INTERVIEW: Monsters, Media and Meaning: Hal Hartley On "No Such Thing"
by Anthony Kaufman
(indieWIRE/ 03.26.02) — Hiding in the deep reaches of a faraway land, a disgruntled monster suffers over the world’s problems: media saturation, selfishness, noise, deceit. Tortured and exasperated, the monster’s only way to temporarily relieve his pain is to emerge every so often from his cave and attack the human race. Well, four years have passed and Hal Hartley has surfaced once again. While Hartley doesn’t attack society with the insensitivity of the hard-drinking misanthropic monster of his latest film “No Such Thing,” the soft-spoken filmmaker’s seventh feature certainly assails our contemporary civilization, one numb to violence and addicted to fame.
Starring Sarah Polley as the beauty to Robert John Burke‘s beast, “No Such Thing” (opening Friday from United Artists) had a troubled debut at its Cannes premiere last year. (MGM/UA tried to force a re-cut.) But Hartley’s satiric wit is as sharp as ever; “No Such Thing” continues the indie stalwart’s tradition of dry humor and philosophical insights begun with movies like “The Unbelievable Truth” and “Trust” over 12 years ago. Sure, his work isn’t for everyone. But “No Such Thing” is undeniably Hartley-esque — another unique vision from one of American independent film’s original mavericks.
indieWIRE Contributor Anthony Kaufman traveled to Hartley’s cave in lower Manhattan and spoke with the filmmaker about working with MGM and Francis Ford Coppola, the media, social criticism and his latest projects.
indieWIRE: Do you think the indie film world — and your role within that world — has changed since we last talked roughly four years ago?
Hal Hartley: Not for me personally. I’m still doing the same things. I’m making different kinds of movies, but I still try to have a conscience about it.
iW: Is it harder for you to get financing? Distribution?
Hartley: It comes and goes. The cycle seems to be three or four years. It’s tight and conservative and then it loosens up. It has to do with technology and the economy. But for me, it’s always the same thing. The only time it was easy was with “Simple Men.” After “Trust,” which only cost $650,000 and made a lot of money for such a marginal film, it was very easy to raise $1 million for “Simple Men.” But you go in and out of fashion. I think right now we’re riding on the crest of fashionable indie film. But then it passes. And you grow. And growing as an artist almost necessitates being less popular. If your work progresses by virtue of pursuing a greater articulation of your interests, you’re bound to go into directions that are not dictated by the requirements of the market. So there’s always that tension. I think I know more about that now. I was very naïve at one point. I was just lucky enough to have an audience and the films were very reasonably budgeted. And then I didn’t have all these things: an office, a wife. It was easy; you could make a little money and move on. Now you need a little bit more money.
iW: So there are certain business angles that I’d like to get out of the way in regards to “No Such Thing.” It took a long time for the movie to get out there and there was this question of re-cuts.
Hartley: There was just one question about a re-cut. Francis [Ford Coppola] and I had an agreement in that he would protect my cut as long as I worked with him and took his notes. And I said, that’s fine: I’ll have a conversation with Francis Ford Coppola, he’s a filmmaker, not a suit. We argued a lot. Initially, he responded to the script, and recognized that my films were made out of the mainstream, but thought that this could be mainstream. But he was a great gentleman. He did protect my cut; I believe the people at the studio had a lot of problems with the film. I don’t think they knew who I was or had seen my films and I don’t believe they even read the script. They were quite nervous after Cannes. Before, they were okay with the film, because Francis was okay with the film. But after Cannes, where it got pretty negative criticism, that shook them up a little. And they felt they needed to lean on Francis a bit to do something about it. So he tried.
iW: How so?
Hartley: Reorganized it differently based on notes from the studio. But it did not make a film that was going to be more accessible. They make films differently. People in the business, they do market research and look at demographics, and then they apply all of these numbers to the film and it just didn’t make the film that Francis and I thought was going to be more popular. So ultimately, he went the long road.
iW: And the movie that played in Cannes is the one that will play in theaters.
Hartley: Yeah. I like the film. My only surprise was that the people at MGM were taken by surprise by the kind of film that it was. It was exactly the film that I wrote.
iW: How did the match initially occur between you and Coppola?
Hartley: About six years ago, he had just discovered my films and he called to meet for coffee. At that time, he was very clear that it wasn’t about business; he just wanted to talk. It didn’t happen, but then we spoke on the phone about a year later and he said, “If you ever need any information or advice, feel free to call.” So when I was going to make “No Such Thing” for a $1 million with Fridrik Fridriksson in Iceland . . .
iW: And Fridricksson had the idea of doing a number of monster movies, so the initial idea wasn’t completely your own . . .
Hartley: Yeah, but that’s like most of my films. Most of them stem from somebody saying, “Can you make a film blah blah blah?” and then I just apply my interests to that situation. So we were making this $1 million monster film and we decided we wanted as serious as special effects as we could afford, so I called up Francis and asked him for advice. And he got us in touch with his son Roman who introduced us to Mark Rappaport [Creature Effects], who really understood the film. And as the weeks went on, Francis said, “What are you doing with this movie? I have to make these 10 movies for MGM and this is exactly what I’d like to do.”
iW: Did the special effects of the monster’s make-up significantly increase the budget?
Hartley: Yes. I think if we did stick with making a $1 million film, it would have manifested itself in a different way. It was tough. We were really up against the wall. Mark was willing to do it for a $1 million. But eventually when Francis got involved, it went up to a $5 million film and that loosened up things for Mark.
iW: So about this monster, he seems like he gives you an opportunity to go off on everything that’s wrong with society. He’s your perfect mouthpiece for social criticism.
