Why Flannery? The Thought And Work Behind “Wildcat”
By Amanda Hudson, News Editor
May 9, 2024
Actor Ethan Hawke and producer Eric Groth met virtually with members of the Catholic press to talk about their new film, “Wildcat,” and how they came to make a movie about the late Catholic author, Mary Flannery O’Connor.
 
Hawke wrote and directed the film and credits both his mother and his daughter as instrumental in the film’s making.
 
His mother was a huge fan of O’Connor’s work, and his daughter, Maya, came to him at age 17 asking some of the same questions asked by O’Connor in her works — things like, “If you are ambitious, what are you ambitious for?” Hawke says.
 
“Maya came to my wife and (me) and asked us to make a movie about (O’Connor), Hawke says, adding it was for him “like a dream come true. As I started working on it, it felt like years of thought went into the making of this film.” 
 
Maya, now 25, was cast as the main character, and Laura Linney, Liam Neeson and Steve Zahn are among the cast.
 
Groth is an executive producer for the film. A resident and parishioner in St. Charles, he started his company, Outside Da Box, in 2005 to create short films for Catholic teens in order to “stir the pot,” he says. His interest was to help teens see God in what he hoped was a “fresh and new look” that pondered faith and God and what it means.
 
He says the Wildcat project was “very attractive to me. It’s rooted in ‘What are we passionate about?’” He adds that he very much believed in the film, which highlights the often controversial and misunderstood young Southern Gothic author.
 
Hawke quotes O’Connor as dismissing her life as “All I ever did was write and feed the chickens.” He focused the film on the year 1950 when she discovered at age 24 that she had lupus, which had killed her father years before. Her physical decline forced her to move home with her widowed mother on their Georgia farm.
 
“If there was drama, it was (that) diagnosis,” Hawke says. “Mortality was in the forefront of her mind … I think it elevated the way she thought.
 
“One of the challenges is that the inner life is ripe for literature, but to express it in cinematic terms is difficult. From the time we started, we knew the movie had to be shot simply and (be) adventuresome … (we) had a lot of discerning.” They used O’Connor’s prayer journal to get insights into her mind, he adds.
 
The film is deliberately not a linear story but instead attempts to capture O’Connor’s approach to life and faith, showing her struggles: with loneliness and her social awkwardness, with the hypocrisy she saw in people around her, with being so often misunderstood and with rejection of her writing by many, although she was also finding success and high praise. 
 
To do this, the film intermingles O’Connor’s life with some of her short stories. Some of those feature Maya and Linney, illustrating O’Connor’s attachment to her characters: at one point she noted that she never felt more like herself than when she was writing. She saw part of herself in some of her characters and said the story “Good Country People” was her most autobiographical work, Hawke says.
 
“It’s not her, but it’s an aspect of her,” he says. “She can see herself with the same eye (as she sees) others. That (and stories that illustrated the mother/daughter relationship) was the kind of ‘math’ I was using to pick which stories” to use.
 
Near the end of the film, O’Connor is shown turning her desk away from the room’s window after her mother suggests that the view must have been calming to her. That moment, Hawke says, “seemed to me (an) indicator of a level of acceptance. (She was essentially) trapped in this home … once she accepted that, she was okay. She could bring the world to her (and) didn’t even need to look out. … Diminishments are a great developer of gratitude. You realize how much you have to be grateful for.”
 
Her acceptance and the idea that the “Kingdom of God (is) in the midst of you” were Hawke’s “two North Stars” as he wrote the screenplay and tried to share some of O’Connor’s inner life.
 
“I think also, one of the things I love is the reflection of grace,” Groth says of the film. “Flannery opened up for me where grace is going to come from … not always comfortably delivered … Change is painful; we resist it. As Liam’s character says, grace cuts like a sword before it heals … I think she thought for a long time that a stay at home is a death sentence, then found it (to be) a grace.”
 
In response to the question, “Do you think her work is well known enough to draw an audience?” Hawke responds, “The answer is ‘no.’ … We think her work is interesting (and thought) maybe this film needs to be made.”
 
“We made it for particular audiences,” Groth says. “The literary audience who has a deep appreciation (for her work), especially Catholics who have read Flannery … a whole spectrum. I love that Maya is just a powerhouse (actress) and has a tremendous following.”
 
“I believe in my whole heart there are so many people interested in this conversation (about God), but it scares people, and conversation is absolutely essential to our collective wellness,” Hawke says. “I found a friend in Eric and was able to make this movie … (but) it’s not one that prints money.”
 
“We set out to tell a great story in an accessible way about a great figure … who had a lot to say,” Groth says. “We can tell about the good and beautiful and true, because that’s what she was …
“That’s what was exciting about Flannery — she’ll stir the pot … (It is) all for the hope that great conversations will happen.”
 

 

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