Metro Retro Movie Love In Conversation

The Metrograph Interview: Hal Hartley

January 15 2020

In Hal Hartley’s startling debut feature, 1989’s The Unbelievable Truth, Adrienne Shelley’s paranoid teenage genius Audrey says, “People are only as good as the deals they make and keep,” and the same could be said about filmmakers and their audiences. Since that film’s release thirty years ago, Hal Hartley has maintained a consistent and devoted audience, as well as a recurring repertory of performers, over the course of 14 features, all of which will screen as Metrograph’s forthcoming career retrospective Hal Hartley In Person.

Ahead of the screenings, Hal sat down with Austin Dale to discuss the independent film industry, his mastery of Kickstarter, and the contemporary films that are impressing him most.

Austin Dale: I should begin by congratulating you on your Kickstarter campaign for Where to Land.

Hal Hartley: Thank you, thank you. That was my assistant Chris's work, too. It's a crowd of us all over the world at this point. I call them ambassadors: We have an ambassador in Tokyo, an ambassador in Paris, a Spanish-speaking ambassador, and a German-speaking ambassador. So we can go worldwide with a multilingual campaign, and I think it really helped on this one.

Austin Dale: Walk me through it. What's the secret to putting together a very successful crowdfunding campaign? You've done this more than once now.

Hal Hartley: Yeah, this is the sixth time. At this point, it's recognizing that the Kickstarter backers from your previous Kickstarters are probably the core audience. They're probably the people who follow your work closest, and feel strongly enough that they'll put down $50 for a product that they're not going to get for a year.

I think of each campaign as a project in itself. We work for about two months prior to the campaign, producing all these videos that go up every day, with music and artwork. For 30 days, you have to stay in people's faces, and you have to not be too redundant, even though it's all about redundancy.

Austin Dale: Plus you're under the gun.

Hal Hartley: Right, you only have these 30 days. And you have to say the same thing every day, but you have to say it somehow differently, so that people keep watching. It requires a great deal of effort.

Austin Dale: I wonder if you could talk a little bit about the way independent film is financed these days, and why Kickstarter is your option.

Hal Hartley: If I'm a representative independent filmmaker, what that has always meant to me is that I, apart from the aesthetics and interests, am an independent thinker. The mainstream has never really held my imagination too powerfully, and I've always been attracted to art and popular entertainments that are more marginal, not mainstream. And for me, independent filmmaking has always meant independent financing. You have to get the money independently to make the work, so you can maintain your independence.

Now, there was a lot of that in the early part of the '90s, but even by 1998, that was becoming less and less the way things were done. It became more corporate. I don't think there's a better way to say it. And now I think we've reached the apotheosis of this corporateness. Probably seven out of every eight motion pictures that get distributed every week, every month, are produced by Netflix, Amazon, or Hulu, and it's a top to bottom monopoly kind of thing. They produce the work, they promote the work, they distribute the work, they own the means of distribution. It's exactly the kind of thing that the United States outlawed in the 1940s: studio monopolies. But it's back. I've tried my best to ingratiate myself to these corporations and show them my work and what I'm doing, and I've had some success.

I worked for Amazon directing someone else's show and that was quite nice! It was a good show. And then Amazon optioned one of my own ideas for a TV show for a couple of years, but they eventually didn't do anything with it. They pay you serious money, and it's up to them to do something or not, and they chose not to do something. I started thinking, "This is a lot of work, so I'd rather just make something the way I want to make it. Something I'm interested in, the way I'm interested in making it, and getting it to the audience that I know is out there for me." And so that leads us back to an approach like Kickstarter. I mean the whole idea is just: Why don't you just walk around all these middle men?

Austin Dale: So what's the bigger challenge, the process of funding on Kickstarter and distributing a film yourself? Or the process of funding a film like your first features, before you had the name recognition and following you have now?

Hal Hartley: This is more challenging, personally, because you really have to get out there yourself and expose yourself to strangers. Trying to get money from either a group of investors or one investor was always my preference, rather than trying to do presales, which is what happened later in the ‘90s, because the speculation just goes on forever and ever. It was like, “Well, this script, with that girl, maybe it will appeal to these people in Europe or these people in the United States.” These sales agents and distributors are constantly trying to assess. There wasn't the internet either, and these assessments are made now with greater accuracy, just because of the speed of information. In those days, we were kind of always in the dark.

Sometimes I worked with the same distributors from one film to the next, and on the first film they would say, "No, your audience are white educated people under the age of 30," or something like that. And then on the next film they're like, "No, your audience is actually their parents. It's white educated people over the age of 30.” And it never made any sense to me. I mean you can never tell. I was always on the road promoting the movies, so all over the world. I mean, I knew I had a black audience in America, and I have a solid Japanese audience. There were people in Taiwan watching my films. But I was never really in a position to challenge the experts too much.

You just listen to the distributor in Japan, if you’re trying to market the film in Japan, for example. But even then, sometimes they’re way off. I remember when I and Martin Donovan landed in Spain to do publicity for Amateur, we took one look at the poster, and it looked stupid, almost like a Beavis and Butthead-style animation thing. I mean, somebody probably just told the poster designer, "Funny, English-language, funny, thoughtful but funny, but not too thoughtful." Because they're making guesses about the audience. They don't want to think too much.

Austin Dale: Are you looking forward to seeing all these films again?

Hal Hartley: I've been looking forward to this for a long time. I really think, with my work generally, it helps when people can see all of it. The first couple of films captured the imagination of distributors and marketing people, and therefore they found an audience, early in the '90s, but then later in the '90s, the independent kind of thing sort of chilled out. A lot of people who were independent filmmakers kind of got swept up in a more corporate independent mainstream and I wasn't interested in that. So I stayed doing my own thing, but I made a lot of work that people didn't see so easily, so it's nice to bring it all together and mix and match them in different ways. It's nice how you guys are putting them together, so it's not just chronological. For example, I always like to watch Trust and No Such Thing together.

