Q&A with Filmmaker Hal Hartley
Published on November 14th, 2011 | by Alexandra Marvar5
Hal Hartley has been making films for more than twenty years. In a corner of Café Le Monde on 112th Street, not far from the office of his company Possible Films, he acknowledges this with bemused amazement. In 1989, his first full-length “The Unbelievable Truth” commenced a career of American stories — among them “Trust,” “Amateur,” and “Henry Fool” — their comedy muted and shadowy, singular for offbeat dialogue stitched with deadpan meditations on life’s universal themes. In the past decade, Hartley brought the cinematic action up a notch, reaching into some intense new narrative realms: philosophical monster drama, social-commentary sci-fi, even a spy thriller. And up Hartley’s sleeve now are a book of his drawings (expect it by Christmas 2011), a possibly forever-shelved biopic on the Jewish-turned-Catholic mystic Simone Weil, a written but dormant “completely unfinanceable” film about the life of St. Paul, and hopeful plans for “Trust” (starring Adrienne Shelley) to finally find its way to DVD in 2014 (when Paramount Pictures is through holding the rights hostage). But the project at the forefront for Possible Films is his newest picture: a contemplative, hour-long featurette called “Meanwhile.”
“Spare, very carefully crafted, and poetic,” “Meanwhile” follows Joe Fulton (D.J. Mendel), a New Yorker too ‘do-gooder’ for his own good, from the bottom of Manhattan to the top in a day-long Gotham Odyssey. Complete but for the audio mix and “the various materials needed for commercial exploitation,” Possible Films launched a project on Kickstarter (you know, that buzzy crowd-funding website that’s helping make art financially feasible again). Kickstarter backers can essentially purchase the DVD of “Meanwhile” in advance, thereby funding its completion. Within ten days of the project’s launch, Hartley’s worldwide fanbase pledged the entirety of its $40,000 goal, and then some, and supporters can continue to climb on board through December 1. On an intermission from peering over Possible Films comrades’ shoulders at climbing Kickstarter stats, Cinespect sat down for a glass of red with Hartley to chat about “Meanwhile,” Williamsburg, Waco, and more.
You’ve been making films for twenty years, financing them “the old-fashioned way.” Does Kickstarter feel like a great new resource, a harbinger for dire film-financing times to come, or just a different option?
To tell you the truth, Kickstarter has a lot in common with the way I used to finance my films in the ’90s. I used to write a script and then go to a French distributor, an English distributor, Japanese, German, Australian, and if they liked the script, they’d say “Yeah, if you make this script, we’ll give you $100,000 for a ten-year license.” So, you get like five of these things happening and then you go to a bank and say, “These five companies from around the world have pledged this amount of money.” And with that as collateral, the bank gives you the money to make the film. In a way, it’s the same paradigm I’m using with Kickstarter. I’m asking, how many of you want to spend $25 on a DVD? And it works. And, there are no intermediaries. For the first time in my career really, I have this very direct contact with my audience. Just yesterday we got a very nice letter from a guy in Belgium who pledged $35 on a DVD and a CD and wrote in additionally to say, “I usually spend my money on whatever you put out anyway. The fact that I can give you the money before you spend the money to produce the thing is really sensible.” I could not have said that better myself. It’s an interesting way to do commerce. If you read the information on [Kickstarter’s] website, they’re interested in the concept of this new way of doing commerce. Though, it’s funny, I hesitate to call it “new.” It’s actually kind of medieval. When a farmer walks into town — you’re a baker, I’m a farmer, you have a bakery, I have a field of wheat, I think we can do business together. It’s sort of that direct. Back to the Renaissance, before the invention of capitalism, without speculation coming into it. There’s a certain amount of risk, but not really speculation. I appreciate that.
Tell me about “Meanwhile.” Your older films were these sort of insular dramas about universal themes on a personal scale. Then in the past ten years, you’ve moved into this territory of espionage and sci-fi… But “Meanwhile” seems to be just about one man moving through his life and coping with the forces that affect him on a single day — does it feel like a return to those simpler themes you explored earlier on? Or will we find overarching societal commentary or an arctic monster at its crux?
I don’t know so much about themes… I like showing a double feature of “No Such Thing” and “Trust” because it shows how similar they are thematically. I call the earlier films “family-based films” because they happened inside the family. As I moved out into the world and started spending more time in the world confronting different issues and living in the world differently, the films changed… as I think they should.
