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Interview: Hal Hartley on Ned Rifle, Career, and More

The Ned Rifle filmmaker spoke to us about where he sees himself plying his trade in an ever-changing industry.

Interview: Hal Hartley on Ned Rifle, Career, and More
Photo: Possible Films

With his latest feature, Ned Rifle, Hal Hartley completes the trilogy that he began filming almost 20 years ago. The first of the three, Henry Fool, was about the rather mysterious titular author of his own autobiography. Fay Grim, from 2006, focused on the author’s girlfriend, played by Parker Posey, and her turbulent encounters with the world of espionage. Now, Ned Rifle tells the story of the couple’s son, played by Liam Aiken, as he turns 18 and decides to make his own—rather bloody, as suggested by the title—life choices. In his works, Hartley expertly blends intelligent, ironic humor with dramatic incident, gripping his eccentric, usually obsessed, but always very passionate characters with deep philosophical quandaries. Ned Rifle is no different in that respect. When I meet Hal Hartley in Berlin earlier this year, where his film won the Prize of the Ecumenical Jury, we spoke about the evolution of his work since he broke out in the early ‘90s, seeking financing on Kickstarter, and where he sees himself plying his trade in an ever-changing industry.

When did you first think that the story of the Grim family was going to be a trilogy? It must have been quite a journey, from the first part, Henry Fool, to Ned Rifle.

When I was making Henry Fool I wasn’t thinking of making a trilogy. Of course, one of the initial reasons for making Ned Rifle was that I wanted to work with Parker Posey again. I had written a couple of other movies for her before. She’s very smart about what’s good for her, and to most of my ideas she just said “no.” After a while, maybe around 2002, I decided that we should do Fay Grim, because I thought that her supporting character in Henry Fool took on so much more dimension when she performed it. So I thought I was going to write another story about this family, but with her at the center. At first it was going to be a completely different movie. Anyway, that was when I knew that if I was going to make part two, another Grim family film, I would have to make a number three. I had written Fay Grim. I flew back to New York from Berlin, where I was living at the time, and met with Liam Aiken, who must have been around 17 at the time. I just wanted to see if he was going to continue acting. He was very happy to come to Berlin and shoot Fay Grim, but I warned him that if we were going to do this, we would have to do the next part, which would be about when Ned turns 18. Liam wasn’t quite sure about what he was going to do with his career, but in the end he admitted that he was very excited about the prospect. After 20 years of filmmaking, I felt he was a natural. I could see that even when he was 17. He had charisma, and this kind of attractive masculinity. He was actually very much like the young actors that started their careers when I did in the filmmaking business, like Martin Donovan and Bill Sage.

How would you describe changes in your filmic style since the early ‘90s?

I think I’m just more confidently aware. It took me most of the ‘90s to understand what I was doing—to realize that there was a relationship between rhythm and melody of the dialogue and the rhythm and the melody of the physical activity, about how I move people around. Actually, this is how Jeff Goldblum described my films. We worked together on Fay Grim in 2006. We first met on a street in New York, when I was going to see a play he was in. We stood talking on the way out of the subway for maybe 20 minutes. Jeff admitted watching my work and that I moved people around in a really interesting way. And I thought that was really well put. He turned out to be one of the actors I’ve ever worked with, who were just brilliant at this physical activity and felicity with language.

Your films look like they were very carefully planned. Many independent directors start shooting spontaneously, sometimes even without a proper script. How much time does it take for you to prepare?

I do need a lot of preparation. Usually it takes even three times as much effort to plan than to shoot. And that’s just work with the production designer on location. You use your time to look for perfect spots, to design everything, for the casting process, and, if we can afford it, for rehearsal. Before we even start doing that, though, the writing takes a couple of years sometimes. For instance, in Ned Rifle there are lots of inside stories that needed to be thought through. I found it interesting that Simon has his freak-out moment and becomes a comedian, that Fay is in jail for life, but is totally positive about it, and that Henry pretends to be crazy, calling himself the devil. I knew that the central motive would be that the son gets out there to kill his father and then at a certain point there would be something else. It took me quite a while to figure out what that something would be. Then I reread the script of Henry Fool and there’s one line there when Henry admits to Simon in the basement, “Yes, I was in prison for seven years for something that’s called in flagrante delicto with a 13-year-old.” That girl was an ugly, mean-spirited girl named Susan. And I thought—“Bingo!”—let’s go there. “Let’s take is all the way back to the beginning.” And then things started heating up and falling into place.

So you probably didn’t have a particular actress in mind when you wrote the character of Susan?

No, we actually did a worldwide search when we started our campaign on Kickstarter to raise the money for Ned Rifle.

Had you seen Aubrey Plaza in Parks and Recreation before casting her in the role?

You see, Aubrey’s agents are Parker’s agents. I was already doing business with them for this movie. And so once they asked me if I needed anyone else for my upcoming film and I told them that the lead role is actually vacant, the one of a 30-year-old girl. I asked them to suggest someone. A couple of other actresses, very high-profile, have read the part and turned it down. Then Aubrey was on this list too. I did my homework, I watched tons of Parks and Recreation, and her other features.

Perhaps Safety Not Guaranteed too?

