The prolific independent filmmaker reflects on his career ahead of Henry Fool’s 20th anniversary.
One of the most steadfastly independent American filmmakers, Hal Hartley has built an idiosyncratic and prolific career since his 1989 feature debut, The Unbelievable Truth. He was at the American Film Festival in Wroclaw, Poland, collecting the Indie Star Award and presenting his new film, Ned Rifle, the third part of a trilogy which began with his Cannes-winning Henry Fool back in 1997. We caught up with him for a long, candid chat about his career.
LWLies: It’s been 25 years since The Unbelievable Truth was released. What’s changed in the way you approach making a film in that time? What’s stayed the same?
Hartley: By some time in the mid-’90s, I really came to understand what it is that I do. The crafting of dialogue and physical activity so that they can work in concert with each other. I wasn’t aware of that for my first two or three feature films, the actors had to tell me. I was always insistent on them sticking to my language, I just didn’t know how to talk about it. I’d always just think I’d worked really hard on my dialogue and heard music in it. Actors like Martin Donovan and Adrienne Shelley would tell me I heard dialogue as a melody in my head, but couldn’t communicate that. It wasn’t until I worked with Parker Posey in 96-97 that it really became clear to me, the way she would talk about the craft of acting. She’s a great vocal performer and a great physical comedian. I found a new way of talking about what I wanted that kept it alive.
Gesture and physicality in your films feels as important as the dialogue. It’s part of that musicality you’re talking about.
Right. In the beginning it was important, but I just didn’t know how to talk about it. When Martin Donovan and I first worked together on Trust, he just didn’t trust me. He only really got it when we’d finished the film and he looked at the scenes. When I first met Jeff Goldblum for Fay Grim, he came in and said, ‘I know what you do, you move people around, and I love that.’ From then on, that’s what I told actors who were new to my process, ‘I move you around.’ I had to go through it with Aubrey Plaza in the new film. She was used to TV, where they’d have six cameras running.
She seems a natural.
Her first day was a little traumatic for her. She was like, ‘You mean I have to say all of these lines? As written?’ I just told her not to worry about it, that she was going to be great.
So do you rehearse?
These days, no. We’ll do table work, sitting around talking about what the dialogue actually means. It can often be interpreted in different ways, and sometimes the actors have an interpretation of what I’ve written that’s better than what I’d intended. Aubrey was smart that way, she came up with things that helped me direct her later, without changing anything. When we get on our feet, generally we’ll work for half and hour before I make a shot, or a scene.
Do you give line readings?
No, I don’t really have to. It was tricky with Aubrey, because it wasn’t the kind of situation where I was going to audition her, but I did have to watch a lot of her stuff beforehand. She hasn’t done that many films where it’s scripted tightly enough that you could hear the author’s voice, so I needed to see that she could do that.
Do you ever show the actors dailies?
Only if they want to. Liam Aiken wanted to. I don’t think he’d ever played a character like Ned Rifle. He’s 22 and very serious about his craft, he just needed to see that he was being both cool and sincere. We didn’t want to make fun of Ned’s spiritual orientation, but we wanted him to be a good old fashioned American western hero.
Ned Rifle feels like quite the fan’s movie, revisiting so many characters. Is there any correlation between that and its crowd-funding campaign?
I wrote the script with every intention of just going out and doing it. We thought there’d be more interest in the business to get it financed, but we were wrong. So the Kickstarter thing just is what it is. I called everybody and said I thought I could raise a tenth of what I needed, and asked if they were ok with being involved in another ultra-low budget movie, not getting paid anything more than union scale.
I noticed Julie Christie’s name in the credits as producer.
Yeah, she was a Kickstarter backer. She doesn’t use the internet, but she had her husband take care of it. She said, ‘Can I send a cheque from the Bank of London?’ She doesn’t use credit cards.
Would you go through the Kickstarter process again?
I would use it again, but not for something on that scale. For me, that was quite a large number. It was hard, it was like getting elected. They use the same word, ‘campaign.’ For 30 days you need to make as many people as possible think that you’re valuable, which doesn’t come naturally to a lot of us.
Have the varying peaks of success over the course of a career had much impact on how easy it is to get your next film made?
