When Ned Rifle (Liam Aiken) turns 18, he decides to leave the Witness Protection Program and his devoutly Christian family and… kill his real father Henry Fool (Thomas Jay Ryan). Ned blames him for ruining his life and that of his mother Fay (Parkey Posey), serving a life sentence in prison. On his way, he teams up with a mysterious graduate student Susan (Aubrey Plaza) who, unbeknownst to him, has her own hidden agenda.
Best known for his trilogy about Henry Fool, which concluded in 2014 with the Kickstarter-funded Ned Rifle, Hal Hartley first turned heads with self-produced debut feature The Unbelievable Truth. Almost immediately hailed as a saviour of the American indie scene thanks to his oddball characters and deadpan dialogue, he went on to work consistently throughout the 1990s, only to experience his first real setback with 2001’s No Such Thing. Still, he just kept on shooting; be it The Girl From Monday or Parker Posey-starrer Fay Grim – the second entry in the trilogy.
As Henry Fool celebrates its 20th anniversary, we chat to the filmmaker about his love for slapstick, the importance of dialogue and Molière. One thing is sure: with Henry finally out of the picture, Hal Hartley is about to embark on a whole new journey.
Marta Bałaga: Let’s start with a major spoiler: I can’t believe in Ned Rifle you actually killed off Henry Fool!
Hal Hartley: It just felt like the whole story needed to end with a tragedy. I needed that weight. I became really interested in this other character, Susan. For me, her journey is particularly tragic. When we premiered the film in Berlin, just as I was leaving somebody run up to me and said: “Why did he have to die?” Well, he had to die because she did.
MB: And why did she have to die? I heard that at the beginning you couldn’t understand her. She evolved quite a bit as a character.
HH: It had to do with the boy – with Ned Rifle. For Ned, that’s the story: he starts with a certainty that is unearned. And it’s one thing to be righteous like that, living in this suburban home with all these nice people, never having been tested. He has this rage – he wants to kill his own father and he accepts the responsibility. But then he becomes a different man. If this girl is going to kill his dad, he has to interfere. And then it all goes wrong and he still takes the responsibility. That’s what I like about Ned – when the going gets tough his father tells him to run, but he doesn’t.
MB: It’s a bit like saying: I’m not you. I’m not going to run, because that’s what you have been doing all your life.
HH: Yes! It’s very much that. “I’m not you. You are a fool.” I think by the end of the movie he has earned the right to say that. He just wants all the madness to stop. But the real tragedy here – because I don’t really consider Henry dying a tragedy – is Susan’s story.
I did a lot of reading on Stockholm’s Syndrome when I was writing Fay Grim. I was reaching towards something that was a common and important criticism back in the 1970s. There were all these stories where a girl who was raped would then fall in love with the rapist. I just thought it was… wrong. But I actually wanted to go into that and use that. So I thought: What would be the likely consequence of something like that? Maybe she did love him before and that wasn’t a rape?
MB: It’s an interesting dynamic – after all these years Henry thinks it was wrong and she tries to convince him, and herself, that this relationship was normal. That it was something she actually wanted.
HH: Yeah. She says: “You think you were in charge, but you weren’t.” That humanizes both him and her, makes her stronger. I wanted to show what Henry might have been like before he went to prison. Wrong or right, it was a mistake. He shouldn’t have done that and then he got caught. I think that in jail he became the Henry that we know. He was fuelled by this sense of injustice and had to build up a myth. That’s somebody who’s pretending all the time.
MB: Aubrey Plaza, who plays Susan, seemed like one of your characters even before she made a film with you.
HH: A lot of people said that. I think that she found out about me through Mark Duplass. The Duplass brothers, whom I have never met, are really big fans [laughter]. They tweet about my films, they contributed to the Kickstarter campaign. Aubrey and Mark were in a film together, Safety Not Guaranteed, and I am pretty sure it was him who said: “You should work with this guy.”
Aubrey is weird. I don’t know her that well, but she is twisted. I got lucky – she feels good playing a nut. That’s kind of what she is known for. So that’s good, but at the same time she is ambitious and she understood from the script that this film is more challenging than anything else I have ever done. She does remind me of Adrienne Shelly [Hartley’s regular since The Unbelievable Truth]. She works hard and there is certain nervousness about her own attractiveness, which can be very funny. She is more conscious of it though – in a way that Adrienne never was.
MB: Speaking of Adrienne, who died in 2006, you tend to work with the same people over and over again. Do they still surprise you after all these years?
HH: Well one thing is that they know what I do. It helps if you work with people who get you. If they don’t, it’s just that much more explanation you have to go through.
Most of these actors have a certain facility with language, because dialogue is very important to me. It’s the rhythm of the whole movie. I can’t think of a better example than Parker Posey. Particularly in Fay Grim – these were some very carefully orchestrated dialogue pieces. I am always happy when I find an actor who can respond to that.
MB: I always found it really hilarious in your movies. The way people talk, the way they move.
HH: I really love slapstick. When I was younger I really gravitated towards Harold Lloyd’s silent films. And then Buster Keaton – his precision was incredibly funny and he didn’t even have access to language! So I always brought that in. I use it even in more dramatic scenes if possible.
MB: Why did you even decide to make a trilogy out of this story? You said once that it could just go on forever.
HH: I said that while we were making Henry Fool. It was written as a standalone film, but when we were making it I just fell in love with the characters. As I think the actors did too. Fay was an important supporting character, but when I started to work with Parker she became much more important. She just brought something to the role that made it bigger – even though she didn’t have additional dialogue. After a while I thought: I want to work with her again. I want to write something for her. So I wrote two scripts for her and she turned them down. She knows what’s good for her [laughter]. But then the idea came to make Fay Grim and that was it. I wanted to take this great character to a totally different universe. But then I realised that if I do that, I would have to at least make a third.
