Hal Hartley

Started by MacGuffin, March 09, 2007, 12:41:44 AM

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Reheating Hal Hartley
He started his career with a hot streak that made him the king of US indie movies. Then life got cold. Can Hal Hartley come back?
Source: The Guardian
What happened to Hal Hartley? The question hangs in the air from the moment I sit down with the writer-director and one-time flag bearer for US independent cinema. With his floppy hair, his thin, angular face and his perpetually amused eyes, he has the look of a man who is forever finishing off a PhD. But the world has moved on. Hartley is 47. We are in Berlin, which he has called home since he left New York 18 months ago. And, as he readily admits, he is hardly the draw he once was.

"Certainly my following isn't as big," he says in the corner of a crowded restaurant. "Nor is the response as intense." It's hard to pinpoint any particular downward turn in the director's fortunes. He never entered the mainstream like Spike Lee or Steven Soderbergh, nor invited the same enduring affection as Richard Linklater. But neither did he fall off the map as dramatically as Whit Stillman. To paraphrase Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard, Hartley's films stayed the same - it's the audiences that got small. "Trends changed. I did, too. I think about it all the time. Whether my films do well or not, I end up scratching my head."

His latest picture, Fay Grim, is a heartening reminder of everything that audiences treasured about the poised, crisp little roundelays that made his name - The Unbelievable Truth (1989), Trust (1990) and Simple Men (1992). These films possess the muted zaniness of a Gary Larson cartoon, and the crackling banter that betrays Hartley's love of Preston Sturges.

Fay Grim is a sequel to Henry Fool, from 1997, the last Hal Hartley movie that most people can remember seeing. Unlike conventional sequels, it sends its familiar characters, including the frazzled single mum of the title, off into uncharted territory - in this case the world of international espionage - and operates much like a French farce.

Fay, played by Parker Posey, becomes involved with various CIA agents, femmes fatales and terrorists after the discovery of her ex-husband's diaries, which may or may not contain coded information pertaining to atrocities committed by the US government. You're never quite sure if it's worth expending the energy keeping up with the plot. "My concern was to make the story plausible but ridiculous," says Hartley. "If I read enough newspapers and watch CNN, I feel like everyone's talking gibberish, so I wanted to capture that."

The tone of deadpan screwball that defines his work never wavers in Fay Grim. What's new is the political edge that reflects changes in America since Henry Fool was made. No one actually says "extraordinary rendition" but it's hard to think of anything else when a CIA agent, played by Jeff Goldblum, laments the fact that "something we were proud of last week suddenly becomes something we've got to apologise for in front of the United fucking Nations".

"Fay Grim is built the same way as Henry Fool, with the characters as a prism through which I'm trying to show what America is about today," Hartley says. The idea of making a sequel came when he was working on the original script. "I was giving the cast drafts of Henry Fool as I was writing it, and the story was expanding, which meant I had to keep cutting scenes. The actors would complain, and I would tell them, 'Don't worry, it'll turn up in part three.' I was joking, but for me a joke is never simply a joke. I wouldn't summon the effort to make a joke unless it was coming from somewhere real." He glares for a moment, impressing upon me with his eyes this conviction that jokes are no laughing matter.

"After Henry Fool was finished, I couldn't get Fay out of my mind. I kept thinking about this uneducated, sexualised woman - well, she's a slut, really. I loved the dialogue I'd written, and it fitted in Parker's mouth so perfectly. And I loved the movements I'd choreographed for her." Hartley doesn't talk, or work, like most directors. Other film-makers block out their actors' movements in preparation for a take. With Hartley, it's more like dance. In 1992's Surviving Desire, the performers actually break into synchronised hoofing when the mood grabs them. While the cast of Fay Grim don't go that far, there is much regimented pacing back and forth, mirroring the rhythms of the dialogue.

Hartley can't usually see how unorthodox his method is until he directs someone outside his usual circle. In No Such Thing (2001), he cast Helen Mirren and Julie Christie. "I said to them, 'You keep talking, Julie, then I want Helen to move round you toward the wall, then Julie go in front of her, and Helen, you cross to the right ...' I remember Helen looking up at me, a cigarette in her mouth, and saying, 'You mean that? You actually want me to do that?' I was seeing it all in my head like trigonometry."

He says that the first time he realised he was on to something was with Flirt (1995), in which the same half-hour film is played out three times with different actors in different locations. In the last section of that picture, he worked with Japanese dancers. "There was obviously a language barrier, so a lot of our communication became physical." Extremely physical in one case: he is now married to one of the movie's stars, Miho Ikiado. "It was on Flirt that I realised I had found my style."

But it was around this time that most Hartley fans lost interest. His four-feature hot streak, from The Unbelievable Truth to Amateur (1994), came to an end. Hartley wonders if his commercial falling-off was down to the independent scene being cramped by the same market forces that drive the studios. "Early on, there was interest in the films, and a gratitude for some alternative to the dominant product," he reflects. "The distributors got desperate. They realised that any one of these little films could be a hit like Jim Jarmusch's Stranger Than Paradise. They ended up buying lots of things that didn't do so well, and the hunger for a hit became overwhelming."

Hartley was a beneficiary of that initial enthusiasm. His debut, The Unbelievable Truth, launched him as one of US cinema's most intelligent film-makers. He claims not to have paid much attention to what everyone was saying about him. "Never underestimate the weirdness of being young and having people writing about you everywhere, whether they're saying you're a smart guy or an asshole. And I had plenty of both." By the time Flirt vanished without a trace, Hartley had lost his position in the independent scene, a situation unaltered even by the compelling Henry Fool, which won the best screenplay prize at Cannes. It has been an effort simply tracking down his subsequent films, such as his monster movie No Such Thing, which was recut by its producer, Francis Coppola.

