It’s not about a pianist. It’s not even about music. It’s about life.
In his documentary debut, Seymour: An Introduction, Ethan Hawke sets his sights on a supremely talented but forgotten pianist Seymour Bernstein, now an octogenarian music instructor who has occupied the same studio apartment in Manhattan’s Upper West Side for almost sixty years. Once considered among the next generation of great concert pianists alongside contemporaries such as Glenn Gould, Bernstein enjoyed a great deal of acclaim for his performances at Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall, just weeks after it opened in the late sixties. But without notice in 1977, due to a combination of crippling stage fright and growing disdain for the commercial—“disturbing”—side of the music industry, Bernstein walked away from his performing career to instead focus on teaching piano to his pupils, sharing his talents in ways he found more private and rewarding. This is where Hawke finds his pianist, and a subject sparked by one chance encounter.
Seymour: An Introduction opens in NYC on March 13 and expands to L.A. on March 20.
[Editor’s Note: The following interview has been condensed for length and clarity.]
Ethan, you were searching for authenticity as you say in the movie.
Ethan Hawke: We’re all searching for authenticity, aren’t we?
I’m a phony and I love it.
Ethan: [Laughs] The wonderful thing about directing is that you don’t have to work for anybody and that’s why people love this job. You’re working on a subject matter that you really want to work on. Seymour has a wonderful quality and that’s bringing out the best in people, making you contemplate the best aspects of yourself and question why that’s not more readily available. My life as an actor tends to mean that I travel a lot and, with four kids, my life is always busy. It’s difficult to carve out the time to work on something like this, you know? It’s very rare as an adult that you make any new friends. Seymour and I’m becoming friends through the whole course of making it and it’s really fun, even when it’s all over. That’s what it’s been like for me.
Seymour Berstein: It’s as though music is presented in the documentary as an ideal to emulate. In it’s beautiful form, music is a human expression written down by the greatest minds that ever lived like Shakespeare’s plays are to literature. As Ethan said, music becomes a metaphor for life itself and the idea occurs to a person while they’re working on their 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. It has to be a part of everything you do.
Ethan, did you learn to play an instrument for the Chet Baker role in Born to be Blue?
Ethan: I’ve played instruments my whole life. I just haven’t played it at a high level. And I mostly played the guitar my whole life.
Seymour: I went to see him in Macbeth and he was sitting with his guitar. It was so wonderful. I didn’t even know that he did that.
Ethan: It’s something that started on Dead Poets Society. I did one of my first movies with Jack Lemmon and he would have a piano brought to set. The great Jack Lemmon.
Ethan: When they were lighting and stuff, instead of going to his trailer or talking on his phone, he would sit in costume and play different pieces on the piano. He felt it helped him stay in a creative state of mind. It kept his mind focused and he had a very musical nature. If you think about his acting, it was very playful and always very musical. I think it also calmed his nerves. I know that playing the guitar does that for me.
Seymour: Well, music is a profession. It’s therapy. Music therapy is a profession.
Ethan: That’s right. So is acting. They use acting therapy in jails.
Seymour: Even dance. They use dance therapy.
Seymour, what did you learn about yourself from making this movie?
Seymour: Well, I’m twice Ethan’s age, so I’d already learned a lot about myself before I made the movie. [Laughs] First of all, in almost every Q&A, Ethan said this same thing about me: “Seymour speaks in old sentences with colons and everything.” I never knew that I spoke in old sentences. I discovered that because he observed it. I say to myself, “Isn’t it great for you to speak like that in old sentences?” I’m becoming further aware of the contribution that I make to my pupils. Through the documentary, I realize that I’m making a contribution to a much larger part of society than I could even imagine because people come up to me and say, “I don’t know anything about music, but everything you say pertains to what I do.” So through Ethan’s genius, I guess we’ve created a masterpiece. It’s not about a pianist. It’s not even about music. It’s about life. It’s about the disciplines for having a passion for something and realizing that, when you take this passion far enough, like in journalism, you’re developing your emotional and intellectual worlds. If you play an instrument or act, you’re developing a physical world. It constitutes everything that is about you. Now, if you leave your art form and then go into your social world, it’s utter chaos. Your social world won’t be harmonized in the way your art form is. The message of the documentary is to direct the synthesis you developed in your art form or whatever it is and direct it into your life. Ethan, in searching for his identity, is no longer an actor, a husband or a father—he is all the same. He’s not divided. This is what one’s art form teaches them.
Like you’re saying, your pupils aren’t limited to piano students, actors or filmmakers. How does that make you feel?
Seymour: That’s what I’m discovering through the documentary, exactly what you said. I never realized the extent to which that goes and I’m so happy that’s happening. It makes me feel wonderful about myself. We can never feel good enough about ourselves, right? We’re always filled with self-criticism. But when you do something well, that’s the more important thing to concentrate on. And you shouldn’t say, “I’m having a good moment” or “I’m having a good day.” The important thing is to ask, “What is going on that enables me to write so well today?” Something is going on and you have to figure out what that is because, otherwise, you can’t reproduce it ever again. When I play a good phrase, I take stock very carefully of what is going on that makes that phrase work that way because that’s exactly the opposite of when a phrase isn’t going well. When it’s good, I must find out why it’s good. I can’t leave it to chance.