MB: You said once that you were fascinated by what Lindsey Anderson did with Mick Travis [played by Malcolm McDowell] in his trilogy. It wasn’t just his journey; it was a journey that was going on around him, too.
HH: He used this character as a traveller: Malcolm McDowell plays him in totally different kinds of movies, having different adventures. That inspired me. Lindsay Anderson was pretty important in my life. On Fay Grim, O Lucky Man! and Britannia Hospital were the movies I would turn to.
MB: Is it surprising to you that you have already become an icon of a certain movement? It all happened relatively quickly.
HH: I remember in the late 1990s the Harvard Film Archive did a retrospective of my films and they called me an icon. “The Last Auteur.” It felt as if I was the last specimen of some extinct breed.
I didn’t agree with that at all. People like me or like Jim Jarmusch, we didn’t go around calling ourselves “indie filmmakers.” That was a term invented by marketers and journalists. We were just… filmmakers. We talked about films that we grew up with, which were mainstream westerns and stuff like that. But yes – there was something in the late 1980s, early 1990s when things suddenly opened up. There were a lot of alternative films – alternative to Hollywood. The business wanted variety and I was kind of… there. You know, you are happy for any kind of attention. I remember reading an interview with Elvis Costello, who was being asked the same thing. He said: “I wasn’t a punk rocker. I was into Gershwin and Bing Crosby as much as I listened to The Clash.” But he was that age and he was from England, so everybody called his music punk. You just go with it to be successful. You want to work, so you have to make a deal with the devil. And let people call you whatever they want.
MB: Where you ever tempted to forget about your style for a minute and go do something completely different?
HH: Tempted – often. But it never works out. And I don’t drive, so I couldn’t possibly live in Los Angeles.
From the late 1990s I have been very clear to the producers: I am open to work on anything. But by that time it was like: “No, if your name is attached, it will immediately become an art film.” Which is why I found myself working in the theatre more. People knew my films, but they weren’t scared of them. They thought my sensibility could bring something interesting to their projects and that turned out to be fun. I don’t want to do much of that anymore, but I learnt a lot. I did this thing called My America where I was commissioned to direct fifty short monologues by fifty different American playwrights. About thirty of them were terrible, but in the end they became my favourites. I had an hour with each actor and I was able to make all the decisions quite quickly. I discovered new skills and now I am much better at directing people’s dialogue.
MB: You have such a recognisable voice. How long it took you to really come into your own?
HH: I would say through the 1990s. I had a big epiphany a year before I made The Unbelievable Truth. It had a lot to do with Molière, this French playwright. A lot of my inspirations come from literature, which might be why I never really wanted to make documentaries; the moment I find something in the real world that I would like to know more about or tell the story of, I immediately find myself gravitating towards fiction.
Molière was tremendously important to me. I became interested in him because before I went to film school in the late 1970s I saw a French film by Ariane Mnouchkine from the Théâtre du Soleil.It was called Molière and I actually identified with him. He lost his mother as a child – I lost my mother as a child. He had a similar relationship with his father. He was creative – I was creative. I didn’t think about it that much through college, but after I graduated I saw that film again and I was amazed. It hit me a lot harder. I actually had to go to my father’s house for the New Year’s Eve – I was always broke at that time and had to spend weekends at my dad’s house just so that I could eat – but I got back just before the library closed and took out everything he had ever written.
MB: Which was probably the first and only time that has ever happened.
HH: I guess [laughter]. All of them, and this is important, were translated into English by an American poet Richard Wilbur. Which is still considered the ultimate English version. I spent the whole night reading Tartuffe and The Misanthrope and just laughing out loud. It was funny, critical and angry. And then it hit me – I could do this in my own milieu. I could do it in English and about my own world, my suburban America. After that, writing The Unbelievable Truth got so much easier.
MB: Most of your films could work as period pieces. The same could be said of Whit Stillman, especially given his obsession with Jane Austen.
HH: Yes, in a way. When I was doing Ned Rifle I thought a lot about westerns. About that kind of character: a righteous young man on a mission, like John Wayne in The Searchers. I think there is this thing now with younger people – they are really trying to find spirituality. I wanted to treat it with respect.
MB: There has always been some kind of spiritual search in your films.
HH: From the very beginning, even in The Unbelievable Truth. But it has never been explicit, maybe except for Amateur where I had that ex-nun [played by Isabelle Huppert] trying to write pornographic fiction. I wasn’t trying to shock anybody; I just thought it was cute. Huppert was kind of a no-brainer. She approached me, actually. She said: “I want to work in English and I want to be funny.” In France, nobody would allow her to be funny.
I was brought up Catholic and I don’t share that spirituality anymore. But if you want to make a movie about America, somewhere along the line you have to deal with Christianity. We are apparently still the most religious country in the world: most people say they believe in God. When I was teaching at college, I saw that. I was surprised that a new generation is discovering religion again. I think people just need – and I know I do – some kind of spiritual footing that’s not always a codified religion.
MB: Do you think you will ever continue this story? Henry is gone, but what about Ned? And Fay?
HH: We were driving home one time and Liam [Aiken] started to joke about it. He said: “Let’s turn it into a TV series where they are all in prison.” But no – I think I am going to let them go. It’s an inversion of a lot of the ways my films end. There is a rhythm of conclusion, but it’s suspended. Trust ends that way. Amateur ends that way. There is a conclusion, but we don’t know exactly what it is. And I like it.