Interviewing Hal Hartley: Cinema, words and music

Hal HartleyIf Hal Hartley’s autobiography were written today, a fitting title might be Words and Music.

The director, writer and composer, whose films have ranged from The Unbelievable Truth (1989) to the upcoming Ned Rifle (expected 2015), is as much concerned with the literary and musical components of his movies as the visual ones … and his erudite, hands-on approach shows through in the results. Yet there are other questions going through this craftsman’s mind as he creates his comic dramas, and though he might shy away from calling them philosophical dialogues, that label’s not far from fact. In the following interview, CURNBLOG picks Hartley’s brain for insights on independent moviemaking, the music that’s close to his heart and the sounds of his characters’ names.

There’s a smart, sharp intelligence to your films that suggests a philosophical bent transcending the usual cinematic fare, and religious questions often permeate your work, too. Could you talk to us about how you meld abstract ideas with tangible action in your movies and what the overall outlook you’re trying to convey is?

HH: For me the fun in making motion pictures is in trying to make the invisible tensions and connections between people visible through activity. When the boy places his hand on the table and the girl removes hers and returns it to her lap – what’s that mean? Depending on what’s been going on previously, it can mean anything. It’s almost like composing music. I treat dialogue the same way, as activity. And people do evasive things when they’re using words to communicate.

“Philosophy” and “spirituality” always seemed heavy-handed terms to me in regard to the fiction I was making. But it’s true: I make characters who not only think about their ideas and feelings but who discuss them as people aiming to clarify more general truths. After all this time and all these movies, I see that pretty clearly. It’s what I like in novels. And I’ve always felt closer to novel writing than to movies, even though movies are the only thing I know how to do and even though major early influences were the plays of Molière or Peter Weiss and so on. It was working with words to both create a complexity that audiences recognise as a real part of our shared experience and an attempt to find clarity – to suggest alternatives to habit.

Hal Hartley Henry FoolYou’ve worked primarily as an independent filmmaker, yet your pictures often have a mainstream flair, with big stars ranging from Isabelle Huppert to Jeff Goldblum often appearing in them. What are the benefits of working independently as opposed to directing for a major studio, and would you be interested in the latter?

HH: The only benefit as I see it is I make the kind of work I want to make the way I want to make it. Various actors who are more famous than I am are attracted to that. Isabelle was one, and Helen Mirren, Julie Christie, and yes, Jeff Goldblum – all terrific performers. Working for a major studio would be like working for a major corporation of any kind: One’s individual initiative and insight must be subordinate to the aims of the corporation. I’m not a company man. Never have been. I’m a team player, but not a company man.

Is there anything about today’s films – mainstream or otherwise – that you feel is lacking in general? What would you like to see more of in motion pictures today?

HH: No. I think on average movies are as good or as bad as they’ve ever been. When I was younger I thought there were things that were essentially, classically, cinematic. But now I think that was just enthusiasm. After all, the movies were less than a hundred years old when I started. When you’re 25, a century seems like eternity. When you’re 50, it is merely twice your age. Fashions come and go – faster and faster, trends cycle through. The very reasons why most people listen to music now, for instance, are worlds away from the reasons people listened to music in 1940. And so I think the very reasons people watch films and why and how they’re made change inevitably. It seems to me movies have always – from the very beginning – been an effort toward mass entertainment through the use of new technology. Technology changes faster and faster. So I think movies will change faster and faster, too. And of course there will always be jerks like me on the margins who see an opportunity for artistic use of the technology.

But honestly, I don’t watch movies much. So I don’t really know what’s going on. And though I have very strong convictions about my own filmmaking, I don’t spend much time studying what the new trends are or what other people are doing. And I don’t worry about the future of cinema or whatever. It’ll turn into whatever it needs to turn into to make money. But when I drop down into a seat to watch a film – usually because a friend wants to see something – I always enjoy myself. Even if it’s awful. There’s always something to study. And there’s plenty of excellence in even the worst, most demographically tested and soullessly manufactured entertainment. And sometimes I’m glad to have discovered something wonderful – big, little, popular or obscure, it doesn’t matter.

Truth Hal Hartley

Adrienne Shelley in Hal Hartley’s ‘The Unbelievable Truth’ (1989)

Many of your films feature actors who are regulars in your productions, including Parker Posey, James Urbaniak and Thomas Jay Ryan, and you’ve even used the same characters in the sequel to Henry Fool (1997), Fay Grim (2006). How do you encourage your performers and characters to find something new in your material while retaining a link to the past?

HH: The material is always presenting something new for the performers to engage with, because I (and they) get older and experience new things. The Henry Fool, Fay Grim, and now the upcoming Ned Rifle experience are special in this regard. We have to ask ourselves how the characters have changed over the years but remember to stay true to what their personalities were in the beginning – in 1996 when we made Henry Fool. And that’s been exciting because we use this family and their friend Henry to reflect on how the American experience, generally, changes in the meantime, too.

Unlike most directors, you often compose the tuneful scores to your films. Who are your musical influences, and how do you go about setting melody to paper? What music do you like to listen to in general?

