The Director's Chair Interviews

Hal Fool: The Push, Pull and Play of Hal Hartley
by Anthony Kaufman

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After Hal Hartley's witty, narrative experiment "Flirt" flopped with distributors a few years back, the very independent New York writer/director returns with the more conventionally-scripted, critically-praised, quintessentially Hartleyian romp, "Henry Fool." The title character was gestating in Hartley's mind for quite some time, evolving during the years financiers shied away from him after "Flirt." But now his beloved and reviled Mephistophelian protagonist finally makes it to the screen, along with James Urbaniak as Simon Grim, a garbage man whose hidden literary talents are discovered by the enigmatic Mr. Fool, and Parker Posey, as the sister Grim, a nymphomaniac who can't help but desire him.

For Hartley's next project, he turns away from the politics of filmmaking in favor of the freedom of theater. "Soon," a "play with music" will be staged at Austria's Saltzburg Opera House this July with such Hartley regulars as Elina Lowensohn and Miho Nikaido. Hartley took time away from rehearsals for a rampant press day in New York City's Sony building. But Hartley is calm, and soft-spoken; you would never know from speaking with him that he has both a play and a film opening up within a month of each other. Sitting against the skyscraper backdrop of a city he has repeatedly reimagined, Hartley spoke to me about his distributors, his distaste for being homogenized, his difficulty rendering environments and the many paradoxes of his style.

indieWIRE: In my office, we were recently discussing the value of awards from the Cannes film festival. Do you think the Screenwriting award will have some effect on the life of your film? How concerned are you with things like box office and sales?

Hal Hartley: I'm not overly concerned with it. I am concerned about my distributors earning a buck, because I think that's good business sense. I try to keep my budgets reasonable, and don't expect unreasonable advances from distributors. You want to have a good experience because you want to continue working with people like Tom [Bernard] and Michael [Barker], because they're nice to work with. When they didn't take "Flirt," I was all like [gasps in disappointment.] But they have to do what they have to do, too. Even though they liked the film, they didn't think it could do the kind of business that they expected.

iW: And of course, you want as many people to see your work. . . ?

Hartley: As many people that will appreciate them. I think a lot of people, here in the United States, would appreciate any of my films. It's just that they come packaged, not to put you on the defensive, the media tends to homogenize -- when things exist too close to the margins, but they could be perfectly accessible for lots and lots of people -- it tends to be that what is essentially interesting about the piece has to be rendered -- you have to lie about it. 'It's almost like all these other things in the mainstream, but different.' These perceptions that you get from movie posters and coming attractions, and it's like ‘I know that film and that film is not anything like that.'

iW: So how do you think you've been homogenized?

Hartley: I think it's been a big struggle. I think most of the independent distributors in the country are people that I've worked with -- October's never ventured (smartly) -- I'm sure that if the guys from Fine Line, Miramax, and Sony Classics all got together one day, they'd probably all sit around talking, "So what did you try to do with Hartley? How did you try to pull this off?" It's tough. The market's changing. Expectations are changing. And now, Michael and Tom tell me that one of the weirdest things for them in dealing with me is this perceived type of thing that there's a particular type of Hartley audience and a particular type of Hartley film and particular type of acting style. But that's a coincidence of renewed, creative, continued work. And sometimes that stuff gets more press than the movies. There's this aura of. . .

iW: 'The Auteur.'

Hartley: Yeah. Like if enough people around the country say "obscure, auteur, art filmmaker" enough, then there's this general attitude that 'oh, yeah, he's hard to sell. The Americans won't like it . . .'

iW: I had read that you are concerned with standards of quality and judgments on art. And "Amateur" being about people who were not professionals. Isn't Simon Grim and his poem coming out of that same thing?

