In Features, Issues

THE SIMPLE LAWS OF FILMMAKING
A conversation between directors Hal Hartley and Nick Gomez.

Introduction by James Schamus.

HAL AND NICK

In many of Godard’s films, the dialogue is not so much the interaction between two naturalistic characters as it is the dramatization of a question and its possible answers. Interrogations, interviews, market research, Socratic wanderings – these make up the calculus of human relations, which are always predicated on a deep sense of uncertainty and a will toward knowledge, even if it is understood that this knowledge can only be gained by the exercise of the interrogator’s power over another person.

Filmmaker decided to toss a couple of Godard’s practicing progeny into a room together to see what kinds of questions and answers they might confess to in the course of an hour. For Hal Hartley, whose third feature, Simple Men, is due out this fall via Fine Line, it was a chance to get reacquainted with his former editor and fellow SUNY/Purchase grad Nick Gomez, whose first film, Laws of Gravity, hits the streets this month from RKO Pictures. For Gomez, it was a chance to ruminate on the jump from the editing table to the director’s chair, and to sound out the consequences of going from no-budget to low-budget, a transition he’ll experience next month when he begins shooting his second feature film for Island World.

 

FILMS FIRST

For both Hartley and Gomez, the first feature was not simply the creation of an aesthetic object, it was also the construction of a mode of production, a way of working that ended up informing the very meaning of the film itself. Laws of Gravity is not only a hand-held tour de force, it is a film whose characters could only exist in a world devoid of the certainty of "establishing" shots and "coverage." In Hartley’s first feature, The Unbelievable Truth, the Preston Sturges—like rapid-fire dialogue not only gives the characters their energetic and ironic edge, it also serves to help get through a feature script in only 11 days of shooting.

 

CLASS ACTING

While Hartley and Gomez have come up with seemingly opposite approaches to their work – Hartley perfecting a denaturalized, exclamatory dramatic style all his own, Gomez exploding onto the scene with a pyrotechnician’s approach to camera and acting – both share preoccupations and concerns rarely addressed in American independent film, especially when it comes to the issue of class. Their characters are metaphorically not unlike most independent filmmakers – obsessed with work and yet rarely employed. Real work, as opposed to simply holding a job, is something of a criminal activity. Lucky for the independent community, Gomez and Hartley have remained one step ahead of the law, be it the law of gravity for Gomez or the law of desire for Hartley.

 

DOES BUDGET = AESTHETIC?

HARTLEY: I don’t know if having an extremely small budget dictated the style on The Unbelievable Truth. When I look at Simple Men, a film made for almost 20 times as much, it’s pretty much the same type of film as far as style goes. It’s about human beings as opposed to action. The stories are pretty much the same. I remember when I was making The Unbelievable Truth forcing myself to not think of the situation as one that was posing limits on what I was doing. I forced myself to concentrate on the resources that I did have to make images that were good, whether we had tons of money to make those images or had no money. Nick, I doubt that your next film stylistically is going to change as a result of having more money.

GOMEZ: Well, one of the things that happened on Laws of Gravity, different from your approach to The Unbelievable Truth, is that the economics of the film did dictate the style. And [having little money] didn’t prove to be a limitation. It actually proved to be a venue for opportunity in that there were certain things we could pull off and a certain kind of freedom we had when you’re making a film with nobody backing you except your friends. Laws of Gravity was put together fairly quickly. The funding was in place before there was much of an actual screenplay. Knowing how much money I had dictated the scope of the screenplay and the ways that the scenes were handled. Our difference in styles is that your focus tends to be very concise and intellectual in its respect to the information that sort of filters through your vision. The way that I worked in Laws of Gravity was with a certain kind of lack of structure. It was the lack of structure, the freedom that I allowed the actors to soar off into, that was partly a response to the fact that this film was just coming out of pocket. I felt that I had the freedom to take chances.

HARTLEY: One thing I found really interesting about Laws of Gravity – which is one of things that’s really different from all your other films – is that you have so much improvisation in it, which is generally thought of as something that costs money. So that’s why I hesitate to say that a small budget defines style.

GOMEZ: It didn’t define a style…

HARTLEY: But you had a style in mind…

GOMEZ: We had a style in mind and one of the things that allowed us to fully embellish that style was the fact that the style made complete and perfect economic sense. I had in mind a style that approached a certain vérité feeling, a certain kind of immediacy.

HARTLEY: Which was an interest before an economic concern…

GOMEZ: But it was also an interest in and among other interests. And, this gets to a later question about neighborhood…

 

MY HOME TOWN

GOMEZ:Laws of Gravity is very much a result of the neighborhood I was living in. I needed material right away to work with and that was one of the things I had access to. And the same thing with The Unbelievable Truth. You had a very defined sense of the neighborhood you grew up in. You had a very clear vision of which streets would work for certain scenes, which porches would be available to you. When there is sort of a mental geography that is etched in your brain, it gives you a kind of freedom and you can imagine the possibility of a cut, or how a camera is going to swing from one angle to another and what it’s going to see and how that’s going to affect the entire picture that you’re making.

