Interviews

A Conversation with Hal Hartley on the beauty of the mudane, PJ Harvey as Mary Magdelene, and other artistic considerations.


Filmmaker Hal Hartley has been recogized as not only being relatively prolific over the past 20 years, but as being very true to a singular aesthetic vision which celebrates the beauty and the profundity of every day issues, as well as all the “trouble and desire” that can emmanate from these. The protagonists in Films such as Trust, Simple Men, and Henry Fool are not unlike us and completeley unlike us at once. The universal condition reverberates in the context of their desires, but takes a decidedly different path as to how those are realized or crushed. Bitter sweet irony  and a void of hubris are decidely present in hartley’s films, comfortably existing side by side. Hartley agreed to talk with me about his new series of shorts, Possible Films 2, as well as his aesthetic impetus, new projects, and general philosophy of telling stoires in the context of film.

PH– I just watched your new collection of short films, Possible Files Volume 2.  What was the impetus to make these? They seem to be a little different than a lot of your other shorts, a bit more personal, a sort of personal attachment weaves its way throughout the pieces.

 HH-Yeah, I think they are. They started when I moved to Germany in 2005.  One of the things I had written for myself in my notes is that if I was going to continue to make films, I wanted to try and make films where the subject matter was completely immediate.  I knew I would have artistic ideas and intellectual things where I wanted to treat subjects that were broad, but the raw material in which I would address those things would be made out of really the most mundane stuff I could think of you know; What is it like to go shopping? What’s my street like? What’s my apartment like? And you know, that took a little while. I didn’t know how to do it really. A lot of little short scripts based on my day to day experience, particularly being an American, living in a different country, learning a new language, dealing with a different culture but nothing really excited me enough to shoot it.  And then I think what instigated it was that I had to go to Amsterdam and stage this opera.  Part of my contract was that I needed to make a “making of” it was through that sort of shooting every day, documentary footage of us working that got me into the habit of making an image first and then construing the story from it.  That was at the same time that my wife and I went to Japan to see her family- and  –first, I’m a terrible tourist, I’m really bad, I don’t know what to do with myself so it’s really good for me to bring a camera and take pictures of things. Little by little, that became this interview between the two of us(the short called Adventure), a consideration of what being married is like, being an artistic person, creative people, what life is like, what we actually sound like.

 PH That particular segment has got a sort element of bitter sweet mystery to me because I found myself thinking “is this two people who, while they obviously love each other deeply, are considering ‘are we going to continue to live together or are we going to have separate lives?” “What are we going to do?”  I wasn’t quite sure what to construe from it.  Or was the separation an artistic separation because your wife had to pursue what she was doing in a different arena that had nothing to do with thoughts of separation for relational reasons?

 HH-At the time we actually didn’t know what it meant.  That one took a really long time to complete because I think being a story teller, my tendency is to complete something and bring the story and consideration of a subject to a sort of conclusion.  In real life there is very rarely that conclusion.  At the same time I didn’t want it simply to be a kind of confessional kind of thing – kind of ‘this is our life’. It would have been easy to finish the film earlier (I worked on it for about four years), it would have been easy to complete that, if I wanted simply to show what Miho and I were like together and apart.

 PH I think it had more of a universal reverberation, the way you did it. That’s why it left me in the place that I was in watching it, you know, the “I’m not sure what this is about place”. But it is clearly a snap shot of an experience between two people.

 HH Which other people will recognize.  Those two films in the collection of the five are probably the most non-narrative, non-fictional were the gateway for me.  It became really easy for me to make a film like The Apologies, where the girl is at the man’s apartment and they are rehearsing her drama thing.  I said well this is great; I’m not making up a situation.  My actress friend asked me if I would direct a video tape of her monolog for drama school.  That has to be as real as anything else.  I’m not interested in the particular thing you are reading or something, but if you’ll allow me to do something with it, play around with it and make something of it that speaks to me too. She said yes. And in That sort of spiral I didn’t even think about the first part of the film until then, when the man is writing the play and the third section where his girlfriend the critic is saying the monolog.  And I found myself really making films the way I had theorized about making films in 2005 when I had moved to Germany.  It took me that long, 3-5 years to really do it.

 PH – What was the motivation to move to Germany?

 HH – At first I was given a fellowship at the American Academy in Berlin, which is a kind of a private think tank. It’s a cultural embassy of the United States to Berlin, and they award you a grant to come and stay for four months and do some work and sort of participate in cultural lectures and discussions between Americans and Germans.  I was there for four months and I liked it.  Miho and I had separated, Bush was about to be re-elected.  It was a funny time, and I sold my apartment in New York and moved to Berlin.

 PH – So when you did this, there was a sense of permanency to it, it wasn’t just like ‘I’m going to go here’ for four months.

 HH -When I went there the first four months it was temporary, but while I was there I realized that maybe I could stay for a while.  Miho and I both have a lot of friends in Europe, we spend a lot of time there. Paris, England.  I feel better there.

