that, in sentences.” [laughs]
But seriously, I’m becoming more aware of the contribution that I’ve made to my pupils over the years. Through the documentary, I realize I’m making a contribution to a much larger part of society that I couldn’t even imagine. People come up to me and say, “I don’t know anything about music, but everything you say pertains to what I do.”
EH: The documentary, through his genius, is about life. It’s not about a pianist. It’s not even about music. It’s about having a passion for something and realizing that when you take this passion far enough, you’re developing your emotional and intellectual worlds. If you play an instrument or you act, you’re developing your physical world and all of that constitutes everything there is about you.
Now, if you leave your art form and go into your social world, there’s utter chaos because your social world won’t be harmonized in the way that your art form is. So the message of the documentary is to direct that synthesis that you’ve developed in your art form, whatever it is, and direct it into your life.
MM: Ethan, can you talk about your editing choices? How did you decide what to keep in or take out?
EH: It was extremely difficult and surprisingly so. Seymour was very patient with me because he wanted to see it. Editing was so time-consuming because I found the subject matter so interesting. I still think of other ways to open the movie—some really funny stuff. But it’s all about figuring out how to tell the story. What is the story; how much do I include or exclude myself; how do I make it more interesting?
Personally, I could have watched Seymour and Michael Kimmelman [The New York Times culture critic and Seymour’s former pupil who asks him questions throughout the film] talk for hours. Every part of it was so damn interesting.
SB: There wasn’t a script.
EH: We knew what we wanted it to be about and that was it.
SB: No rehearsals.
MM: What was your introduction like to each other? And at what point, Ethan, did you decide to make a documentary about Seymour?
EH: It was a kind of slow process. When I met Seymour at a dinner party and we were getting along, I really wanted to hear more from him. So he invited me to come to his house.
SB: He came a year later because he was out making movies.
EH: At the dinner party, several of us went over to hear Seymour play and we left saying, “Somebody has to make a documentary about this guy.” I remember saying to my wife, “It’s my responsibility to get somebody to make a documentary about him.”
SB: And then another year went by.
EH: She said, “You’re going to spend forever trying to find somebody. You do it. You have passion for it. You do it.” And then, we just slowly started doing it. The reason why so much time went by is because I was scared to death it was going to be a money pit or that I would start and not finish it. Like, [to Bernstein] what if I got you all excited about it?
SB: I thought several times he would interrupt the shooting. I though, “Well, this is going to peter out. He’s not going to finish the documentary.” He was making movies and I had to wait until he was free. Then, he would call me up to continue. And he kept telling me from the very beginning: “Now, don’t be discouraged. There’s no time limit. We’re not pressed for time.”
Two and half years later, the last shoot took place. I wasn’t invited to the edits and then, one day, he calls me up and invites me to a screening. He said, “You’d better bring your friends, because when you see it for the first time you’re going to hate it. But your friends are going to be objective and I want you to have objective opinions.”
When the movie started, of course, I broke into tears. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. It started with me practicing and I screamed out loud, “By God, that’s amazing!” And Michael Kimmelman, who was sitting in front of me, turns back toward me and says: “Will you shut up? I’m trying to watch your movie!” But I couldn’t get over it.
We’re all a little vain right? And when I saw certain shots of myself, I thought, “You look like a fat, old man. That’s awful.” Now, I don’t care. I don’t see that anymore. I just see the movie as a whole. He created a masterpiece and it with a profound message.
MM: You’re such a gentle presence in the film. The closest you come to being snarky is your comment about pianist Glenn Gould. You made fun of how there wasn’t a stool low enough for him so he could make his dramatic hand gestures while playing.
SB: I have no apologies. I couldn’t bear him.
MM: When I first saw the film, I thought it should be on a double bill with Whiplash.
EH: It would be great, wouldn’t it? [laughs]
SB: I saw Whiplash last night.
EH: We should do a remake with Seymour as J.K. Simmons’ character.
SB: I thought it was one of the worst movies I’ve ever seen.
MM: Because of how mean the teacher was to his student?
SB: That was unreal. The sadism went to a point where it no longer had any meaning. There could have been a way to do it where it would be believable, but that wasn’t believable at all. I thought it was an awful movie because of that.
Anyways, that’s the opposite of teaching. Those kinds of teachers are detractors. They bring out the worst in us. Someone was saying to me that there’s something that can be said about an irate teacher demanding the best out of you and that you’re forced to do your best under the stress of a sadistic teacher, i.e. that it often produces the best results. But I don’t think that’s correct at all.
EH: I don’t think it’s correct either.
SB: It’ll make the playing better, more disciplined, but not human. It won’t be human. It will just be correct. And then the toll on the emotional world of that pupil? He or she will pay a heavy price for that sadism. So, I don’t believe in that. I don’t believe any good can come of it.
EH: When I saw Whiplash, I thought this movie is the photonegative of that one. Everything that [Damien Chazelle] is trying to achieve through force and hyperbole and creating drama? Seymour is the antidote. MM
Seymour: An Introduction opens in Los Angeles on Friday, March 20, 2015.