Not really. After the Cannes win for Henry Fool, I decided at the same time to slow down on my production. I’d been working for ten years straight making films, and it seemed like the right time in my life to slow down and do other things. I started doing theatre and writing more, so it’s hard to tell the impact that had. If I had a project ready to dive into in 1999, maybe it would have been easier.
Is there a budgetary level you feel most comfortable working in? Is more money always better?
For me, yeah. If you don’t need to shoot as many pages each day and you have the resources, it makes things easier. I remember Flirt being in a really nice budget range. It was just over a million, but the way it was made, as three short films shot over three years, when I look at it now, I see some of my best work in the Tokyo section. Just to know that I had the talent around me and the resources, it’s good to look back on. I just did my first director-for-hire job, in fact.
I saw it the other day, Red Oaks?
Yeah, I did episode five. David Gordon Green directed three of them, and he kept saying there was nothing to worry about, that we had $2.5m for a half hour episode. If I needed to track, we’d just lay one down, which is such a pleasure. From this point on, I’m not interested in making things with small budgets as a point of principle. That’s how I always protected my creative freedom, even in the old days, making films like Trust and Amateur with the British company, Zenith. They’d take care of getting the money together and I’d make the film. When we were in conversation with potential financiers, we’d be talking about a $2m budget in which they wanted me to change the ending. So I’d ask if that would still apply at $1.5m, and they’d say, ‘Absolutely not.’ I can make a nice enough film for $1.5m.
Had you thought about director-for-hire jobs in the past?
I started thinking about it seriously around 2009, after living in Berlin for five years. I just knew that the future was television, or whatever we call it now. I wanted to get into that world, but a lot of the people who make decisions in that business don’t know who I am, I’m just another guy they’ve IMDB’d. The stars aligned for this one and there wasn’t that mistrust. A lot of the producers or manufacturers of that kind of entertainment would meet a guy like me and say, ‘But can he be a company man? Will he he just shut up and deliver the product?’ I was like, sure, I love directing, and I’m good at it. I’m not gonna judge your shit too much. If it were a bad script and I didn’t think I could do anything with it, then I wouldn’t take the job. In the case of Red Oaks, I’d seen the pilot, which was well cast, they knew what they were doing, and the script was good.
Do you have to follow the visual template set up by the pilot?
Not really. There’s a DoP for the whole series, who wasn’t the guy who shot the pilot. I’d ask him what they like, if it always had to be two cameras, and he’d know. He was sometimes shooting two episodes at the same time, so we’d be setting something up for my episode and he’d have to run off and shoot some inserts for another one.
Didn’t you work with Francis Ford Coppola on No Such Thing? How did that come about?
I’d met him socially at events over the years and he’d always been very magnanimous and nice, he knew who I was. I think Sofia had probably turned him on to my films. He said that if I ever needed any advice, connections or anything, just to let him know. A couple of years later, I got this opportunity to make a monster movie in Iceland, and I’d always liked the make-up in his Dracula movie, the way they’d done Gary Oldman’s hands and face. I knew I wasn’t going to do much more than that, so I called Francis and he put me in touch with the guys who eventually did it. He asked what I was doing and said, ‘You know, I’ve just been hired as executive producer for this group of 10 films United Artists wants to make, which are supposed to be kind of indie, but in fact are all teenage slasher films. It might be good to have you on board, so send me over the script.’ He was already sold before he read the script, and it worked out ok. It was the first time I’d worked with a bureaucracy of that size. You’d get wrong information a lot, where people just don’t watch the dailies or read the script, then they’d see the footage and say, ‘What the fuck is this?’
You mean the producers?
Yeah, the ones always getting fired every six weeks. I appreciated having Francis between me and them. I wasn’t happy with the way they distributed it. By then the fourth generation of executives had been fired and someone else was brought in who didn’t have an idea of what to do with any of the films. Roman, Francis’ son, also made a film under that deal, and none of them ever got distributed.
Going back to your work with the actors, are there specific qualities that you’re looking for when you cast? Do you know straight away the they’re going to fit with your style?
Now I do, after this much time. They have to be able to hear the melody and rhythm of my dialogue, so they have to be good voice actors, and they have to be able to move. They can’t be shy about physical activity. Parker is probably my best example, of someone who comes most naturally to what I do. That doesn’t mean that I don’t love working with different kinds of actors.
Like Helen Mirren in No Such Thing?
Absolutely. Those older, more experienced actors who’ve worked on big, mass-entertainment projects where you’ve just got to shoot a lot of shit and get it done, they’re generally great.
