Hal Hartley, Fay Grim
For a period in the 1990s, Hal Hartley was one of a group of directors, along with Jim Jarmusch and John Sayles, who really defined what American indie filmmaking was all about. Hartley’s Trust (1990), Simple Men (1992) and Amateur (1994), set in the suburbs of Long Island but seen from Hartley’s unique perspective, were idiosyncratic, literate films which set the bar high for other writer-directors aiming to portray contemporary American life. Since the mid-90s, though, Hartley has broadened his focus, both thematically and geographically: Flirt (1995) told love stories on three continents; The Book of Life (1998) imagined a meeting between Jesus and the Devil at the end of the millennium; No Such Thing (2001) was a modern take on Beauty and the Beast set in Iceland; and Hartley’s first foray into science fiction, The Girl From Monday (2005) was set in a futuristic world where humans were traded like property.
Hartley’s new film, Fay Grim, mixes old with new: familiar characters return in increasingly unfamiliar situations, and it is written with Hartley’s trademark dry, quirky humor but feels and looks different to anything he’s done before. It is a sequel to Hartley’s 1997 Henry Fool, and requisitions the genre tropes of the espionage thriller to frame Hartley’s take on the state of the post-9/11 world. Parker Posey’s eponymous character, a peripheral player in the first film, becomes the unlikely heroine of the piece as she attempts to get to the bottom of a mystery involving her missing husband Henry (Thomas Jay Ryan), her imprisoned Nobel prize-winning brother Simon (James Urbaniak), and notebooks containing Henry’s memoirs which government spies and international terrorists are desperate to get their hands on.
Filmmaker spoke to Hartley, who now lives in Berlin, about his reasons for leaving the U.S., shooting on DV for the first time, and his unlikely Henry Fool franchise.
Filmmaker: I’d like to start off by asking how long you’ve been living in Berlin, and what the reasons were for you moving there?
Hartley: I’ve been here pretty much for the past year full-time, but I came here in the fall of 2004. I was invited to be a fellow at the American Academy in Berlin, which I guess is like the MacDowell Colony. They give you a stipend for three months to live here and do some work which should have something to do with Berlin, and hopefully American-Berlin relations. Mine was very tenuous; I was working on a script about a French philosopher who stayed in Berlin at a crucial point in her life, and they said that was enough.
Filmmaker: From watching Fay Grim, it seems that you feel very distanced from the way America is now, as opposed to how it was before. It seems almost as if you were looking for an excuse to leave.
Hartley: Um, not really. I really felt myself more of a New Yorker than a citizen of the country. I felt much more at home in New York than I did anywhere else in the States, and it’s true that when I was in California I felt that I was really in a foreign land. When I was in London or Paris or Germany, I didn’t. I felt like New York had much more in common with those European places. But around 2004 or 2005, everybody my wife and I knew had left – we didn’t realize we had so many friends who were foreign. It just got incredibly expensive and something about the character of the city seemed to be changing. I felt like a change would be cool anyway, so when this fellowship came up I just went with it.
Filmmaker: You made comments in 2005 that it was impossible to make movies in New York anymore because it’s so expensive.
Hartley: That was totally part of it. Ted Hope and I had been trying to put Fay Grim together, and since I had been living here we looked at what the situation was in New York. Even though we didn’t think of this as a terribly small budget film, we were just shocked at what things would cost. It was really impossible for me to make the film there. So since we were here in Berlin, and I had contacts here, I also just realized that the whole film is indoors, so we could shoot it on sets here.
Filmmaker: What were your aims for Fay Grim? It comes across as a very political, but also personal, film.
Hartley: I guess it is. It’s personal and public. When we were making Henry Fool, we thought that there was room here for sequels. Henry Fool was really written that way. I didn’t commit myself to anything, but I really did feel that it was, to use a literary thing, the big, fat novel that I wanted to write. It would focus in particular on this family in Queens but, in another light, it would reflect the whole world. I wasn’t quite certain how it would continue from that, but one thing that I did use a strategy in Henry Fool was that I really wanted to make the story out of the fabric of what was going on at the time. So I paid attention to newspapers and magazines, and clipped out stories, and said, ‘What’s the most common thing here?’ At that time in 1995 or 1996, it had to do with a swing to the right in Congress and internet censorship and stuff like that. So in 2002, when I started this project, I started the same way. I said, “Whatever happens to Fay here, I want to show something about what the world feels like to us right now.” And by “us,” I certainly meant an American.
Filmmaker: This film seems like your response to the post-9/11 world.
Hartley: I’m one of those people who doesn’t think the world has changed any at all since 9/11. It just seemed to be almost inevitable, something like that. That’s one of the reasons why the backstory of Fay Grim goes all the way back into the ’80s. I was trying to sketch out the continuity of all this hanky-panky between the security agencies of the world. I think you’re right in another sense, I was writing this as the invasion of Afghanistan was going on at the time. I simply tried to focus on making Fay a representative American, in the sense that she’s a type that a lot of us might associate with: she’s not terribly educated, but she’s not stupid; she’s got a big heart, but she’s uninformed; she doesn’t know how tough she can be.
