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People secretly want to talk about God, says Wildcat director

Dinner scene in movie Wildcat

Courtesy of Oscilloscope Laboratories

John Burger - published on 05/03/24

Hawke notes that Flannery O’Connor was “a truth seeker, and there are a lot of people from every walk of life who are interested in that, and they can find a friend in her.”

For so long, the unwritten rule for the American Thanksgiving dinner table has been “No religion. No politics.” As Ethan Hawke, director of a new movie about the 20th century American author Flannery O’Connor recognizes, “If you start talking about God, half the people at the table are going to go to the bathroom.” 

If his film has any of the effects he hopes for, some of that might start to change. 

Wildcat, the new O’Connor biopic, opens in theaters this weekend. Hawke, a four-time Academy Awards nominee, and Eric Groth, producer of the film, spoke with journalists about O’Connor’s faith and struggles and what went into the making of Wildcat.

Groth said the team didn’t set out to make a faith-based film, but with O’Connor, a faithful Catholic who is recognized as one of the best writers in the Southern Gothic tradition, it’s impossible to ignore her spiritual seeking and journey toward union with God.

That seeking, said Hawke, who is not Catholic but said spirituality is the most important thing in his life, is something that people will be able to relate to – many more than we realize.

The actor-director known for his roles in Dead Poets Society and Tesla, among others, grew up knowing of O’Connor’s work: His mother, who sold textbooks in Atlanta when he was young, was a fan. Years later, he said, his own daughter, Maya Hawke, who plays Flannery in the film, came to him with questions, having picked up O’Connor’s Prayer Journal on her own at age 17. She asked Hawke and his wife, Ryan Shawhughes, if they could make a movie about her. 

O’Connor’s novels and short stories, which often deal with messy subjects in life and wayward persons, “provoked real family discussion in a way that I wasn’t able to do on my own,” Hawke said on a Zoom call with people working in Catholic media April 30. 

In time, Hawke and Groth found a mutual interest in the project. For Groth, a Catholic film producer, it was like coming full circle in his own artistic pursuits.

“We started ODB Films in 2005 as a simple, little not-for-profit company to create short films for Catholic teens, because I wanted to stir the pot,” he said. “There weren’t a lot of resources out there that were presenting the beautiful, the good, and the true. For me, in terms of the content, Flannery said she was ‘always trying to get down under things where You are.’ I always had a desire in creating films, in sharing with teens a very good, true message and helping them look in different places and seeing God in different ways in their life.”

Essential conversation

Hawke recognized that O’Connor was “a truth seeker, and there are a lot of people from every walk of life who are interested in that, and they can find a friend in her.”

He noted that books by Catholics like Thomas Merton and Walker Percy still sell well, decades after their deaths. “They’re printed over and over again, and I know other people are secretly reading them,” he quipped.

Speaking of the spiritual struggles that drove Flannery O’Connor’s life and informed her writing, Hawke said, “I believe there are so many people who are interested in this conversation; they’re just scared of it.”

The reason people excuse themselves from the Thanksgiving dinner table if talk about God comes up, he maintained, is that “it’s a conversation that scares people.”

But, he added, “it’s a conversation that’s absolutely essential to our collective wellness.”

Hawke and Groth acknowledged that it’s a struggle to get such conversations to the silver screen. But Groth has concluded that success will come when they find ways to “tell good stories about the things we have in common, the things that are placed in front of us, so that when we do have the dinner conversation at Thanksgiving, people will want to stay and have it.”

“We’ve made a lot of films over the years that make Christians happy,” he said. “But can we create something that brings us into honest conversation and dialogue with the massive amount and variety of people around us in our circles that leads us to be able to respect one another and love one another and care for one another and draw strength from each other? That’s what was tremendously exciting about Flannery as a film because I knew she’ll stir the pot; she’ll say things in ways that are not comfortable.”

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