Back to the Tree House

Writer Sybil Rosen and actress Alia Shawkat on falling in love with Blaze Foley again, and for the first time

Alia Shawkat as Sybil Rosen in Blaze

I sipped on a beer, sloshed some on my shirt. "I'm a mess," I declared. "Maybe you better kiss me now."

Depty sat up. "I been wanting to do that for weeks."

We bumped heads. "I don't know why I'm so shy around you," I confessed.

He stroked my hair. "All wild things are shy."

– Excerpt from Living in the Woods in a Tree: Remembering Blaze Foley by Sybil Rosen

In Blaze, the legendary country singer Blaze Foley finally receives his close-up, but the movie doesn't only belong to him. Adapted from playwright and novelist Sybil Rosen's 2008 memoir Living in the Woods in a Tree, the movie takes many of its cues from Rosen's memories of Foley during the earlier stages of his career, when the pair met in rural Georgia and fell in love, launching a multi-year romance that – for much of the time, anyway – reached utopian heights, with the couple residing in a forest tree house as Rosen watched Foley's creativity bloom.

After their breakup, Rosen lost touch with Foley, as well as his career progression. While she heard about his murder in 1989, she was unfamiliar with the music he produced during that time, or the way his fandom had blossomed. Her soulful book chronicles these emotional discoveries, flitting between the past and present as she relives their time together. As a result, the resonance of Blaze extends far beyond the traditional strictures of the biopic format and functions far more effectively as a tender romance.

For Rosen, unearthing her memories for the book proved challenging enough. The experience grew far thornier once she was forced to come to terms with the existence of writer-director Ethan Hawke's movie, in which her character was played by Alia Shawkat.

“There was no pressure or expectation of how I should play Sybil. It was about being honest and showing this real love between these two people.” – Alia Shawkat

Rosen and Shawkat reminisced about their parallel experiences with coming together for Blaze, as well as the impact of resurrecting Foley's art through the prism of Rosen's own relationship to it, using the book as the only guide at their disposal.

Sybil Rosen: A lot of those songs I'd never heard until his return and many of the songs he wrote after we broke up, I didn't hear them. I had no idea that he might have missed me, or that he expressed regret. There was that dilemma of absorbing this music and feeling so heartbroken around a lot of it. 

Alia Shawkat: A friend of mine had given me some of Blaze's music, mainly "Clay Pigeons." My friend played it on the guitar and we learned it together. I even had a party at my house and played the song there, and everyone was like, "What is that song?" I was like, "It's this guy Blaze Foley, who got shot by his friend!" I didn't even know the full story.

SR: Because of this reckoning I had with who Blaze became, I made this vow to myself with the book to be as honest and transparent as I could be in the telling of our story. I felt it was going to be the only way to heal myself. It didn't feel like a choice. 

AS: The story itself was so mesmerizing. When I saw the book and looked up what Sybil looked like, I was like, "Oh, yeah, I was meant to play the part." It felt very kismet. 

SR: I come from a Southern Jewish background. I was more middle class and he came from real poverty. So his experiences and mine were similar but different. I think that was all part of what drew us together. People have this idea of who Southerners are and Blaze's character sort of explodes that idea, because he's so progressive in his thinking and so smart. I think that's a very interesting aspect of the story. It's conveyed through his language. 

AS: They were both looking for something in order to find themselves, so they took this risk by living in a tree house.

SR: I feel like everyone has a tree house inside them, whether you actualize or just dream about it, that sort of longing is there. The sense of adventure we felt, we had so much privacy, it was so magical. The first four months we lived in the tree house we didn't have any walls. It was just a shelter in the woods. It was summer. It was a feeling of magic. Whatever was to come after that, we had that, and it was real. Just returning to that, remembering that, getting it back – I'm so lucky. I don't know what if would have become, as I got older, if I hadn't really been pushed to go back and remember it. 

"You'd make a good mother, little onion, I know that."

"Well, what about all the other reasons: overpopulation, nuclear war, life sucks?"

The lame response attempted to conceal my terror of repeating my mother's tormented domesticity. I was determined not to end up, as I'd often pictured her, shackled to the kitchen sink.

"Are you ready?" I implored him. "Tell me the truth, are you ready for this?"

He plunked down beside me. "Ain't had much of a role model in the daddy department."

AS: I was really touched by the story. I haven't played a lot of love interest types. I think the film is there to show not just this tale of how they fell for each other, but to show why, after being so in love, you can't always stay together.

SR: Talking about the abortion – that was a struggle, just to deal with it, all this frantic reimagining of what could have been. To have this piece be a part of that, with all the questions that arose. What if we had made a different choice?

I felt like part of what I feel is important and instructive about Blaze's story is that it does show the sacrifices that we felt had to be made in order to achieve what we hoped to achieve, to have an artistic life. I'm not saying I agree with that now, but in that moment – in our youth, and in our fear – that's the choice that we made. 

