[Editor’s note: As Hal Hartley‘s latest, Ned Rifle, is now in theaters, Cinefamily and Fandor present a first-ever West Coast retrospective of this indie legend’s work in The Films of Hal Hartley. The show includes eight of Hartley’s greatest feats, plus a career-spanning exhibition of rare artifacts, and Skink Ink Gallery’s Still Lives series of limited-edition prints. For the opening weekend, Hartley himself intros the screenings and stays for Q&As, with appearances by Aubrey Plaza, James Urbaniak and other guests expected.]
Within the first minutes of watching any film by Hal Hartley, you know you’re in a unique universe of humor, precision, drama and consciousness, and the final piece of his “Grim Trilogy,” Ned Rifle, is no exception. Here, he recalls the characters he introduced in Henry Fool and Fay Grim, now grown and ready for revenge in a drama that gives way to the kind of comedy that showcases Hartley’s screenwriting talents. I got the chance to speak with Hartley when his film debuted at the Berlinale.
Artur Zaborski: The title of your new film, Ned Rifle, is also a pseudonym you use when you compose the music for your films. What is its origin?
Hal Hartley: Film school, probably; most likely my writing classes. There were twelve people in my group. Every week we had to write a subject that the professor chose. I think that each of us wanted to entertain the class with recurring characters. Mine was Ned Rifle. He was always getting into trouble somehow. And then when I began making music for my own films I started to use this nickname as my own. Ned is the short form of Edward. I have a couple of uncles with this name. It’s a common name. When I made Henry Fool, I just called the child Ned but I wasn’t thinking about Ned Rifle at all.
Zaborski: So if Ned Rifle is actually Hal Hartley, can we consider this film as a film about you in some way?
Hartley: No more than any of my films. I don’t do autobiography that much. My films are definitely about the way I see the world and feel it. In that sense we can say Ned Rifle is a film about me.
Zaborski: How did you come to make this film?
Hartley: When Henry Fool and Fay Grim came to be, I knew that I would make the third piece.
Zaborski: You knew from the very beginning that you would make a trilogy?
Hartley: No, I thought I was going to make only one film, no more. But after I made Henry Fool, I started thinking about making the trilogy. It all depended on how the boy was going to grow up, because in the first film he was only seven years old. It wasn’t a trilogy in the sense that they are sequels. I was interested in making three independent films, three separate stories—different kinds of films, but using the same family as a center. I started to think about Ned Rifle in the middle of writing Fay Grim. In that moment I certainly started to realize that the boy would be the main character of the third film. I had the idea that the boy would go out to kill his father. When I was finishing Fay Grim I knew she was going to get in real trouble. That is all I knew then, other things came out later. Like the idea of Suzanne, the girl who is the reason Henry originally went to jail.
Zaborski: She was mentioned in Henry Fool.
Hartley: Yes, she was, but we hadn’t had the chance to see her. That was the turning point when I remembered this character that was only mentioned. Then I had enough material to work with.
Zaborski: Do you consider your characters outsiders?
Hartley: I guess so. What I like about this Grim family is that it is so atypical. They are the kind of family that most other people on the street wished did not live there. They are always in trouble; there’s always bad going on there. They are marginal. And on the margins things are always more interesting. The mainstream, the regular [folks] are dependable and predictable. Nothing really important happens there.
Zaborski: Are you similar to you characters? Do you feel any special bond with them?
Hartley: Certainly, I do, for all of these characters, but in different ways. I consider myself an outcast. I am not in the mainstream. The mainstream doesn’t need my concern. We’ll be both fine all by ourselves.
Zaborski: So you do not participate in mainstream culture at all? You don’t watch blockbusters and don’t watch popular TV shows?
Hartley: I don’t and I never have.
Zaborski: And what about business? You finance your films on your own.
Hartley: I’m in business, I’m a businessman. Ninety percent of my daily work is being a businessman. Actually I enjoy it. The business, the show business may be different. But my business has nothing to do with mainstream contemporary culture. Except for [the fact there are] people from the mainstream who copy my style. My ambition never was to be the part of it. In the seventies most of the films that people were excited about were art films: Wim Wenders, Werner Herzog, Rainer Werner Fassbinder—those were the inspirations. Particularly Fassbinder was very straight and loud about it: mainstream culture is the end of civilization and we have to get around it if we want some counter future.
Zaborski: How has your style developed over time?
Hartley: I like it better now (laugh). I think I have made six or seven movies before I really began to know what I was doing and why I was different in what I do than other people. It had to do with the specificity of the language and music. I would say I was aware of it in the middle of nineties, when I made Henry Fool in 1997. I had been working very instinctually. At a certain point knowledge begins to developing….I write very carefully and it’s musical. There is no point in denying that. Also, let’s say in 2000 and after that, I really began to understand that I needed the melody of the language to meld with the melody of the physical activity, how people move, etc.; I think I achieved a lot of that in the late nineties in my film Flirt, particularly the Japanese section. And then I picked up on it again in Fay Grim and The Girl From Monday.
Zaborski: Are you interested in fabrication or realism? What is more important to you?
Hartley: I am interested in reality but I have never been interested in naturalism. I want to treat real subjects in a responsibly artistic manner, which means artifice, where you feel the making. I have never been crazy about naturalism in films. It’s just seems sloppy for me.
Zaborski: What is the aim of making movies for you?
Hartley: To tell the stories and give viewers an aesthetic experience. Particularly the aesthetic experience can help elevate the audience’s awareness during the ninety minutes of a screening. It’s not passive entertainment. It demands you pay attention. If you don’t, you don’t worry about it, you leave.
Zaborski: You direct your films, write the scripts, compose the music. Do you consider yourself as a film author?
Hartley: Yes, that’s the best way to say it. I used the word designer mostly, because that’s how I feel. I’m designing this experience for you and it’s everything–the visual, the verbal, the oral, the musical–everything about it–its rhythm, melody. Composer may also be a good word. Composers are also authors.
Zaborski: What will be next?
Hartley: I am trying to write episodic television. It’s a new direction for me. I would love to make features, but I’m not going to make any more features if I’m not going to be paid for it. I’m not going to finance it myself. I don’t want to spend all my life in financing my own films. I do think that there is a real possibility for a filmmaker like me to make episodic television.
Zaborski: So you plan an affair with mainstream culture?
Hartley: No, I don’t. It is totally different. It’s real counter culture. It’s not the television, it’s the Internet. They call it “TV-like.” In fact, the majority of people do not watch it on television. They watch it on web sites on the Internet. I think it is possible to make alternatives to mainstream culture.
For more Hal Hartley, try Filmwax Radio’s 2014 interview, while Ned Rifle was still a work-in-progress.