Seymour Bernstein says that among the initial reactions to “Seymour: An Introduction,” the documentary Ethan Hawke made about him, were people running up to him in the street, showering him with cries and hugs. It’s not hard to see why. Though ostensibly about music — Bernstein, in his 80s, was a concert pianist who now teaches — it’s really about life, with him warmly imparting his wisdom and idea of how artistic talents can inform how we live. Hawke met Bernstein by chance at a dinner party, and was so wowed with what he said that he decided he’d be a perfect centerpiece for a film. Bernstein and Hawke spoke to Metro, though one mostly sits back and watches them converse.
It must have been some conversation you two had.
Ethan Hawke: It had a big impact on me. I knew that most people weren’t going to have the chance to have that dinner party. I thought, how wonderful it would be if you could create a scenario where you could really what Seymour’s message was. I didn’t want to make a documentary that was a biopic about somebody. I wanted to capture the feeling of really connecting with someone instantaneously.
Seymour Bernstein: There’s a chemistry that draws us to people.
EH: And if you could document that! I was so moved by what Seymour was talking about. I had never heard about integrating the best aspects of a creative life back into your everyday life. We often talk about using your life to create art, but what about this grace that can be achieved through art and bringing it back to you life, so that the two are woven together. That to me was really exciting. It gave me something to live for. I was nowhere near that.
There’s a lot of talk in the film of the order of music, and how that’s comforting amidst the chaos of life.
EH: I say this in the documentary, but I sometimes envy people with a specific religious calling. If they’re Buddhists, they follow the eight-fold path. If they’re Christian — I envy that order.
SB: But it’s an order that comes from outside them. It doesn’t stem from inside them. Your art starts with you and relating that to your art form. That’s the basic difference.
EH: And I’ve never heard anyone speak this way. And I a) wanted to know more about it and b) thought other people would. They way you speak about the piano is not dissimilar from “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.” The piano becomes a metaphor. It reminded me of working with the great theater directors. When they’re breaking down Ostler’s opening soliloquy in “Henry IV,” they’re really talking to you about how you should live your life. The difference between reciting lines and really playing the play has to do with the big life things. I realized if you can do it on stage, you can do it in life.
It’s not dissimilar from people who do one thing for their jobs — say, making sushi — and just perfect that over their life to the point where only they can do it.
SB: You can turn making sushi into an art form. As I said in the documentary, I believe our true identity resides in whatever talent you have. If your talent is for cooking then your true self lies in that area. Look, it comes down to this: quite obviously life influences our art forms. Now we’re talking about our art form influencing our art. Take stock of this now: in the social world, everything is unpredictable. Your job could be snuffed out like that. The person closest to you, one day the whole relationship fizzles out. Have you had that happen to you? But if you’re working on a Shakespearean role, those words are never going to change. The art form is forever. You have a sense of predictability, stability and you work out your emotional, intellectual and even your physical worlds through your art form. Then you get a synthesis, and now you can direct that into your social world. It can’t be totally predictable. But it’s better than nothing.