How is “Meanwhile” different from what you’ve been doing?
Narratively, it’s simpler. Particularly after the last two, “The Girl from Monday” and “Fay Grim,” which were exercises in hyper-compacted information—confusion and doubt were really essential to the core of those. And my mind was burnt out. And I said, “When I finish this one I’m going to make a movie that’s really simple, just about a guy walking from one place to the other.” In fact, ”Meanwhile” is more complex than that, but it does follow this man walking up and down Manhattan. It’s about relationships, meant to reflect the different kinds of relationships a middle-aged man would have, particularly in relation to success and accomplishment.
What’s Joe’s relationship to success?
I had a conversation with a guy ten years younger than me a couple years ago. He’s a super-talented guy, hard-working. But he said “you’ve had it, you’ve had your day in the sun at least once. And I’ve never had that. And it pisses me off.” And I thought that was really touching, and real. Lots of people feel like that. You can attenuate your ambitions, of course — go with the flow, and be successful at other things that aren’t as exciting to you, but this man wasn’t that way, he was very ambitious. So, that’s how it started.
Does “Meanwhile” overlap with what you’ve been doing as well, or is it a complete digression?
I tried really hard to keep it as regular and everyday as possible. It’s highly formalized like my work generally is, but I didn’t want to reach too far for subject matter. The years I spent in Berlin, I made a lot of short films that were like that: Just write about what happens every single day — the simplest, most mundane, quotidian events. Which for me in Berlin was like going to the supermarket, practicing my German with the Polish ladies who were cashiers, also trying to learn German — these little catastrophes. But if you’re alert to the world in a certain way, great subject matter is always there. You don’t have to invent it. Just note it. And put it in a line. “Meanwhile” is my most full expression of that.
Are you more inclined toward that focus on the minutiae of everyday life than you are toward the more complex, intense narrative ventures?
Not necessarily. Because the thing about “The Girl from Monday,” “Fay Grim,” and even “No Such Thing” is just that they’re more intellectually packed. This story doesn’t really require that much that the character expresses ideas. It’s more observational. There are ideas here, but they’re rendered in a less intense, less wild way. “Fay Grim” is loud, fast, and dense. But this spare, very carefully crafted, poetic… It doesn’t throw more than one or two ideas at you at once — whereas “Fay Grim” and “The Girl from Monday” are all about a world of incredible information overload.
But with this project, I kept finding myself surprised. It’s narrative cinema. Rediscovering the building blocks of telling stories through pictures. I love it when that happens. You’re generally thinking on many different plains, and sometimes all that’s needed is to show the man reaching forward, picking up the coffee cup and drinking. And I think all of those simple things are seen with a lot of intensity. The intensity is shifted.
It starts out with D.J. looking for a place to stay. He needs Miho’s inflatable bed. She lives in the bottom of Manhattan, and she’s in Shanghai — she’s a fashion designer. She says “You can even stay at my place if you want to, but you have to go up to Hal’s place to get the keys.” I’m on the top of Manhattan. And he only has $16. Which, because he’s a nice guy, he winds up giving away by the time he’s at, like, 36th street. So, he basically walks all the way to the Upper west 80s. It’s a little adventure. It’s a little Odyssey.
A New York Odyssey.
Yeah, we shot it in my apartment, some of it. And my wife’s apartment. We live in two separate places. So that story really grew out of that when Miho started renting this apartment down by the Brooklyn Bridge, when I was just about to move to Berlin. She has this incredible view of the Brooklyn Bridge, and I said, I have to make a movie here. And then it took me five years.
Miho actually lives at the bottom of Manhattan. Do you actually live at the top?
I guess I live at the top of Harlem. 157th St. and Riverside Drive is where Harlem stops and Washington Heights begins.
How off the beaten path is it? Are you drawn to the fringe?
Well, we lived for like 12 years in the West Village, from the early 90s to 2003-04. And we were getting tired of that. It was getting so gentrified, so upper-middle class… At a certain point our street had three different chocolate shops. And we were like, “Who lives here?” So we sold that place, moved around a bit. And then when I moved back here [from Berlin] in 2009, I looked around. New York had really really changed. Most of the people your age are out in Brooklyn now. In Bushwick, there are all these theaters… And then there’s Williamsburg.
