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Telluride: How stage fright inspired Ethan Hawke's documentary, 'Seymour: An Introduction'

Pianist Seymour Bernstein in the subject of Ethan Hawke's first documentary,
Pianist Seymour Bernstein in the subject of Ethan Hawke's first documentary, "Seymour: An Introduction."
Sundance Selects
Pianist Seymour Bernstein in the subject of Ethan Hawke's first documentary,
Pianist Seymour Bernstein (L) is the subject of Ethan Hawke's first documentary, "Seymour: An Introduction."
Kevin Van Rensselaer
Pianist Seymour Bernstein in the subject of Ethan Hawke's first documentary,
Image from Ethan Hawke's documentary "Seymour: An Introduction," about pianist Seymour Bernstein.
Sundance Selects

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Actor Ethan Hawke is still riding high from the critical and popular success of "Boyhood," the indie epic directed by Richard Linklater that's currently in theaters.

But at the Telluride Film Festival over Labor Day weekend, Hawke took the stage in support of a very different film: his documentary directorial debut, the thoughtful "Seymour: An Introduction." 

The film focuses on the veteran piano teacher Seymour Bernstein, who was already teaching others by age 15. The musical prodigy parlayed his career as a performer and his experience performing for military personnel during the Korean War into a life dedicated to teaching others to love music.

In the doc, Hawke explains how he met Bernstein by chance at a dinner party in Manhattan and found his insights into creative pitfalls such as stage fright to be enlightening. Hawke decided to try his hand at documentary filmmaking as a way to spend more time with Bernstein, who he'd grown to idolize. 

"My first thought was somebody should do this," Hawke told The Frame. "When you spend a couple weeks [asking], Who? Who?! You start going, Well, maybe I should...I also have come to the point in my life where I've realized that our life is who we spend time with."

The Frame team met up with Hawke and Bernstein at the Telluride Opera House to talk about how Hawke's own stage fright was a major motivator in his decision to direct the documentary.

Interview Highlights

Hawke on tackling stage fright and fear:

"I talked to [Seymour] about being nervous, and how it felt like a terrible secret to me. It felt like somebody who knows what they're doing wouldn't be as nervous as I am. He said this thing that I know he says to a lot of students, he said that you have a right to be nervous. That this is important.

"I [once] did a play with Tom Stoppard [and] told him what a wreck I was. I confessed to him, 'Look, if I blow this tonight, just know it's not because I want to. I'm just incredibly nervous.' He said, 'Of course you're nervous, this is important' ... And he said, 'Look, I know this might make you more nervous, but I'm here to tell you I've lived 72 years and it is important. Tonight is important.' It was very similar to what Seymour had said to me, acknowledging that it's OK to be nervous."

Bernstein on his first conversation with Hawke:

"Let me put it this way, it was electricity that coursed through the both of us. I don't know who started the conversation, but in no time at all it centered on stage fright. I boldly asked Ethan — of course I'm older than he is, so I think that added to my boldness — 'What form does your stage fright take?' And he said, 'I have the feeling I'm going to stop talking.' Which means a memory slip.

"I told him this story about a famous violinist, Michael Rabin. He was one of America's most brilliant violinists. Unfortunately, he died in his 30s, but at the height of his career his accompanist, Mitchell Andrews, whom I knew, told me that Michael Rabin had a phobia that he was going to drop his bow, and it started to affect his concerts. So one night he arranged with his accompanist that at a certain measure he was going to let go of his bow. And he did.

"The audience stopped breathing. Michael picked up his bow and he said to himself, What do you know? I'm still alive! And he played the piece from the beginning, got over his phobia."

Bernstein on why the documentary isn't just about the art of music:

"I mentioned the book 'Zen And The Art of Archery,' which is about archery, but not really. It's about all art. There are a lot of conclusions one can draw from one art form to another. What became very obvious to Ethan during our conversation is that what we were talking about had not to do with acting or playing the piano, but with our lives itself (sic). That was the important thing.

"If it only gets confined to your art form, it's very minimized, you see. But when you can direct the disciplines to your art form, to your everyday life, that's when it really has an import. This is what Ethan set about doing when he made the documentary. He said very clearly to me, 'My intention is especially to telegraph to young people how a passionate involvement in an art form can not only influence the art form, but more importantly influence your life.'"

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