Hal Fool: The Push, Pull and Play of Hal Hartley, Part II
by Anthony Kaufman
In Part II of our in-depth interview with Hal Hartley, the highly independent director discusses the tensions between control and freedom, emotion and restraint, and his particular concern with cleanliness verses crap in his latest film, the epic, but still uniquely Hartleyian study, “Henry Fool” which follows garbageman Simon Grim’s (James Urbaniak) rise to literary stardom after being encouraged to write a poem by a mysterious outsider named Henry Fool (Thomas Jay Ryan).
indieWIRE: That’s particularly interesting, because it’s very easy to see your work as dichotomies, of pushing and pulling. And one is, I think, this idea of controlled environments and freedom. And that’s a good illustration of that.
Hal Hartley: Freedom and control are always two, those two are always there. Some of the work better than others. I think the World of Donuts thing I’ve just described now wound up being for the most part, kind of stagey, which I didn’t like. There’s one shot over by the counter when Parker [Posey] comes in, which worked better. Sometimes, you know, you’re hoping for the best. But there’s one [shot] I like a lot which is looking out the front door of the Grim house, Parker is sweeping the steps, and Marissa [Chibas] comes up, she’s playing a reporter. Parker is cut off at the neck for awhile and then she comes back down. It’s a locked off shot — it doesn’t adjust. And sometimes people are [framed out] and there’s a sliver of window over here and at a certain point, Simon appears and moves through it and then he stops right there and it’s really exciting.
iW: What do you think that fragmentation creates?
Hartley: I think it creates a liveliness. The potential that something can go wrong. It’s not too refined. I like refinement, but I like rawness, too. They have to exist together.
iW: There’s also this feeling of cleanliness, but in “Henry Fool” there’s this opposite. . .
Hartley: Clean, powerfully strong images, in that sense, clean images, of shit. That was our banner. I want more garbage. More puke, more sweat and piss. But, of course, that doesn’t come to me second nature. That’s a lot of work. The puke, throwing up on the girl’s behind. That’s work. That’s a particular kind of filmmaking, it takes a long time. The puke machine and dealing with girls with her pants down — the diplomacy that goes on is pretty intense. And then, teaching an actor how to fake the vomit, when this whole, big thing is taped to the side of his neck.
iW: But you are stylizing and making that vomit fairly precise in the same way that you control your other elements?
Hartley: It’s also a mistake. I just didn’t get all the shots I needed to for that scene. The girl was starting to get upset, it was getting late, and I just said, fuck it, this is too much work for this, and I just said, I’ll just see what I can do in the editing room. It is a botched scene. There’s enough of the general spirit of the scene there to be hysterical. But I really wanted it to be as realistic and as finely crafted as anything they would do in a more expensive splatter movie. But life is you get what you can. At the end of the day, you have these shots and you try to figure out what to do with them. And that’s fine. I like that. It’s almost more fun not to have all the right shots and try to make something of them.
iW: About the pushing and pulling of your work, there’s this tension, I think, between control and emotion; the emotion kind of sneaks up on you. When I spoke to James Urbaniak, he told me that there’s an emotional quality that really comes out, even amidst the stiffness.
Hartley: I don’t know if I can describe its effect any better than you can. But I can talk a little bit about what I try to do. I think any serious [artist] should be very suspicious of emotion in a story. It’s funny that I found in this while I was writing, it was going to be more obviously emotional. I tried to, in my movies, I say with complete confidence, my movies are about nothing but emotion, but that’s why the obvious emotional response you are supposed to have should be delayed, should be hidden. Your access to that should be your responsibility; the movie should exist in a way to not give you everything, to give you access, so you can come in. A lot of the time the dialogue is written and cut in a certain way to trip up your habits. That happens in this, too, except that the emotion can be a lot more obvious. The story is complicated enough that I didn’t need to hide it. I didn’t need to use as many of those formalist approaches to trip you up. The story itself will trip you up. Henry is so many contradictions. When I was editing it, I suspected that it might, I suspected myself. I thought I might have been cheap with emotion. Now, I don’t feel that way. There was a real need for me to write that story in that way, so I have to give that credence. I don’t know if it’s my best work. It’s certainly my best, conventionally written script.
iW: Do you think that’s why you’re getting all this praise for your script?
Hartley: Probably. I knew when I was writing that this was a very good script. Sometimes when you’re working you realize that all of this stuff is happening now, anybody could be writing it as long as you’ve logged on to the right train of thought. And that’s a very beautiful feeling to have. The story starts telling itself. And you feel lucky because you happen to be at the right time at the right place, with the right skills, and the right particular insights to give it shape. I knew that the world wanted this story right now. They needed a troublemaker like Henry. But my direction of it, my making of it, I went back to a lot of creative strategies that I used in the beginning of my career. Which are okay. They didn’t excite me as much. Cause they were things I knew how to do. But this was a movie I had to make.
iW: “Flirt” was very much an experiment. . .
Hartley: But, you see, that’s what I consider to be my best work. . .
iW: So I wanted to ask you, in “Henry Fool,” what is the experiment — is there an experiment?
Hartley: There is nothing experimental about “Henry Fool.” I know how to make this movie. It was very hard to raise money for anything after I made “Flirt.” They were like, uh, oh, he’s become an art filmmaker. Never be surprised about how conservative the media is.
iW: Is that daunting?
Hartley: If you have to make a “Henry Fool” every once in awhile, then. . .
iW: Is this your “Henry Fool”? “Henry Fool” is your “Henry Fool”?
Hartley: [laughs] Unless I make another. I feel like I want to make “Henry Fool” movies for the rest of my life, because the story is so rich. Okay, next one “Henry in Moscow” — we pick it up 6 months later, Henry is hiding in Moscow. He got off the plane in Sweden, the cops are chasing him, Parker goes looking for him. It could go on and on. It could be like a James Bond series.