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Hal Hartley’s Grim Family: An Oral History From ‘Henry Fool’ to ‘Ned Rifle’

Hal Hartley's Grim Family: An Oral History From 'Henry Fool' to 'Ned Rifle'

In 1997, writer-director Hal Hartley’s “Henry Fool” took the filmmaker’s career to new heights with the story of the titular novelist (Thomas Jay Ryan), a garrulous, self-involved man of the world who befriends garbageman Simon Grim (James Urbaniak) and seduces Simon’s sister Fay (Parker Posey), who gives birth to a son, Ned (Liam Aiken). The movie was acclaimed on the festival circuit and developed a cult status among cinephiles hip to Hartley’s ironic dialogue and inventive characters. But the story didn’t end there: In 2006, Hartley made “Fay Grim,” an innovative sequel that took the mold of a spy thriller and focused on Fay’s life after Henry disappears. This week, the trilogy comes to a close with “Ned Rifle,” which shifts focus to Aiken’s character — now all grown up and himself eager to confront his father’s neglectful tendencies.

READ MORE: Review: ‘Ned Rifle,’ Starring Aubrey Plaza, is a Gift to Hal Hartley Fans

Driven by Hartley’s precise, rhythmic dialogue and the accompanying black comedy, the movie deals with Ned’s religious extremism and Fay’s incarceration in equal measures while also finding a natural end point for Henry Fool himself. On the occasion of the Cinefamily in Los Angeles hosting a retrospective of Hartley’s films this week — co-presented by Fandor, which hosts much of the director’s work — Indiewire reached out to Hartley and his cast for a chronological look back on the years of Grim family storytelling and why the experiences still resonate for them. “Ned Rifle” is currently available on Vimeo on Demand.

HAL HARTLEY: The idea of Henry was bouncing around in my head for years, almost since college — this notion of a guy who can’t do anything himself but inspires other people. I was thinking a lot about Falstaff — he’s a big talker but ultimately not a person who can do things. Henry is a composite of a lot of different story ideas.

Around 1995 and 1996, I wrote a lot. I thought the central character was really Simon. I wanted to address issues that come up in the creative life early on — how does a person’s creative ability grow out of conflict with their trauma? You know, Simon wasn’t comfortable in any manner with anyone in this world. Plus, he’s a garbage man in this base, disgusting world. But he meets this guy who influences him enough to speak. So once I knew I wanted to address that, the character of Henry became clearer to me, too. But at the beginning it was really about writing Simon.

READ MORE: Hal Hartley is Kickstarting His Latest Film. Here’s Why.

JAMES URBANIAK: I’d met Hal in the early nineties. I was part of this theater company called Cucaracha. We did this scripted late night comedy show that went week to week. He used to come to that. A lot of the actors in the company were in his films, like Martin Donovan and Adrienne Shelly. He would come and hang out. I think I’d met him right before he made “Amateur.” I’d seen his other films prior to that and was a big fan. I remember thinking, “It’d be cool to work with this guy.” He saw me perform. He put me in a couple of short films. The first thing I ever did on a film was a short he made for Comedy Central called “Opera #1.” So we started working together on little things. Then, around 1995, he called me up and said, “Hey, I have a new script for a feature.” I thought, “Oh great, I’ll be the funny waiter in the restaurant.” He said, “No, there are three main characters in this script and I want you to be one of them.” I thought it was unbelievable.

The script was really remarkable — there was a kind of broad canvas to it that was very different from Hal’s other films, which took place in more finite environments. This one had an almost novelistic approach to things going on in the culture at the time.

HARTLEY: I had been making films pretty much nonstop for 10 years and learning all this stuff that I couldn’t talk to anybody about — from the business and from a creative standpoint, as well as being public, getting judged for your work in the press. I wanted to talk about that a little bit.

THOMAS JAY RYAN: I was a theater actor. I had never acted in a film before. Hal just called me and said, “I have a part for you in my next movie.” I remember thinking, “I hope I have lines or something.” Then he sent me this thing. It was like getting a grenade in the mail. The character was grandiose. He made no apologies. He made his way through the world with no edit between his impulses and what he did. That’s what he stood for morally. This was a new medium for me that I didn’t understand, but I knew I wouldn’t let it fail by hedging my bets. I figured, let’s risk having people say it’s too broad. I’ll go in every day and brashly go through this movie. I do look back on it proud that I did that. I think that honored the spirit of the writing.

