Hal Hartley
Stories & Ideas

Thu 24 Aug 2017

An interview with Hal Hartley

Film Interview
Roberta Ciabarra
Roberta Ciabarra

Film Curator, ACMI

The director of the Henry Fool trilogy talks to ACMI Film Curator Roberta Ciabarra.

Hartley’s Henry Fool trilogy began almost two decades ago with Henry Fool in 1997. Fay Grim, featuring Parker Posey in a lead role, followed in 2006, with Ned Rifle completing the trilogy in 2014. At once a saga concerning the Grim family of Woodside Queens, the Henry Fool trilogy is also an illustration of America’s grappling with ideas, art, politics and religion over the course of 20 years. 

Roberta Ciabarra: Is Ned Rifle definitively ‘the third and final chapter’ of your Henry Fool tragicomic epic?  You don’t see yourself returning to the fates of Fay or Simon Grim, for example?

Hal Hartley: I'm in the habit of never ruling anything out definitively. But I do feel I've mined all I can from these characters. It's true: Fay, Simon, or Ned could have stories that continue. But I think it's not as pressing for me as are other stories.

RC: How did you find using Kickstarter as a funding platform for Ned Rifle after your initial foray with Meanwhile? Would you go that route again?

HH: Crowd-sourcing is a good tool but it takes a lot of work – at least for me. I would not do it again on that scale. It was just too physically and emotionally demanding. But I'm glad I did it. The people at Kickstarter were very helpful. And I appreciate their insistence that one must raise all of the money one sets out to raise – it's all or nothing. That's fair to the backers. Of course, it's only a marketing tool, so it's useful for any kind of endeavour. But I think it's an especially excellent way for artists to initiate projects that are both sufficiently outside the mainstream and not culturally rarefied enough to be considered for grants.

RC: At what point did you know you wanted to work with Parker Posey again after Amateur (1994)? Can you tell us about Posey’s influence on the genesis for Fay Grim (2006)?

HH: I almost cast Parker in Surviving Desire in 1991. She was just out of college. She was getting a lot of attention from casting directors and I thought she was very exciting. But she was a little wild – which was also exciting. But I doubted my ability to control her in the type of work I aspired to make. Still, we became friends and I cast her in Flirt and Amateur a couple of years later. By then I had no doubts about my ability to direct her well and she was clearly in mind as I sat down to write Henry Fool. Even before finishing that film, I knew I needed to write something for her to star in. Through the coming years, she turned down a few of the scripts I suggested – all for good reason. She's good at knowing what's right for her. Eventually, I suggested we return to Fay since we both felt we achieved something excellent in that character.

Hal Hartley and Parker Posey

Hal Hartley and Parker Posey

RC: Ned Rifle reunites the cast of the trilogy –Thomas Jay Ryan as Henry Fool, Parker Posey as Fay Grim, a now adult Liam Aiken as Ned and James Urbaniak as Simon Grim – but also key members of your ‘90s ‘stock company’: Martin Donovan, Bill Sage, Karen Sillas, Robert John Burke. How does the casting process change when you share so much history with actors you know well?

HH: It's easier after all this time to cast these performers as "character actors"; as types... At least, we have much more fun that way. I knew I wanted Martin to play Reverend Gardner because I was interested in him playing those scenes opposite Liam, who has grown up to be a young actor who has some of the qualities I associate with Martin—a quiet kind of fierceness. Martin was happy to be involved, but he was concerned that he, being popularly perceived as 'The Hal Hartley Actor', might acquire too much meaningless significance. I saw his point and assured him I was going to try and rope in the others. He liked that idea. But, honestly, I didn't have the idea until I was on the phone with him.

RC: Ned Rifle introduces a new Hartley collaborator, Aubrey Plaza, as Susan. At what point did Plaza join the project? She seems to have tapped right into the tone set by your earlier films. What new element did Plaza bring to the on-set dynamic?

HH: What Aubrey brought to the on-set dynamic were nerves. She is one of the most nervous people I have ever met. And the nervousness percolates into wit, flirtatiousness, intensity... If I were younger and less experienced I might have hesitated the way I did with Parker in 1991. I would have needed more time to get to know her. But the bottom line is she's a hard-working and well-prepared actress. She was suggested by her agent whom I was working with in regards to Parker—they're represented by the same agency. I saw her in a number of things but it was her performance in Safety Not Guaranteed that convinced me she had the necessary "bling" to play Susan. I'm not sure she knew who I was but she did a quick study and was on the phone with me two days later. That would have been early February 2014.

Ned Rifle Aubrey Plaza - Liam Aiken - Possible Films

Aubrey Plaza and Liam Aiken in 'Ned Rifle' (2014). Image courtesy of Possible Films

RC: Why did you omit to credit yourself as screenwriter on Henry Fool (ironically, for the very script for which you received the Best Screenplay award at Cannes in 1998)?

HH: I don't remember. It might have been I wanted the simplicity of ‘a film by’ and have done with it.

RC: Nicholas Hope appears in the role of a priest in Henry Fool, as does Martin Donovan in Ned Rifle. Their benign nature seems to contradict the commentary by academic and critic Camille Paglia in her Henry Fool cameo when she decries that “residual Puritan element in American culture that rears its ugly head every time an authentic artistic voice comes out of the cultural scene”. Your films comment on society and ‘the cultural scene’ at very particular transitional moments (the advent of the internet, a post 9/11 shift in consciousness).

Do you think you’ll choose to work with such a sprawling canvas again or move towards more self-contained narratives?

HH: It never seems to be sprawling when I'm writing. I've said this in different ways over the years and for the most part, it remains true: I try not to reach too far for subject matter. I try to make stories out of the stuff of the world I move through. And that includes the concerns of the day—what gets written about in newspapers, discussed on television, worried over by parents. What I do with these commonalities might be a little unusual, but I'm not interested in the exotic. I've wanted my films to provide evidence of my time and place—where ever that might be.

The three films of the Henry Fool cycle, of course, might highlight this by virtue of having the same characters over the course of three decades. For what it's worth when I finally decided to make Fay Grim it wasn't so much to continue the story from the previous film but to use Fay and her family as a prism through which to consider the world at that moment—like you say: "a post 9-11 shift of consciousness." Because when I re-watched Henry Fool I saw we had managed to do something similar in 1996—provide some evidence of the time and place: the emergence of the internet, the rightward shift in American politics, etcetera.

There is a priest in all three films. They serve different purposes. But none of them are terribly confident. Yeah, in these films the "puritan element in American culture" need not always be typified by the clergy. It might be more recognisable in politicians and the media business.