Yes! After that I knew she had something. I’ve seen enough. Oddly, I couldn’t see anything in the television show. In Safety Not Guaranteed, you saw she has range and skill. They don’t really require much skill in Parks and Recreation. You get three cameras shooting all the time. I think it was Mark Duplass who told her about my upcoming film. I know he’s a fan of my work, and he actually greatly contributed to the Kickstarter campaign. So I think it was him that mentioned my name to Aubrey first. Of course she didn’t know who I was and I think it was Mark who told her that she should do this. That she was the right kind of girl. And she really was. She reminded me of the young Adrienne Shelly.

That’s what I wanted to point out too. In what ways do you think they’re alike though?

They have a funny attitude toward their prettiness. They don’t feel entirely at home with it, and so there’s the comedy that comes out of that. There’s also a certain type of nervousness. A nervous quality to the working of their sexuality. But apart from that they’ll all different. Aubrey is older than Adrienne from when I was working with her. She was about 22 when we worked together. There was a whole other youthful dimension to that.

You mentioned your campaign on Kickstarter. That’s your first film financed that way. Has your attitude toward producers and distributors changed in any way?

It’s certainly different for me now since I’ve been making films for over 25 years. But it’s not just my relationship with producers or distributors, but the audiences too. I think I have quite an established relationship with viewers. I’ve never felt different. I know that my films aren’t mass-media mainstream. I don’t think they’re obscure either. Difficult, maybe a little, and challenging in a way too. But if you look closely, you’ll surely admit that any kind of art is challenging. I’ve always been confident that there’s an audience out there for my films. Sometimes I wish my work could be out there more often, that it could be more visible. But on the other hand, I’ve been completely shocked by how many people have actually seen my films, by how popular they get around the world. Happy, of course, but shocked too.

Does it matter to you if people see your films on the big screen or on their computers?

I do realize that these days most people around the world watch films on the small screens of their electronic devices. I think that’s where I’d like my career to move to. I think making shorter episodic shows for the Internet makes all the difference. Today, Amazon is making such shows. So is Yahoo. I think it would be fun to make a serial.

Are you perhaps working on something like that? An episodic show?

I’m currently working on something in particular. I have lots of ideas in progress, and I’m discussing them with a couple of networks. But, you know, this business changes so much that we don’t even have the right terminology. If you make an episodic series for Netflix or Amazon, do you call it a TV show? You know that most people are going to watch it on their computers, not their TV sets. For the past couple of months the industry has been using the term “a TV-like episodic comedy or drama” [laughs].

Sounds a little artificial to me.

Well, “independent American cinema” sounded pretty artificial to me in the 1990s. It looked like a tag that’s been thrown at anyone who was not working for the major studios.

People who started their independent careers in or around the 1990s, like Steven Soderbergh, Richard Linklater, Kevin Smith, are making films for a bigger audiences today. Do you even think that the term “American independent filmmaking” still exists? Do you call yourself an independent filmmaker?

For ease of reference, I do these days, yes. But it actually was tricky at the beginning. I wasn’t quite sure of what different people meant when calling me that. The year I started making Simple Men, Kevin Costner made Dances with Wolves—another independently financed movie. Is Kevin’s movie not independent and mine is? You see, these things change all the time. You just have to wait and see your work to define itself.

Those were certainly some good years, when your films won several awards at Sundance and Cannes. Are you nostalgic about the period?

Not really [laughs]. I’m really excited about the new possibilities, I think it’s a good time we live in. There are so many new ways to make and watch films. There’s place for everything. Thanks to that, not every piece has to be mainstream, not everything has to be of Mad Men or Breaking Bad quality. There’s a wider variety of choice for audiences too.

And how do you react to the criticism of your work?

To be fair, it’s been a long time since the last time I read any film criticism or reviews. I don’t really know the trends these days [laughs]. But 15 years ago I did. I’d look at a television show, read the review afterward, and I would just be surprised at what they were writing about. On the other hand, I do read a lot of literary criticism. But I think it’s more strict there. I think even nowadays literary criticism is more responsibly articulate about the text and its interpretation.

You usually spend more time with the text. That might be one of the reasons.

I agree. But I’ll give you one example to prove my point. An American writer, David Foster Wallace, the author of Infinite Jest, wrote this rather famous article on David Lynch. I personally found it incredibly banal and misinformed. Basically he was saying that Lynch doesn’t make films like Blue Velvet anymore, and that he’s not that interesting anymore. I’m probably just saying that because Blue Velvet is really important to me and to many other filmmakers in their 50s, I’m sure. It changed things for independent filmmaking in general. And Foster Wallace was just totally wrong about it. He even described events from the film that aren’t even there. But it seems that you can get away with that when you’re talking about films. There aren’t too many people that would go to their shelves, pick up the DVD, and see the film again to prove the author wrong. Over time, I just keep noticing the ephemeralness of films which come in the existent time and most people don’t re-watch them. A lot can be said without authority.

Are your films ephemeral too?

Good question. I think, I hope, there’s a certain type of humanity and decency in my work. At least that’s the aim. There’s always this attempt to put the world back together somehow. There are films that admit that we live in a very fractured world, that there are opportunities to make it whole again, even just for a moment. It has something to do with why my films always end the way they do. Many of them end with what I call “suspension.” There’s the rhythm of conclusion, there comes a conclusion, but not a resolution. Just like if you think in terms of music, the melody goes up and you’re expecting something big—like the endings of Simple Men, Trust, or Amateur. Ned Rifle is different in that respect. And there’s beauty in it too.

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