Thursday, January 22, 2015
Henry Fool: Hal Hartley Interview
Henry Fool: Interview with Hal Hartley You might say that the perverse Gothic comedy Henry Fool may signify a weird case of life imitating art. Director Hal Hartley, who just walked off with the "Best Screenplay" Award at Cannes for Henry Fool, is not far off from his main character and possible alter ego, a not-so-simple Simon Grim. The mostly mute Queens, NY garbageman is graced with the Nobel Prize for literature soon after drifting nearly by accident into the creative life. Shy, soft spoken and as spare in self-expression as the stark but stirring settings of his movies, Hartley, an introvert who tends to go for the radically extroverted in Henry Fool, met for a candid conversation about life, art, and a filmmaker's ultimate burning need to be understood, just like his characters.
PM: Henry Fool is a great film about writing, the way it revels in words.
HAL HARTLEY: Yeah...Verbosity! It's got a lot of verbose characters. PM: Congratulations on your "Best Screenplay" Award at Cannes. HH: Thank you. PM: That's really something. HH: I guess so. That's what they tell me! We'll see what happens...
PM: You've got to confide something more than that. Like, how did it feel when you won?
HH: Umm...You know, they tell you you're going to get something. They tell you that day around noon. They call your distributor and say, "Hal should be at the theater. He should not leave town." And you say, "Oh great." So then you've got to get the tuxedo out again. And, you know, clean off the stains and stuff. So you get yourself ready, and about an hour prior to the ceremony, my French distributor Michel told me "Yeah, I think it's the screenwriting award," which they don't give every year. But this year they made a point of announcing that they will give it every year. So that felt great. I knew at least what I had to say. I was just afraid of like stumbling and stuttering and stuff like that. And then to realize that the group of people up there, Martin Scorsese, Winona Ryder, and Sigourney Weaver, that these are the people who spent the week arguing with each other about the relative merits of all these, you know, films. That is really exciting. And it kind of justified everything. Yeah, I appreciate getting an award. But there is something just dumb and embarrassing about getting awards too, which I always feel -- because you never really know what it means, you know?
PM: Well you know, that's exactly what you talk about in the movie.
HH: Yeah...What is recognition? Yeah.
PM: But do you think that Simon Grim winning his big award was a strange premonition of your big moment at Cannes?
HH: [He laughs] No, no! I was just reaching for the biggest, biggest thing...It was funny, somebody said to me at Cannes, "Are you concerned that people at the Nobel Prize will be insulted by the film?"...Why? Simon's poem might be great. I don't know, I haven't read it.
PM: Is there anything deeply, darkly autobiographical in Henry Fool that I should know about?
HH: No. I mean, almost everything I do gets sparked by experiences in my personal life. I was surprised to realize at a certain point that Henry Fool was going to be about, you know, a creative person. I was reaching at the beginning for a history, like a great, big wonderful biography toward romances and all this stuff. You know, of a kind of character, a Simon character, going out into the world and struggling. It was going to be the sort of quintessential story of an individual trying to achieve something simple, a career, and against tremendous odds. But he gets really large, and that kind of led to this idea of Henry, this influencing kind of character, and somewhere it just all melted down.
PM: Do all those artistic issues between the characters reflect something about you as a creative guy?
HH: Oh, it certainly reflects everything. There's nothing directly lifted from my life. But yeah, conversations like what Simon has with the publisher...If I had to take every conversation I've ever had with a movie distributor and boil it down to its essence, that's the conversation he has. And it's a conversation I respect, that I don't shy away from. I enjoy the dynamics between the ivory tower and the selling floor. I like being in the middle, but I don't like to be too close to either one.
PM: And how exactly have you managed to hold on to your independence as a filmmaker?
HH: Well, that's it. Sometimes you have to be up in the ivory tower, and sometimes you've got to roll up your sleeves and you've got to go down there in the marketplace and sell it.
PM: But do you think about that when you're creating?
HH: No. When I'm creating, I'm trying to do what I want. It's the most selfish thing imaginable. But I want to communicate, and I don't want to sell out. You have to know who you are and what you want. The struggle is sometimes that I don't always know who I am. You have to know when you have to take the time to go somewhere, and find out who you are.
PM: You have an extreme creative fondness for your lead actress Parker Posey. And she just told me a few minutes ago that you're "a tornado of humor in the great abyss." How did you guys meet?
HH: Parker and I...She went to the same school as I did.
PM: Which one?
HH: The State University of New York at Purchase. And the summer she graduated, the teachers at the school called me, because I stay pretty close with my teachers. And they said, "You know, there's this girl whose like hell on wheels and just graduating. The school has not been able to do anything with her," she said. "She's rambunctious and trouble, so she's clearly a super talent. Are you doing anything?" And I said, "Well yeah." But actually, she started dating my friend Bob, who was hanging out in the hallway during all these auditions, hitting on all the ingenues coming in. So they lived together for like five years, and I became very close with her. I have to admit, I was a little nervous about her. She was clearly very talented, but she was out of control. I was making this small movie for American Playhouse, and I had two weeks to shoot it. And that producer side of me was saying, this is going to take a lot of time. I mean, the rewards could be terrific, but if she's as really unmanageable as she seems to be, it could be a mess. I think she felt that about herself too. She's an extremely disciplined person, but eight years ago it was different.
PM: You're a pretty hot property right now. How have you managed to steer clear of Hollywood?
HH: Easily! They've managed to avoid me too. So...
PM: To put the question another way, would you take on a big studio project where you'd have less control over your work?
HH: No. The control is essential. Though more money, that would be great. I'm always looking for more money. But some of the big American movies in history, good movies, I like them, and I like the way they're made. However, at its worst, you feel the multiplicity of voices. I think good work comes from a singleness of voice. I'm thinking of classic American movies. I mean, I don't know how they did it, but I know that Ford was making movies, and he had to answer to a boardroom full of guys in suits. But somehow he managed to keep a singleness of voice. And what I see happening too often in America cinema now, it's a soup. You look at the movie, and you just know that whoever designed the clothes resented the person who designed the decors. And then they both resented the director, and the director resented the producer. And nobody could really agree on who should make the music, so they opted for the big guy on campus that year, because he won an Academy Award last year, and all the movies look alike, they all sound alike, and they're all pretty much about the same thing. Because difference has been conscientiously extracted from these movies, in case they offend somebody or don't fit into the marketing scheme of a whole other group of people down in marketing and advertising who have their own ideas. So I have more affection these days for an anarchistic approach, perhaps radically different. I don't know, I hope in the future difference will be more tolerated. I'll wait and see.
PM: Is Henry Fool going to be your most successful movie?
HH: I think so.
PM: What makes you feel that way?
HH: It's just a great big story. And it's got more obvious emotion in it, which it should. I don't feel like I've betrayed myself or anything, but it felt like it needed that. And hmm...you could just tell from the buzz. I mean, even the people who hate it, hate it vociferously, so that's always a good sign.