Do you shoot a lot of takes?
No. I never go more than five, if I have to.
I know you don’t like changing dialogue on the day, but do you allow any room for improvisation? Are there examples of scenes that just haven’t been working for whatever reason that you’ve had to adjust when it came to shoot?
Sometimes it will happen. Environment will affect it. If we’ve written something that works around the table, production can get in the way. If we’re not shooting in a cafe anymore, but we’re doing it on the street, then some things may not make sense.
Does dialogue always come first when you’re writing?
It’s character that comes first. Once I can visualise characters in my head, then I can hear how they talk. I don’t worry too much in the writing stage about what amounts to locations. With the kind of movies I make, when you’re talking about the visualisation of the movie, you’re talking about location scouting, where you’re going to place the scenes. When it’s written and when it’s cast though, I’ll spend a lot more time than most filmmakers on location scouting. I do it myself, from the very first day, and will probably spend a month on that. Mainly because it interests me. I’m not interested in manipulating it too much.
Your dialogue tends to forgo naturalism for a much more heightened quality, more so in some films than others. How do you decide how far you’re going to take the idiosyncrasies of your style?
With the short films, I’ll just always be precocious. People have a different kind of attention span if they think a film is only going to be 13 minutes long, they’ll put up with a lot more artsy-fartsy mannerism. With Theory of Achievement for example, we had a lot of fun with being mannered, but the subject matter is so down to earth. With the longer ones, I’m not interested in naturalism, but I am interested in reality. I think I stop short of being mannered, but I like to feel the articulation. I always go back to Kubrick, about wanting to feel the intention every step of he way, even if it’s havoc, it’s so beautifully built and articulated.
You write such great female characters. How do you reconcile the tension between creating a female voice when you’re writing and a male gaze when you’re directing? You’ve spoken previously of idealising your female characters.
I probably did it less consciously at the beginning of my career. I try to juxtapose the male gaze with female independence, an independent female intellect and sensuality. I like to play the friction between me looking at her while demonstrating my respect for her. I don’t want to make them eye-candy, but I still want to enjoy watching them.
Is there a character in your work that you feel best represents yourself, your world view?
Back in those early films, like Trust, people used to ask if Martin Donovan was my alter-ego. I’d never really thought about it in those terms, but I began talking about it. In Trust, Maria and Matthew represent me best. If there’s a Hal Hartley in my films, it’s an amalgam of those two.
More than Simon Grim and Henry Fool?
My brother Pat, when he saw Henry Fool in a rough-cut, he told me Simon was me. ‘I’ve known you forever,’ he said, ‘And that’s you’. When I went back to my earliest notes on Henry Fool, before I’d even conceived what it became, I wanted to tell a story about what it was like to come from where I came from, discovering that I was a creative person. I knew I was going to make it bigger, more operatic than my very prosaic experience. There were things that people I love the most probably needed to be told, that they wouldn’t have known. What it was like to be the only person from there who’d gone to college at that point, to make music and films. Then I just amped it up to eleven and made him into a garbage man.
I hear you’re a big Howard Hawks fan?
Yeah man, I show Red River to everybody I can.
I’ve been watching Hatari! a lot recently.
So good. Of course, I love the comedies too.
And Sturges was quite an influence, right?
Absolutely. It’s all about the dialogue and action, with both of them. The rhythm of the dialogue and the rhythm of the physical activity. It’s not action so much, it’s physical activity. I’m sure they worked on that stuff, the right moment to say the line as they reach for the gun. It’s like a pinball machine. I always liked that, before I even knew what it was I was very excited by it.
Hawks would rehearse that dialogue faster and faster until it was incomprehensible.
I thought that shit was hilarious. Orson Welles used to keep a metronome going, to keep the shooting at the same pace as the rehearsals.
Godard has been a huge influence on your work too. Tell me about meeting him back in the ’90s.
I refused to do it at first. Scott Macaulay, the editor of Filmmaker Magazine, called me at my office saying that Godard’s going to be in town for three days, the Museum of Modern Art was doing a retrospective of his video work from the 80s and early 90s. He’s been given a short list of people to talk to, and you’re on it. He said he’d just talk to me because he’d heard of me. I said no. Everybody in my office was standing around staring at me. I said, ‘He’s so important to me, I don’t want to mar that, and I hear that he can be difficult and an asshole. I don’t need him personally in my life.’
