Hal Hartley was one of the most original voices to emerge out of the American indie boom of the late 1980s and early 1990s, a writer-director with a novelistic sensibility and a unique, anti-realist style. His new film, Ned Rifle, is his second follow-up (he doesn’t like to call it a sequel) to Henry Fool, his cult 1997 feature about a Queens garbageman who becomes a Nobel Prize-winning poet with the help of the mysterious title character. Now grown-up, Henry’s son, Ned (Liam Aiken), goes looking for his long-missing father (Thomas Jay Ryan), intending to avenge his mother, Fay (Parker Posey), who has been imprisoned for terrorism following the events of 2006’s Fay Grim.
We sat down with Hartley a few days after Ned Rifle’s world premiere at the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival, almost exactly 25 years after his first feature, The Unbelievable Truth, had its international debut at the fest. He discussed his working methods, his relationship to the characters, and the names that keep popping up in his films.
The A.V. Club: “Ned Rifle” is a name that you’ve used in your work for a while.
Hal Hartley: It started when I was in college. We had a lot of writing classes at the State University Of New York At Purchase, where I studied filmmaking. We had to write a lot of assignments, short little things. “Come back next week with a two-page dialogue. Somebody’s on one side of the door, someone’s on the other side. Get them through that door.” Stuff like that, just to help us develop and sharpen our skills. There were 12 or 13 students, and we used try to crack each other up with in-jokes. And Ned Rifle was my in-joke. “Ned Rifle” just sounded hilarious.
Then, when I started making movies and putting some of my music in, I wasn’t very confident about it. It was almost more like sound design, a moody kind of thing. But, you have to make music cue sheets for the distributor, so I started putting down “Ned Rifle” as the name of the composer. And that kind of caught on and everybody wanted to know who Ned Rifle was.
AVC: Ned Rifle, Simon Grim, Henry Fool… Did all the names come first?
HH: Henry Fool is a name that goes back to college, too. I had that as a character name for a long time. And the little thing about there having been an e at the end, that’s an idea that goes back to 1982. The name was hanging around. “Simon Grim” was a taxi cab driver in New York.
AVC: Each of these three films is, on the one hand, part of a larger story, but on the other hand, it’s also a snapshot.
HH: When I thought about making other movies with these characters, that’s how I phrased it to myself. It’s not a sequel. I’m not making part two. My notion was to make totally different films, but with this family, the Grims, at the center. It’s kind of, “What does the world feel like to me at this time?” but seen through this gang.
I knew that if I were going to make another film, I wanted Fay at the center. Henry Fool was the first time Parker [Posey] and I had worked together, and it was so great, and I wanted to make a whole movie for her. I wrote other movies for her, but she wanted to do [Fay Grim]. In 2002-2003, I wanted to write something about that new espionage culture we lived in and how I didn’t understand it. I often felt in America like I was in a foreign country and people were speaking another language. Fay would be a perfect catalyst: well-intentioned, ditzy single mom confronting the sharp edges of that new situation.
AVC: Each film is also a snapshot of the independent film landscape at the time. Fay Grim comes from a time when shooting digitally was unusual; now it’s the standard. You were early in embracing digital. Do you miss film?
HH: Not at this point. It’s so much easier in important ways. I was interested in [video] when it was standard-def, Hi-8. Before and after my first feature, I had this desire to work regularly. I didn’t want to write a feature film and then wait three years to get financing. I wanted to work more like my musician friends, my painter friends, my writer friends. If I’m a filmmaker, shouldn’t I get up in the morning and make films?
Now, that can mean a lot of different things: writing, art direction, editing. Video always gave me an inexpensive way to make smaller pieces. I was lucky enough to get my feature career going, but I still continued wanting to work that way. My interest in the ’90s was not to try and make it look like film. I was very turned off aesthetically by these movies that were trying to look like they were 35 mm, but were shot with a Sony VX-2000—disregarding the actual characteristics of that machine, that medium. You could call that my “expressionist phase”: The Book Of Life, The Girl From Monday.
AVC: A lot of canted angles…
HH: Well, the smallness of those cameras contributed to the canted angles. Why am I shackling myself to this notion of level? That’s not how we see the world; we’re always looking at angles. Also, the slow shutter speed. Don’t think of it as photography. Think of it as electronics and do something with that.
AVC: This is technically your first feature in eight years, but you’ve kept busy. You did Meanwhile, quite a few shorts, My America…
HH: I’m not always interested in making features. And now things are really changing with the way people engage with filmed entertainment. They watch it on their phones and their computers, and the length thing isn’t really an issue.
