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“Our Society is Riddled with Contradiction and False Talk”: Hal Hartley on His Career

The Unbelievable Truth (courtesy of Possible Films)

by
in Filmmaking
on Jan 22, 2020

There’s something perverse to the notion that Hal Hartley’s three decades of writing and filmmaking amount to a “career,” as Metrograph would have it in the catalogue copy for its ten-day retrospective of his medium- and feature-length films. Whatever one thinks about Hartley, to say that his work represents a “career” means viewing the films episodically, as evidence of an enterprising filmmaker’s increasing personal ambition and competence. But if I’ve suspected anything from watching and re-watching Hartley’s films—including the shorts, which unfortunately don’t appear anywhere in the Metrograph series—it’s that they can’t so easily be assimilated in this way. I would argue that the least among Hartley’s films are, for all their flaws, still lighted up by a spirit of pleasure and coherence born of his own slow, steady work. Talking to Hartley by telephone this month confirmed some of these suspicions. 

Filmmaker: I’m wondering about your early years on Long Island. What was childhood like? 

Hartley: As an adolescent, I was playing the guitar, drawing. In school, I spent a lot of time in art classes. I come from a large extended family and was clearly the artsy kid, but I was pretty well-supported. My mom died when I was ten, so my dad raised us. He was a construction worker, an iron-worker, and he had a casual education. He was a little nervous about having this son who wanted to go to college, who was interested in the arts. “Is there a future for this kid? What’s he going to do?” I ended up going to art school in Boston, at the Massachusetts College of Art. 

Filmmaker: Did New York—or the idea of New York—mean anything to you at the time? What led you to Boston? 

Hartley: New York seemed to me, as a 17- or 18-year-old kid, too large. But I also didn’t know how much was going on there in the late ’70s. As a teenager, I went into the city to see rock concerts, so I never really left midtown Manhattan. I had no idea that there were art galleries, or where the museums were. And there wasn’t a school I could afford in New York. MassArt gave me a scholarship and said I could take a year off before entering, which was critical. That gave me a year to stay back in Lindenhurst, work and raise some money. One of the first things I learned when I got to Boston was that New York was the place to be [laughs]. I had to go away to find that out. After a year in Boston, the money ran out, and I went back home, got my old job back and started making films in earnest. It was then that I started applying to film schools. I went to SUNY Purchase, which was aiming to be a world-class art school for working-class people, so it was affordable.

Filmmaker: Had you declared a major?

Hartley: They didn’t want you to until your sophomore year. They wanted to introduce you to everything: painting, graphic design, sculpture, filmmaking. It did everything that a first-year art education ought to do. 

Filmmaker: Do you think Purchase was formative? Was it the first time you were thinking about and watching films?

Hartley: Yeah, it seems everyone I met at Purchase ended up being around me or working with me for the next thirty years. When I left Boston, before I went to Purchase, I was watching a lot of films much more closely than anyone else around me, which meant I couldn’t share my enthusiasms. But when I got to Purchase, that’s all it was for four years. It was a really exciting, productive time. You were given license to fail, and you could try a lot of things to see where they went. Your competence was judged by your efforts to try. 

Filmmaker: Do you remember when your sensibility and tastes began to form in a serious way?

Hartley: I think it was a collision of different things that dates to around 1982, when I was a second-semester sophomore. It was Wim Wenders’ films on one side—Wim’s got a sensibility that’s very much about standing back and looking and letting things take their own time—and the dialogue-driven hilarity of Preston Sturges on the other. It was a combination of the New German cinema of the 1970s and the mechanics of dialogue-driven films like Bringing Up Baby. The fast-talking, classic American comedies. And then, I was learning about Brecht. I was seeing plays at school, which had a great theater department. They’d invite interesting directors to come and stage shows. I wasn’t an astute reader. I was trying to catch up on things. I liked the ideas. And then Godard, too. I was writing a lot, I was making short films, but I was finally really understanding Brecht because of Godard. Godard made the difference between naturalism and artifice clear to me. That’s the collision of influences at the early stage. 

Filmmaker: You started working with your cinematographer Michael Spiller early on.   

Hartley: Our work together was really the beginning of our careers. After we graduated, I was leaning toward production work. Mike was out there getting electrician jobs and helping me as a camera loader. We all hung out together, so we’d all be able to get together and share information. My boss had all this outdated 16mm film stock. He said, “That’s been there for ten years. You can throw it out.” I said, “Why throw it out? Can I have it?” [laughs] I ended up writing a script for what ended up being The Cartographer’s Girlfriend (1987), and I saved some money to get the stock developed. We had no idea if there would even be an image, or if it would be degraded. So, the film came out to be a little more surreal than we expected.

Filmmaker: What was the impetus for The Unbelievable Truth? 

Hartley: I had those characters in mind, particularly the father, and the whole thing about the daughter being a fashion model was there, too. There were contradictions I was interested in—the way contradictions work themselves out. I always thought of it as the film’s central image. It’s not a concrete image, it’s more like a philosophical or attitudinal image. 