Scott had the wisdom to tell me to think about before he hung up. Everybody gave me shit, all over town, so I finally said okay. It was set for two days later, and I hadn’t seen Histoire(s) du Cinema, which was really hard to see in the States at that point. So the museum put on a VHS screening of half of it, and I brought Martin Donovan with me. I took notes and got ready, and that same day, my father was having open-heart surgery in a hospital in New York. I had to be at the hospital from 5am until the doctors had time for him to go into surgery, then I said, ‘Dad, I gotta go!’
Was he okay?
He said, ‘You go see Mr Godard’. So I walk across town, and Godard was great. It was about 10am, he came in and sat down, with a huge unlit cigar, and let me do all the talking for about ten minutes. He just took my measure. He didn’t really know me, he hadn’t seen any of my films, he just knew that people had talked about me in relation to him. At a certain point he decided that I was an ok guy to talk to, so he lit his cigar and then did all the talking. It went everywhere, a really long conversation and one of the most inspiring I’ve had. Finally I was able to put away all this nonsense you hear about him being an asshole. He’s very poetic, very philosophical. I knew from other people’s books that I’d read that he can almost be psychotic, but I found him very generous, very realistic. Its seemed like he was saying, ‘I’m 65, how old are you? I know more, let me talk.’
That ’80s period of his work really seems to feed into yours. Films like Helas pour moi and Hail Mary especially.
That one really hit me hard. When I was in my twenties, I saw most of the stuff from the ’60s, but it was only in the ’80s, when I was actively making my own films in New York City and reading a lot more, that I became more cognisant of 20th century history. I just got those films, they hit me at the right time. Also, just graphically, he was making the kind of pictures that I wanted to make. It was like Bresson said, ‘Don’t go showing every side of the thing. It’s the freshness of the particular angle that you see, that’s going to bring the thing to life.’ I think Godard really did that. He’d indicate a department store with one shot, a girl looking through the glasses and perfumes, with all the right sound. It was perfect. The kind of economy which is also really deep and expansive.
The way you work with actors seems to share some kinship with Bresson.
When I was in college and afterwards, I really came to understand and appreciate what Bresson was doing. I wouldn’t go as far as only using non-professional actors though. I like working with professional actors because I need their skills. I think what he did with amateurs is absolutely great. He was doing something very, very specific, a bit like the way Bruno Dumont works now.
Are you a Jacques Rivette fan? Fay Grim reminds me of his stuff in many ways. Amateur too.
I didn’t come to Rivette until very late, in my thirties. That might be because his films are so much harder. You can call Godard an art filmmaker, but Rivette is out there.
The Girl From Monday feels like one of your most explicit homages to Godard.
Yeah, it’s a conversation with Alphaville.
It’s one of your most formally experimental. How did you decide on that’s film’s particular aesthetic qualities?
As it was written, it could have been filmed on 35mm, but that didn’t come together. So finally we decided to make it as a little movie that we could put on a website, which people could pay to stream. No one even used the word streaming back then, but we were absolutely confident that this technology would be existent at the time, which we were completely wrong about. The idea was to make a little movie with our own money, making it as extreme as I felt it needed to be. I was shooting it in standard definition digital, which was a real in-between medium. I hated digital movies that tried to look like 35mm, because it never did, it was always between two stools, neither a good film image nor a good video image. Which made me think, what is a good video image? The slow shutter speed button, distortion. I made The Book of Life in the same spirit. To deal with an electronic signal in the same way that my rocker friends dealt with an audio signal. Distort it, over-process it.
These later films feel a lot less reliant on dialogue than the earlier ones.
I’m always looking to play around, to experiment. In the early ’90s when I was making films on 35mm, I was also making video anyway. They were all experimental, but still pretty narrative. I just wanted to play with different ways of telling stories.
Do you find it difficult tying together this formal experimentation to some of your larger conceptual schemes, as well as to narrative? Do you go through a lot of drafts?
The nuts and bolts of it is that you just start writing. If I want a Greek chorus to come in, like in Flirt, to explain things or question things, then why not? I never start a project on a conceptual level, it’s always with character and situation. I read lots which inspires me to try to work out how I can bring new things in. The Greek chorus in the Berlin section of Flirt is in many ways the same gesture as in Simple Men, where they bust out into dance. Sometimes the fourth wall just needs to be knocked down for a moment.
