Hal Hartley is one of the true originals of modern cinema. A consummate stylist, his work is erudite and eccentric, defiant in its singularity. After making first film The Unbelievable Truth (1989) for just $75,000, Hartley went on to quietly change the face of independent American cinema with his deadpan dialogue, brimming with arch and often philosophical insights on relationships. Over his first few films, Hartley also developed a sophisticated aesthetic to compliment his sharp writing. Over the next few months, Artificial Eye will release The Unbelievable Truth, Simple Men (1992) and Amateur (1994) for the first time on Blu-ray. CineVue’s Craig Williams asked Hartley about youth, the Weinsteins and Alan Rudolph.
Craig Williams: What are your feelings about The Unbelievable Truth and Amateur looking back on them now?
Hal Hartley: Though I’m not terribly aged, I am older and I have been doing this for a long time so when I see these films now I recognise them as belonging to another era. That is a new and peculiar feeling.
CW: The Unbelievable Truth and Trust are films specifically about youth. Was capturing the transition between youth and adulthood a primary focus for you in those films?
HH: I think I personally felt myself to be young and an adult in equal measure, and equally uncomfortable in both. And somehow the characters I wrote were a collision of child and old person. The wisdom of the child and the wisdom of the old person, the immaturity of the child and the old person both. But immaturity is never seen as automatically a bad thing, something to overcome.
HH: Most people think of The Unbelievable Truth, Trust, and Simple Men as all of-a-piece because they all take place in the suburbs. But as I watch them now making these HD masters, it is clear how my visual vocabulary and what I’m doing with dialogue is developing and changing. It was really Flirt where I began making more conscious decisions about new ways to shoot scenes and what I would write about. The first third of Flirt was shot before Amateur, which almost became like a hiatus from my main concern.
CW: You’ve spoken in the past about your love of Godard, but how much of an influence were your contemporaries and the directors that came just before you?
HH: Alan Rudolph’s films Choose Me and The Moderns were very exciting to me at that time. I still love them. I actually copped ideas for whole scenes from The Moderns, I think. In The Unbelievable Truth there is a scene where Edie Falco and Robert Burke have this cyclical bit of dialogue. The same five or six lines over and over again. I got that from a scene in The Moderns where Kevin J. O’Connor (as Hemingway) and Keith Carradine do something similar. I can’t remember exactly. I’ll have to check. In recent years I’ve become friendly with Rudolph and he thinks it’s the craziest thing that I should have been influenced by his films. On the other hand, when I met Godard in 1994, it was the first time I talked shop with another working filmmaker. And I was able, finally, to see what it was about his films that I responded to so powerfully in those years.
CW: How do you think the emergence of the Miramax style of independent filmmaking changed the landscape for directors like yourself?
HH: I guess the invention of ‘American independent film’ by people like Miramax was happening but I was not very aware of it. I was more focused on and encouraged by new films that were not trying to be mainstream but were perfectly accessible and engaging. Like [Jim] Jarmusch or Greg Araki’s films, and Leos Carax in France. When Miramax licensed The Unbelievable Truth, the first thing they wanted was for me to re-cut the film and add nude scenes. I admitted a mistake had been made, they thought I was someone I was not. I offered to give them back their money. Weinstein screamed and carried on and declared I was throwing away my one big chance at success. It was such a drag. But it all worked out.
CW: You’ve experimented with video at various points throughout your career. What did it give you that celluloid didn’t?
HH: I was always shooting video, even before making the feature films. It was how I practiced directing, worked out what kind of framing I liked, let me experiment with editing. Because it was cheap, primarily. But then, in the mid-nineties when DV became available, I was drawn to the particular qualities of image it could give me. It was not a substitute for film. I made very different types of projects when I chose to work in DV. But these days HD has supplanted film – it’s a great improvement.
CW: At the time of The Unbelievable Truth’s release, it was unusual to see erudite, deadpan dialogue in independent America cinema. How conscious are you of its influence now?
HH: I can’t say I’m very conscious of it. People point it out to me more and more. But I tend to feel it’s just a more common trend in sensibility or something. When I began making movies I did not consider myself terribly iconoclastic or perfectly original. I was making films about people of my generation who were more or less experiencing the world the way I was. We were not intellectuals but we were educated. We came from the working class but were, simply by what interested us, art, becoming a little more worldly.
CW: Finally, what are you working on at the moment?
HH: I hope to soon be shooting the third and final part of the Henry Fool series, Ned Rifle. I think that is most likely to be the next film. But I have four other scripts I’m trying to finance as well.
To read our Blu-ray review of Hal Hartley’s Amateur, simply follow this link.