URBANIAK: I was jealous of Tom. I had done a lot of classical theater and could do poetic dialogue and make it seem real, so it was a funny challenge to play the guy that didn’t talk that much. The trick with Hal is that he’s got a style and you have to play it while making it seem like actual behavior. The cliché with Hal is that people talk in a deadpan tone. That’s a superficial way to describe it. He directs with a very light touch. It’s actually quite physical — he’ll focus on the turn of a head. I find that informs the emotional reality of the scene. He might say something like, “Don’t make eye contact.” For me, it’s no different from doing a play by Oscar Wilde or David Mamet.

READ MORE: Who Needs Theatrical? Why Hal Hartley is Distributing ‘Ned Rifle’ Via Vimeo on Demand

PARKER POSEY: He came to me with some trepidations. I’ll never forget it. I was in my tiny apartment in Chelsea, standing in my kitchen. He said, “I’ve got this heavy part for you, would you be able to do it?” I was like, “Of course!” It was mythic, loaded. You know — a Fallstian fable. It seemed like the direction that Hal wanted to take had a weight to it. The material was really special and heavy — it had gravitas. We shot it very quickly. It was one of those 20-day shoots.

Hal has a great wit. His style is like a forties film style in the present day mixed with the camera movement — his blocking feels a lot like dance in a way. I like working like that, being told where to move. His dialogue isn’t internalized; it’s external. There’s not a lot of thinking before you speak. The words just come out. It’s reactive.

RYAN: There were troubles in financing a year and a half after I read the first draft. That was really helpful for me. I have great affection for that first film because of the ambiguities of the characters. Was Henry a charlatan? A savior? The devil? Some pig? Was he running to the plane or away from it at the end of the film? These questions keep the ambiguity alive. I just always had an instinct for how to say those words. It’s a lot of words that sound like writing, they sound intellectual. In films I’ve discovered that’s unusual. We want to see inarticulate people. They move through the world without using language in an intelligent, unapologetic way.

LIAM AIKEN: I was seven years old when we made the first movie. It has a mythic quality in my memory. It’s very personal and yet at the same time it’s a strange feeling I get when I watch it.

I loved being on set with everyone. These were really nice and talented people. I remember writing down in my journal how nice Hal was as a director. He set the foundation for what directors were for me as a kid. Tom was more of a father figure, which to me was really important, because I lost my father as a really young age.

I wasn’t allowed to watch “Henry Fool” as a young kid. The material wasn’t appropriate and I wouldn’t have understood it too well. Later on, in high school, it became a really important film for me. I’d been making movies for six or seven years. I’d developed all these different experiences — working with Sam Mendes, Chris Columbus, these titans. But “Henry Fool” became this really intimate film for me. When I watched it, I didn’t get a broad picture or a message for a big audience. The message was so personal and it really impacted me in high school in terms of my thinking about what film could be. It’s an indie film, but it opened me up to more experimental narratives — the hidden side of film.

URBANIAK: In “Henry Fool,” there’s a simultaneously dated and ahead of the curve take on the internet. We shot it in 1997, and I didn’t even have e-mail at the time. A lot of the characters talk about this weird new thing called the internet. There was a press conference in Cannes, where it premiered, and somebody asked if the internet played a part in our lives. Hal said, “Not really. My office has one of those.”But it’s one of the first movies that really shows a viral celebrity. I think I’m one of the first movie characters who became internet famous.

HARTLEY: Ever since the beginning of my career, I’ve wanted to make movies about my time and place. Film that get dated. You say, “Wow, that’s really the late nineties in America.” “Henry Fool” is really dated. That time when the country went way to the right, and the internet was invented. Working this way with these stories is fun. I look around me and I say, “OK, what’s the world like now?” I want the films to reflect what society is doing around us.