Hartley: Yeah, that's kind of a pet peeve that resurfaces. I'm always wondering, am I only getting exposed to things because there are people, ‘professionals,' who have been put in charge of letting me be exposed to things. And they judge what's interesting and what's art and what's not and what's pornography and what's not. I do think that it's a good thing that we should all people in the media, pay attention to. As a creative person, I have very serious concrete questions about -- I didn't want to talk about art, I wanted to talk about the reaction to supposed art, something that might be art. I didn't want to get into a discussion whether it was art or not. I wanted to set up a situation where enough people call it art, and enough other people call it crap, and then pay attention to that conversation. Because I do think sensation and reaction causes celebrity.

iW: There's an image in my mind from the film tied to Simon's infamous poem. When the daughter in the World of Donuts sings, it felt like one of these non-sequitur Hartley moments -- I wondered about the composition of that shot -- its a powerful image when she sings.

Hartley: We shot for two weeks in the World of Donuts. A lot of the movie happens in the World of Donuts. It's a set we made. We found this store front and rented it for two months. We didn't have a lot of money to make it really look like an active store, so it was a lot of work. So the angles were exhausted quickly. Looking at the walls. The only thing that's really interesting is looking towards the street or looking the opposite way, through the store and into the backyard. And so I was always just trying to keep the windows in, keep the activity of the street, which is something I learned in "Flirt." I've never been very satisfied with my films in terms of rendering environment. There was always something frustrating me. And I didn't want to just make establishing shots and buying into a cinematic language, that is I think, really old and inexpressive, but that got me into this other bind where I often get myself into, which is really claustrophobic situations or jarring when you don't know where you are. And one of things that I wanted to work on with "Flirt" was to go to foreign places and to really immerse myself in environments. And I think, by the time, I made "Flirt," I thought I really did get that sense of Tokyo. When I look at that film now, and Tokyo is a place I know pretty well now, that's it. I got it. Without establishing shots. So, I said, okay, the next time I got to go back to the States, I have to film my home as if it were a foreign place. So, I said, we're not going to lock down and we're always going to be shooting the area that we can control, which is the street, but there's a real life there.

I asked myself, what would "cinema verite" be like if you weren't allowed to operate the camera, if you had to lock off the shot. And I started doing that with my videocamera. It didn't mean forsaking your desire to create powerful graphic images. But other things might change. For instance, a lot of the activity might happen off camera. When the camera is still focused on the fire hydrant, a conversation is happening off right. When I went back and thought about my early work, I do it a lot. That's a shot that began from that sort of thing, looking through the street, not emphasizing Henry or a lot of other things, but let the shot move from a lot of different things: it starts out on a wide shot of her coming in and then she exits frame and then she comes extreme foreground and grabs that hunk of bread, then she goes out right and Henry comes in. That kind of dynamic, of pushing and pulling -- and then eventually ends as a close up of Mr. Deng coming in. That's a little bit more elaborate. There's some things like when Henry's holding forth in the World of Donuts, that was something where I said -- find myself a graphic image and then let it live. I try to encourage everybody not to be so perfect about where they sat. It'd be okay if you're half-in, half-out.

iW: That's particularly interesting, because it's very easy to see your work as dichotomies, of pushing and pulling. And one is, I think, this idea of controlled environments and freedom. And that's a good illustration of that.

Hal Hartley: Freedom and control are always two, those two are always there. Some of the work better than others. I think the World of Donuts thing I've just described now wound up being for the most part, kind of stagey, which I didn't like. There's one shot over by the counter when Parker [Posey] comes in, which worked better. Sometimes, you know, you're hoping for the best. But there's one [shot] I like a lot which is looking out the front door of the Grim house, Parker is sweeping the steps, and Marissa [Chibas] comes up, she's playing a reporter. Parker is cut off at the neck for awhile and then she comes back down. It's a locked off shot -- it doesn't adjust. And sometimes people are [framed out] and there's a sliver of window over here and at a certain point, Simon appears and moves through it and then he stops right there and it's really exciting.

iW: What do you think that fragmentation creates?

Hartley: I think it creates a liveliness. The potential that something can go wrong. It's not too refined. I like refinement, but I like rawness, too. They have to exist together.

iW: There's also this feeling of cleanliness, but in "Henry Fool" there's this opposite. . .

