Ultra-Indie: An Interview with Hal Hartley

Ultra-Indie: An Interview with Hal Hartley

Hal Hartley’s early work brought something new to the punk-informed New York sensibility, exemplified by Jim Jarmusch’s Stranger Than Paradise (1984) and Down by Law (1986), while avoiding both dingy urban anti-glamor and depicting suburbia as a hellhole. (Critic Michael Sicinski wrote, “Hartley’s films are emphatically about the specificity of place, even when that aspect of the films is not foregrounded.”) Hal Hartley’s movies show smart young people trying to make their way in a difficult but livable community. 

The style of his first few features, based around precise blocking of actors and affectless line delivery, evoke both Jean-Luc Godard — he would remake the dance scene from Band of Outsiders (1964) in Simple Men (1992) — and Harold Pinter. Hartley emerged at the moment American independent cinema became a brand name, and at first, he benefited from this confluence. (He has only made one studio film, the Francis Ford Coppola-produced No Such Thing [2001].) But by the early 2000s, he seemed to be a much more marginal figure. At the start of this year, he held a Kickstarter campaign to raise $300,000 for the budget of his latest film, Where to Land, which will center on a filmmaker going through a midlife crisis. Kickstarter and his website halhartley.com have been crucial to sustaining his work as a filmmaker. I spoke to him shortly before Metrograph began its January retrospective devoted to his films. 

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How did you first meet your future collaborators at SUNY-Purchase?

Well, Bob Burke was in the same year, so we had classes together. I didn’t meet Bill Sage till after I had graduated. I went back to the school to see the junior class doing some scene work, and I always kept him in mind. 

You’ve worked with Burke for more than 30 years. He’s now 60, and he was in your first feature. How have you been able to maintain such long-lasting relationships with actors? 

Most of it just comes from them having a good experience. In the ‘90s, at the beginning of my career, I was making a lot of work, although I didn’t have large budgets. Everyone was looking for an opportunity to get themselves seen. We were able to learn a lot and trust each other. As our careers started to happen, we stayed in touch. 

Right from the first film, your direction is very distinctive, yielding results in which actors are slightly detached and have a deadpan delivery. How did that style evolve?

I think it evolved from the kinds of things I was reading in college and after, like Harold Pinter and Beckett. Certain types of films. There’s a wide range. I think I was affected by Stanley Kubrick’s work with dialogue, as well as European filmmakers like Godard and Fassbinder. But I can’t point to a single filmmaker as an influence. I like deadpan, or what I usually term “without interpretation.”

When you work with actors for the first time, do they immediately pick up on that or do you give them a lot of direction?

Most of them tell me they can see it on the page. They can see an indication of how the lines should be spoken just from the way they’re written. 

Book of Life uses video that’s often blurry and smeared. Did you want to contrast the differences between film and video at that time?

I never wanted to make video look like motion-picture photography. I had always been shooting video anyway, doing smaller projects while I was also making films. I was interested in it for what was different about it. What I found was that I liked these digital effects — the slow shutter speed creates that blurriness — and they aided the story. 

Book of Life was made for the 2000 vu par series. A lot of those films had an apocalyptic feel, which it flirts with and rejects. Some of its ideas are silly, like the seven seals as a computer file, but the sensibility behind it seems very sincere. Did you feel some need to combat the apocalyptic thinking that was around at that time?

That grew out of some other projects. For six years, I had been working on a play I eventually produced in Europe and the US in 2001. That play investigated the events in Waco with the Branch Davidians in 1993. I had to do all this reading and studying about a Christian community where people are waiting for the end of the world. Much of what I wrote was very funny but not appropriate for that play. So, when the opportunity came to make a one-hour film for that series, I wrote it pretty quickly. It’s sincere. I have a generally hopeful feeling about humanity, but I am skeptical all the time. Book of Life is balanced between optimism and skepticism. 

You’ve made a number of hour-long films, which is an unusual format. Are you attracted to that length, or did they come about through production circumstances?