READ MORE: Hal Hartley Explains Why He Doesn’t Believe in Theatrical Distribution

RYAN: We used to joke about it. I remember when “Henry Fool” was coming out and I said, “Is it playing at the Angelika?” Hal said, “Fuck no, it’s at the Ziegfield. That’s the only screen that can hold it!” He used to joke about the epic nature of the story, that it was like a novel. But as the years went on, his mind went to what was happening in our politics.

RYAN: The first week of shooting “Henry Fool,” Hal made a joke about a sequel: “In the sequel, Simon will do this or that.” I laughed. Then the second week of shooting, he made the joke again. By the third time, I thought, he isn’t really joking. He’d thought of these characters a long time ago and had been living with them for many years.

HARTLEY: “Henry Fool” wasn’t conceived as the first part of anything, but as the years went on, I found myself wanting to work with Parker again. She read a few screenplays I’d written for her and we couldn’t decide on any of them. Then I came up with this idea. Making the character of Fay was pretty amazing. That’s where the idea for “Fay Grim” came together. I thought, “Did I really want to make a sequel?” I wasn’t too excited about that, but I thought, “Every once and a while, I can make a new movie, and it will always have this family at the center of it.” This was almost six or seven years later.

READ MORE: Watch: Hal Hartley’s ‘Ned Rifle’ Stars a Very Sexy Aubrey Plaza and Parker Posey

I knew then that if I were going to make “Fay Grim,” I would make a third one and it would have to be about the son. So when I wrote “Fay Grim,” I was thinking of a third film.

RYAN: When he gave me script for “Fay Grim,” he said, “If I make this film, there won’t be much without the third one.” As an actor with my ego, I knew there would be more. But when I read “Fay Grim,” this felt like the right way. He runs away, so what does he leave in his wake? I had to respect that I was so absent from “Fay Grim,” but I really wanted the third film to examine me a little bit.

AIKEN: Hal had this idea and he wanted to meet with me to see if I was onboard. I really wanted to do it. Coming back to work with Hal on “Fay Grim” seemed like a really important thing at the time — and then it became like a touchstone. Working with Hal has shaped my artistic mind at different stages of my career.

HARTLEY: I was living at Germany at the time and I flew back and took Liam out to lunch. He was 16. I asked him what he thought his future would be. He wasn’t so certain. I trusted my instincts and they said he’d grow up to be an actor. He had that charisma and steadiness. So we made “Fay Grim” and three years later I saw him and by then, he was really a hard-working young actor.

URBANIAK: I remember we did a some rehearsing for “Fay Grim” in Berlin. I remember crossing from one point to another and not even thinking about walking like Simon Grim — and I realized I was doing that slow Simon Grim walk. I thought, “Holy shit, it’s just there.” But I did have to sit down and remind myself that there’s a certain kind of energy and pressure to that character. At that point, I was more comfortable in front of the camera and I had to be very aware not to be as relaxed as fluid playing this character again.

Simon becomes famous and renowned, but it’s kind of great how at the end of “Henry Fool,” the kid visits him and he appears to be living with the publisher’s assistant. He’s dressed like an author with a vest and a buttoned-down shirt. But suddenly in “Fay Grim,” he’s back to his garbageman outfit with the original jacket from the first film. I liked the idea that he probably split from the assistant and she’s the one who cleaned him up. He’s still sort of the same guy.

POSEY: In the “Fay Grim,” she can’t escape Henry. He haunts her. She’s been in this state for years. He’s possessed her in a way. He keeps coming back to her. So it’s this chase. He’ll always be close to her but will never be physically present. So as a spy story that was very interesting and tragic. I don’t know anyone who’s as exacting as Hal with such an epic screenplay.

RYAN: I love that we don’t give you answers about the nature of Henry’s character. He raped a 13 year old girl but he’s brilliant? The second film tells you exactly who he was. All that bullshit he spouted in the first film was true. That threw everybody. So with the third film, I thought, “How can I think of this now?” Hal said, “Don’t worry, I’ll explain it away.” So the third film gives you answers in a different way.

HARTLEY: Around 2012, I started writing “Ned Rifle.” I’d been thinking about it for a while and had certain ideas clear in my head — that their son would be 19 and wanted to kill his father for fucking up his life. It wasn’t until I came up with the idea of Susan, Aubrey Plaza’s character, that I had the movie. Then I wrote the whole thing in two weeks. I had gone back and watched “Henry Fool” and there was one line about her.

