Indie Film Pioneer Hal Hartley on Why the Dream of the '90s is Dead—And That's OK
If anyone knows indie film, it's Hal Hartley. And he's got a few beans to spill.
Hal Hartley's The Unbelievable Truth was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance in 1989. That year, Steven Soderbergh's seminal indie film sex, lies, and videotape [sic] grossed $24.7 million at the domestic box office. Close behind was another indie pioneer, Jim Sheridan, who made his Daniel Day-Lewis vehicle My Left Foot for $700,000 and premiered it to $14.7 in theatrical revenue. Audiences had an untapped hunger for films made outside the studio system, and they put their money where their mouths were. Indie film was booming.
Those were the glory days. We live in a very different world now: a world where the most successful indie breakout of last year, Moonlight—the film that was hailed as having defied the odds at the box office—grossed $27.8 million. Adjusted for inflation, sex, lies, and videotape grossed twice as much as Moonlight. As Hartley confirms, the dream of the '90s is dead.
"The original indie film business doesn't exist anymore."
Why? Hartley has spent the last 20 years mulling over the changing indie film landscape, but it hasn't stopped him from making a baker's dozen movies. In 2014, he took to Kickstarter to raise nearly $400,000 from thousands of dedicated fans to make Ned Rifle, the final installment of his "Grim Trilogy," one of the only cinematic universes in the realm of indie film. Though Hartley continues to subvert genre tropes—2001's No Such Thing and 2005's The Girl From Monday were audacious riffs on the monster movie and sci-fi, respectively—his filmography retains the character-driven, deadpan comedic tone that helped shape independent film as we know it.
When No Film School spoke with Hartley last week, he was cautiously optimistic about the prospects of contemporary indie film. He offered some cold, hard advice about success in the movie business, shared tricks from 20 years in the trade, and more.
No Film School: Indie film as we know it was born in the early '90s with you and your cohort of filmmakers. What do you think the most pertinent change has been from the '90s to now?
Hal Hartley: The biggest change is that the original indie film business doesn't exist anymore. There was a type of business in the '90s—it started in the '80s, and for a few years in the '90s—where there was a real commercial interest in alternative work, and it seemed to be profitable for distributors. But that kind of went away by the end of the decade.
NFS: Have audiences changed? What accounts for the shift?
Hartley: I think audiences have changed. In the '90s, you'd go into the movie theaters and there was a real diversity of movies showing. That went away.
Hartley: However, as the internet developed, I think that diverse audiences went to different places to get excited about movies that they wanted to see. Many more people watch movies on their electronic devices. There's a much greater interest in very short work, very outside-the-mainstream work. However, it doesn't generate a lot of income. There's this distribution reality where you can put anything anywhere and see it. That's exciting, 'cause you're constantly having friends give you links to things that you'd never have seen in a million years.
Also, the equipment with which we make movies has become practically cheap or free. When I made Henry Fool 20 years ago, a really big part of the budget was renting the camera and the dolly tracks and the dolly and the sound equipment. But when I made Ned Rifle— for a third of what I made Henry Fool for—I just spent a few thousand dollars to buy all the equipment we needed, the camera, the sound equipment, everything. I just bought it because it's that inexpensive.
"Filmmakers thought the end of the world was happening when sound was invented."
NFS: Do you think it may a moot point to dream of a world where you can still go to the theater and see the kind of diverse content that you could in the '90s? Do you see any avenue opening up to at least bring back money to diverse content in today's landscape?
Hartley: Money to diverse content—that's the issue, isn't it? Well, you can do a Kickstarter, like I've done before and am doing again now. I consider my films not obscure, but they're not mainstream, either. They definitely fall into the diverse folder. You can get the work made and you can get it to the audience who appreciates it, but you have to rethink everything economically. One of the things I like about the Kickstarter approach is I can reach out to my audience—and I can only do this, maybe, because I've been making films for 30 years—and say, "Look, if I do this movie, would you buy the DVD?" They put down their $25 or their $50 and if enough of them do it, then you have the money to make the work. You make the work and then you distribute it to them as promised, and that's a different production and distribution model.