Ethan: It seems true and it applies to all aspects of your life. When your relationship is going well with your parents, why is it going well with your parents?
Seymour: There you go.
Ethan: You think, “Why did we have such a good time that night?”
Seymour: You’re onto it.
Ethan: “Why did that film work?” Well, it worked because this is why we did it. It’s so obvious in music when it sounds good—it’s in harmony and in rhythm—and that’s what I love about music. Acting is a bit more subtle and amorphous to me. One of the things I love in the documentary is when you’re teaching the young woman at the NYU Master Class and you won’t let her get through the first measure. The funny thing is, by the time you were done with her, I knew she was playing better. I’m a novice piano player myself, but I could hear that she was better in a matter of minutes. That was really powerful.
Seymour: What do you think that did to me?
Ethan: “Life is worth living.”
Seymour: Woah. And multiply that by all day when I’m teaching pupils and help them to feel good about themselves. It’s so rewarding because it comes back to you. When you contribute, it comes back to you and the movie itself is a symbol of that.
How did you come to discover one another in the first place?
Ethan: It was kind of a slow process. When I met Seymour it was at this dinner party. We were really getting along and I wanted to hear him play, so he invited me to his house.
Seymour: A year later.
Ethan: Well, you invited me right away. It just took me a year to be in town.
Seymour: Andrew Harvey was his spiritual leader and he was also at the dinner.
Ethan: Andrew, my daughter and I went to hear Seymour play and we left going, “Somebody has to make a documentary about this guy.” Andrew said to me, “You know, there’s only one person in the film community in this room.” So I went home to my wife, thinking, “It’s somebody’s responsibility to make this documentary.” She said, “You’re going to spend forever trying to talk somebody else into doing it. You do it. You have a passion for it.” And we slowly started doing it. The reason so much time went by was because I was scared to death it was going to be a money pit or what if I got Seymour all excited about it and didn’t finish it?
Seymour: Well, I thought several times when you interrupted shooting for months on end that it was going to peter out: “He’s not going to finish this documentary.” But he was making movies, so I just had to wait until he was free. He would call me up and continue. He kept telling me from the beginning, “Now don’t be discouraged because there’s no time limit. We’re not pressed for time.” So two and a half years later is when the last shoot took place. I was never even invited to see the edits. One day, he calls me up and invites me down to a little screening place. He said, “You better just bring your friends because when you see yourself for the first time you’re just going to hate it.” 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, “Ethan, my god! That’s amazing!” Michael Kimmelman is sitting in front of me and he turns around and says, “Will you shut up? I’m listening to your movie!” [Laughs] I just couldn’t get over it. The first time I saw it—we’re all vain, right?—I saw certain shots of myself and said, “Oh my god, you look like a fat old man. That’s awful. You don’t look very well at all.” But I don’t see that anymore. I just see the movie and it has a profound message. And the end of it always cracks me up, when I’m holding the last chord of [Robert] Schumann’s Fantasie and recite the front piece of my book: “I never dreamt that with my own two hands I could touch the sky.” I still don’t believe it. How did Ethan read all of my books and find those shots of these pianists playing, including Clifford Curzon and Glenn Gould. Where he ever found that, I don’t know. I studied with Clifford Curzon. I never saw that movie.
Ethan: Isn’t that a great piece?
The Glenn Gould bit was hilarious. I didn’t know he played so close to the ground.
Seymour: They put his piano on cinder blocks because no chair could get low enough.
That was the closest you came to being a little snarky, I thought, because you have such a gentle presence.
Seymour: Well, I have no apologies. I can’t bear him. [Laughs]
Seymour, did you get around to watching Whiplash?
Seymour: I saw Whiplash last night. I thought it was one of the worst movies I’ve ever seen.
Because of J.K. Simmon’s character?
Seymour: Apart from that because that was actually unreal.
Ethan: So unreal.
Seymour: The sadism went to a point where it no longer had any meaning. There could’ve been a way to do it where it could be believable, but that wasn’t believable at all. I thought it was an awful movie because of that. What they show is the opposite of teaching, right? Those kinds of teachers are detractors. They just bring out the worst in us. Someone was saying earlier, “There’s something to be said about an irate teacher demanding the best out of you and you’re forced to do your best under the stress of this sadistic teacher, which often produces the best playing.” Somebody was talking about this today. I don’t think that’s correct at all.
Ethan: It’s absolutely not correct at all.
Seymour: It will make the playing better and more disciplined, but not human. It won’t be human. It will just be correct. And the toll and the emotional worth of that pupil will pay a heavy price for that sadism. I don’t believe in that. I don’t believe any good can come of it.
Ethan: I know you don’t. When I saw Whiplash, I thought it was the photo negative of our movie. Everything that guy was trying to achieve with force and hyperbole to create drama, Seymour is the antidote to that. Seymour tries to create such a centeredness and peace around his students that their best self is free to be released. That’s why I like working with directors that I like again and again. I’ve done eight movies with Richard Linklater because when I’m in front of his camera, it’s total peace. There’s no agenda with each other. I have that with some other directors, too, where the camera becomes incredibly friendly. It becomes a friend whereas, when there’s an angry and manipulative eye, it becomes an enemy to be dealt with. It’s not that you can’t do good work that way, but you’re right, you do correct work. Correct work isn’t nearly as interesting.