Speaking of the dance sequence in Simple Men, you used a similar device in Surviving Desire, which I love. I understand you’re not too happy with that film though?
I wanted to shoot it on 35mm, but the TV people we were making it for insisted on 16, which placed certain limitations on it. It’s really just the image, I don’t have a problem any of the writing or the casting. I was learning things too. There’s a particular scene, where Martin and Mary are in the bar and she kisses him for the first time, before he goes out and does his dance. When I was writing it, I knew that I wanted them way over there, shooting with a long lens, all in one shot. I just wasn’t confident enough with performers at that time to insist on certain things though. Now, when Aubrey Plaza comes in on her first day and says things don’t make sense, I can just say, ‘Trust me’. I didn’t have that then, or the knowledge to feel comfortable shooting day-for-night. I just think it lacks a life.
Is there a film that you think best represents your initial concept, that you think is your most successful?
I think Flirt, especially the Japanese section. From beginning to end, I wouldn’t change a thing in that. The Berlin section, I got into some trouble with some of the interiors towards the end, and the New York section is just stuff thrown at the wall to see what would stick. We had no idea at the New York stage that it would turn into a feature.
What do you think it was about the Japanese section that enabled you to get your ideas on screen so successfully? Was it a question of more money? Better preparation?
Experience, an working with largely the same crew for so many years. I’d just shot so much film between 1988 and 1995, when we shot that section. It was just a question of confidence, really.
You worked with Michael Spiller on nearly everything.
Yeah, but he’s no longer a DoP now, he’s a very successful television director. The last thing he shot as a DoP was No Such Thing. I still talk to him, though. I’ve been talking to him about this TV show, and he’s given me some advice about the business, which is totally different. Back then, we were taught by the same teachers, and the kind of education where all of us had to do everything. I had to shoot someone’s film and Michael had to assistant-direct someone else’s, so we all knew each other’s jobs. The great thing when I started making features though, was that Michael had been out working with crews as a second or third assistant, so he had a lot more knowledge. It was really on that first $60,000 film that I started really learning the grammar.
Have you ever been tempted to write a novel? Literature is such a big part of your films.
Yeah, I think about it a lot. I’ve worked really hard on it. I’ve written two, fake practice novels. I’d ask my friend, the novelist Paul Auster, ‘How do you do it? All these, words, words, words.’ If I can’t just stick to dialogue and have all that white space on the page, then I’d be lost. It’s a totally different way of thinking, but I’ve always written stories. I floated to Paul the idea of writing a practice novel, that I was going to take one of my stories that was already written as a script and turn it into a novel. He said, ‘A novel is 60,000 words. Don’t get involved in any other nonsense, just tell the story in 60,000 words, then you have a novel. It may not be a good novel, but it’ll be a novel.’ So I started doing that. I’ve gotten through two, and one is better than the other.
So are we going to see one of these soon?
Ha! No, not soon. I’d have to change my whole working life. I’m very productive, I have a real old-fashioned work ethic, and I produce a lot of work. It wouldn’t be hard for to sit down and get something written, but something of the breadth and depth that I admire in other people’s work? I’d need to take some time off and go somewhere. It’s much harder to make a living as an independent filmmaker now, which is one of the reasons I’m lucky to have the opportunity to skew towards episodic TV now, which I’m really interested in. You really can’t make a living any more, making the kinds off films that I make. They’re not obscure, but they’re also not mainstream. I’m lucky to have done it long enough that I have some money, some savings, but looking forward I know that I have to do different kinds of work. I don’t think I’ll make any more features at that level. Maybe if the situation presents itself and I can get the kind of money that someone like Paul Thomas Anderson does to make something, but it has to be on that level.
What do you love about movies?
It’s movement, I think. It took me many years of my own filmmaking to discover that. Physical humour does it for me, and dialogue of course. When I first started making movies, I was watching a lot of Werner Herzog’s films from the 1970s. So back then I was fascinated by the idea of time. The time things take. When I show young people a movie like Kaspar Hauser or Nosferatu today, they’re always impressed by how willing he is to hold a shot for as long as he does. That was always really exciting to me.
Hal Hartley’s films are available directly from his website at halhartley.com
Published 19 Jun 2018
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