Hartley: From the beginning of cinema, models of production and distribution have changed almost every 10 years. I mean, filmmakers thought the end of the world was happening when sound was invented because there had been this whole silent movie thing, which made a lot of people millionaires and certainly famous. And then sound came along and this whole silent thing just fell off the edge of the earth. I remember, in my youth, when VHS tape and home video became a reality, everybody thought, "Oh my God, movies are finished." But it didn't really happen.
"From the beginning of cinema, models of production and distribution have changed almost every 10 years."
Things change. The internet and computers changed everything. As I continue to make work, I'm just trying to adjust my creative and business aims to this technological reality that keeps changing.
NFS: What are some ways that you've adjusted your creative aims to better suit technological advances?
Hartley: I've embraced the fact that most people watch movies on their electronic devices. I do myself. So I think about the picture a little bit differently. It kind of suits me, anyway, because even in the '80s, when I started making films, I knew that I had the most fun doing scenes of people talking to each other or other small activities. And I noticed that television back then—good television—did that really well. My impulse was not to make the widescreen extravaganza-type thing. So now I'm back in a world where people are really watching movies on small formats and close-up works well. Conversation and dialogue work well.
NFS: Smaller screens are great for character-driven pieces, like yours.
Hartley: Right, yes. Definitely character-driven. But I might have done that anyway, even if I was working on a larger palette. Quentin Tarantino does that, too. His stories are character-driven, but he's also interested in large-scale violence. They're still character driven movies, but he needs that wider, bigger palette to get that action across. That's not a big issue for me.
NFS: In a metaphorical sense, you do have a wide palette. I was thinking about your Henry Fool trilogy, and I realized it's one of the only so-called cinematic universes that exists in indie film. Everyone's talking about cinematic universes in terms of superhero movies, of course. What has that process meant to you—building out a consistent world across three different films?
Hartley: I have a feeling that what you just described is going to be the subject of the extra added value material on this DVD box set. I've decided I'll make about an hour-long film about the experience of making those three films over 20 years. I have a wealth of footage and audio recordings and a huge amount of photography. It is interesting—I haven't ever really had the leisure to sit down and write about it.
When I made Henry Fool, although I joked about making other movies with these characters, I did not seriously intend to. But then, after two or three years, I actually began to really feel the need to make another movie with Parker [Posey] and her character, Faye. I wanted to make another story about this family, but a totally different kind movie in a totally different time. That became very exciting to me.
"I didn't say, 'I'm going to do something in indie film that no one else has done.' I didn't see it coming."
It wasn't like an agenda. In the beginning, I didn't say, "I'm going to do something in independent filmmaking that no one else has done." I didn't see it coming. It was very organic and it developed as a lot of my work does—in response to the events that are happening around me and to my own experience. I try to give an impression of what the world around me feels like to me and people like me. The [Henry Fool trilogy] Grim family sort of became my surrogate family. They were the litmus test: What's the world like right now? Let's throw the Grim family into it and see.
NFS: Can you describe the product of that litmus test? What do you think they portray the world as like?
Hartley: Dangerous and filled up with people who are dishonest. But there are plenty of opportunities for clarity, charity, and heroism, even amongst people who are not the perfect, well-rounded types. That's what I like about Simon Say and Henry and Ned [in Henry Fool]—they're flawed but they're lovable. One way or the other, through all their trials and tribulations, they do tend to manifest a kind of common decency in the face of the wider world's dishonesty.
NFS: What would you say to your younger self, right after you had all your initial success with the Unbelievable Truth, as a filmmaker 30 years later?
Hartley: Don't get a big head. In fact, I was very, very lucky when I had my first successes to find myself in nice conversations with people who were a little bit more experienced than me. I remember, at Sundance, which was the second festival I went to with the Unbelievable Truth, it won, and it was nominated for an award. It was a big deal there. We were getting interviewed all the time. It was a success.
"You might be the biggest thing today, and then tomorrow, no one wants to talk to you."
Steven Soderbergh was there, who was a couple years older than me, had a little bit more experience. A couple producers from other films were there, too, and we were just sitting around talking. They didn't say it explicitly, but I heard from the conversation: "You've gotta be really careful. You might be the biggest thing today, and then tomorrow, no one wants to talk to you." What we used to say in the old days is that no one will return your call.
