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Hal Hartley on “Fay Grim”

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By Aaron Hillis

IFC News

[Photo: Left, Hal Hartley; below, “Fay Grim,” Magnolia Pictures, 2007]

During the ’90s-cusp American indie wave (Spikes, Mikes, slackers, et al.), writer-director-composer Hal Hartley became an auteurist staple with films like “Simple Men,” “Trust” and “Amateur,” known for their erudite and elliptical dialogue, quirky dance sequences, complex blocking and a stellar troupe of regulars like Martin Donovan and the late Adrienne Shelly. 1997’s “Henry Fool,” however, might just be his masterwork, a darkly prescient and epic satire on politics, literature and society writ large. Thomas Jay Ryan starred as the titular Fool, an ostentatious blowhard and convicted sex offender who moves in with — then helps make a poetry superstar of — factory worker Simon Grim (James Urbaniak). By its end, Simon’s brash and promiscuous sister Fay (Parker Posey) has married and had a child with Henry, who is last seen about to flee the country as a fugitive, while Simon’s involvement gets him incarcerated. It was a critical peak for Hartley, but his fans have been less than supportive in the decade since, perhaps because his films have abandoned his early trademarks for philosophically heavy ideas that are increasingly more ambitious in scope. Released in theaters last Friday and on DVD this week, “Fay Grim” looks back while pressing forward, as Posey reprises her “Henry Fool” character as the lead in their continuing adventures, this time with FBI agent Jeff Goldblum and a crypto-global-espionage-thriller bent. (Like I said, ambitious!) I spoke with Hartley, who had returned to his native New York from his new home in Berlin for the U.S. premiere.

Were you ever concerned that “Fay Grim” might seem like a creative retread?

No, I knew it wouldn’t be old ground. It would be a return to these characters we fell in love with when we were making “Henry Fool.” I knew particularly that the Fay character was very rich and that sort of thing makes me curious. What would she be like under different circumstances? Let’s investigate her, more than her brother and Henry. The first film is really about Simon and Henry, their relationship. At least at that time, I think that was everything we needed to know. She was kind of a supporting character, but if Henry’s the chief catalyst in that story, she also contributes by putting the poem on the Internet. She changes quite a lot in the film. Towards the end, she’s already becoming the girl you see at the beginning of “Fay Grim” — more responsible, nervous about her abilities and thinking of herself as a very intelligent person. In fact, she is intelligent, very brave and a decent person. I also just liked her. Sometimes you have a character, and it’s like, “Wow, what’s she thinking about?”

I’m surprised you’ve never had this itch before, considering how open-ended your films are.

I agree, my movies often end on a suspension. “Henry Fool,” though, left a lot of questions about what would happen to these people. At the end of “Trust,” which is not fully resolved, you still know something about these characters. It’s gotten to a place, and it’s kind of satisfying. Even “Amateur” ends that way. The feeling at the end of “Henry Fool” was always, now what? It took me a number of years to answer that question.

In April of 2002, I called Parker and asked her if she would consider doing it. We had talked about it, half-jokingly, for years. I didn’t have the plot points worked out, but I had the general situation, that the world is — actually, it’s a quote from one of my earlier short films — the world is a dangerous and insecure place, and the few moments of trust and affection are as good as life gets. Yeah, Fay gets involved in this impossible-to-understand scheme of counter-espionage and stuff like that, but somehow she cuts through the madness and saves Henry through sacrifice. It’s really old-fashioned tragedy, in that sense. Then I had to research to make it plausible yet still be ridiculous. It’s a careful balance of facts with the spin that facts can be told to you by different personalities, and that took a long time. I wrote from that spring and finished it in the fall of 2004, so it was a good two years.

How do you feel about the way “Fay Grim” changes perceptions about the characters, almost like a revisionist history of the first film?

I’m excited by it. It’s a dynamic that could not have been anticipated at the time. I wrote and directed “Henry Fool” so that Henry, as ridiculous as he is, and as much of a bullshit artist as he appears to be, he never lies. Henry doesn’t lie. He says exactly what he means all the time. It gets perceived to be one thing or the other, but I just went back to the first film and used it as a text. Henry says he was in South America and Paris. Fay doesn’t believe him, you know? Of course, the big conversation I find so interesting in the years after is that people argue about whether he’s running to or away from the plane. I knew that was how to start. “Henry Fool” had a life — it still has a life — but the film didn’t answer it one way or the other.