 PH   That’s funny because one of the questions I considered and reconsidered was to ask you about this sort of ex-pat aspect of your work.  You seem to have a supportive audience in Europe.  Is this in fact true, or is it just a perception because of the general continental aesthetic of your films?

 HH It’s a good question because no, I don’t think it’s really true.  For a couple of years in the early 90’s my films were very popular in Europe, but really since 2003 no one in Europe really follows my stuff anymore.  People in America watch it. In the group of the fictional shorts here, A/Muse and The Apologies, and the last one,  Accomplice, I use that sense of mythology as part of the poetry of the pieces.

 PH I wondered about that, because in watching them, there’s almost a tongue and cheek irony about the total Europeaness of it all.  Do you understand what I’m saying?

 HH I think so. In, for example A Muse, which starts the whole series, there was this whole mundane occurrence which instigated the whole piece.  I had been working in Amsterdam with a particular actress (Christina Flick) I thought was very very good.  She was young and hadn’t been in movies.  I said “I think you could have a real great career in movies.  Let me know if you come to Berlin and I’ll dream up some kind of movie to make with you.”  In the mean time she learned everything she could about me, went to her local video store and watched all my films.  She starts writing me these emails, so half the stuff she says in there is cleaned up verbatim stuff, she says ‘oh my God, the girls in your films really speak to me, they are like sisters to me.’  And that is a quality of my experience with the Europeans. A lot of people may not be going to see my films there, but there is the habit there… lazy critics and journalists like to say “Oh yes, Hartley, early 90’s, American independent….”  Which most of me and my compatriots of American independent filmmakers, we never knew what the fuck these people were talking about. Like, we were just trying to make entertaining films about people our age. 

 PH – It’s funny because I understand what you’re talking about because I’ve had a similar sort of experience musically in Italy. I just went through this phase where anything I did in Italy had these reverberations of profundity….Another thing I thought was interesting about A Muse was there’s this young woman actress haunted by the presence of the filmmaker as a Svengali in abstentia,  lurking there,  while she is on the  raw edge of fawning adulation.  It’s almost uncomfortable.

 HH – It ought to be uncomfortable because it is uncomfortable to be admired.  It is ironic, me talking about myself.  That is totally a reality of the motion picture business, you know, people go to the movies, really want to witness and imagine that there are these romantic and intense relationships between the players.

 PH That’s a big interest of mine, a lot of the artists I’m interviewing I’m talking about that very process. It ties into fame and being known, how people graft their desires onto another person.

 HH – Yeah, its fun too, I don’t know if I’d make a whole feature about something like this but, in these it was fun to finally be able to treat that reality.  Like I said when we started talking, I did not want to reach too far for subject matter.  I wanted it to be right there.  Anything is as good as anything else. It’s the way you are looking at it.  So, this is a real aspect of the life of a creative person that’s 50 years old.  You’ve been in the newspapers, people have talked about you, and people have written you fan mail.  That’s an unusual thing. So, why not talk about it?  I was inspired by things like some of Phillip Roth’s Zukerman novels. Every couple of novels he writes there’s this guy Zukerman who’s a famous novelist. And he writes these hilarious deep novels about this guy Zukerman who’s clearly the stand in for Roth himself, except Zukerman can say all these things that Roth would never say.

 PH – Or if he did say, he may not want to pay the price for saying it.  Another thing here, I know you’ve been asked about this before, but I’m wondering if you can add anything.   There’s this sort of emotional or spiritual element or value that I’m kind of attracted to in your work. I’m careful to use this word because it gets misconstrued as religious, and I don’t mean it that way, but I would say grace.  There’s this bittersweet sensitivity where you have these characters who are sort of sweetly odd on one level but also very moral. They just want to do something that’s right underneath all this stuff.  Like Robert John Burke’s mechanic character The Unbelievable Truth, as well as the character of Henry Fool.  What can you tell me about these characters? What is it in you that bring these characters out?

 HH – Well, rather than talking about the characters, it might be easier to talk about the issue that you’re pointing out.  I’m not interested in characters that don’t really believe in something intensely or fully. I’m certainly interested in characters who are on the edge and confused, don’t know how to…what to think because that’s where you see the real effort to make sense of life.  For me, fiction is like a moral laboratory. It’s a great way to study how we make decisions about things, particularly what’s important in life and what’s not. And I think that’s why, primarily, I’m a fictionalist, that’s what I try to do, so the characters wind up being these people who either…well,  I go both ways.  There are sometimes characters in my movies where at the start of the movie they are rock solid, they know exactly what they think, what they believe in,  and then they get destroyed little by little and have to adjust.  I think of Trust, the girl after she has her crisis, she’s in this really saintly aesthetic mode and she’s got to get brought a little more back into the world, or the bothers in Simple Men.  Actually you’ve mentioned (The Unbelievable) Truth, the girl at the beginning has got this super strong conception of the world but she has to be brought out of it.