Up where I live is a little different. I found this section that is very European. It was built in the 1920s, a number of apartment buildings around a square. It’s really… nobody knows about this. It’s really cool. Riverside Drive turns in towards the center of the island for a couple blocks, and then goes back out, and there’s a little enclave of old European-style apartment buildings.
Just curious because the first time I saw that in “Surviving Desire” and “Theory of Achievement” on VHS, I was a high school kid in Ohio, but I’d later end up in Poughkeepsie, and then Williamsburg, and those shots became gradually familiar to me. But you’d been in those places ten or fifteen years earlier — I thought you might be drawn to urban frontiers…
You’ve been following the progress of those early films.
Ha, yes, and when I saw “Theory of Achievement” the first time, I didn’t know enough to know it was hilarious. I thought the real estate agent was as nuts as he is written to be — peddling apartments in a busted wasteland.
It was a busted wasteland! [Laughs] But that’s where we could afford to live, so everyone was living out there.
When you wrote those lines in 1991, “Artists will flock here, like Paris in the ’20s! … Cafés all along the BQE!” — were you a real estate prophet, or was it already in swing?
Nah, it wasn’t prophetic, because it never would have occurred to me to be funny unless I could sense that was happening. We were the new generation, and we couldn’t live in New York, really. But I also made that after my first two feature films, so you know I was having success. I was living near NYU, living in New York City, and all my friends were living in this busted-up wasteland, which was actually a lot of fun. At the time, I got the opportunity to make a little film and I thought, I want to make a love song about my friends. Because they’re all my friends. Bill Sage and Elina Löwensohn were actors I was screen-testing, but they’re all my friends.
And were they all as “broke and college-educated and unskilled and drunk” as they are in the film?
Oh absolutely. In a way it’s a documentary [laughs]. It’s very funny — we showed those last year, “Surviving Desire” and all that at the IFC Center when we re-released it. And “Theory of Achievement” was a riot, because there were like these two kinds of laughter. There were the young people who live in Williamsburg, the hippest place to live right now, so they’re laughing, saying, ‘That’s amazing that Williamsburg wasn’t always a wonderland,’ and the older people were laughing saying ‘That’s amazing, I can’t afford to live there now.’
Does that culture of creative existence still exist, or did it get priced out, and expire with a past era?
As depicted in the film? Yeah! It still exists. In the late ‘90s, early 2000s, I was concerned about the assistants in my studio, because they couldn’t hang out casually. In order to be an intern for me, one lived outside Hoboken, another lived outside Queens, and another lived almost as far as Poughkeepsie. I was happy my studio provided them a place to get together, and you know, do what people are supposed to do — argue about things, trade notes, stuff like that. But in the mid-’80s we were able to hang out all night, basically broke but lending each other money all the time, and talk, at the drop of a hat. You didn’t have to make plans two weeks in advance to get together and argue with your friends about art and politics. But, I was discounting the importance of what was happening in Brooklyn at the time. Bushwick is affordable now. It just moves. And no one’s going to do it for you so the young people just generally go and do it themselves—stake out the place they can afford to be.
You’re a filmmaker, but you’ve dabbled in theater, sounds like you’re toying with some book ideas — you’ve even tackled opera. Are you branching out to other mediums?
Filmmaking is what I feel like I could do in my sleep in a certain sense. It feels most natural. My design sense is best expressed in making motion pictures, the interesting drawings I make are for motion pictures. I only make music for the motion pictures. So that’s the hub of it. I don’t know what would happen if I took that away and tried just to write a novel, or just to make music. I don’t think it would be so strong. It’s really evident in the way I make music. When I make music that’s not for a movie, it lacks… a personality. The opera thing — that was a favor to a friend.
Pretty extreme favor — creating an opera.
It was. It was big, it was hard work, it was very frustrating. I think we did some good stuff, some of it was out of control. But it was very filmic. I’m preparing a book of my drawings which will come out hopefully by Christmas. Some of the pages are photographs from that opera, simply because it illustrates what I was doing with these drawings.
Are you up to anything else at the moment, aside from “Meanwhile”?
On any given day, my work involves reading, writing things that are not screenplays, financing, you know, trying to make films, editing on computers, writing this blog…
Ah, a blog?
