Tokyo Film Fest: 'Born to Be Blue' Director on Jazz, Race, Ethan Hawke as Chet Baker (Q&A)

Born to Be Blue - H 2015
Entertainment One

Robert Budreau has brought his biopic, which bowed in Toronto, to Japan.

Having bowed at the Toronto film festival, Canadian director Robert Budreau has now brought his Chet Baker biopic Born to Be Blue to the Tokyo International Film Festival.

With a distinct jazz sensibility, Born to Be Blue riffs on the life of the legendary Baker rather than slavishly recounting every major event. Boosted by Ethan Hawke's distinct resemblance to the troubled trumpeter and the actor's passion for jazz and Baker himself, the film focuses on a relatively short time frame.

Supported by Carmen Ejogo (Selma) playing a composite of the women in Baker's life, Hawke presents a vulnerable, tortured musician trying to prove himself.

Budreau sat down with THR in Tokyo to talk about jazz, race and the deliberate mistakes in the prerecorded versions of Baker's songs.  

How much did the fact that this was a jazz film influence your decision not to do a straightforward biopic?

I've got very bored with conventional biopics over the years. It's very easy to fall into cliche with that kind of film and easy to end up not saying anything because you're trying to cover everything in a person's life from birth to death. Dislike for that structure and the fact that jazz is improvisational meant I really wanted to stay away from it and capture the spirit of the music in the tone of the film.

Can you talk about the process of how you decided what to include and what to leave out from Chet Baker's life?

When I first started conceiving the script, I really liked this period where he lost his teeth and thought that would make for a very sympathetic comeback story, almost like a sports movie with an injured athlete coming back.

I also wanted to keep the timeline as narrow as possible. I was also attracted by this idea of him being approached to play himself in a film. In real life that never happened, but I like pretending that it did. And I like the "film-within-a-film" device to differentiate it from regular biopics. I also love that period of '50s and '60s America and the music, so it appealed to me to set a story in that world.

There's no shortage of jazz musicians with screwed-up lives. What made you choose Chet Baker?

He's not necessarily my favorite jazz musician, but to me his was the most interesting story to tell. I also like some of the race dynamics in the story: a beautiful white musician who's trying to seek the respect of his black idols, a kind of reverse race element in 1950s America. If you look at somebody like Bird, Miles Davis or Dizzy Gillespie in the '40s or '50s, they would have faced the typical challenges that African-Americans faced at that time. Whereas Chet was a good-looking white guy and not that he was hampered by that, but it was an element that was used against him in some ways.

In your film he's seems obsessed with Miles Davis. Is that accurate?

It is accurate. He always talked about Miles in interviews, about how he was his idol and he wanted to get his respect. One of the key points in the movie is a concert when he plays Birdland for the first time in the 1950s. He was kind of going into Miles' and Dizzy's territory, and even though he was number one in the polls [of popular jazz musicians], deep down he wasn't as good as them. It was a kind of obsession that was probably linked to the respect he craved from his father. Even though we didn't focus much on it in the film, it's important to note that although he sought the respect of the East Coast black jazz musicians, he did have the respect of Charlie Parker, who took him in and treated him almost like a son.

Ethan Hawke definitely has a resemblance to Baker, is a fan of his and seems to take on projects for reasons other than a paycheck. How fortuitous was it to get him on board?  

He definitely does resemble Chet in his forties. Ethan was always my number one choice, though it took a while to get him, for various reasons. I knew he had tried to do a Chet Baker film 15 years ago with Richard Linklater. We didn't know if that meant he would be against the film or more interested. Thankfully, he still wanted to make a film about Chet, and the fact that this was about him in his forties was important, as the script they had worked on was about 24 hours in Baker's life when he was in his twenties. Ethan couldn't play him in his twenties now.

Were you concerned about him having preconceptions having already developed a script about the same character?

With another actor, that could have been a problem. But Ethan's very collaborative, partly because of the way he's worked with Richard Linklater over the years. And also because of his experience in the theater; he's very good at suggesting ideas but in a very permissive way. He would often suggest things, but start off by saying "this is a bad idea," but actually half the time they were really good ideas.

Did the fact that Baker didn't have the greatest voice make it easier for Ethan to sing his songs?

He had an untrained voice and because of that a very unusual way of breathing, it was actually a real challenge for Ethan. Chet often sounded so soft, but you still have to project. And we didn't want him to just mimic Chet's masters. We prerecorded all the music with David Braid, and reinterpreting the songs was the first step of that. Because Chet was coming back from losing his teeth, there are deliberate mistakes in the songs. We had to design the jazz around the narrative.

There is a story that the live album Baker recorded in Japan is considered one of his best because he had a methadone [heroin substitute] prescription on the tour that kept him very stable. Do you know if that story is true?

It is true. Because Japan has such a hard line on heroin, it was one of the few places that he was clean, so they are among his best performances, at least from his later years. There is a certain clarity and focus that's not always seen in his other performances. And the audiences are so receptive here. Chet really appreciated audiences, and that's why he went to Europe, which took in a lot of expat American jazz musicians. And in Japan that appreciation is on another level again. It's one of the reasons we like being here.  

Twitter: @GavinJBlair