 PH  It’s interesting to me,  because in a lot of the content In your films, there is this reverberation back to the concept that these people seem very real and conflicted,  but the conflicts are not the sort of existential crises that don’t leave them room to maneuver.

 HH Yea, I wouldn’t have said it that way

 PH   How would you say it?

 HH That’s why it’s nice to talk to people; it forces you to look at things from different angles.  I’m interested in the spiritual life which is not religious, as you mentioned before.  I guess I choose to invent situations which I ultimately draw from real life, what I see around me. Situations that cause that crisis.

 PH  But the tipping point, like with the mechanic, and I have to say I keep returning to this character because it’s my favorite character in any of your films.  I love that character, and I’ve heard people say things like he’s a “messianic figure”, I don’t see that at all…

 HH Naw, he’s a cowboy.

 PH  He’s like a Buddhist cowboy because he get’s pushed and he wants to be loving, it’s in his nature, he wants to suffer for that.  To me it’s an unusual type of character to have in a film.  There’s not this general hubris that surrounds your characters, as in a lot of more patently artistic films.

 HH Right, I always take the moral thing with a grain of salt because I understand that morals are relative. But as much as I’m attracted to people that have a strong will to reach the truth, I really fall in love with them when I see them struggling to deal with it.  I don’t want to be didactic.

 PH  There’s very little pronouncement coming from these characters, your either going to vibrate with them or you’re not.

 HH That’s exactly how my irony operates; the characters say things that we understand but they don’t.  They think they are answering a simple question but answering it in a certain way which means all sorts of stuff to us sitting in the movie theater, but the character itself is just answering the question.

 PH I have to sneak this question in here.  I heard of you being associated with a project having to do with Simone Weil (pronounced ‘Way’).  What’s that about?

 HH I really just want to tell her life story if I can. I think its representative of all the struggles of western culture, particularly European western culture, and it’s this odd mix of the spiritualism which I guess I can understand but I can’t appreciate, together with her social activism. And it’s in that collision of the spiritual aspiration and the social utility embodied by this young woman…..I think in that resides everything that in a way could become a good gloss on what more socialistic attitudes are.  I really wanted to make that film, just to show my family. They are these kind of people that freak at Obama because he wants healthcare, ‘oh my God, we’re going to become socialists and shit like this.’

 PH You are from Lindenhurst, you have to understand.

 HH Yeah and they just don’t understand what the whole past 200 years has been.  My father was a union iron worker his whole life, he doesn’t realize that it was communists, anarchists, and socialists that made the union and… I think he understands that now because we’ve gotten an opportunity to talk about it, but it’s that sort of thing. Beyond my family, I don’t think a lot of people understand where this kind of thinking came from, and the kind of arguments and the kind of sacrifices people made, the kind of social engagement that lots of people had.

 PH   She’s a great figure to center in on to tell that story in a universal sense.  I really do hope you do make this film. Have you read Waiting on God?

 HH Yeah, I’ve read all her stuff.

 PH So, you are well aware of how she came to her demise.

 HH Yeah I know the whole thing.  Really it’s… I remember when I decided to undertake it in 2001 and I said to myself that this is such an unlikely commercial project so just make this your own piece, just spend the rest of your life on this and get it written, even if you don’t make the movie because in a way it became…. I needed something like that; I needed a project like that to really grapple with various issues.

 PH Well, I think you must make the movie

 HH I’ve got hundreds of pages of it written but it’s still a mess, it’s all over the place.  It’s a huge consideration.

 PH It’s a very huge consideration, like trying to do a movie about Ezra Pound.

 HH Yeah, really difficult people that don’t fit in categories

 PH But they do end up becoming targets for immense amounts of judgment but I think that whole dynamic is what makes a tremendous story.  I wish you well on that. 

 HH Thanks.

 PH I know we’re running out of time so I have a couple questions left. You cast PJ Harvey as Magdalena in Book Of Life.  How did that come about?  Was that the person you visualized in your mind?

 HH Yeah Immediately, I had known her, we’d been friends for a couple of years because I had used a song of hers in Amateur in 1994.  Because of that, whenever she came through New York she would call me and we’d have coffee or something and we became friends. She had said the first time we met; “you know I think I could do that, I could act.” So when I was writing that, she’s exactly who I had in mind because of her on-stage persona. Which is so different than who she is… she is the nicest most understated English girl. But when she gets on stage she’s this Mary Magdalene, she’s like holy, and she’s whorish and she loves playing with it.  She never talks about it, very un-intellectual instinct on her part, really a performer’s drive.  Anyway when I took her the script and I told her Mary Magdalene, she said you know I don’t really know anything about the New Testament or Old Testament because I was raised without religion.  You know she has her friendship with Nick Cave, who knows everything about the Bible.  I think she called Nick, and said “tell me about Mary Magdalene”.

 PH  I think it worked well, it was a good choice.  When I first heard of the film I was skeptical, but it seemed to flesh out quite well.

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