AVC: You’ve done so much work in the last few years that’s shorter than feature-length. Would you consider doing something that’s much longer?
HH: I’m writing and trying to develop a TV idea. I think that’s every writer’s dream—the really big book, like Dickens. Those big books were serialized. They could change over time. That’s really exciting.
AVC: Do you think of yourself first and foremost as a writer?
HH: At this stage, after this many years, I can say more confidently that I feel more closely aligned to novelists than I do to most other filmmakers. The kind of emotional-intellectual-aesthetic engagement I’m hoping to offer the viewer is more similar to contemporary novelists, for the most part.
AVC: You said “at this stage.”
HH: Well, after 25 years, it’s easier for me talk about what I’ve been doing. [Laughs.] At the airport in New York, coming up here, I had to wait two hours with my laptop, and I was writing my journal and I was just trying to remember what the hell was going on when I was [at the Toronto International Film Festival] 25 years ago, when my career began. I didn’t know what I was doing artistically. I used to say, in the years after Trust came out, that Steven O’Connor, who was my best friend in those years, knew what I was doing better than I did. That he could talk about it. It gets easier as you do it longer.
AVC: It gets easier to talk about yourself?
HH: Yeah, because you can compare. I knew from the very beginning that I was doing something particular with dialogue and trying to get the actors to move through it, but it took me 10 years to realize that it was about the rhythm and melody of dialogue and activity and they have to speak to each other. Being an artist of any kind, it’s not theory; you only know what you’re doing by doing it. You discover what you’re aiming for by keeping busy.
AVC: Do you rehearse?
HH: On set. We did a read-through. It was easier when we were younger and unknown and we all lived in the same neighborhood. Now, Martin Donovan lives in Vancouver; Aubrey [Plaza] lives in L.A. Three days before the shoot, we did read-throughs, so everybody got the sense that we’re in the same movie. But I used to rent a rehearsal hall—like for Trust or something—for a month.
AVC: Well, rehearsal is cheap. That’s the important thing to remember when you’re making movies on a tight budget.
HH: Right! Let’s not stand around the set talking about character motivation, we’ve got to move. [Laughs.] But, again, I’m better at my job, better at directing people than I was then, so I can get to the essentials quicker. I articulate them better.
AVC: There’s a very specific sense of choreographed movement in your work, of characters moving around the camera. Is that something you plan out while writing, or does it come on the set?
HH: It’s when I start visualizing it and designing it. Location scouting is when I do a lot of the work. When I’m writing, I generally just stick to the dialogue. I might have images of the type of room, the type of door. Then I start to look for locations, and the location itself suggests certain kinds of frames, which suggest certain types of physical activity.
AVC: And you currently live in New York, right?
HH: Right. We shot in New York. The Seattle portions were shot in Williamsburg, the Portland scenes were shot in Queens and Westchester County. I spend probably a lot more time location scouting that most filmmakers. Usually, the whole crew goes out a few weeks before shooting. I go months before shooting, with my art director, because there are certain aesthetic and economic realities that start to play on the design of the film. Whenever possible, I don’t want to dress a set. The one way I can make good-looking films on a low budget is by finding locations. You come, it’s dressed, it’s perfect, and the food is good, too. [Laughs.] We just move in and start shooting.
AVC: Coming back to the film itself, and working with the same characters over and over, do you feel a responsibility to the actors?
HH: How do you mean?
AVC: Well, you’ve worked with these people before. In the case of someone like Simon Grim or Henry Fool, you have some radical changes happening. At the beginning of this, for instance, Simon Grim is trying to become a stand-up comedian. Do you discuss what you’re writing? Do you feel like the actors have ownership over the characters?
HH: Oh, of course. Thomas Jay Ryan has been talking with me about this for years. He was trying to talk me into having this big long beard. James [Urbaniak] responded really excitedly to the whole stand-up thing. With Parker, less so, but that’s because she works a lot more. Tom is a theater actor and doesn’t do many movies. I want to encourage them and hear what they’re thinking, but you’d do that with any character.
But I have to be careful. They feel a sense of responsibility, too. Tom is very identified with Henry. Things get cut out, and I’m not precious about my dialogue. Sometimes, on the page it’s serving its purposes, while we’re shooting it’s serving its purpose, and by the time we get to the editing, it’s done its job and now it can come out. That breaks his heart; there are some speeches he misses. You have to be a good friend and a captain.