It’s a screenplay. It’s just an ongoing screenplay made up of the events — not unlike what I was saying before about “Meanwhile”: Things that actually happen. I incorporate them into the story, and I formalize them and change them. It’s called “The Episodes.” Sometimes there was an episode every week, sometimes it’s every two months. It’s halfway toward writing novels.
Speaking of episodes, will you attempt television again?
Well, it seems it’s a bad time for me to have suggested “Meanwhile”. The series — even though it wasn’t happening yet, it was a very Occupy Wall Street attitude. Which, was exciting last summer and spring to the TV people and got increasingly less interesting to them as Occupy Wall Street came up.
They are corporations after all.
Right, I suppose that could throw a wrench in the gears.
Yeah, I’m not good at anticipating what the mainstream will dig. I never have been.
And I wanted to ask— in your play “Soon,” your featurette “Book of Life,” and all throughout your earlier films, you navigate religion—catholic school, religious icons, religious conflicts, writing the character of Jesus himself… Are you using religious ideas because it’s rife for narrative situations, or are you working through that for yourself?
I think in the earlier films, it’s just part of my culture. I was raised catholic and I think a lot of the understanding I have of the characters I wrote in the early films come from a catholic sensibility. It was hilarious working with Adrienne [Shelley] because she grew up Jewish. So, in “Trust,” she was like, “Only a catholic person would like a girl like this. Even if a Jewish girl had a mental breakdown it wouldn’t be like this. This is so catholic.”
And, it was at the time that I was discovering — very significantly — the Jewish-French philosopher Simone Weil. After she died, everyone found out that she had been contemplating joining the Catholic church, and she’s thought of now as a catholic mystic. So, she fascinated me right from the very beginning. It started to get more serious as the decade wore on. My interest in Weil informed “Amateur” as well (where Isabelle Huppert plays a nun). But while we were making “Amateur” the events at Waco, Texas with the Branch Davidians happened, and “Soon” came out of that.
So, “Soon” was spurred by Waco capturing your attention?
It was about politics and society. I started to write something about our nation’s gun laws, because they’re kind of insane. Our gun laws and our right to freedom of religion when they get entangled often turn out like Waco, where people who are allowed to practice their religious beliefs how they see fit, but that might include arming themselves to the teeth and having very unusual sexual morays in their community. So, I started writing about that. And then I realized to do justice to the characters and the situation, I was going to have to learn more a lot more about this Protestant Christianity revealed religion.
But to a catholic growing up on Long Island in the ’60s and ’70s, we never heard of the apocalypse. We never even heard of the Gospel according to John. We just stayed away from it. So, it fascinated it me. By studying who these people were and what their religious beliefs were, it informed me a lot about what our American society is. It’s this protestant version of kind of end times religion. It’s really very woven through the foundation of our Republic and our laws. And if you step outside of the tri-state area you come face to face with it very, very quickly. So that’s how that happened. I don’t think I’d done such sustained research on a project until that point — a couple years. And then I final wrote it. Soon is kind of funny, but it couldn’t ultimately be really funny because it’s really tragic. But then, someone offered me this “Book of Life” opportunity. French TV said, “Will you make something about the last day of the millennium?” Easy. “But it’s got to be funny.” No problem. Because that’s all I could think about while I was reading this history of revealed Christianity: “What would Jesus say?” From reading what was attributed to Jesus in the Gospel, I thought this was a totally responsible young Jewish guy who would get along with everybody. He doesn’t talk about the end of the world, he doesn’t talk about the save sand the unsaved…
Diplomatic. And generous, and open-minded…
Martin Donovan must have appreciated being cast as Jesus.
Oh, if I didn’t cast Martin, he would’ve killed me. He knows I’m working on a documentary about the life of St. Paul too, and if I don’t cast him as somebody in that.. i think he would be better as Jesus’s brother, James. Anyway, I hope that’s the end of the whole Christian thing.
The St. Paul documentary — is that a personal undertaking or a collaboration?
That’s personal. It’s about six years of writing. And it’s done. It’s totally un-financeable. Totally un-commercial. Totally un-commercial.
And wait, so the whole Apocalypse idea—now that you’ve had an excuse to do the reading, does it sound feasible to you?