Usually, the times were dictated by the producer or source of financing. In the early 2000s and from then on, once people started enjoying entertainment on phones and other devices, shorter films were a lot more popular than they had been. That led me not to push so hard to make a 90-minute film. 

Is Soon the only play you’ve written and directed?

Yes. 

But My America (2014) is an adaptation of monologues by 21 playwrights. Is theater a continual influence for you? 

Not really. I don’t follow it closely at all. But a lot of the actors I work with appear in theater and keep me abreast of what’s going on. My America was a job that I got hired to direct, filming monologues written by other people. They’re odd. Some of the performances are not very theatrical. 

Your early films were distributed by companies like New Line, Sony Pictures Classics, even Miramax. In the 2000s, it felt like they became a lot more marginal. Was there a moment you can pinpoint where it suddenly felt like it became harder to get funding and distribution?

At the end of the ‘90s, I could sense that the independent film field was becoming corporatized. If I wanted to keep growing and changing, it was becoming harder. So, I stepped away from the business for a while. I taught, composed more music. I did that play and staged an opera [2008’s La Commedia]. I just wanted to go off in a different direction. By the time I returned, the film business from the early ‘90s didn’t really exist anymore. I had to invent a new way to get the films financed and distributed. It’s ultra-indie. There aren’t many intermediaries anymore. 

When did you start moving towards financing your films on Kickstarter?

I’ve done two now. In 2013, I did one for Ned Rifle (2014) and now one for my new film, Where to Land. The other Kickstarters that I’ve done were to restore my old films and release them as box sets on Blu-Ray and DVD. 

When your films were released by larger companies in the ‘90s, there was obviously a degree of self-promotion involved. But do you find it different now when you have to interact directly with people through Kickstarter or your website? 

I often say that back in the ‘90s, you used to make a film and go out to promote it, whereas now you have to promote it first and then go make it. Crowdsourcing through Kickstarter has allowed me to build a system to do that. Reaching out to the rest of the world made a big difference. If you’re going to make marginal work on a sustainable business model, you have to think globally. 

Meanwhile seems like a depiction of life as an artist that wasn’t really sustainable anymore in New York in 2011. Was that meant as a depiction of an earlier time when you could scrape by doing five things but not being very successful at any of them?

Not really. I had lived in Berlin for five years just before making Meanwhile. When I moved back to New York, I saw it with fresh eyes. I tried to see it as a totally new place. That’s what I had been doing when I was in Europe. I wanted to come back and make a film about New York. The idea of a guy being a jack of all trades and master of none was inspired by something that an actor I’m friends with said, which I found very moving. 

Do you think being a musician as well has affected the way you approach filmmaking?

A bit. There’s a way of organizing my creative energy in the way I compose music. My style of filmmaking is very composed. There’s a precise way that I move people around and write dialogue. There’s a musical sensibility to the dialogue and a real choreography to the way I block shots. 

Is your latest film a reflection on the difficulty of sustaining a career as an independent filmmaker?

No, that’s not the way I think about it. It’s actually about a guy who’s a successful filmmaker. At 60, he’s interested in doing something else with his life. I think that’s a common experience for a lot of us as we get on in years. You’ve had a measure of success and aren’t living hand to mouth, but you know you have a number of years left to live and want to keep growing and changing. 

When do you go into production on Where to Land?

We are in pre-production now and we start shooting at the end of April. 

“The Book of Life” (Hal Hartley)

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Metrograph held a Hal Hartley retrospective between January 24 and February 9.

About The Author

Steve Erickson

Steve Erickson is a freelance writer and filmmaker who lives in New York City, He writes for Gay City News, the Nashville Scene, Studio Daily, Cineaste, RogerEbert.com and has written for many other publications. He directed the 2017 short THIS WEEK TONIGHT and curated a retrospective of the Iranian director Mehrdad Oskouei which will take place at Anthology Film Archives in February 2018.

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