HARTLEY: One of the first things you learn when you want to make films is that you have to control an environment. Lindenhurst provided me with that. Nobody else was making films there, nobody tried to rip me off by making me pay all that much for some street being blocked off or for the use of a diner.

GOMEZ: In your work, in Kid, your senior thesis, there’s always that pull of the home, getting out of the home. It’s about a kid trying to get from one end of the street to the other to get a train to get out of town. Those themes…

HARTLEY: But there’s also an awareness of those themes being archetypal themes too.

GOMEZ: In your films, it’s the town and family that possess a sense of danger. It’s never the person from the next town or the stranger or chance occurrence, the kind of stuff that I’m into, but what’s going on upstairs right now that has all the horrible menace and ominous possibilities in a Hal Hartley film. With my background, I grew up for 10 years in New York City and I lived in Boston and came back to New York again. To a certain extent my films are about a lack of home. What you won’t be seeing is a sense of a family. There is no grounding. In Laws of Gravity there is a sense of community but it’s like every single black sheep in Brooklyn somehow rolls into this one section of Williamsburg. It’s like an artificial town. What interests me is how people who have been expelled from a sense of home will recreate one – either successfully or else it’s still going to fall apart like a family would. It boils down to a difference we have. I think that in the deepest reaches of your subconscious, the family is a multi-headed beast that bites. I will more readily embrace the idea of a production being a family. My search has been for the family like there never was one – trying to find a sense of community, purpose, place, hierarchy, independency, love and all that kind of stuff that I maybe didn’t get in my adolescent years.

HARTLEY: In Trust, there are good aspects of family. I had to really imagine the bad.

 

WRITING AND DIRECTING

HARTLEY: You don’t write scripts. You write descriptions of scenes. I’m very traditional. I work for a long time on the script. I really appreciate a formal balance, a structure that can be seen as well as enjoyed at the same time. How do you work?

GOMEZ: Hal, your overall intellectual approach is coming from a more European tradition. There’s a lot more attention to language and structure. Structure in a classic sense – Howard Hawks, John Ford. Breaking down into acts, establishing your characters in a very certain way… Even though no one will say this but me, I think that I do pay attention to those rules but I’m also interested in a process of chaos…

HARTLEY: Immediacy.

GOMEZ: Yeah, and mistakes. Allowing accidents to happen. Your approach is a little more controlled than that.

HARTLEY: Yeah, I like precision. Although I’ll build in that opportunity for mistakes to happen. That’s what excites me – within an extremely structured and designed situation, what will the reality of actual living, breathing human beings, actors, with their own intelligence bring? That’s probably why I make movies. It would terrify me to work in some of the ways you work. There are scenes in Laws of Gravity that I find fascinating. Say the scene is five minutes long, there’s one shot – there’s three minutes where you’re documenting the actors finding the hook of the scene and then they find it and the next two minutes is more than you ever wanted. You know the scene I’m talking about?

GOMEZ: That scene was a total accident. It was going to be a rehearsal. I was behind the camera and I would let the actors go and then I would give them a little signal and let them know that maybe it was time to hook in. It was a one-take deal – either it was going to work or it wasn’t. I like the process of sitting down with these actors, giving them a character, and giving them all the room in the world, letting them bring their own experiences to the character. It becomes less my language and more their language. The film becomes much more about these little character moments and how they interact. I think a film like yours is working more like a piece of music, where an A minor has to be followed by an F. With me there’s a kind of atonality. We’ve had some long arguments at times about whether a film has to have a kind of structure.

HARTLEY: Yeah, the more films I make the more I can change that too. All films don’t have to have structure, that’s a ridiculous thing to say. I happen to really appreciate in art the obviousness of a structure that manages to transcend itself and be moving.

GOMEZ: You have a very precise way and I tend to enjoy the sloppiness. In Laws of Gravity there’ll be five takes of a scene and I’ll use the one where the actors are just cracking up and laughing because it’s 3:00 in the morning and they’re tired. For me, that’s the one even though there’s no real narrative information in that take.

HARTLEY: I do it much more formally. Certainly in Simple Men, the actors had to do things that they didn’t understand. I’m saying, "I want you to do these gestures, these very formalized gestures. I can’t paraphrase what they mean but they have a kind of significance." I’m also documenting the reality of an actor on the set, struggling with their sleepiness. Although I do it in a stylized way.

GOMEZ: I would be in a situation where an actor didn’t understand a scene and I would say, "Work it out in a way that you do understand and that’s good enough for me."

HARTLEY: I think the intention in a lot of disparate work is the same, it’s the method and, I guess the style — style is the word I keep wanting to reassess.

GOMEZ: Style is a word that imposes a sense of tactile surfaceness.

HARTLEY: …which is something I’m really interested in.

 

FIRST FEATURES

GOMEZ: There’s a process of surprise on your first feature. It’s really not until that first time you see the dailies that you know that you’re on to something. One element that both [first films] were blessed with is a perfect combination of all the elements — the right cast, the right location, the right people. There was a certain grace to both projects. That’s a very exciting kind of rush when it all finally comes together. You know, there’s a halo around the project and it spreads to everyone — all the cast, all the crew members know that they’re involved with something that’s going to count. [This feeling] goes along with you all the way through the festivals, through the distribution process.