AS: The thing that struck me the most was her ability to tell this story with enough of a distance to not judge the way she was hurt. Obviously, years have passed and she's older, but the relationship was troubling and hurtful to her. When you watch the movie, you're like, fuck, why'd he do that? Why didn't he just stay? But she has this powerful way of forgiving him and loving him through all that instead of thinking it was great for a second but he was ultimately a selfish alcoholic. She was able to spiritually understand why they met and why he had to move on and why he eventually died. 

At this moment I am fifty-two, a writer, single and childless. In the twenty-odd years since my life with Depty Dawg, I've known pleasure, jealousy, affection – though never again did I expect to find a heart in which my own could make a home. Over time I made up my mind: I would learn to long without suffering; I would make peace with being alone. Secretly, I used to dream that if I reached middle age with love still unmet, some man from my past would come back to claim me.

It never occurred to me that he might be dead.

SR: The film didn't really become real to me until there was an actual person cast to play me. I have a sense of disbelief around this entire thing. The whole journey of the film has been quite amazing, very stirring and emotional. I couldn't even quite imagine it until Alia arrived. We emailed a little bit before filming began. It was so osmotic. I wrote her to say she was going to play me and I was going to be there and what that meant to me. She wrote back to say she couldn't wait to play in the tree house. I understood that feeling. 

Alia Shawkat (l) and Sybil Rosen on the set of Blaze (Photo by Courtney Jones)
“Does it feel like me? Well. There’s this one shot of Alia from the back and I’m like, ‘Oh, that’s me!’ Then I realized it was Alia. I had to jump through all these hoops of self.” – Sybil Rosen

AS: We got along really well. I remember her a few days in, I was talking to her about love and how I'm at a place in my life where I hope to open myself up to love again. She was like, "Well, you get to do it all over again in this movie." I really loved that. The film is about being able to love someone if it's not ending up with someone forever because it's not some fairy tale.

There was no pressure or expectation of how I should play Sybil. It was about being honest and showing this real love between these two people. It's not like we were doing a Winston Churchill story. It has to be about these humans. We created the characters there.

SR: After we'd emailed, when we first saw each other, that experience of watching her come literally into my arms was sort of like having your past come right up to you and into you. I think I didn't understand how lengthy the healing process is. I found out that there are depths of grief and loss that you keep peeling back. 

AS: She had all the letters, she had his ponytail that he cut off and gave to her, and hadn't unearthed them until all these years later. So it felt like a real letting go of something, not to forget it, but to let it live again. It was really moving. It felt like we were all going through something together.

SR: There was just this sense of knowing each other. 

AS: I was very nervous because I'd never played someone who was alive and on the set before. I was wary about being uncomfortable. I'm playing her but not doing an impression of her. But I found when she was on set she brought an energy that bonded everybody. And when she was gone, it felt weird.

"Here were love songs I'd forgotten – how was that possible? Lullabies he'd sung me to sleep with in the tree house."

SR: I hadn't exactly remembered the "Moon­light" song. It wasn't on the surface of my mind. But in the plays that I attempted to write in the Eighties about Depty Dawg, as I thought of him, "Moonlight" was always a big element. When that song came back to me, it just reinforced this sense of him always being present, even when I wasn't looking at him directly. In some oblique way, his memory and influence was always a part of my creative life, if not always actively a part of my emotional life. What a disconnect that was!

AS: I got to know so much more of the music and its history. During the shoot, I heard it live at night and also heard his contemporaries at the time, like Townes and Charlie Sexton, perform. The shoot was in an intimate setting on this cool piece of land, this old studio. At night, after dinner, we'd either watch a movie or someone would play a live show. It felt like summer camp. Getting to hear all that music played live was unbelievable. It was a whole different connection. To a degree, I felt in love with Blaze. I knew where he was coming from. I'll never listen to the music the same after that.

SR: I enjoy the movie for how beautiful it is, especially with all the music. But then there's this part of me that's catching up. Every time we get to the hitchhiking scene, I'm like, "Oh right, we did that."

AS: It's always surreal to watch a final product when time has passed. All of a sudden, that time you spent a few months together turned into something. I was really happy with how the film turned out. I was really touched by it.

SR: Does it feel like me? Well. There's this one shot of Alia from the back and I'm like, "Oh, that's me!" Then I realized it was Alia. I had to jump through all these hoops of self. The other aspect of it is watching that character as a character and feeling that she is just sturdier than I was at 25. Sometimes, I think of Alia as the millennial Sybil. That is also amazing to see – aspects of myself sort of transformed, because that's what the story needs. Everything changes when you bring a story to film.

Eric Kohn is deputy editor and chief critic at IndieWire.

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