‘The Last Movie Stars’: Ethan Hawke on Building an Honest Picture of Paul Newman & Joanne Woodward
The Last Movie Stars takes a deep dive into the history of Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward‘s life together with the help of another Hollywood giant — Ethan Hawke — who directs the six-part docuseries from CNN Films for HBO Max.
It was a massive undertaking as Hawke sifted through boxes and boxes of transcripts that were recorded from tapes that Newman had made years that got damaged by fire. With the words of Newman, Woodward, and their famous friends and family written down, Hawke went to task by getting his own famous friends to lend their vocals for new recordings of the candid conversations captured through history.
“It was really overwhelming,” Hawke admits of the directing duty he pulled on this project. The actor previously helmed the documentary Seymour: An Introduction, which he says, “Was a blessed experience. It was extremely simple. Its reach was not huge. It was a simple exercise in sharing the wisdom of this teacher and so it was pretty easy to make.”
As for The Last Movie Stars, that was a whole different ball game. “It was so big and the reach is so long that it was very hard to wrangle,” Hawke says honestly. “And when I started, I had no intention of making a six-part documentary.”
There was just too much content to keep the documentary contained to the two-hour window that Hawke had hoped to use as his frame. “I started realizing that what’s so remarkable about these people was not one individual time period or one moment where everything changed. It’s the breadth and scope of their life in its totality that is what’s revelatory about them.”
And so, Hawke pieces together a moving and honest retelling of Newman and Woodward’s story through their eyes and the people that knew them best. “[There] was something kind of Tolstoyesque to me about Paul and Joanne’s life, just the sweeping nature of it,” Hawke remarks. “You can see the history of America inside their movies and their work and their life.”
The more Hawke uncovered from the transcripts, which chronicle the initial attraction between Newman and Woodward and spans to his death and her Alzheimer’s diagnosis, the more the director wanted to include in this docuseries. “I found that it got more interesting, the slower I went,” Hawke says of going through the material handed over to him from the couple’s children. “It just got more interesting. When you skipped over things, it became kind of generic. So, CNN bought in on the idea that I could spin this yarn for six hours.”
And thank goodness they did. Hawke was also granted permission to share details freely in the docuseries, uncovering some of the vices, trauma, and dark moments Newman and Woodward experienced. When Hawke met their kids, he says, “We agreed that without shadow, there’s no light. If all you do is say nice things about people, you can’t quite see them because it just doesn’t smell real.”
And so, Hawke says he told the couple’s kids, “If you tell me something I’m doing is not true, I’ll cut it out. But if something I’m doing is true and it’s uncomfortable, I just ask you to trust me.” It’s that trust that allows for a deeper and more defined picture of the Hollywood icons.
“The biggest surprise of the whole thing is that the people that they seem to be in the public eye is exactly who they were,” Hawke marvels. “I found that really inspiring, that you can do this, you can live a life and you can live it authentically and you can have love and you can give back to your community and it just gives back to you.”
See all of the ways in which Newman and Woodward gave to each other and their community and what rewards they reaped because of it when The Last Movie Stars streams on HBO Max.
The Last Movie Stars, Docuseries Premiere, Thursday, July 21, HBO Max