HH: My sight-reading and notation are rudimentary. But I do like to see the shape of a tune taking form on the staves as I work. Mostly it’s just an organisational tool, though. I can’t see a harmony by studying the notes on the page. But I did have a great opportunity when I was staging Louis Andriessen’s opera, La Commedia, in Amsterdam in 2008. Louis composed most of the music over the preceding years and, once he had notated it, a music student was hired to perform it all electronically – just a standard midi piano tone for all the instruments of the orchestra. So for months I had the score and would follow along while listening to the midi sketch. That sharpened my skills considerably, mostly in regard to notating rhythm. But then, when I moved to Amsterdam and took an apartment around the corner from the opera house, I would spend afternoons with Andriessen doing the same thing. That was fantastic – him pointing out as we went along how a chord was forming over the course of 10 or 12 measures, parts of it in the oboes, some of it being insinuated by the cellos, and then – bang! – there it is. And then on to something else. That was my most thorough education in music. I retain some of it. After that experience (which, considering the composing, rehearsals and staging, was about two years’ work), I enjoy orchestral music much more intensely. I’m pretty eclectic, though. I’ll live with early 20th-century stuff like Messiaen and Stravinsky for a week and then listen only to Bach. And the only music I travel with is Beethoven’s complete string quartets … on CD.

But my own music is largely a kind of pop music – songs without words. These days I tend to listen very closely to successful rock ‘n’ roll or jazz songs because they seem to be what I want my movies to be. It seems movies are more like pop songs than anything else sometimes: well-crafted treatments of an idea or a feeling, a nice shape not hard to remember but with surprising variations. Elvis Costello CDs are always close to hand when I’m working on music. But he comes to mind often when I’m writing screenplays, too.

trust Hal HartleyCan you tell us a bit about the project you’re working on now, Ned Rifle, and how you came to choose this name – the one you’ve used in the past as a pseudonym for your musical compositions? Are there any other projects you’re working on as well?

HH: Ned Rifle is one of those names I invented in college. Like Henry Fool. I started using it as a pseudonym for my music for the films around the time of Trust or Simple Men, I think. Ned Rifle is also the author of various books in the earlier films, too. But I don’t believe I was thinking of Ned Rifle when I named Fay’s child Ned in Henry Fool. It’s just not an uncommon name in a family like mine. Then, 18 years later, as I was writing this third and final chapter of the whole thing, a story that centered on Ned, I had to name the film in the same fashion as the earlier two: Henry Fool, Fay Grim, then … what? Ned Grim? No. Ned Fool? That didn’t have the requisite music either. But Ned Rifle? That sounded cool and was in all ways a part of my universe. So, at the risk of appearing to indulge in a massive in-joke, I decided Fay and Simon’s mom’s maiden name was Rifle. And Ned certainly does not want his father’s name. And Fay is so notorious now maybe it’d be better to assume an alias.

Favorite movies of yours have reportedly ranged from Marat/Sade (1967) to A Hard Day’s Night (1964). What is it about these pictures that intrigues you?

HH: With Marat/Sade it was the language, the rhythm of it. Like with Molière, too, when I was starting out – this excellently crafted treatment of complex ideas and situations through words. And in certain ways it’s the same with A Hard Day’s Night: a great script by Alun Owen that took advantage of the specific Liverpool banter of these four young guys. The scene where George Harrison is interviewed by a marketer of designer shirts and his secretary never ceases to entertain me. I even see now that Harrison’s scripted attitude in the scene is largely my own. Certainly from my mid-twenties on. When I was a child in the ’60s, there were two big television events during the year: The Wizard of Oz (1939) in the spring (usually on a Sunday) and A Hard Day’s Night in the fall. At about nine or 10 I could recite the entire film from memory.

Simple Men Hal HartleyShorts have formed a huge part of your oeuvre. How do you view these films vis à vis your body of work as a whole, and do you expect to continue to create more shorts in the future? 

HH: I always made short films because it was a way to play and learn without having to fulfill the general expectations of a feature. I think I’ll make a lot more shorts because the computer and mobile-device viewing habits of people around the world have made shorts a viable commercial model. Episodic stuff, too.

Where do you see yourself going in your development as a filmmaker and composer, and what would you like to accomplish?

HH: I imagine I’ll make fewer feature films and concentrate on episodic stories and short pieces that fit more comfortably with online viewing. And I’ll do my best to present myself as a reliable creator of television. (Wish me luck on that! Those people see me coming and hide under their desks.) But I work more and more these days to try and write novels. I’d like to spend the later years of my life writing. There’s much more opportunity for growth and exploration in that, I think.

Simon Hardy Butler is a writer and editor living in New York City. He has written for publications ranging from Zagat to Adweek and operates a restaurant-focused blog called Critical Mousse ( that showcases his opinions on the culinary arena. He also blogs about anti-Semitism for the Times of Israel. His views and opinions are his own.

5 thoughts on “Interviewing Hal Hartley: Cinema, words and music

  1. Thanks for doing this interview. I’ve long appreciated Hartley’s film, and I was happy to see him finish up this trilogy. He has such a special tone and sense of humor. Few get him. And I love his music!

  2. Thanks for introducing me to this interesting film-maker Simon. I don’t believe that I have ever seen any of his work, but I enjoyed reading about his ideas, and processes.
    Regards from England, Pete.

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