“The opportunity that novels have to tell a story and delve deep into subject matter and reference a number of different things, I’ve always wanted to make movies that could do that,” says pioneering independent filmmaker Hal Hartley. For over thirty years now, Hartley has been writing, directing, and producing an intelligent and offbeat body of work. From The Unbelievable Truth and Trust to Amateur and The Book of Life, his films are narratively varied yet stylistically unwavering, with a brilliant cadence unmistakably his own. With his signature affinity for deadpan delivery and emphasis on physical performance, he weaves together complex tales of everyday traumas attune to his keen and sense of humanity, comedy, and drama.
It’s been eight years since Hartley’s last feature, but now he’s back for the final chapter of the “Henry Fool Trilogy,” with the clever and rousing adventure, Ned Rifle. Following 1997’s Henry Fool and 2006’s Fay Grim, the trilogy continues with its wonderful recurring cast of actors: Parker Posey, Liam Aiken, Thomas James Ryan, and James Urbaniak, with the addition of a lipstick-stained, gun-toting Aubrey Plaza. Having grown up on screen in the first two features, Ned Rifle centers on Aiken as young man on a mission to kill his father. Now eighteen and a devout Christian, while on his quest to avenge the man who ruined the life of his mother (Posey), he meets an obsessive, stiletto-clad graduate student who hitches herself along for the ride.
In honor of the film’s theatrical return, his work is being celebrated on both coasts this week, with IFC Center showing Henry Fool and Fay Grim tonight before their run of Ned Rifle, as well as the first ever Hal Hartley retrospective happening this weekend at Cinefamily in Los Angeles. To ring in the occasion, I had the chance to speak with Hartley about the inception of the trilogy, the poetic rhythm of his work, and writing for the first time in a voice outside his own.
When you began writing Henry Fool, did you have any idea this would turn into a trilogy? When in the process did you realize you wanted the story to end with Ned’s experience?
When I made Henry Fool, that was just thought of as one film— although we did joke. We really could imagine these characters in different situations and joke with each other like, Oh wouldn’t it be great to have the Grim family go to the Museum of Modern Art. But it was just that, and it was only when I wanted to make Fay Grim that I knew I would do more.
I wanted to make a film with Parker in the lead after this very good experience with her on Henry Fool. That character was really written as a supporting player and she really brought so much depth and dynamic to it that she ended up starring largely in the film. After batting around a couple of ideas we decided that we’d make a movie about Fay. Rather than just making a continuing story, I could make totally different movies about totally different subject matter but only use this family. So that’s when this started, but I knew that if I was going to do that I was probably going to at least make a third.
I took Liam Aiken, who was sixteen at the time, out to lunch because I wanted to know what he was going to do. He had a pretty good career as a child actor at that point, so I wanted to make sure he was going to stick with it. Of course he was sixteen so he didn’t know what he wanted to do. He was in a rock band, but I trusted my instincts and thought he was going to grow up to be an actor. Then when I was writing Fay Grim I knew the third would have to be about the son. I didn’t know anything else about it except that it would be this person that’s on his way to kill his dad. In order just to write Fay Grim the way I did, I needed to know at least that much.
Can you talk about the decision to make Ned a devout Christian? It was so anathema to everyone else’s lifestyle that his faith was almost his vice.
Yeah, and the first thing was, what’s the most improbable thing for this kid to be? I’ve done a lot of writing in my movies and other things about religion, I grew out of my interest in history, and I’ve done a lot of reading about religion and am fascinated by it. I’m not religious myself, but I’m interested in maintaining some kind of spiritual foundation.
So I felt this was a good option, and that I could do it critically and respectfully. I also wanted to address the idea of young people, whether they’re Christian or Islamic or whatever, searching for some kind of spiritual certainty and becoming righteous about it. It’s all theoretical though, because you haven’t actually lived enough or had enough experiences to really earn that spiritual certainty—and that’s what happens to Ned at the end of the film, he’s earned it.
Is it a different experience writing a character that you’ve been developing for nearly two decades now? Is it easier because you can hear their voice and know their rhythms, or is it difficult because you want to do them justice and give them material we haven’t seen.
Certainly. Writing for Parker for instance, she’s one of the few actors I’ve ever worked with who has everything I need. I need someone who’s a good vocal actor and can hear rhythm and melody in the dialogue, then also be a great physical actor. My work is really tying together the rhythm and melody of the dialogue with the melody of physical activity, and she is really great at that. So it’s hilarious to write for Parker and I totally hear her.
Writing for Ned was interesting because it’s the first time I’ve directed Liam as an adult. Before, working with a child, you kind of get what you can get. You make what you hope in a strong decision in casting someone because of their manner, but you don’t really have that much control over how they’re going to speak. I was very gratified that he has grown up to be the kind of actor I like; he is very good with words and he really appreciates the specificity.
Aubrey seemed perfectly at home in your directorial style. How was the process of working with her?
She’s a hard worker and she’s done the research. Before she even landed in New York and we’d only talked on the telephone, she talked to Parker. She told her that she’d been watching the films and asked what she had to do now. Parker said, “Know your dialogue top to bottom, he’ll take care of the rest.” I think it was a shock for Aubrey the first day. When I talk about physical activity, I mean there is no improvisation when we start taking the shots and there is no improvisation in the dialogue. Also, there’s only one camera. So she was a little nervous about that.