That was good to hear, so I always tempered myself about that. Because it's true: as the years go on, some years you're big, some years you're not. Sometimes you're hot, sometimes you're not.
NFS: It's a capricious cycle.
Hartley: Yeah. It's show business. It's always about appearances, anyway, so you can't take it too seriously.
NFS: What are some general truths you've learned about film production over your 30-year career?
Hartley: Just preparation. I'm a very prepared type of person. I think it's true even in my other parts of my life. We were talking before that I make character-driven, dialogue-driven, actor-performed movies. With those, there's no harm in just waiting a little bit longer and revising your script. Work on the script for a long time.
If you have a really strong script that you understand well, then you can explain the less obvious parts to the actors, so that they'll understand it. And then by the time you are doing the really expensive part of it—where you're shooting and you're spending an enormous amounts of money every day—you don't have to be so stressed out and confused. You don't want to be standing there thinking, "What does this mean?" You can actually execute and you can have better ideas.
You can even change your ideas. But you can change your ideas only because you understand very well what you had written and why you thought it was important. Sometimes the location you wind up with can really change the dialogue, or that kind of thing. Or the type of secondary character you cast might really change the situation. But it doesn't matter if things change if you just do good prep.
"I've always tried to isolate good readers. It's not always useful to give what you're writing to just anyone."
NFS: Do you have anything specific that you do in your prep process or while revising your script?
Hartley: Well, I've always tried to isolate good readers. It's not always useful to give what you're writing to just anyone. You have to develop the skill of finding people who are like you, but not you—meaning their tastes and sensibilities are generally yours, but they're a different personality, so they'll look at anything a little differently than you. And that's useful. You can get into good conversations with people like that. Something that you thought was perfectly clear in your screenplay, for instance, might not be so clear to them.
Sometimes, in this kind of business, you have to give your writing to some middle-management executive for the big company. You don't know who he or she is. How did they get that job? Have they ever written anything? Have they ever turned what they've written into motion pictures? You get notes from them and it's hard to maintain respect for them as people. So you have to control your anger, too. You've gotta get a little bit of a thick skin so you don't piss people off too much, 'cause a lot of times, that middle management executive will just kind of back down as soon as you reply sensibly.
NFS: When you taught filmmaking at Harvard, what was your curriculum like?
Hartley: I was teaching 16mm film production to a group of students who, generally, had no real intention of going into the motion picture business. Every student I had was a very academically highly-placed person who had an opportunity to take creative classes. So, for me, it really became fun to just teach them how to use their hands and to get practical things done. This is no slight against the students at Harvard, but they tend to be extremely intellectually powerful, and that sometimes can get in the way of actually carrying out the practicalities of something.
I was very happy when after six or seven tries, somebody would come back with a shot that lasts 10 seconds, and it's in focus, and it's well-exposed. I can see the joy in their faces too, like, "Yeah, I was overthinking that."
"I consciously tried to embrace different kinds of genres and subvert them."
Editing was so fun. I'd have them write two-page scenes for two or three characters and they'd spend weeks trying to make that happen. Then they'd come back and we'd cut it together and it was just lovely to see them look like a five-year-old again, like, "Wow, look at this! A match cut! It's a miracle, a miracle of cinema!" That was great.
A couple of [my student]s did go into Hollywood. In fact, one of my most talented students, Kyle Gilman, became my editor for Ned Rifle. He didn't get the credit for editing Fay Grim, but he really was the guy who did it.
NFS: You could describe your films as being genre-subversive. What's your relationship to genre and how has it evolved?
Hartley: Well, that's an interesting term. I think somewhere in the late '90s, I consciously tried to embrace different kinds of genres and subvert them. Yeah, that's a good term. I think, starting with the Book of Life, and then Fay Grim, and even The Girl from Monday, which is kind of science fiction, but not. Fay Grim's an espionage movie, but not. No Such Thing is very obviously a monster movie that's not a monster movie.
I don't think my earlier films were like that. I think from the late '80s to Henry Fool in 1997, there was just a particular type of comic melodrama I liked and I had a talent for, so that's what I did. But then I really wanted a change. I was like, "Alright, I've been making films non-stop for 10 years and I want to do something different." So I started looking around.
I have never used that term before, but I will use it from now on. I'm genre-subversive.