Hartley: Clean, powerfully strong images, in that sense, clean images, of shit. That was our banner. I want more garbage. More puke, more sweat and piss. But, of course, that doesn't come to me second nature. That's a lot of work. The puke, throwing up on the girl's behind. That's work. That's a particular kind of filmmaking, it takes a long time. The puke machine and dealing with girls with her pants down -- the diplomacy that goes on is pretty intense. And then, teaching an actor how to fake the vomit, when this whole, big thing is taped to the side of his neck.

iW: But you are stylizing and making that vomit fairly precise in the same way that you control your other elements?

Hartley: It's also a mistake. I just didn't get all the shots I needed to for that scene. The girl was starting to get upset, it was getting late, and I just said, fuck it, this is too much work for this, and I just said, I'll just see what I can do in the editing room. It is a botched scene. There's enough of the general spirit of the scene there to be hysterical. But I really wanted it to be as realistic and as finely crafted as anything they would do in a more expensive splatter movie. But life is you get what you can. At the end of the day, you have these shots and you try to figure out what to do with them. And that's fine. I like that. It's almost more fun not to have all the right shots and try to make something of them.

iW: About the pushing and pulling of your work, there's this tension, I think, between control and emotion; the emotion kind of sneaks up on you. When I spoke to James Urbaniak, he told me that there's an emotional quality that really comes out, even amidst the stiffness.

Hartley: I don't know if I can describe its effect any better than you can. But I can talk a little bit about what I try to do. I think any serious [artist] should be very suspicious of emotion in a story. It's funny that I found in this while I was writing, it was going to be more obviously emotional. I tried to, in my movies, I say with complete confidence, my movies are about nothing but emotion, but that's why the obvious emotional response you are supposed to have should be delayed, should be hidden. Your access to that should be your responsibility; the movie should exist in a way to not give you everything, to give you access, so you can come in. A lot of the time the dialogue is written and cut in a certain way to trip up your habits. That happens in this, too, except that the emotion can be a lot more obvious. The story is complicated enough that I didn't need to hide it. I didn't need to use as many of those formalist approaches to trip you up. The story itself will trip you up. Henry is so many contradictions. When I was editing it, I suspected that it might, I suspected myself. I thought I might have been cheap with emotion. Now, I don't feel that way. There was a real need for me to write that story in that way, so I have to give that credence. I don't know if it's my best work. It's certainly my best, conventionally written script.

iW: Do you think that's why you're getting all this praise for your script?

Hartley: Probably. I knew when I was writing that this was a very good script. Sometimes when you're working you realize that all of this stuff is happening now, anybody could be writing it as long as you've logged on to the right train of thought. And that's a very beautiful feeling to have. The story starts telling itself. And you feel lucky because you happen to be at the right time at the right place, with the right skills, and the right particular insights to give it shape. I knew that the world wanted this story right now. They needed a troublemaker like Henry. But my direction of it, my making of it, I went back to a lot of creative strategies that I used in the beginning of my career. Which are okay. They didn't excite me as much. Cause they were things I knew how to do. But this was a movie I had to make.

iW: "Flirt" was very much an experiment. . .

Hartley: But, you see, that's what I consider to be my best work. . .

iW: So I wanted to ask you, in "Henry Fool," what is the experiment -- is there an experiment?

Hartley: There is nothing experimental about "Henry Fool." I know how to make this movie. It was very hard to raise money for anything after I made "Flirt." They were like, uh, oh, he's become an art filmmaker. Never be surprised about how conservative the media is.

iW: Is that daunting?

Hartley: If you have to make a "Henry Fool" every once in awhile, then. . .

iW: Is this your "Henry Fool"? "Henry Fool" is your "Henry Fool"?

Hartley: [laughs] Unless I make another. I feel like I want to make "Henry Fool" movies for the rest of my life, because the story is so rich. Okay, next one "Henry in Moscow" -- we pick it up 6 months later, Henry is hiding in Moscow. He got off the plane in Sweden, the cops are chasing him, Parker goes looking for him. It could go on and on. It could be like a James Bond series.

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