Austin Dale: When you say that you weren't interested in the slightly more corporate version of independent film that started to appear in the late '90s: Did opportunities present themselves at that time for you?

Hal Hartley: Yeah, they did. Lots of meetings, but they always very quickly became corporate, meaning that most of the important decisions were going to be made by committee. And even my friends Ted Hope and James Schamus, they have a very good company, Good Machine.

They knew me, we were very friendly, but as they began to have their success, they had to admit they were going to have to start having committee decisions about casting, and about the cut of the film, and stuff like that. “We just can't do this, because we're in business with distributors, and we have to ensure them that we're going to represent their interests, too.” So that committee gets wider and wider and wider. I understood, and they made good films, but they were working by committee. So I didn't want to go that way. I didn't. I wasn't feeling desperate at the time. I had made a living for myself and stuff like that, so I thought, No, I'll just keep doing my own thing in a more quiet manner.

Austin Dale: Can you talk a little bit about your early influences?

Hal Hartley: Well, it was a strange collision of different things. I was discovering Godard of the '80s at that time. Prénom Carmen, Hail Mary, all that. So there was that kind of thing coming in. A lot of it was about graphic sensibility, how you shoot scenes without coverage. How to make a choice about how you look at something. And a lot of things happen off screen. I was watching everything Woody Allen was doing, at that time, the great dialogue-driven comedy dramas he was making.

A very important thing, which I always forget about, is that in the late '80s, early '90s, I was watching Peter Brook’s film of his staging of Marat/Sade a lot. I had the VHS out of the video store so much that eventually they just gave it to me. They just said, "Well, it's all worn out anyway, but you're the only person who ever takes this tape out." So they just let me have it.. That particular movie helped me really grasp certain kind of Brechtian principles that I was drawn to without really understanding. I understood that Godard was trying to work that way too, except his work was so dense, as much as I enjoyed it. I had to watch those films many, many times before I even understood what he was trying to say. But I was so excited by the manner of his making it, that that would suffice. It was all about the avoidance of the illusion of naturalism and naturalistic illusion. To let the making be seen. The way Godard rephrased it for himself was, "These films are images of me making images." This is a movie about me making a movie.

Austin Dale: And Jacques Rivette said, “Every film is a documentary of its own making.”

Hal Hartley: Yes, that’s right. I was trying my best, reading everything I could, seeing everything I could. But it was really Brook's filming of his own staging of the play, that helped me connect everything I was taking in. It shows up visually in films like Trust, in those scenes where a whole conversation between four people is happening while all you see is Martin fixing the typewriter. And people come through the frame, but it's always on him, and he doesn't say anything. In later years, I've heard people say there's a performative aspect to the acting and staging in my films, and I was like, "Yeah." I really wanted the audience to feel the intent. We are making a decision right now not to look at these people over here. We're looking at this instead. It's determined. I used to see that in Agnes Varda, too, by the way.

But it also was a collision with my interests from the early '80s, when I was at film school, when I discovered classic American screwball comedies, and fast-talking Howard Hawks movies, and Preston Sturges in particular. I really began to find my way in film school, and began to find my voice through language, and through writing dialogue. That's why you're young. You're supposed to be impressionable when you're young, so all these different things come from different angles and then later you are able to create some brand new thing.

Austin Dale: Is there anything in contemporary filmmaking that really excites you? Anything that your peers are up to?

Hal Hartley: A lot of things! It's not in the same way. I don't see movies anymore and say, "I want to make a movie like that." But in my 20s I did all the time. I like all different kinds of things. The best example would probably be like Kelly Reichardt's filmmaking, which just blows me away every time I see it. Her work is so disciplined looking, and I love how she lets contingent reality come into it by crafting something very determined. On one hand, I love that. And then there’s a film like Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood, which is so much fun. The whole thing's put together so well. Regardless of the type of film something will be categorized under, it's the craft that I like. In a certain sense, whether it's Tarantino or Reichardt, there's the indication that these are very carefully determined. This is not accidental. And this is definitely not formulaic. But they apply themselves to the various crafts of making films in different ways. That's what excites me.

Austin Dale: Lastly, what’s it like to look back specifically on the films that first gave you this connection with your audience that you’ve sustained for 30 years now, films like Trust and The Unbelievable Truth. Can you see new things in the film that you didn't see before that make you understand why people still love them so much?

Hal Hartley: Sometimes when someone, particularly a young person, who's working hard and has certain talent, is simply trying to tell the truth, something happens. It's what journalists generally would call a distinctive voice. I was just trying to say everything as honestly as I could, without cant and without acquired euphemisms, which don't help. What is it like? What is our society like? What are we like? Why do we have these kinds of assumptions? People get afraid of it, too. I mean critics and even some audience members just thought it was some sort of provocation. If those films keep finding another generation responding to them, I think it might be that. There's a freshness which didn't worry too much about being correct, just about being truthful. A critic once took me to task in the early '90s for being too sincere. Well, I can't help you there. I don't know how to make insincere films. I don't know why I would go through the effort to try and to learn how to do that. That freshness was a combination of a couple things, but one is admitting that you don't know. I don't know everything. But I know that things aren't right. These movies are all, in the best sense of the word, critical of our society, and critical of how we make movies, and what we watch and what we read and all that. And to allow that type of criticism into an otherwise funny drama might have been, at the time, unusual. And maybe it still is unusual.