HARTLEY: It’s also a kind of confidence and feeling of purpose when you have to start dealing with business people who are more… I don’t know how to say this politely…They don’t give a shit about you or your film. They want it to be a product packaged in a certain way. And when you’ve had a good experience making a film, it’s very easy for you to know where you stand when you go out on the festival circuit. I met a lot of people from pretty much the same situation we had but who seemed much more at sea about how to react to this power from the outside. I think the way you handled yourself getting your film out and developing the next film — you know who you are, you know what kind of films you want to make.

GOMEZ: That’s also a relation to having good people around you. If you’re an individual out there alone and don’t have a good support group, a producer, a lawyer … I’ve got Bob [Gosse] and Larry [Meistrich] who are a huge resource to me.

HARTLEY: I think we come from a community, for lack of a better word. I don’t like to use that "family" terminology.

 

SHOOTING GALLERY

GOMEZ: I was doing work with my partner Bob Gosse and I met up with some of the other personalities at the Shooting Gallery [a New York independent production facility] and it was like a tree house for us – a place to get things done. There was a phone, a fax…

HARTLEY: The great thing about the Shooting Gallery is that, I don’t know if they could have said it at the time, but from the outside what it looks like they were trying to do is to meet people like you who had things to do, who had a real energy. Bob Gosse has been pretty much largely responsible for getting a lot of your films and my films made over the years. He was here and he had resources…

GOMEZ: When you see resources and they are available to you, you take advantage of them and the Shooting Gallery proved to be all right!

 

INFLUENCES

HARTLEY: I’m flipping back through my notebook about a month ago in Hamburg. I did 20 interviews that day and had been asked about influences to such an extent that I really got a little upset. So I went home to my hotel room and made a list of "Hal’s real influences" – completely honestly.

GOMEZ: You were drunk.

HARTLEY: Yeah, I was drunk. But, after making eight films in four years — still having to put up with questions…

GOMEZ: About Jarmusch…

HARTLEY: – whose films I largely enjoy. I made a list of all the influences I could remember from the time I was 18 to the present. Here it goes: Robert Fripp and King Crimson; my friend Chris Nicatera who I grew up with; the Yes of Close to the Edge and Fragile – basically early ’70s art rock; the novels of John Gardner and Herman Hesse; David Byrne, especially Talking Heads from 77 to Fear of Music; Eno; Robert Stein, literature professor at SUNY/Purchase; Tom Dunning, film history teacher; Jim Coleman; the Peter Gabriel of Selling England by the Pound and "Supper’s Ready"; Steven O’Connor, a friend of mine; Woody Allen; Travis Preston, another teacher of mine; Jean-Luc Godard; Victor Hugo; the Beatles; Budweiser; Wim Wenders; Werner Herzog; Murnau’s Nosferatu; Martin Donovan; Almodovar, particularly What Have I Done to Deserve This?; David Bordwell’s book Storyteller about Howard Hawks; the movie Moliere, a French film, I don’t know who made it; Moliere himself; the Poldark saga on PBS, Masterpiece Theater, and the books that that silly series is based on; Adrienne Shelly; Katherine Arnold; my friend Ricky Ludwig; Nick Gomez’s Dear Mom and No Picnic.

GOMEZ: Well, I have no list in front of me.

HARTLEY: Yeah, well I prepared, Nick.

GOMEZ: Well about this whole Scorsese thing. It’s like, I feel like I sample Scorsese but there are scenes in Laws of Gravity that… look, remember that scene in Mean Streets where the guy did this — I’d say, "Let’s take that and make it our own." Take an element of that screenplay and fuck with it, see how we could punch it up a little bit. But like, you know… after having a mixed bag youth and going through a college situation where there was a lot of academic influence on what I was doing, it wasn’t till I went back to the kind of knucklehead stuff I was doing during my adolescence that I was able to try some of the stuff I did in Laws of Gravity. It was, like, sneaking into movie theaters and seeing blaxploitation films in downtown Boston, TV series from the ’70s and B movies, like the films of Sam Fuller, tabloid media, a sense of lower rung Americana — all those values and stuff were something that I embraced as a kid. A hedonistic, rock and roll, do a lot of drugs, drink a lot of beer, see what kind of trouble you can get into [attitude]. A lot of characters in Laws of Gravity are based on some knuckleheads I knew growing up and the stuff they would get into. It wasn’t until I could go back to those days, to a sense of irresponsibility where I was able to work things out in way that I thought was successful. I don’t see as many films as other filmmakers do. I’ll be more interested by the latest rap song.

HARTLEY: Well, I really don’t see as many films myself too. I’m more affected by rock music. In music, it’s not so important for a musician to change their character from album to album. In the film business, it’s almost expected. If you make a film that deals with a certain kind of subject matter in a certain way once, if you do it again, you’re fucking up. But your life hasn’t changed that much, your concerns haven’t changed that much, your concerns haven’t changed that much. That’s why I think that music is a much more accurate barometer of a place and time.



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