Filmmaker: Your first three features are often thought of as a trilogy. Was it clear to you that these films would be set on Long Island?   

Hartley: People started using the name “Long Island trilogy” later on. But no, it wasn’t something I thought about at the time. Maybe The Unbelievable Truth, which was so site-specific. I wrote it for the neighborhood I grew up in. And the characters’ relationship to the train—the train that takes you from Long Island to New York City—was important. For me, this is about Lindenhurst. But Trust (1990) was meant to take place in any representative American suburb. It didn’t need to be Long Island. When I started writing Simple Men (1992), it was very specifically for Long Island, this story of two brothers trying to get away from the law and going the length of Long Island. 

Filmmaker: Do you tend to think in visual terms during the writing? The spatial dimensions in your films are very well-defined.

Hartley: It’s changed over the years. In the beginning, I would make diagrams. I’d show these to Mike and to the lighting department in the morning before we’d start shooting. It became a matter of: “So, the camera is moving left and countering the actors. We’re booming up with a 50mm lens, then we stop. Behind the actors, it will be out of focus,” and so on. We’d get the basic vocabulary down, the grammar. You discover things, too. Trying to rehearse camera movement before we start working with the actors, we’d discover things we hadn’t anticipated. I remember the first time I met Jeff Goldblum. He knew about me, but he didn’t know my films. He gave himself a quick study of me over a couple of weeks before he signed onto Fay Grim (2006). He said, “I love what you do. You move people around.” I could not have said it better myself. That’s exactly what I do. [laughs] Often, I’ll have a general plan of action. This happens with Parker Posey, too. She’ll ask me to demonstrate what I’d like her to do, action-wise. I’ll walk through all these things: “You’re here, you’ll have some coffee, you’ll put it down, you stand up, go to the sink.” I make a lot of changes at that point. Actors have a storytelling sensibility that’s entirely different. They’ll discover things, pauses, when to say the line . . . Parker will discover other interesting, telling details that sometimes will change the nature of the shot. 

Filmmaker: I wonder if editing is mainly a process of re-thinking or revision for you. 

Hartley: I find that, even with a scene that was written well, performed well, shot well, when you view the whole thing, it can be redundant. In the end, a scene may not bring us anything. When I’m on the set, I usually have a good sense of whether or not I ought to have two singles, for instance, to change the rhythm of a scene. It’s either good or it’s not, and you use it as it is. But sometimes, if I’m not detecting the proper rhythm on set, I know that I can get other shots later on and reintroduce or reestablish the rhythm through the editing. But many times, I’ll force the actors to understand the rhythm on set. There are certain people, like Parker, who hear the rhythm when they read the script. 

Filmmaker: You’ve spoken about a tension between realism and naturalism.

Hartley: I think it’s maybe better to call it “realistic” instead of realism. To be able to talk about what the world really is right now, at a particular point. The goal is to not get too preoccupied with the naturalness of the delivery. I want you to be aware. This goes back to Brecht. I want the audience to be aware that this is a constructed artifice. I want you to be moved, to be engaged intellectually, but I would prefer if you were alert to our shenanigans [laughs]. 

Filmmaker: You early films coincide with the end of the Reagan-Bush administrations, and while it isn’t necessary to view them in relation to the period, one could say they function in part as responses to the cultural politics of those years. 

Hartley: Yes, they do. I took it instinctively, by intuition, that our society is riddled with contradiction and false talk. At the same time, I was intrigued and encouraged in the early years to make work that wouldn’t appear dated later on. It’s nothing especially specific. It’s just a kind of attitude about how you’re writing, how you’re shooting, how you’re dressing people, what the subject matter is addressing. 

Filmmaker: Books feature prominently in your films. 

Hartley: Well, I’m a big reader. Even at this stage, I’m thinking of becoming a publisher. Reading is probably the principal thing I do. I don’t watch movies that much anymore; if I do, it’s simply as a way of keeping up, but films don’t become as deep a part of my life as the things I’m reading. I read a lot of biography, history, philosophy. Sometimes I’ll read fiction. I’ve been writing a lot of fiction on my own, too. 

Filmmaker: Could you see yourself making a film about a historical figure? 

Hartley: I could. For a while, I tried to write a biopic about Simone Weil, but I just gave up on it after a while. My investigation into Simone Weil, and into her reading and illness and inner conflicts, led me to a much deeper reading of St. Paul. Then, I spent another few years writing a movie about St. Paul, which is something I’m sure will never get made. That may be one of the next books we publish here, as a screenplay. 

Filmmaker: Your next film will be shot in the United States?

Hartley: We’re shooting in Washington Heights and around Harlem. 

Filmmaker: Will it be much of a departure? 

Hartley: The subject is a bit different from what most people know of my films from the early 1990s. But my filmmaking grammar is probably not that different. I think Meanwhile (2011) might indicate a lot about how the new film will look and feel. Meanwhile is a middle-aged man’s film. And this one is a 60-year-old man’s film [laughs]. The filmmaking sensibility isn’t changed too much, but the subject matter is a bit different. 

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