by Peter Ferko and Claire Adas
Director Hal Hartley combines wit and a keen political sense with a love of language to bring that rare cinematic treat: an accessible, intelligent, artful film. With more than 10 features and as many shorts to his credit, Hartley brings a signature quality to characters as diverse as a poet-garbage man, an Icelandic monster, and Jesus Christ. His casting choices are delightful, including Parker Posey, Martin Donavan, James Urbaniak, Thomas Jay Ryan, Robert John Burke, Isabelle Huppert, Julie Christie, P.J. Harvey, Edie Falco, William Burroughs, and his multi-talented wife Miho Nikaido. Many have become part of his regular ensemble. Hartleyâ€™s latest feature, â€œFay Grim,â€ is a sequel to his 1997 film, â€œHenry Fool.â€ It features Parker Posey as a Long Island housewife thrown into the world of international espionage under the lead of a CIA agent played by Jeff Goldblum. Now:Here:This contributor and filmmaker Claire Adas and I had a chance to sit down with Hal Hartley during his latest visit to New York, before he heads to Sundance to present â€œFay Grim.â€ Here are some of the highlights of our conversation.
PF: Artists Unite is located in Northern Manhattan.
HH: The first place I lived when I moved to New York City was Inwood.
PF: Thatâ€™s our stomping grounds — although Claire lives in Lambertville, New Jersey. Our community is also virtual.
HH: Itâ€™s a very real dilemma. I notice that a lot of younger people — interns and production assistants who work for me, canâ€™t afford to live in New York, they live so far away from each other. Itâ€™s not so easy for them to have a community that is spontaneous — to get together to argue about painting, say. They have to make appointments a month in advance.
CA: Or use email.
HH: The internet can help eradicate the spacial barrier.
PF: Itâ€™s getting to be a different world. But I find the people I am in community with keep moving. I donâ€™t keep changing my friends, I just stay in touch with those people, whether theyâ€™re in California, Russia, France…
PF: Our flagship project, Now:Here:This asks the questions, â€œWhat is the most important thing on your mind right now?â€ So letâ€™s start with that question to you.
HH: Location! I moved to Berlin in 2004, but at that moment my wifeâ€™s design work, which she had been working hard at for years, began to pay off, so she stayed here and now weâ€™re trans-Atlantic.
I like Berlin. I know I canâ€™t afford to live here any more–I canâ€™t afford to make work here. The City doesnâ€™t want you to be low budget. But I want to be close to my family. So Iâ€™m very confused. I know what will happen, when I get back to my apartment in Berlin, which is large and has a good workspace, these issues will disappear.
An American in Berlin
PF: Is that what youâ€™re finding, that Berlin is a good place to work.
HH: Yes, itâ€™s much less expensive, so thatâ€™s a lot less pressure.
CA: How did you choose Berlin?
HH: I was invited by the American Academy in Berlin for 3 months in 2004. I got to know a lot of people… I made friends, I liked the city. I rented an apartment and was back and forth. But then, I made my new film, “Fay Grim” based out of Berlin. So I was there all last year.
CA: [â€œHenry Foolâ€ can be seen as a metaphorical comparison of Beckett and Joyce] I was thinking of Henry Fool, the Beckett-like character. There is a Beckett quote, something like, to stay at home is suicide, but exile is slow disillusionment. I was thinking about Beckett and Joyce living in Paris and writing about Ireland. Do you feel like youâ€™re living in exile? Does that affect you as an artist?
HH: Not to be melodramatic, but yeah. One of the things that was exciting and what helped me decide to stay was that in 2004 — you know that was the election — it was almost like an American could have more value being in a different country. Because lots of silly stuff gets said — anti-Americanism, some of which is perfectly sound, but other criticisms that are crazy. And people in other countries at that time really wanted to talk to Americans: What do you think is really going on, and how do you feel about it? I think the American Academy was hoping we would kind of act as ambassadors. To say, not everybodyâ€™s from a â€œred state.â€
And that definitely influenced my writing. When you see â€œFay Grim,â€ youâ€™ll see that itâ€™s about all of this. Fay, from “Henry Fool,” gets approached by the CIA, who ask her to go to Paris, because the French have two of Henryâ€™s notebooks, which appear to have dangerous secrets in them. [In â€œHenry Fool,â€ Henry has a multi-volume literary manifesto that is his lifeâ€™s work.] It turns into a farce about espionage, and this simple woman from Queens turns out to be not-so-simple and very brave — but itâ€™s very much about what itâ€™s like to be American in this world now: the suspicion of us, and the frustration with us. But also, good things. Itâ€™s really one of my favorite lines — Jeff Goldblum plays a CIA agent, Fullbright. Itâ€™s a flashback to the â€˜80â€™s and bombs are going off — and heâ€™s trying to talk this Iranian diplomat into talking to the rebels to get them on the CIA payroll. And the Iranian says, “Well youâ€™re looking for someone who will do whatever the Americans want.” And Goldblum, in complete innocence, says, â€œYeah, well, why not?â€ Itâ€™s funny. Of course, we know why not. It was more fun to write the CIA agent as a true believer in the cause rather than someone who is consciously duplicitous. To have him say, when Fay asks, â€œWhy did we have to help overthrow the government in Chile in 1973?â€ that â€œIt interfered with the imperatives of the American economy.â€
Making Smart Movies for Americans
CA: I think Americans think of themselves as being clever and on top of the world, but weâ€™re not, and the rest of the world looks down on us. I have a German friend who says, weâ€™ve known about global warming for 20 years — and so have we, but we wear blinders.
