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The following questions and answers are excerpted from a conversation that followed the NBR screening of Wildcat.

Can you start by telling us about your exposure to Flannery O’Connor throughout your life?
Ethan Hawke: I was first given Flannery O’Connor by my mother, who was trying to prompt the inner feminist in me. Because all I was doing was reading guys. When I was getting ready to film the movie, I had to bring some of the books down with me. The script was already done, but I looked through my bookcase and pulled down a different copy of A Good Man is Hard to Find, which I realized was given to me by Julie Delpy in the summer of ’94 when we were doing Before Sunrise, and I was like, ah! All the feminists in my life have been giving me her for years. But I really didn’t get deeply familiar with her until my daughter Maya did a whole season on Flannery O’Connor in her junior year of high school. She fell in love with Flannery, and she started discovering she wanted to talk to me about it. And so it was through my conversations with Maya that my awareness of her work deepened.

A movie about Flannery O’Connor would have to be a movie about imagination

I imagine exposing yourself to her work in preparation to make a movie is a very different experience, in terms of revealing something else about her as a human being.
The whole thing happened so strangely. Maya had discovered a book that was published not too long ago by Flannery called A Prayer Journal, which was a journal of her letters to God as a young woman, as she was kind of seeking to discover herself. And when Maya was auditioning for theater school, she adapted some of these journals into a monologue as an audition piece. That was really fun and cool, and when Stranger Things kind of blew up, Maya was still thinking about this character that she had played and wanted to explore it more. She thought about getting the rights to the work and she approached my wife—who’s my producing partner—and I and asked if we would produce and direct a movie about it. And your first thought, when a young person that you respect says something like that to you, you say yes. But as I thought about the little I knew about Flannery, I wondered what movie could possibly be there? All I knew was that she was sick and she fed chickens and she wrote. There’s not much of a life there to dramatize. Then I started rereading all her work and realized that her imagination and her faith are both so incredibly powerful and the intersection of the two was so interesting that we could make a movie about that. A movie about Flannery O’Connor would have to be a movie about imagination.

Talk me through your process of identifying which stories you’re going to use. I know “Parker’s Back,” right? The energy of that story is so incredible.
Yeah, most of us aren’t familiar with all of them, but I went through the canon and I was really looking for several things. It’s kind of like a peacock fan. Each feather is individual, but seen collectively it becomes something else, and I thought that each one of these stories could represent an aspect of her and I thought about which part of her is in these stories. I read them all looking to see which ones would tell me something about Flannery O’Connor. And they also had to reveal something so that it would make sense to have Maya and Laura [Linney] play aspects of their characters. Maya was 24 when we were making this, and Flannery was diagnosed with lupus at 24, so that seemed obvious, right? Let’s focus on this death sentence that she got. We’ll build a movie around those couple months, and we’ll kind of explore her imagination in that time period. I was looking for things that she would be thinking about when she realizes she’s trapped back in Milledgeville. Oh, a doctor’s office, wanting to strangle her mother… alright, let’s put that there. We kind of built it that way.

The trailer you use to open the film is a beautifully constructed way to introduce us to Flannery. The humanity of her, the humor, and the gothic.
Thanks. I did a Brecht play years ago, and Brecht had this idea that audiences struggle with, but it’s kind of profound, which is trying to make the experience of being in the theater not like falling asleep. Like, you can go to sleep and we’re going to entertain you and tell you exactly how to feel. But he really wanted to invite the audience into the experience and remind you that you’re watching a play all the time. It’s arresting and confusing. The one adaptation that was made of Flannery’s work in her lifetime was The Life You Save May Be Your Own with Gene Kelly. When asked about it she said, “Well, it’s possible to imagine that it could have been worse.” And that really stuck with me, that quote, because I realized she would hate a movie being made about all this. It was important to, right off the bat, remind the audience that we’re making a movie. This is not Wikipedia, this is not a documentary. This is a work of art. We wanted to do two things simultaneously—to set up the fraudulence of film, and to set up that Maya and Laura are going to be double cast. We wanted to get that going in the audience’s mind early, so that it wouldn’t be confusing later. And, that there’s something punk about Flannery’s work. There’s something irreverent and witty and weird and unsettling. And I thought we had to try to cinematically match that.

Can you discuss your process of working with your co-writer Shelby Gaines? How did you discover the character of Flannery together?
Flannery was a complicated woman from the Jim Crow South. There was so much complexity to being an American artist of that time and that era. And she felt that she was sentenced to death at 24. She died at 39, but she didn’t live a year of her life certain that she would see the next year—she was faced with mortality at a young age, and she felt trapped in Milledgeville, Georgia. Shelby and I were writing this movie for Maya. If Maya had been 38 when she wanted to do this, maybe we would have written a deathbed movie. I mean, that was an obvious end to the story. But Maya was 24, and Flannery was diagnosed with lupus at 24, so we decided to center it there. She hadn’t really been published besides one story in Partisan Review before the end of the movie. So, we basically felt like this whole movie was leading to a final moment. Shelby had this insight, knowing that she really didn’t want to be in Georgia. She put her typewriter against her dresser, and she turned her typewriter away from the window, and Shelby was hypnotized by this. She had a line above her typewriter, “The kingdom of God is in the midst of you.” Which we kind of took to mean, wow, that she didn’t have to go anywhere. We’d let the movie build to her realization that she could bring the world to her, that everything was inside of her. The movie is really about her acceptance of her diminishments. That she was going to lose her health. She wasn’t going to be a social person. And that that was going to be okay. And that seemed like a profound realization for the whole movie to build to. And we kind of used her life’s work to imagine first drafts of the stories, when she had the idea for those stories.