Hal Hartley is an award-winning independent filmmaker, writer, musician, and producer. In 1991, his feature Trust toured the international festival circuit to significant acclaim, winning the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award at the Sundance Film Festival. In 1998, Hartley’s Henry Fool, starring Thomas Jay Ryan, James Urbaniak, Parker Posey, and Liam Aiken, won the Best Screenplay award at the Cannes Film Festival, initiating a trilogy of films that includes 2007’s Fay Grim and the director’s most recent film, Ned Rifle. The final chapter of the saga will have its U.S. premiere at the 2015 SXSW Film Festival, followed by its arrival in theaters and on Video on Demand exclusive release on April 01, 2015. To commemorate his film’s upcoming screenings in Austin, Hal Hartley spoke with Sean Malin of CineMalin: Film Commentary and Criticism about his collaborations with actors, the state of post-9/11 America, and the stylistics of Ned Rifle. This interview has been transcribed, edited, and compressed from audio for publication.
Sean Malin: You have managed to maintain a long career of strictly independent filmmaking and producing. Given the explosion of “content” on to all platforms, this seems all the more remarkable recently. Did you expect you’d still be getting stuff made almost thirty years down the line?
Hal Hartley: I’ve always had a pretty strong idea of what I wanted to do and the kind of business I wanted to be in, and I had a lot of examples before me to look at. But I was as surprised as anyone that I had some of the success I had…though I was quite conscientious about [filmmaking.] Each day working on new projects, I felt a little bit more like a businessman who could make a kind of entertainment for which I believed there was an audience. What surprised me was how broad that audience turned out to be.
You know, the successes of my first films, The Unbelievable Truth (1989) and Trust (1990), shook me up a little. It was very encouraging to learn that there were more people out there who liked this kind of work, though it’s not mainstream by any means. Still, that helped set the career in motion and it was ten years before I stopped to take a breath.
SM: That early popularity and goodwill with fans is more evident now than ever since Ned Rifle came about through a successful crowdsourcing campaign on Kickstarter. Even knowing that people enjoy your work, did the fact that you accomplished your goal surprise you?
HH: I can’t say I was surprised, exactly, because with crowdsourcing, it’s all or nothing: you have to really believe that the number you go out for is something that can be achieved. You won’t get anything if you don’t reach that number. Even the people at Kickstarter, who are a generation-and-a-half younger than me, reached out to say, “Wow, this is a big number for somebody like you. We’re very happy that you have chosen Kickstarter as your crowdsourcing platform, but we think it’s our responsibility to tell you that based on our analytics, this is a big number.” So I said, “Yes, it is big, but anything less than that is pointless. I believe that there’s a fan-base world wide and I’m prepared to get the word out to them.” I didn’t want to go out for half of it and be forced to pursue the more traditional paths of banking and gap financing. Then you have all these monstrous people you have to deal with…
SM: *Laughs* In your Twitter handle, @PossibleFilms, you have this great line: “I write, direct, and produce films and then try to market them.” That speaks well to just how strenuous the process can be.
HH: It was extremely hard to be like a PR executive for thirty days. But it worked, and it set me up with a new business model. We made the movie from the money we raised, and I sent the backers their videos and gifts and things. We started making deals from the very first dollar, so we were immediately profitable.
SM: Let’s bridge this idea of the Kickstarter people being a generation or so below you into the demographics of the contemporary audiences for Ned Rifle. Younger viewers are watching movies with different expectations of the content, obviously, but you have held strong to a particular aesthetic vision.
SM: As the viewers for your films shift to a new generation – this next movie will show at SXSW Film Festival, for example – how has that impacted your directorial style?
HH: If you took a week and watched all of my films in a row, I think you’d notice not just evolution, but real digressions. “I’m going to go this way for just a little bit,” or “I need to investigate this or that.” Aesthetically, you’re right that there’s a strong continuity – I don’t think that my aesthetic imperatives have changed much since the beginning of my career. By aesthetics, I just mean the value I place in telling the story in a certain way, the tastes and the sensibility involved. These can remain consistent because that time [when you begin to use them] is formative.
However, the stylistics can and should be affected by what people are watching and how they are watching it. Even things like technological changes affect style. In the late-nineties and early two thousands, I spent a lot of time making different kinds of looking movies with standard definition video. I liked it very much, but I saw people using it to emulate what 35-mm motion pictures looked like. I was so bored by that because it just looked like shit – these pictures didn’t look like one thing or the other, and everyone seemed to be ignoring the characteristics of digital video. So I started making things with [digital video] and it turned out that these images were aggressively stylistic. The heart and the soul of those films were still of a piece with the previous ones.
SM: In the press notes, you mention that between Henry Fool, the first part of this trilogy, and Fay Grim, which was both a standalone and sequel, society was changed drastically by 9/11 and the ensuing Cold War-like state that America was thrown into. Ned Rifle comes 9 years after the last film – so what’s changed in society from the setting of the second chapter to this one?
HH: Weirdly, with all this violence and the catastrophic political situation all over the world, there does seem to be – and now, I’m just speaking about America – a reawakened consciousness in younger people about the need or desire for a spiritual ground. In the years following 9/11, I saw that up close because I was teaching at the same time as I was making The Girl From Monday . I saw these people, more and more and more, become interested in a Christian spirituality; there was popular talk among my students about this chastity thing. That just blew my mind! *Laughs* I had to sit a few of them down and have them tell me all about that. I had great relationships with them, so we were able to talk, and I remember taking notes that would affect Ned Rifle, even though those conversations were ten years ago. They ended up manifesting themselves in how I wrote Ned [played by Liam Aiken].
SM: With Ned Rifle, you achieve this feat of working with the same actors from Henry Fool and many others with whom you have worked before: James Urbaniak, Thomas Jay Ryan, Parker Posey, Martin Donovan, Liam Aiken, etc. And in this chapter, a whole family’s arc comes to its final point. A lot of press has been given lately to another film that unites actors into a sort of narrativized document of their aging processes: Richard Linklater’s Boyhood . Have these continuities between yours and Mr. Linklater’s project come up for you?
HH: *Laughs* Yes, I was pretty aware of them, though of course me and Linklater haven’t seen each other in twenty-five years. It’s just a complete coincidence. You can see by following his career that he’s always had an interest in following characters that crop up again and again, like those in his Before trilogy.
In my case, it took me years after making Henry Fool to decide to make another film [in the series.] I figured it was going to be about Fay, and I also knew that if I made the one, I would have to make a third. So I actually initiated some supper, and had this conversation with most of the gang, because they are friends. I was living in Berlin at the time when I wrote the script, but that was before I tried to finance it. I went back to New York and took Liam out. He was probably eighteen at the time and going to NYU, and I asked him, “What do you think your future’s going to be like? Will you continue acting or will you direct movies?” Of course he didn’t know because he was eighteen, but I was fairly certain just looking at him – skinny, good-looking kid, with enough charisma to have young ladies start paying attention to him when they passed by – that he was going to become a movie star.