HH: Also, weâ€™re here [in New York City]. I think this is also geographical. When I travel in other parts of the United States, there arenâ€™t enough newspapers … people — weirdly — arenâ€™t really using the internet.
CA: Itâ€™s so easy to turn on Fox News, and why wouldnâ€™t what they say be true? I think you have to be taught to question, and no one is teaching anyone that.
HH: Well, as Chomsky says, none of these politicians have any interest in us being educated. If weâ€™re educated, weâ€™re just harder to dupe.
CA: Americans tend to distrust anything clever, but the people in your movies, well, talk in complete sentences; they donâ€™t interrupt each other. Did anyone ever tell you to â€œdumb it downâ€?
HH: Yeah, my whole career, in one way or another. But I was lucky that my first couple films were made at a time when alternatives were being sought, both by the audience and the industry. The hard-boiled business people were also looking for something different. They felt that the zeitgeist required it.
So making movies like â€œThe Unbelievable Truthâ€ and â€œTrust,â€ where people are speaking that way were successful, and to a certain extent, that created a foundation and Iâ€™ve been able to â€œmilkâ€ that, I guess. Even though I feel my writing changes, articulateness is [a constant]. Even when Iâ€™m trying to write somebody who canâ€™t speak, like Simon in â€œHenry Fool,â€ why not craft it beautifully? His inarticulateness itself was one of the most enjoyable things to write.
CA: Thatâ€™s one of the things I liked about him. He speaks with silences.
HH: James Urbaniak really understands â€œspace.â€
CA: There are a lot of beautiful moments where heâ€™s not speaking at all, heâ€™s barely even reacting, but thereâ€™s so much going on.
HH: Iâ€™ve tried to get [my actors] to where they think about speaking and pauses and physical activity as the same thing. And when I canâ€™t explain it, Iâ€™ll say, just look at James.
Making a Sequel
PF: Sequels are notoriously challenging, even for a successful first film. What made you decide to make a sequel to Henry Fool?
HH: Well, it is a challenge, but sometimes you have to take on the challenge. When I made “Henry Fool,” I knew it was big… like a cosmology: heaven and hell. In fact, Parker and Thomas and James would complain when I cut a scene — they saw early drafts of the script — and we had a running joke that it would appear in â€œPart 6,â€ like a Star Wars. It always felt like it would continue. Another reason was that I wanted to write the role of a lifetime for Parker. We shot for five days in “Henry Fool” and she was so good. I thought, hereâ€™s something, I wanted to flesh that out. She has been getting offered better and better roles, and I imagined I would not have a lot of money to make this film, but when I approached her about doing the role, she said yes without hesitating.
The Script Writing
PF: One of the things I love about your films is the dialog. Itâ€™s so juicy. You let your characters say these things that no one would say in a conversation. It brings the film to this other realm where itâ€™s about ideas; and your characters also do absurd things at the same time. So thereâ€™s a sense that it is reality, but itâ€™s an altered kind of reality.
PF: Or hyper-intellectual.
HH: [Critics] John Cooper and Noah Cohen have written really well about that; but they make it sound like itâ€™s a â€œtechnique.â€ Itâ€™s totally not a technique. I discover the necessity of that kind of dialog as I write and get to understand the characters and the situation.
PF: Do you write scripts before filming?
HH: Yes, I need to have it feel like itâ€™s a very â€œdoneâ€ piece of writing before I start. It doesnâ€™t change much [during filming]. It does in the editing. You often discover that things that seem necessary as a reading experience become redundant once theyâ€™re in pictures, which makes sense.
PF: I was reading a Wim Wenders book this summer that said he would use a map or a songlist as a script.
HH: I was very, very influenced by Wim in college and when I got out of college. His films were my bible. But I was always a writer. I really needed to write. And I got less apologetic about that as I made more films.
PF: You seem to be willing to let your protagonists lose. Whether itâ€™s losing the girl, or his life, or just the point. And yet they still grow and learn. Where does that come from?
HH: It might be just old fashioned. Itâ€™s richer — more real. Although the pictures may not be naturalistic, they are very concerned with reality; giving a true representation of our experiences. And sometimes itâ€™s a nice balance. I have that right now: the really great guy, who fixes everything, doesnâ€™t get the girl. Itâ€™s okay — but itâ€™s sad. And you need a little of that sadness. But itâ€™s also right. … It has to feel true. Even with all the artifice that goes into the story, it has to be true; Iâ€™m trying to formalize the truth. It would deaden the ending. Itâ€™s also why my films end on what I call â€œsuspension,â€ like in music. It goes up, but the foot doesnâ€™t fall. “Henry Fool” ends that way; “Trust” ends that way; “No Such Thing” does that in a big way — we really donâ€™t know whatâ€™s happening. It feels true, but also I want people to be a bit â€œalive,â€ unsettled.