Noooo, I don’t believe the world’s going to end. I think the world just keeps changing. the way we live on earth — we’ve already changed it so much. I don’t think of existence in such black and white terms. Things will just change — it’ll all change into something else.
When your characters tackle massive issues, interject with some question about the meaning of life, is that just a nice narrative tool or do you sound that way inside your own head?
I don’t think I operate like that in real life. But it’s a good narrative tool particularly because I’m not interested in naturalism in that sense. Once in a while I want to crack the façade of the seemingly naturalistic, fictive dream that’s happening and get right to the heart of the matter. You know we might have a conversation for an hour about stuff when we’re actually walking all around the subject, but in fiction you might just have the characters say, “What is the meaning of life?” Though ideally it’s funnier and more surprisingly expressed than that.
Do you read much philosophy? Or do you just allow your characters to philosophize, and that suffices?
No, I read a lot of philosophy. That started in my education. I went to SUNY Purchase to study filmmaking. Before I was accepted, and went there for my interview, they said “We definitely want you here, but you have to learn to read and write.” Because my SAT scores were so bad I think legally I wasn’t supposed to be allowed in a state college. They said, “We’ve got to hook you up with someone in the humanities department.” I started taking classes with Robert Stein. His thing was renaissance literature and philosophy, and he was a great teacher. He got me past a lot of the problems I was having in reading and writing. So, I would just take anything Bob was teaching. By the end of my education, it was almost like a minor in renaissance literature and philosophy.
Do you draw inspiration from any specific writers? What are you reading?
I read fiction. And then I don’t read fiction for months. I like reading history, biographies, that kind of thing. I keep up with more mainstream novelists like Franzen and Zadie Smith. Delillo is a big favorite of mine. And the old guard, like Philip Roth. Novels are usually much closer to me than most motion pictures. I’ve always thought that what I do in movies — actually the same thing we were talking about before about this sense of hyper-impacted information. That’s a feeling drawn from novels. Delillo, in particular. I just got my first David Foster Wallace, a group of essays… Right now I’m reading essays by Borges. But I spend more time reading novels than I do watching movies.
When you’re reading Dostoyevsky or Tolstoy or something, I love those, like, 30-page digressions. that novels go on. they stop all the action and you’re just in someone’s head for like 30 pages. I love those books.
That comes through in your films. I love the monologue of the sheriff in “Simple Men.”
His first breakdown or his second one?
“Everything OK at home sheriff?” That one.
Ah, that one. I haven’t seen “Simple Men” in years.
How often do you watch your older films?
Not often. Sometimes there are technical reasons why I have to.
Ah, I suppose there are a lot of films to sit around and watch, aside from your own.
I watch a lot of films professionally — I always have to know who the new ingénue is, the new 40-year-old guy… But I don’t spend that much time watching films otherwise. As for my own films, I definitely wouldn’t do it by myself. But sometimes it’s important when you’re working with other people. Like, “You did that — what we’re trying to do here — I think you did that in ‘Simple Men,’” for example—it’s just about how you handle a scene. It’s useful sometimes. It’s tough sometimes too.
I’d imagine it could be tough. Those earlier films — the “family films,” a lovesong to your friends — they seem very personal.
Well, the newer ones are that as well… “Fay Grim”’s very personal. It’s just the personal of an older person who’s much more engaged with his society. “Simple Men” was when I was starting to get engaged. But you know, “The Unbelievable Truth” and “Trust” were about — I didn’t know anything about the world outside of the world of those stories.
Ha, maybe I just I love them because don’t know anything about the world.
There’s a way in which you can learn about what’s going on in the world through your relationships. I think “Theory of Achievement” is like that. And there’s a big argument between the brothers in “Simple Men.” They’re in this empty café at night and they’re drunk. The fight becomes about their father, their mother, politics, the law, and you know, that doesn’t come from nowhere. That comes from being a young person who’s trying to make sense of the world, but not knowing a lot about the world — there’s this particular kind of pathos you can achieve there. You have to be honest and write down on the page the not knowing, the characters aren’t knowing; they’re just not knowing, and you have to trust your gut that it seems human.
Reminds me of what Martin Donovan writes on the chalkboard in “Surviving Desire”…
“Knowing is not enough.”
Visit “Meanwhile” on Kickstarter.
Excerpts from this interview have also been published on The Huffington Post.