When Hal Hartley was looking for a theater in Los Angeles that would fit the tone of his latest feature “Ned Rifle,” the third in the series of idiosyncratic thrillers he started with in 1997 with “Henry Fool,” his stars Aubrey Plaza and Liam Aiken, among other friends, had suggested the Cinefamily as the ideal venue. As it turned out, Hadrian Belove, who had seen the film at Toronto, had even bigger plans if only he could get in touch with the writer/director, hoping to put together a career retrospective.
“It was just kismet,” said Hartley, speaking from his home in New York about his rare trip out to the West Coast, making the retrospective a particularly special event. “We were both looking for each other at the same time.”
The fact that it was a small world that brought the filmmaker and theater together in itself may be the perfect tribute to Hartley’s work, which have usually contemplated the place of its characters within the larger – often global – context. Drawing upon a company of actors he’s assembled over the years that’s as sharp, precise and uniquely compelling as the dialogue he asks them to deliver that includes the likes of Parker Posey, Thomas Jay Ryan, Elina Lowensohn, and Martin Donovan, among others, Hartley has had great fun imagining characters who can sometimes seem as if they realize (and are slightly bemused that) they’re in a movie, though not necessarily the one they’d cast themselves in, and he reworks traditional genre conventions to ponder what existential meaning can be sussed out from the disconnect between the lives we lead and the stories we tell.
Only Hartley could craft a wry, taut potboiler from the story of a garbageman-turned-poet named Simon whose success frustrates Henry, the down-on-his-luck writer who transformed him into a literary phenomenon in “Henry Fool” and then follow it up with a sequel “Fay Grim” that tapped into the anxiety of the post 9/11 world by shifting the attention to Henry’s wife Fay (Parker Posey), who becomes a figure of great international intrigue when her husband’s journals are thought to compromise US security. His latest, “Ned Rifle,” continues the series by following Fay and Henry’s son (Liam Aiken) who seeks revenge on his father with assistance from someone else (Aubrey Plaza) with a connection to him.
The Cinefamily’s survey of Hartley’s work will begin with this particular trio of films this weekend, just as “Ned Rifle” makes its debut in select theaters across the country and the writer/director self-distributes on Vimeo, followed by a selection of some of his most distinctive works throughout April, including “The Unbelievable Truth,” “The Book of Life,” “Surviving Desire,” and “Trust.” On the eve of his Los Angeles adventure, Hartley took the time to reflect on what’s changed and stayed the same during a three-decade career, how he maintained creative independence and why he keeps coming back to the Grim family.
Is it crazy to be at the point in your career where you can have retrospectives?
It is. But I made so many films so quickly in the early ‘90s, there were retrospectives even larger than this one. What’s interesting now about it is that more and more it’s this whole new generation being turned on to the older films. The question-and-answer parts are really interesting because they’re fresh questions. They’re not loaded down with the assumptions of the critics and journalists at the time the films came out. There is fresh thinking and fresh seeing of the films, which I appreciate.
It seems to have been a blessing you were able to re-release a lot of your films through those great Olive Films Blu-rays a couple years ago. Has it been nice to have these films back in circulation?
Yeah, not the least being that that’s how I make my living. A lot of my work week to week for the past four or five years has been in studios [overseeing] the negatives of the old films and tapes and turning them into the proper HD and doing color correction. For some of these films, like “Trust,” it’s the first time the film looks like what it’s supposed to look like, so that’s been fun.
You actually kept ownership of the majority of your films, which is something that seems remarkable in retrospect, but must’ve been difficult when you were just starting out. Have you felt it’s really paid dividends?
It is now. Certainly, the lion’s share of my income comes from modernizing these films I made 25 years ago or 10 years ago, but it’s a lot of work. You have to keep an office. You have a lot of business responsibilities. I think at the time when my career started, [that instinct] from the idea that I always wanted to make a living from making my art. I didn’t want to have another job and then make my art. I wanted to eliminate every single potential compromise that I would have to make, because you do, anyway, have to make a lot of compromises. The quality of the work was the only thing I really cared about. I also suspected that I was probably going to make a body of work that wasn’t mainstream. Sometimes, I’m shocked at the visibility of films like “Simple Men” or “Henry Fool,” which really almost took me by surprise. That was great. I loved that, but it was really about protecting the work.