It’s one thing for me to be able to talk about it with you this way, but when I’m on set I’m not that clear or verbal. I kind of find myself grabbing people by the elbows and moving them around. She took it in the first day, and at the end of the day she wanted to know how she did and I told her honestly that she did great. I showed her some of the shots from the day and she said, okay, I get this. She’s a professional and that’s why you have professionals, because they know how to adapt and learn.
Even her slight physical gestures were great, especially the way she’d walk or run–her high heels inherently making that comical.
Yeah, she really was in charge of her own look here. She just showed up in New York and told Sandy, the costume designer, she said, “Well I’m bringing some stuff and if Hal likes it that will be great.” So she showed up with all these heels and these short dresses, and I thought wow, all right. I didn’t have in my mind the idea of Susan being that hot, I imagined her more bookish and floppy, but this is how she was and it worked terrifically. Once I had a real person to work with, in real shoes, then I had ideas.
Your films, and especially this trilogy, are steeped in references to and the ways we interact with art. They also manage to build upon themselves and combine genres of familial drama, crime, romance, etc. in a way that feels very novelistic. Are you drawn to literature and the depth of story it provides when thinking of the kinds of films you want to make?
Yeah, I think I am. I couldn’t have said it at the beginning of my career, because I didn’t have the experience and the words for it, but now I feel closer to novels. Novels have more effect on what I’m thinking about and how I want to render it, while still being completely a filmmaker. I’m not trying to translate literature into movies. I really feel like filmmaking–the grammar, the reality, and the poetry of it–is really what I do.
The opportunity that novels have to tell a story and to delve deep into subject matter and reference a number of different things, I’ve always wanted to make movies that could do that. In one way it keeps movies from being more widely accessible, because movies have always been something you watch once and either appreciate or you don’t. From early on in my career I realized that I was aiming to make movies that you watch once and have what it requires to be an experience and then you go back.
From the moment your films start there are many defining characteristics unique to your style, but your music is certainly one of them. Can you tell me a bit in writing the music for this and when in the process you begin with that element?
It’s mostly after, but it’s changed a little over the years. Most of the themes for Ned Rifle of course grow out of musical themes from the earlier films. When I made Fay Grim it was more obvious, I took all that Fool music and put it in different keys and different registers, and was playing with making it more for an espionage thriller. The music for Ned Rifle started when I was doing a Kickstarter campaign. One of the ways I would keep people interested was by making music all the time, since I was up 24 hours a day anyways. I made music and then posted it for the Kickstarter people. I had some ideas from Henry Fool but went way further away from it than I did with Fay Grim.
Simply in terms of time, Henry Fool is an epic film, but Fay Grim and Ned Rifle get increasingly shorter in length. Is there a conscious reason for that?
Henry Fool was longer than any of the films I’d made before and I wanted to write an epic, so that was that. There is a thing too that people want shorter films—they say 80 minutes is the new 90 minutes. I think that might grow out of the way that people watch films on their mobile devices and computers, so they want it to be briefer. However, it’s got to be what the movie needs.
In the last three decades you’ve been making films, have you found that you’ve changed as a filmmaker or in your approach?
Apart from becoming more confident, age also changes things. Ned Rifle is the first movie I’ve ever made where the main characters are a full generation younger than I am. So that’s different, and you write differently and can’t take as much for granted. You might be hearing in your head your voice of yourself at 25, but that was in the mid-1985s; a person who is 25 now in 2015 might be different. So there’s a lot of listening to how younger people talk, and they talk about different things.
Did you see Henry Fool as a turning point in your career, or a way to address a different subject matter that you hadn’t previously?
I knew Henry Fool was tackling something different. I knew it was more overtly about the society we live in whereas something like Trust, where they don’t talk about society, but it’s evident there’s a society there—people picketing outside the abortion clinic, the main characters discussion about television being a problem and making people stupid. With Henry Fool it really addressed society and was important to take the thing that was close to the burden and the sustenance of this emerging artist and kind of mythologize the standard traumas and then how it effects the community. It was the first time I was making a movie that was as much about the society I lived in as much as the characters I was paying attention to.
When writing Ned Rifle, did you look at any books or films for reference or inspiration? If so, did you also share those with your actors?
It doesn’t often happen that I need to watch something to help me form my thoughts, but I knew that when I was starting to make Ned Rifle that it would be shaped like a western and would have western movie characteristics—the mission, the quest. One reason was also because Liam didn’t know any westerns. I’d watch classic westerns with him and get another grip of how I saw Ned. We’d watch The Searchers and Red River. For myself, not so much for him, but I found myself watching Clint Eastwood’s The Unforgiven. That was more for the shape of the story, the relentlessness, and the kinds of problems that happen.
What have you been watching and reading as of late?
I don’t keep up on new movies, I’m pretty casual about that. I’ve been watching Elio Petri movies—he made a number of Italian films of the early 60s and 70s. I’ve been spending a lot of time with Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion; it’s really formally interesting and its subject matter is great. I never knew of him, but I’m starting to collect his films now. This one was actually given to me by one of the crew members when we were shooting Ned Rifle, an Italian guy. He was the electrician and at the end of the shoot he said, “I really want you to see this movie.” In terms of reading, I’ve been back on a Thomas Hardy kick for a couple years.