"It wasn't Francis's fault," he says quickly. "And the version that's out there is my version. Francis was just the face for this horrible corporation who financed the film. Arguing with them was like eight months of knuckle-to-knuckle combat. " While this was the worst case of creative interference that Hartley had experienced in his career, it wasn't the first.

"I fought half that long, and twice as intensely, with Harvey Weinstein when he bought The Unbelievable Truth. He wanted more nudity. I stood my ground, and handed back his cheque. Then he really freaked out. He told me he'd bury my film, that no one would ever see it. But you know what? I admire him. The studio on No Such Thing was uncaring and incompetent. But Harvey really wanted The Unbelievable Truth to be a success. Whether his ideas served it in the best way is debatable, but the love of film was there."

Perhaps Hartley could do with a Weinstein or two to give Fay Grim a push. Whether or not the film restores him to his former popularity, which it deserves to, he's set on returning to the Grim family's story for a third time, just as he promised when he was joking in deadly seriousness. He is also toiling over his long-gestating screenplay about the activist and educator Simone Weil, which he confesses may never see the light of day. "It's too important for me to allow it to be shaped by commercial forces," he insists gently. I tell him I assumed that was just the way he worked. "Nah," he shrugs, "I'm always compromising. I just don't compromise on anything that will damage my films. But I'm thinking that the Simone Weil script might be best just to keep to myself. And if it takes me the rest of my life to write, and never gets made - well, that's just fine."
"Don't think about making art, just get it done. Let everyone else decide if it's good or bad, whether they love it or hate it. While they are deciding, make even more art." - Andy Warhol

Skeleton FilmWorks


I saw Fay Grim at Sundance and I thought it was really great. It's very similar in style to Henry Fool, but its 10x more ridiculous. The scenes with Parker Posey and Jeff Goldblum are fucking hilarious too--the dialogue is just so perfectly written. I also should note though that this was the only movie no one clapped after while I was at Sundance. By the end of its 2 hour run, most people were pretty worn down. I think it's easy to get frustrated trying to follow the insane international-spy-espionage plot, when really it's not even about that. If you got the humor in Henry Fool and loved it, just be ready to take it one step further with Fay Grim. It's really wonderful if you let it be.

grand theft sparrow

I had a dream last night that I was a PA on Hal Hartley's next movie and he seduced my girlfriend, which caused me to wreck a room in the hospital in which we were shooting.

After I woke up, I checked my e-mail and saw that netflix is sending Fay Grim for tomorrow.  It made me angry for a second.


Hal Hartley is Kickstarting a blu-ray box set of Henry Fool (1997), Fay Grim (2006), and Ned Rifle (2014). It'll be available from his website in November.


Hal Hartley is Kickstarting another blu-ray box set, this time for The Long Island Trilogy - The Unbelievable Truth (1989), Trust (1990), and Simple Men (1992).

The previous releases of The Unbelievable Truth and Trust by Olive Films are going out of print. Simple Men has only been released on blu-ray in the UK.



Criterion Channel has added all his films and shorts to their streaming service.

Yesterday I double featured Fay Grim and Ned Rifle - about four years after having seen Henry Fool. Fay Grim slightly improves with just the right amount of confusion. Like for Ned and Fay, Henry's been out of my life long enough that I can't remember if he was actually brilliant, although my suspicions are of course he wasn't, he was eloquent scum.

Fay Grim iz very odd, and quite fun. It's Bret Easton Ellis' GLAMORAMA but done through the sort of American independent smirk that doesn't exist at the moment. Like Jenkins mentioned below in Ned Rifle's thread, Hartley's cinema exists more in its writing than its movement, usually. But Fay Grim has interesting blocking; it makes good use of a low-to-mid level budget toward globetrotting espionage. Two sequences in particular are basically New Wave.

Quote from: jenkins on September 13, 2014, 03:16:14 PMwhat are the odds i'd have wanted to see this movie? i'm about to be rude. the odds are slim to none. something beyond unparalleled universal praise woulda had to happen to motivate me to enter a theater for hartley, who i think puts a lot more fucking time into considering his page over considering his cinema

for me it's screwed. nothing beyond praise is happening because praise isn't happening

Ned Rifle isn't as electric. It's funny and sad, but also quite clearly an Epilogue or Coda to the previous two films. Ned Rifle as a character has enuff anglez that I enjoyed the film for who this kid 'iz.'

Trust, Henry Fool, Fay Grim, Amateur. In that order, for me.


Hal Hartley Launches Kickstarter for New Feature 'Where to Land'
The Film Stage

In early 2020 Hal Hartley managed to Kickstarter-finance Where to Land, a feature based on, so he claimed, the best screenplay he'd ever written. Other things––you surely noticed––from early 2020 made small, independent features a difficult prospect. Nearly four years on, however, Hartley's returning to finance that same film with the same $300,000 price tag in a new Kickstarter campaign.

Regulars Bill Sage and Robert John Burke are expected to star alongside Katelyn Sparks; no word on the once-cast Edie Falco, Parker Posey, and Elina Löwensohn, but any appearing in his film is about the least-surprising thing that might transpire. With an essential, extensive Hartley retrospective now running on the Criterion Channel, one hopes interest in this filmmaker––among the most appreciably sui generis America's produced the last 40 years––is sufficient to finance a new project.

Here's the official synopsis:

QuoteJoseph Fulton, a well-regarded fifty-eight year-old director of romantic comedies, wants to become assistant groundskeeper at a local cemetery, to work outdoors and be close to nature. He also happens to be having his last will and testament drawn up. But his highly dramatic and excitable actress girlfriend thinks he must be dying and that he is just too brave to tell anyone. The rumor spreads and soon everyone he knows—and some he doesn't—are crowded into his apartment to say their last farewells.