Do you actually feel like something’s gained by watching these films together?
Yeah, I do think it’s valuable if you’re that serious in the same way like when I discover a novel that I’m really interested in, I really want to get all the books and read all of them. I’m standing here now in front of my library and I’m looking at all my Thomas Hardy novels. That’s how it started. You realize that this man, Thomas Hardy, over the course of his writing life of 40 years, no matter if the stories were different, the locations were often the same and even if the genre even changed a little bit, he was addressing his core stuff that was meaningful to him. If someone had the time and the wherewithal to spend a couple of weeks watching my films, they would see that too.
What is it about the world you started in “Henry Fool” that’s kept you coming back?
Just that family. I love that family. On the one hand, they’re just this white trash family, but these extraordinary things happen to them in the world and I could talk about anything about the world and just pass it through the Grim family as if they’re prisms somehow. The idea with “Fay Grim” was to see world events through that family [when] the world was really different. We live in this post-9/11 world and with all this espionage going around, it feels like we were living in a spy movie, so it was like, “Let’s think about this.”
It’s been interesting to see at which points you’ve made these films in terms of your career – “Fay Grim” came after your largest-scale productions when you were dipping into genre and “Ned Rifle” seems to be coming when you’re making more intimate studies in individualism. Do you feel like the films have been influenced by the wavelengths you’re on at the time?
I just trust the story idea. I did know about “Ned Rifle” from the very beginning that this ought to be more like my film “Meanwhile,” which I made in 2012. There’s a person, they have an aim and [the film is] looking to be be close to them [individually] and the outside world, the society, isn’t really going to be part of the subject matter. Starting with “Henry Fool” in 1997, that was the first time the subject of the movies were not just [about] the characters but the society they lived in and I think of “Ned Rifle” as being more like “Trust” or “Simple Men” or the earlier ones where If there is a consideration of the society we live in, it’s a little bit more oblique.
You’ve said that if there’s something that’s changed in your work over the years, it’s been a reliance on dialogue. Has that been an interesting shift as a filmmaker to see what you could do without words?
Yeah, it has. Very early in my career, I wanted to do that and when I did “Simple Men,” which was the third feature film, there’s a lot less dialogue in it than there is in “Trust” and “The Unbelievable Truth” and I found great joy in inventing and making these long periods of just physical activity. I do love dialogue too, but as I’ve made more and more films, I discovered that what my real aim is is to fuse the rhythm and melody of the dialogue with the rhythm and the melody of the physical activity and sometimes, the words are playing second fiddle to the physical activity. I really want them to work together.
It also seems like you’ve cultivated that to a certain degree with your casting as well since you’ve often gone back to the same actors while injecting a few new ones into the mix that change the energy. Are there reasons besides familiarity for reuniting with people you’ve worked with before?
Different things contribute to that. One is when you find an actor who gets you and what you’re doing, that’s important, and they usually want to work with you again too. What I couldn’t have imagined 20 years ago, because no one does, is that when you’re younger, you get older and so do your actor friends. So it’s a real joy to be directing Bill Sage again, who is the garbageman at the topless bar [in “Ned Rifle”] and was one of my leading men 20 years ago when he was Liam’s age. At 50 years old, he’s a totally different kind of guy and he’s had so much more experience, which I rely on. They’ve gone out and they’ve done different kinds of things and basically it all [contributes to them] becoming these terrific character actors.
As a director, has what you’re excited by as a filmmaker changed or are they still the same fundamental things?
Over the years, I’ve changed and investigated different things, but I feel right now that I’m coming back to something that I was interested in in earlier years, except now I have greater experience and I’m more mature, so I have a more mature understanding of what I was interested in. The way I talk about the rhythm and melody of the dialogue and physical activity [is something] I could never have said 20 years ago, but I was doing it without really knowing what I was doing. It was only through making the films and looking at them and editing them. I could say, “I could do that better and better. I feel my craft has improved.” I feel like I’ve found a voice, so it will probably remain my voice for the remainder.
“The Films of Hal Hartley” will start at the Cinefamily in Los Angeles on April 2nd, including a weeklong run of “Ned Rifle” through April 9th. “Ned Rifle” is also now available on Vimeo on Demand here.