Filmmaker: Everybody’s got a story about where they were on 9/11. What’s yours?
Hartley: 9/11 was my first day teaching at Harvard University. My classes were all canceled and I got back to town two days later. I sort of want to underline the thing that I don’t think the world has really changed much. I see Fay Grim in a continuity with No Such Thing and The Girl From Monday, which were both written prior to 9/11, in its concerns with media culpability, politics and the market all being jumbled up together. I think this is still part of that.
Filmmaker: This is the first film you’ve shot on digital HD. Was that a stylistic choice, or one dictated by financial considerations? Would you have shot this on film given the choice?
Hartley: Probably, because I didn’t know any better. But when Ted introduced me to HDNet, he said, “Well, here’s financing, but we have to shoot it in High Definition.” And then my gang and I got hold of some High Definition equipment and started shooting and I liked it a lot, and didn’t think of it as very different from 35mm. There is a quality difference when you see HD projected, there’s a lack of grain evident on the projection which is startling at first if you’re somebody like me who’s a professional filmmaker and you’re used to looking at it, but most people don’t notice. In fact, I don’t find it an ugly kind of quality, it’s quite beautiful.
Filmmaker: I read that you wrote in one of your notebooks a long time ago that Henry Fool was to be the “first in an indefinite series.” It seems that there’s a great malleability about the characters, as Fay Grim is very different to Henry Fool.
Hartley: Yeah, it was really useful. The first movie was definitely written with this feel that it was part of a great big story, but I wasn’t committing myself to what that story would be. But I do think probably in working that way I made the characters in a certain sense universal: Simon, for all his particularities, he’s the thoughtful, creative person; Henry is some version of the devil, from The Devil and Daniel Webster type stories, or Faust – he’s Mephistopheles; Fay is a smarter Gretchen. So they’re types, they’re writ large, and I’m actually finding a lot of encouragement in that now, thinking how I might move forward, in how they all do have this largeness that they can move into lots of different situations. I’m interested in the son now.
Filmmaker: It seems that, from Flirt onwards, there’s been a move outward from the self-contained world of your first films. Has this been a conscious decision, or a natural progression?
Hartley: It’s always been part of my way of working to talk about my time and place. Whatever I’m telling the story about, I want it to give evidence of the time and the place in which I live. Of course, in the early years that was the suburbs of Long Island and, to a certain extent, around New York City, and I knew only a certain number of things. I think those earlier films center on people who know a lot more than they’ve got experience of. That was conscious back then to say, “That’s the only honest way where I can write things about the wider world, I have to admit my inexperience if I’m going to talk about these things.” I think I do the same thing, except I don’t live in the suburbs anymore, I do travel around the world a lot, I live in a different part of the world, and certainly as I get older I’ve been able to grasp politics and history better so that I don’t really feel overwhelmed a lot. I feel more involved in it, more engaged.
Filmmaker: The acting style in your films seems very distinctive. Do you give specific instructions to your cast to achieve that?
Hartley: Not really. The actors pointed out to me very early on in my career that the dialogue sort of indicates how it should be delivered. By the time an actor’s working on the set with me they understand that the thing I do with actors is the combination of the dialogue I’ve written, and the rhythm and the melody of that, and the way I want them to move. This wasn’t entirely clear to me either until a few years ago. Enough actors with enough experience, like Helen Mirren, pointed it out to me. They said, “The way you want me to move has everything to do with the rhythm that’s already built into the language.” That was really helpful to learn. I know that it does something to an actor’s attention, they start to use their face less, to express complex emotional kind of things, and they let other parts of their body do that.
Filmmaker: Is filmmaking going in the right direction?
Hartley: I think filmmaking really follows the market, and it’s almost never going in the right direction. If I could answer that perfectly easily by going, “Oh yes, all films are going in the right direction,” I’d be really worried. Films that appeal to me consistently since I was 18 till now seem to be the movies that are going against the grain, that are swimming upstream. Or across the stream. I’ve always been at home with the knowledge that the majority of the films, and of the thinking about films and what people want from films, is all not what I intend to do.
Filmmaker: Which actor would you pay to see in anything?
Hartley: Um, wow. I should preface this by saying I’m really easy on actors. My actor friends give me a hard time about this, because whenever they’re bad, I lay it at the feet of the director, or the writer. I like watching Jeremy Irons in anything. [Also] Nicole Kidman.
Filmmaker: Finally, what matters more to you, that a film is successful, or that you’re happy with the finished product?
Hartley: That I’m happy with the finished product. The disappointment of having a film that’s not done better, that passes.