Hartley: Yeah, that’s how I see it. When I was writing it, I thought this is fun and funny. And of course it is a reflection on the way we live that is not deadly serious. It’s satire. But directing it, it felt really angry. And then editing it, it was terribly sad. So you have this funny, angry, sad. It is funny how the film revealed different things.
iW: There’s a level of meaning of the film that has also been revealed after September 11.
Hartley: We have a joke around here: even “Spinal Tap” takes on a deeper meaning after 9-11.
iW: But you have the beginning with news stories about terrorists blocking the NYC bridges and nerve gas in the subways?
Hartley: In a breezy way, I wanted to remind us all that we live in a world that is inherently dangerous. We make it dangerous and we take it for granted. Everything escalates. Our tolerance for terror is always escalating. One of the key ideas at the early stages of writing the script was sitting in this bar and watching death television — like this week, the world’s heinous videos — and just being shocked. I was very aware of the visceral affect it had on all of us. We couldn’t even hear it, but we had to go somewhere else.
iW: A lot of your movies have this visceral destructive impulse. The grenade, for instance, in “Trust.” Do you think you return to that to heighten the emotional stakes?
Hartley: It’s about loose canons. The monster is like a lot of my male protagonists. I don’t think it’s a method to achieve something. In some sense, it’s part of the subject matter, the proximity of danger to those life situations. What is a method, I guess, is juxtaposing those elements, a love story and warfare.
iW: You also, of course, have the horror genre to play with. It probably helps structure the script where you think, well, it’s a horror movie so I have to have the whatever scene.
Hartley: Yes, it started very much like that. I looked at all different kinds of horror films. In the “Godzilla” and “Mothra” movies, there’s always a young female journalist. That was the pleasure of giving yourself over to these archetypes and trying to make them work.
iW: One of the film’s main points is also a criticism of the media. You get some of that in “Henry Fool”: how the media distorts, how you can’t really trust the media.
Hartley: That’s really what the issue is: people’s unchecked trust of the media. In this case, it’s more focused on media.
iW: I think it’s interesting that you have these two actress, Sarah Polley and Julie Christie, two women that the media wanted to turn into something that they were not.
Hartley: Yeah, they don’t talk about that too much. We all grew up admiring Julie. When I was growing up, it just seemed like she wanted a private life. On some level, that’s all it is. In the film, there’s definitely a suspicion of the motives of the media. It’s not that people are bad; it’s just that they’re unthinking. Not everything needs to be front page news.
iW: Do you feel like you can’t make a movie now without these grander social critiques coming into play, because I don’t think your earlier movies had as much of that. What has changed?
Hartley: I think I’m just learning more about the world. You think about things differently when you’re 28 verses 42. Nevertheless, it might be more of a snowball, if you look at “Trust” and “The Unbelievable Truth,” there is a consciousness of society and a skepticism about that society. I think the way the social satire is organized is in a more gentle way. By the time I got to “No Such Thing,” there’s these big, clean broad strokes of reactionary social commentary. This movie needed broadness.
iW: Because of its fable-like quality?
Hartley: Because I feel like a story can get really soupy if you have a lot of ideas and you treat them all very subtly. Some of them just need to be broad and light.
iW: So what have you been doing since “No Such Thing”?
Hartley: Getting ready to shoot my next film, which I hope to shoot in the fall. I’m teaching at Harvard University a couple of days a week, which sharpens a lot of things I’ve forgotten like loading a 16mm camera and using a light meter, but also articulating, saying out loud why in the script stage something is going to get you into trouble when you shoot later. It’s also good to be around people who are 20 years younger. I also had the U.S. premiere of my play “Soon” at the Orange Country Philharmonic. We hope that it will be able to be done here in New York next February. I’m also working on a theater piece with a composer, Louis Andriessen, who I did the “The New Math(s)” with for the BBC. “No Such Thing” was surrounded by these great little projects, like “The New Math(s)” and “Kimono,” which I did for German television.
iW: Music is very important to your work. You’ve composed for a number of your recent movies, including “No Such Thing”? At what stage in the process do you start hearing the music?
Hartley: More and more, before shooting. A lot of the music for “No Such Thing” was made in the year prior to shooting. Because of the nature of my work, I have developed a skill for doing business for an hour and then doing some music and then doing something else. So by the time I locked picture, I had hours of music to listen to. I gave it to the actors to listen to while making the film. I don’t know how much it helps the actors, but for me, I tend to hum to myself all the time.
iW: And what is your next film exactly?
Hartley: In certain ways, it was written simultaneously with “No Such Thing.” It’s a science fiction film, very much in the tradition of “Fahrenheit 451” and “Alphaville.” That’s my primary interest: to make films that re-focus our attention, our time and place and shared experience, but through parables and genres which give you license for poetic construction. You can say more; you don’t have to worry about being naturalistic. And you can say a lot quicker. This next movie has to do with a fear of the commodification of ourselves, willingly. It’s also very sexy.
iW: Did this come out initially with the Uncensored project with Good Machine?
Hartley: Yeah, but it’s not happening with them yet. [Good Machine’s] Ted [Hope] and I never got to the stage where we could go into this, so I like the script and I own the script. I just want to make sure it’s right. I’m a pain in the ass for financiers these days. I’m very careful. They say, “You have creative control, but we have control over the manner of financing and distribution.” But you know what, that’s a fake distinction. Everything you do to raise the money is going to affect the kind of movie you will make. And you have to be sensitive to that.