Hal Hartley Partners with Vimeo and Completes His Trilogy with 'Ned Rifle'
First with Henry Fool, then with Fay Grim and now Henry Rifle, NY auteur Hal Hartley has sought out to tell three distinctly different stories all through the lens of one family. Starting in 1997 and shooting with the same principle cast members throughout all three films, Hartley completes the circle with the Kickstarter-funded Ned Rifle, which made its U.S. Premiere at SXSW 2015.
With the collaboration of fellow filmmaker (and Hartley mega-fan) Brandon Colvin on questions, I sat down with Hal Hartley for 15 minutes in the hallways of a hotel lobby in Austin.
Generally in directing, what you're looking for when you're casting are people who can talk and move.
NFS: Your dialogue is very precise and particular, very idiosyncratic rhythms and syntax. Do you read the lines out loud to yourself when you write, how much do the lines change at the time that you write them to the time that they end up, and how do you understand the relationship between the written word and the spoken word?
Hal: I write it and I have my ear open to the melody and the rhythm. I talk it to myself a bit. I'm not a performer but I -- and I actually have like a problem speaking clearly all the time since I've-- 'cuz I don't -- I'm just -- kind of shy or something. But I can, after a while, hear it. I can hear the melody, I can hear the poetry of it, and once I'm secure in the poetry of it, I set it to paper and that's it.
In my movies, the dialogue is the dialogue. I say my movies are text built and performance driven. I cut stuff out because shit that's written on page would seem totally necessary, but becomes redundant sometimes once you shoot it. The scene is perfectly good but, you know, somehow the magic of cinema you go like, "Wow, that's not necessary anymore, because the time we spent with these other people, ah, earlier in the film, it's clear."
NFS: How do you feel about collaborating with actors, and how does this factor into casting?
Hal: And then I work with actors and focus on casting actors who are good vocally. They have to be able to speak well. Generally in directing, what you're looking for when you're casting are people who can talk and move. It's a collaboration. It can't be anything else, right? I need them to know the language, and to hear the melody of it, the rhythm. Tom [Ryan] is brilliant at this. And I need to get them into situations where I can tell them exactly what I need them to do physically.
NFS: Do you like it when they try to mix things up or change it?
Hal: Yeah, but they don't try to mix things up. They just try to do what I've asked them to do, and they fail or succeed. By the time I shoot, it's a performance. It's something that everybody in the room understands we're doing -- the actor, the camera people, because there's camera movement and there's microphone movement, and the other actors are -- it's very rare that we make a shot that's only got one actor in it, so the other actors have to adjust. So yeah, that's it.
I knew that there was a really valuable undefined spiritual aesthetic space that was possible at the end of a film if you didn't end it too specifically.
NFS: It seems like you seem to utilize the sort of Godardian premise of the "gun and a girl" in some of your films. Not to be reductive, but more like an acknowledgement that you prefer certain genre elements in your work. Why are you attracted to these sorts of things? Is there something about these elements that call out for some kind of re-contextualizing of them?
Hal: I think it's good that you mention Godard's thing about that, because I have responded to that -- he understood something that I understand now -- that people don't go to movies unless you see sex and violence. So no matter what you are to address, and what I want to address in a film particularly like this, is the spiritual situation of this family and this kid and of our society, no one's going to pay attention unless there's a girl and a gun. And so I try to just wrestle with that. You know, twist it up.
Somebody does get shot -- a girl does show her legs a lot. But it's a gesture of despair that as a culture we're just so continuously stupid and shallow, and I think that the kid's motives are kind of good -- they're horrible at the beginning, he wants to kill somebody, righteously, with his misunderstood spirituality -- but he actually finds that this spirituality is quite admirable as a result of trying to do violence and failing. Godard was onto something -- he was angry. He was pissed off, and confused. And that's how poetry comes out of that.
NFS: You often end your films with sort of powerful tragic complicated grace notes. You know, the sort of combined failure, sacrifice, release -- they carry a sense of fatedness, like destiny, like inescapable destiny or something. Do you have these endings in mind very early on in the process?
Hal: Early in my career I didn't really know what I was aiming for, but I knew that there was a really valuable undefined spiritual aesthetic space that was possible at the end of a film if you didn't end it too specifically. If there was room, there was room for a rhythm of conclusion, but it didn't resolve. It was the end, but it was still open, and that was the way to make people talk about when we watch movies in movie theaters -- you go back out onto the street and you would have this kind of clarity. Your brain, your soul -- everything had been washed clean of the advertising, the noise of culture, and you were clean for a moment. For fifteen minutes your ears were clean. You could hear things again, you could see again. You could hear your friend talking to you for the first time. That was real powerful for me.
So I've always cultivated this particular way of ending films with iconic -- in the sense of like Russian icon painting -- a clarity that was a meaning that was very artificial, it didn't pretend to be naturalistic. A very articulated clarity. You mentioned Tarkovsky, he wrote more than anybody else in the twentieth century about the importance of iconography. But that stuff was really important to me, and still is. The end of Ned Rifle is probably the most overtly iconographic.