Being an Independent in a Hollywood World
CA: Thatâ€™s one of the things that differentiates an independent film from a Hollywood film. A Hollywood film has to end a certain way.
HH: It has to affirm certain cultural values. Hollywood has been very good at the product aspect of films. You know what youâ€™re going to get. You can watch the film and leave and eat supper.
PF: In an interview of Parker Posey a couple years ago, she was asked why she played primarily in quirky, independent films. She responded that no one had cast her yet in mainstream movies!
HH: Thatâ€™s changing with her new agency. They are working hard on that.
PF: On the other end of the spectrum, the recently passed founder of the New Museum, Marcia Tucker reportedly found mainstream acceptance as a flashing danger sign [â€œIâ€™ve learned that the minute youâ€™ve accomplished something that youâ€™re truly satisfied with, itâ€™s time to steer off-course and scare yourself again.â€ ] Where do you fall in the range between desiring mainstream acceptance and wanting to be an enigma?
HH: [Laughs] I want my films to be popular. Of course if my films were popular, it would be a very different world from the one we live in. But itâ€™s not willful. I donâ€™t want to be in some niche, to have a cult following. Iâ€™ll take it, because Iâ€™m glad someone is watching the films. But I want to make a contribution to the dialog that is our culture.
CA: But, your films are accessible. You may bring up an idea, but a character will explain the idea. I canâ€™t believe people donâ€™t want intelligent films — I donâ€™t want to believe that!
HH: I donâ€™t want to believe it either [...] I agree with you that something happened in the late 90â€™s; it became harder [to succeed with a film outside the mainstream]. But itâ€™s a chicken and egg question. Did people stop wanting to see that kind of film, so they stopped getting funded; or did they stop getting made, so people stopped watching them?
PF: The thing is, I think your films are very accessible. Theyâ€™re topical, and if you bring up an idea, itâ€™s explained by people youâ€™d hang out with at the bar…
HH: Well thatâ€™s always funny.
PF: I wonder if it isnâ€™t a question of positioning, marketing.
HH: Well, sure. I just had a meeting with Magnolia Pictures; they are distributing â€œFay Grim.â€ And it was all about this very thing. They showed me the trailer they just cut. They were telling me certain words are out: budget, indie — anything that implies small. They love “Fay Grim,” because while it cost nothing, it looks big. Thatâ€™s one thing you gain with experience, you can do little things that make a big difference: the rooftops of Paris, Parker Posey in a great dress falling from the top of a building, etc.
I toured the last film, â€œGirl from Monday,â€ myself. I did the same thing documentary filmmakers do: booked it into art houses around the country … gave a Q&A on the first night in a new place. And what I heard, everywhere, people were amazed that this kind of film was being made. I think if we had had more capital, we could have been even more successful with that approach.
PF: I had been shooting photographs for about four years in which I intentionally move my camera to explore how the eye and mind work together to see when I saw your turn of the millennium film, â€œThe Book of Life,â€ where you use motion blur throughout the film — almost like a character. How did you come to that approach?
HH: Playing with the camera. I have a healthy disdain for video — the right off the truck variety. I was playing with all the buttons on the camera, which all alter that. And I saw that effect and thought, oh Iâ€™ve seen that in rock videos, the slow shutter speed. But that was the one I ended up liking. Then I had to develop a vocabulary, so I practiced shooting a lot. Itâ€™s like as a painter, you canâ€˜t just use something once, you have to educate the viewer about what it means.
And that film was different — in terms of subject matter, so I was looking for some different way to show that. It was the first film I shot on digital video.
PF: I saw you in a special feature on the “Girl from Monday” disk. You were doing all your test shots with a small DV camera.
HH: We shot a lot of that right here [in the studio of the Steve Hamilton, who served as editor on many of Hartleyâ€™s films]. We did a lot of location scouting. Not a lot of set dressing. And I was working right over there at that table and said, this is perfect for Jackâ€™s apartment…we were moving around with our little cameras finding angles. It was great.
CA: What is “Fay Grim” shot on?
HH: HD. But thatâ€™s just like 35 mm. HD is great. I love it. Because it has the resolution of film. And you have the monitor there so you can immediately see what youâ€™re getting — Now that Iâ€™m working with new camera people, I like to stay on top of whatâ€™s being shot.
We also used [multi-frame] still photography for some of the scenes, shot right onto an iPod. We would shoot a gunfight, click-click-click-click-click, then look at it on the iPod, say, â€˜I think we can do it betterâ€™ and do another take. It really worked — the gunfight is a very powerful — shocking — scene.
CA: Itâ€™s like Goddard, experimenting with 16 mm film…
HH: I just see it all as material. You can paint a watercolor or your can paint with acrylic or oils. Itâ€™s what you do with it…
We would like to thank Hal Hartley for sharing his time and his views with us; and we wish him much success with â€œFay Grim,â€ which is due to be released in May 2007. More information about his films is available at www.possiblefilms.com.
images: Parker Posey, from Possible Films; film posters from Amazon.com