For the second year in a row, we say hello to Logan Marshall-Green at SXSW Film Festival. Just 12 months earlier we spoke with him about festival darling Upgrade, the sci-fi exploitation thriller in which he’s cast as the salt-of-the-earth lead, but this time, absent a co-star and director by his side, the spotlight is a wee bit brighter. Marshall-Green is back in Austin to promote his directorial and screenwriting debut, Adopt A Highway, which happens to star a staple of the Austin filmmaking scene and four-time Oscar nominee, Ethan Hawke.
Lights, camera, and microphone are ready for our interview when a knock on the door yields an unexpected visitor. It’s Hawke himself who unexpectedly pops his head in. Marshall-Green bounces from his seat, grin in tow, to embrace his lead actor. After an air-tight man hug, Hawke recounts a lightning round of poster-worthy reactions from the premiere screening before he’s promptly whisked away by his handlers.
Marshall-Green expresses his affinity for Hawke through both show and tell. Though Adopt A Highway was born out of Marshall-Green’s own emotional journey through his early days of fatherhood, he wrote the role of an ex-con who re-enters society after a 20-year prison sentence with Hawke in mind. Marshall-Green was thrilled Hawke was able to take on the project: “I couldn’t have asked for a better number one and a better artist.”
In Adopt A Highway, Russell Millings (Hawke) discovers purpose in a world he no longer understands when he finds and begins caring for a baby left in a dumpster. In our interview, Marshall-Green talks about writing a hopeful redemption story, highlighting little discussed issues in our penal system, working with Blumhouse as a first-time director, and why he thinks Hawke is not just having a moment, but should be recognized as a “national treasure.”
So this is your directorial and screenwriting debut. What was the genesis of Adopt A Highway?
I guess Adopt-A-Highway started with my daughter, my first born, and the feeling of being lost as a father, and just kind of the chaos and you’re trying to figure out where you put that handbook. You realize you don’t have a handbook and it was just that, it’s a very specific to the father feeling of a lack of instincts when it comes to a child, and really you realize your only job is to keep it alive. You can’t imbue it with yourself, you don’t have the maternal connection, but you do have a job, and that’s to keep it alive, and even that was somewhat daunting to me. So it started with my daughter and just those two feelings of pure love and pure fear together.
Why did this film feel like the right vehicle to channel those raw emotions of early fatherhood?
I wanted to deal in themes like purpose, redemption, and hope. I was looking for some archetype who had lost everything and then found the most pure form, which is a baby, so I started with an ex-con. I have a lot of love for flawed individuals, and misunderstood and damaged individuals, as typically they’re men I play as an actor. I have a lot of interest in this broken system, our penal system, our countries penal system, but specifically California’s, which is the worst in the world. In the end, it’s a slice of story. It’s a slice of life about one man but there are many other stories out there.
Was there a real life story that sparked the idea or did it just come about through your research of the penal system?
I used a lot of my own life. I used a lot of my father’s relationship with myself. My father is a stamp collector. There was a jumping off point. There was an article I read, a really beautiful article written by an ex-con who starts in his cell, and he writes about the process of being ejected, of re-entry. That’s really what I wrote, so it starts in the cell. The original idea for the opener was it was going to be a one-er. So it was one big 15-minute prologue of this man starting in a cell, and you walk him through the jail into the administration wing, and all of that is real-life. That’s what happens. It’s not like the movies. It’s much more benign. It’s much more confusing. These men and women are just ejected without a handbook. So I started there, too. That was really interesting to me, the administrative steps that we don’t see, and all that information that is not given to the men and women before they are kicked back out into society with a huge scarlet letter on them still.
What was the pitch process for this film like?
I knew as an exercise that I wanted to write a film that didn’t challenge us using the tropes that we see often in movies, which is sex and death, or violence, or drugs. I didn’t want to write a gun, sex, drugs, rock and roll. I only wanted to see how deep can I find the stakes in a man who’s not competing for a scene. He’s is a bit touched so there’s a Lenny Small’s type of element to him, which was written, and there’s a beta to him. I wanted to see: Can I write a script that doesn’t compete using those tropes – that exists out of pure hope, and redemption, and love?
By the way, that’s a really scary thing for me because I don’t like using my heart. I’m not a Romeo. I’m a Iago. I don’t lean on those. I lean on a lot of things we all love. I love Quentin Tarantino. I love sci-fi. I love horror. So I needed to challenge myself to write something original that wasn’t using any of those as a crutch.
Ethan Hawke is having a moment right now. How do you view his maturity as an actor, and why was he the right fit for this role?
Ethan was my dream. I wrote the role with him in mind because I’ve been watching Ethan for a long time, especially his theatre. When I came out of school I wanted to be in his theatre, Malaparte. I wanted to be in his crew. I’ve loved everything Ethan’s done, but Ethan had a beta quality to him early on in his career that I found so interesting because he’s so able to defer status, depending on the role. So he’s an alpha in some roles and then he hides in other roles. I just wanted to see: Could I get someone like Ethan to achieve and to find that beta again? It goes without saying, I don’t need to tell you who Ethan Hawke is or what he’s done. I don’t think Ethan’s having a moment. Ethan’s been here this whole time. Ethan’s a national treasure. Ethan is one of the greatest actors of his generation and he will continue to be here. So while he is having a bit of a moment right now, I think it’s actually more we are finally catching on.
And we’re recognizing it. I heard somebody say Ethan is the most underrated actor of his generation. I just disagree with that. Ethan is doing what he wants to do. He’s a writer, he’s a novelist, he’s a theatre director, he is a theatre actor, and that doesn’t necessarily fall in line with how we view achievements in acting. But Ethan has been doing this from day one, so it was no surprise to me. The biggest surprise to me was to me was that he was able to take all those hats off and put on an actors hat and say every day, in the morning, “How do we achieve your vision?” And I couldn’t have asked for a better number one and a better artist.
Something we’ve picked up on from talking to people who work with Blumhouse is that they seem afford filmmakers a lot of freedom, even with lower budget projects. Is that the case and was that liberating for you as a first time director to work within their system?
It’s true. Blumhouse gives you full control. They have a certain model, a finance point model, but you have full control. No one ever looked over my shoulder. No one ever second guessed me. Obviously it’s all collaboration in the end, and they’re all smart so you want everyone’s opinions, but the fact of the matter is, they wanted to make the same film I did. When you bring a film like this to Blumhouse you assume they might have some notes but actually what I heard was, “This is our Tender Mercies.” That is the movie that I wanted to make, was literally Tender Mercies, which is one of my favorite movies. So when I heard [Upgrade producer] Couper Samuelson and Jason [Blum] say, “This is our Tender Mercies,” I needed to look no further. They wanted to make the same film and the rest is history.
Chris Longo is the deputy editor and print editor of Den of Geek. You can find him on Twitter @east_coastbias. Images courtesy of Blumhouse and Getty.