American Independent Cinema in the 1990s. There's a handful of directors' names that spring to mind: Richard Linklater (Slacker), Larry Clark (Kids), Kevin Smith (Clerks), Steven Soderbergh (Sex, Lies and Videotape), Todd Solondz (Happiness), and yes, Hal Hartley (Amateur). It's Hartley, arguably more than any of the aforementioned, who has remained truest to his indie roots.
With a bunch of great DVD re-releases coming out from Artificial Eye, we spoke to the uncompromising director about the state of indie cinema, growing up in Long Island (which is also, incidentally, the home of De La Soul and Walt Whitman), composing music for his own films, and that classic Godardian dance sequence from Simple Men (1992), which he shot while "deathly ill".
GFW: First off, you’ve written and composed under the pseudonym ‘Ned Rifle’ for many years, and it’s now the name of your upcoming film. What’s the story there?
Hal Hartley: I used this name, Ned (a great-uncle of mine) Rifle (no relation) for the music I contributed to my early films because I was not so confident about my music. And in college I used the character of Ned Rifle in all my weekly writing assignments just to entertain my classmates—this constantly well intentioned f*ck-up thrown into the requirements of the writing assignment. Then I made Henry Fool and called their kid Ned. Now, 20-odd years later, we’re trying to make the third part and it became a narrative need to have Ned operate under an assumed name. Boom!
Hartley's 'Henry Fool' (1997), starring Parker Posey.
There have been many misfit characters in your films. As a writer, where do you find inspiration for your characters? Did you know many strange/interesting people in Long Island, where you grew up?
No, nothing happened of any consequence in Long Island that led to the work I do in regard to misfit characters ... What I went on to tell stories about was much more informed by what I learned about the world when I left home. I didn’t know anything about the world or about other people until I left [Long Island].
I’ve heard you say you’re not that interested in achieving verisimilitude. In that sense, you seem to have shared some similarities with Jean-Luc Godard in distancing the audience. What are your views on engaging audiences now?
I’m still the same, I think. I want the audience to be aware of the fact I’m telling a story and making decisions that they have the opportunity to think about if they choose. That’s how I always understood Godard’s note about “not making political films but making films politically.” In my case, of course, it might be non-ideological. But Godard’s example helped me appreciate that even a piece of fiction could be critical, a kind of active thinking about, and not mere evocation of, the world we think we know. Why are we telling a story at all? And why are we telling it this way? That sort of thing. All the stuff the late Roger Ebert found so tiring.
How do you think TV and online viewing is affecting audience responses to cinema? And is this something you’re conscious of when making films now?
Apparently, it doesn’t seem to make any difference in the kinds of films that get made and distributed. When I made The Girl from Monday I thought the new technologies might be offering a new way for a greater variety of cinema to be presented. But that doesn’t seem to have happened. But of course TV, particularly Cable TV (in the US at least) has resurrected the excitement of the 19th century novel in excellent ways.
Going back to Godard, one of my favourite scenes you’ve directed is the Bande à part-inspired dance sequence in Simple Men, with Sonic Youth on the soundtrack. Were you specific about the moves?
In the writing, and even in the pre-production design, we were not thinking about Bande à part. I just knew that at this part of the script I needed these people to dance and get to know each other differently. But I wasn’t paying attention to how the costume we had designed for Elina Lowensohn (who’s Romanian) was, in fact, so French. And of course she had this hair cut [the bob] which was her own regular haircut... Then, when we set up the shot, and I showed the crew what I had in mind, we were all hysterical about how it resembled Bande à part. So we just went with it. The dance moves were brought in by Elina who was doing a play at the time where she had to do a similar dance. She was told it was an African tribal dance.
Was it enjoyable to shoot?
It was terribly enjoyable except I became deathly ill from food poisoning that night and had to be rushed back to the hotel after only two takes.
Is Godard an influence now?
Godard, to be long-winded about it, like anyone who has built his life around his work as an artist who is socially engaged and who has used his experience as an artist who gets criticized to continue evolving as an artist who is socially engaged... (you get the picture) is certainly an influence. Not many others. I do like some films I see. But that’s a different thing.
You’ve composed music for many of your films, as ‘Ned Rifle’ – I’m a big fan of Flirt’s score. How do you go about composing for the screen and finding the mood of a scene?
I watch and respond with my guitar. It’s a long, sloppy process. But I record everything. I know I try to weave simple melodic lines around and through the dialogue; I know that the melodies will interact with their words and their movements.
Soundtracks have also played an important role in creating the tone of your films, featuring bands like Yo La Tengo, Pavement and PJ Harvey. How do you select the music? Is it just stuff you like/listen to?
I listen for lyrics that might bounce nicely off what my story is. But I certainly rely on rhythm too. Sometimes just the energy that seems to fit the story at that moment.
You came to prominence in the early '90s – the heyday of American Independent Cinema (Sex, Lies and Videotape, Clerks, Slacker, etc.). Do you think American independent cinema has declined since then? How do you think it’s changed?
I can’t say I ever had such a firm grasp of what was commercially termed 'American Independent Cinema'. I made the kind of films I wanted to make the way I wanted to make them – as I still do. I watched big movies and small movies; popular films and unpopular films. I was suspicious of the rush to designate it as a movement or a trend by journalists. Most people I knew and most movies I saw seemed to want to be successfully commercial and as mainstream as possible; the same as any other era of filmmaking. The youth in question was new perhaps.
Where are you at with your next feature, Ned Rifle? Could you give us a taster of what it’s about?
Ned Rifle is the third and final chapter of the Henry Fool story . Henry and Fay’s son, Ned, turns 18 and is allowed to leave the witness protection program he has been in since the age of 14 during the events of Fay Grim . He sets out to find and kill his father for the mess he has made of Fay’s life. I don’t know if this film will ever get made. But it is written.
To see what Hal Hartley films are being re-released on DVD and Blu-ray, head over to Artificial Eye.