I think religion in “Ned Rifle” is its period element. Young men searching for spiritual ground — the insistence on some kind of spiritual clarity that,  if it isn’t earned or lived, can become righteous. But his experience wakes him up. By the end of this movie he’s really earned the spiritual clarity.

POSEY: I had no idea where it would go from there. I knew Fay would be in prison but I didn’t know where Ned was going to end up. I love where the story went — the territory that he inhabits for the third installment. It felt very timely.

URBANIAK: So in the most recent film, now the internet is a thing and Simon has become some kind of standup comedian and has been making home recordings of this routine. He still has a deep barrier between himself and other people.

AIKEN: I’ve always seen a lot of Ned Rifle in myself or a lot of myself in Ned. I kind of have a natural longing for my dad. I don’t know how conscious it all is, but there’s definitely a sadness over not having my dad around. That was something I really dealt with as a little kid. In high school, when we made “Fay Grim,” I was in this cloud of misperceptions and the weird thoughts teens just go through. I was dealing with parental figures, and Ned was dealing with his mom, and his perceived inadequacies that failed her. Spiritually, he’s kind of open; religiously, he’s closed up.

RYAN: I think we have put Henry away. He’s gone. It’s quite deliberate. But you know, I did another film with Hal called “The Book of Life.” I was Henry in that, too, even though I wasn’t. Would anybody accept me as anything else in Hal’s world? I am only Henry there.

POSEY: I don’t think Hal is going to make another one of these. It’s a trilogy. Fay is happy in prison. She’s doing well there. She’s part of a community of women who are outside of everything. She’s reading Barthes. She’s going to be fine. I suppose he could write another film about her book club.

HARTLEY: We were joking about it on the set — me, Parker and Liam — that in the next movie, everybody could be in jail.

AIKEN: It was totally the end that felt like the most right way to do it. When I first read the ending, I had chills. It gave me such a sense of closure. In my life, these films have been characterized by their final lines. In “Henry Fool,” what stuck with me was a lot of things, but the ending left a huge impression on me. Then the way that “Fay Grim” ends carries on that tradition of the theme of running away to find your freedom and move on. It was Ned’s turn to say what he thought about that sort of instinct. It puts the whole history into a new era. On the one hand, it’s totally the end of these films. On the other hand, it’s beginning of the rest of his life. He’s in control of his family history.

POSEY: Twenty years ago, we struggled to get money for “Henry Fool.” Now we’re raising money on Kickstarter. “Ned Rifle” had the smallest crew ever. There was no catering service. I did all my work in the prison in one day. It was fast and furious. It’s a great accomplishment that the movie had this support and was able to get made in this way that’s so independent. Hal’s been ahead of the curve for a while. He still has his voice. He hasn’t changed. Working with him is a true auteur experience. That’s so rare in our film culture.

URBANIAK: “Henry Fool” got all this attention, so when that movie came out, I still had a day job temping in offices. Because Simon Grim was such a weirdo and introvert, I went for a lot of roles like that, such as R. Crumb in “American Splendor.” That was fun to fill that niche. It’s expanded since then. Now, I’m in the quirky authority figure stage of my career where I play bosses and principals.

The weekend “Henry Fool” premiered I got stopped on the street by two people who’d seen it that weekend. I thought that would be my new life. Then nobody recognized me for a week. But a lot of younger people come up to me now, twentysomethings, who saw it when they were kids and were really impacted by it. So there’s a new audience for it, and that’s really touching to me.

RYAN: I did this movie called “Equals” with Drake Doremos. I arrived in Singapore to do it. Drake is in his early thirties, and he said he studied “Henry Fool” in film school. Movies make friends for you without your participation.

HARTLEY: I’m thinking a lot these days about TV-like episodic entertainment. We look at these three movies made over the course of 18 years and they’re episodes. For years, I’ve written stories that I thought would be good as TV series. It’s an exciting world right now with so much different stuff being made. Feature films are hard to release. People want shorter entertainment. So that’s really where I see things going.

READ MORE: Hal Hartley Explains Why He is Offering Distribution Rights to ‘Ned Rifle’ as Kickstarter Backer Reward

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