Hal Fool: The Push, Pull and Play of Hal Hartley, Part I
by Anthony Kaufman
After Hal Hartley's witty, narrative experiment "Flirt" flopped with
distributors a few years back, the very independent New York
writer/director returns with the more conventionally-scripted,
critically-praised, quintessentially Hartleyian romp, "Henry Fool." The
title character was gestating in Hartley's mind for quite some time,
evolving during the years financiers shied away from him after "Flirt."
But now his beloved and reviled Mephistophelian protagonist finally
makes it to the screen, along with James Urbaniak as Simon Grim, a
garbage man whose hidden literary talents are discovered by the
enigmatic Mr. Fool, and Parker Posey, as the sister Grim, a nymphomaniac
who can't help but desire him.
For Hartley's next project, he turns away from the politics of
filmmaking in favor of the freedom of theater. "Soon," a "play with
music" will be staged at Austria's Saltzburg Opera House this July with
such Hartley regulars as Elina Lowensohn and Miho Nikaido. Hartley took
time away from rehearsals for a rampant press day in New York City's
Sony building. But Hartley is calm, and soft-spoken; you would never
know from speaking with him that he has both a play and a film opening
up within a month of each other. Sitting against the skyscraper
backdrop of a city he has repeatedly reimagined, Hartley spoke to me
about his distributors, his distaste for being homogenized, his
difficulty rendering environments and the many paradoxes of his style.
indieWIRE: In my office, we were recently discussing the value of awards from
the Cannes film festival. Do you think the Screenwriting award will
have some effect on the life of your film? How concerned are you with
things like box office and sales?
Hal Hartley: I'm not overly concerned with it. I am concerned about my
distributors earning a buck, because I think that's good business
sense. I try to keep my budgets reasonable, and don't expect
unreasonable advances from distributors. You want to have a good
experience because you want to continue working with people like Tom
[Bernard] and Michael [Barker], because they're nice to work with. When
they didn't take "Flirt," I was all like [gasps in disappointment.] But
they have to do what they have to do, too. Even though they liked the
film, they didn't think it could do the kind of business that they
iW: And of course, you want as many people to see your work. . . ?
Hartley: As many people that will appreciate them. I think a lot of
people, here in the United States, would appreciate any of my films.
It's just that they come packaged, not to put you on the defensive, the
media tends to homogenize -- when things exist too close to the margins,
but they could be perfectly accessible for lots and lots of people -- it
tends to be that what is essentially interesting about the piece has to
be rendered -- you have to lie about it. 'It's almost like all these
other things in the mainstream, but different.' These perceptions that
you get from movie posters and coming attractions, and it's like I know
that film and that film is not anything like that.'
iW: So how do you think you've been homogenized?
Hartley: I think it's been a big struggle. I think most of the
independent distributors in the country are people that I've worked with
-- October's never ventured (smartly) -- I'm sure that if the guys from
Fine Line, Miramax, and Sony Classics all got together one day, they'd
probably all sit around talking, "So what did you try to do with
Hartley? How did you try to pull this off?" It's tough. The market's
changing. Expectations are changing. And now, Michael and Tom tell me
that one of the weirdest things for them in dealing with me is this
perceived type of thing that there's a particular type of Hartley
audience and a particular type of Hartley film and particular type of
acting style. But that's a coincidence of renewed, creative, continued
work. And sometimes that stuff gets more press than the movies.
There's this aura of. . .
iW: 'The Auteur.'
Hartley: Yeah. Like if enough people around the country say "obscure,
auteur, art filmmaker" enough, then there's this general attitude that
'oh, yeah, he's hard to sell. The Americans won't like it . . .'
iW: I had read that you are concerned with standards of quality and
judgments on art. And "Amateur" being about people who were not
professionals. Isn't Simon Grim and his poem coming out of that same
Hartley: Yeah, that's kind of a pet peeve that resurfaces. I'm always
wondering, am I only getting exposed to things because there are people,
professionals,' who have been put in charge of letting me be exposed to
things. And they judge what's interesting and what's art and what's not
and what's pornography and what's not. I do think that it's a good
thing that we should all people in the media, pay attention to. As a
creative person, I have very serious concrete questions about -- I
didn't want to talk about art, I wanted to talk about the reaction to
supposed art, something that might be art. I didn't want to get into a
discussion whether it was art or not. I wanted to set up a situation
where enough people call it art, and enough other people call it crap,
and then pay attention to that conversation. Because I do think
sensation and reaction causes celebrity.
iW: There's an image in my mind from the film tied to Simon's infamous
poem. When the daughter in the World of Donuts sings, it felt like one
of these non-sequitur Hartley moments -- I wondered about the
composition of that shot -- its a powerful image when she sings.
Hartley: We shot for two weeks in the World of Donuts. A lot of the
movie happens in the World of Donuts. It's a set we made. We found
this store front and rented it for two months. We didn't have a lot of
money to make it really look like an active store, so it was a lot of
work. So the angles were exhausted quickly. Looking at the walls. The
only thing that's really interesting is looking towards the street or
looking the opposite way, through the store and into the backyard. And
so I was always just trying to keep the windows in, keep the activity of
the street, which is something I learned in "Flirt." I've never been
very satisfied with my films in terms of rendering environment. There
was always something frustrating me. And I didn't want to just make
establishing shots and buying into a cinematic language, that is I
think, really old and inexpressive, but that got me into this other bind
where I often get myself into, which is really claustrophobic situations
or jarring when you don't know where you are. And one of things that I
wanted to work on with "Flirt" was to go to foreign places and to really
immerse myself in environments. And I think, by the time, I made
"Flirt," I thought I really did get that sense of Tokyo. When I look at
that film now, and Tokyo is a place I know pretty well now, that's it.
I got it. Without establishing shots. So, I said, okay, the next time I
got to go back to the States, I have to film my home as if it were a
foreign place. So, I said, we're not going to lock down and we're
always going to be shooting the area that we can control, which is the
street, but there's a real life there.
I asked myself, what would "cinema verite" be like if you weren't
allowed to operate the camera, if you had to lock off the shot. And I
started doing that with my videocamera. It didn't mean forsaking your
desire to create powerful graphic images. But other things might
change. For instance, a lot of the activity might happen off camera.
When the camera is still focused on the fire hydrant, a conversation is
happening off right. When I went back and thought about my early work,
I do it a lot. That's a shot that began from that sort of thing,
looking through the street, not emphasizing Henry or a lot of other
things, but let the shot move from a lot of different things: it starts
out on a wide shot of her coming in and then she exits frame and then
she comes extreme foreground and grabs that hunk of bread, then she goes
out right and Henry comes in. That kind of dynamic, of pushing and
pulling -- and then eventually ends as a close up of Mr. Deng coming
in. That's a little bit more elaborate. There's some things like when
Henry's holding forth in the World of Donuts, that was something where I
said -- find myself a graphic image and then let it live. I try to
encourage everybody not to be so perfect about where they sat. It'd be
okay if you're half-in, half-out.