I always presumed we weren’t supposed to know which direction he was running.

No, we shot it with him as written. If you read the screenplay, he’s running to the plane. But there was something about ending the film that way. It didn’t have the lift and resolved too neatly. Or, it resolved neatly, but didn’t have the requisite pitch of emotional intensity. I like aesthetic resolution, but not necessarily story closure. It’s a balance. I think a film could stay more alive when you leave the movie theater or turn off the television set, which happened with “Henry Fool” because people talked about it. That’s just the most obvious example of the way I would treat all the scenes. It’s a particular type of work; I also enjoy seeing movies that I forget 20 minutes after I’ve seen them — great entertainment that lightens things up, compels you, makes you forget about time.

Before “Henry Fool,” your scoring work was always credited under the pseudonym Ned Rifle. What’s the story behind that?

Ned Rifle was the hero of my senior thesis film in college. There was a small group of us, 13 or 14 people, who had lots of writing courses and assignments. We’d try to meet the requirements and entertain each other in class. I was good at coming up with these ridiculous names that sounded like they were from classic films. I used Ned Rifle in almost all my assignments. If there was a young man, it was always about when he would be revealed as Ned Rifle. As it turned out, in my senior thesis film, which was based on this character, I never used his name. I cut out every reference, so it was kind of an in-joke in my earlier feature films.

I also didn’t know how I felt about my music. [There was some] shyness. It was almost like sound design, kind of a non-music. Around “Henry Fool,” that music I had made under the pseudonym, it was business. Selling CDs, getting royalties, it was getting complicated. I needed to simplify everything.

I’d like to ask you about the unusually high number of Dutch angles in “Fay Grim.”

I see it a lot more. It’s not as pronounced in films, but then you see something like Rodriguez’s “Sin City,” based on comic books, which have always given themselves that kind of freedom. I was never a comic aficionado, but I look at anything graphic. I was thinking more German Expressionistic films and James Bond movies. I wanted to let the audience know right away that it’s okay to have fun with this; you can laugh. A lot of the people are talking, big ideas, whatever. [laughs.] But don’t let it get oppressive.

How do you react to critics who have turned their back on you in the years since “Henry Fool”?

I just let it lie. Sometimes you’re popular, sometimes you’re not. It’s not going to change the nature of the work I do. Those [earlier] movies seem to mean a lot to people of a certain age at that time. And yeah, they don’t want you to change. They want The Who to be the old Who. [laughs.] “Please don’t change.” But you grow older, you have different experiences of life, and you want to address different things. You can’t do that by making movies about young boys and girls being in love all the time. It’s great to have fans, to know that people are being entertained and compelled to think and re-think by the confrontations of your films. When you’re being an independent person, forget about filmmaking, it means independence of flattery. You won’t grow as an artist if you’re dependent on being loved all the time. You become a whore, if that’s all you can live with.

After “Henry Fool,” I wanted to work in a different way and not in a commercial mode at all. That manifests itself in an odd way. It was almost as though I didn’t realize I was making feature films during those years. Really, “Book of Life,” “No Such Thing” and “The Girl From Monday” were all conceived around the same time as an exercise in genre, treating a bigger group of concerns. There are certain kinds of things you do when you’re young, and there are other people doing that now and better because they’re young. Personally, I’m not sentimental that way.

“Fay Grim” is now in theaters (official site).

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A-O Rewind

Celebrating Portlandia One Sketch at a Time

The final season of Portlandia approaches.

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Most people measure time in minutes, hours, days, years…At IFC, we measure it in sketches. And nothing takes us way (waaaaaay) back like Portlandia sketches. Yes, there’s a Portlandia milepost from every season that changed the way we think, behave, and pickle things. In honor of Portlandia’s 8th and final season, Subaru presents a few of our favorites.

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Put A Bird On It

Portlandia enters the pop-culture lexicon and inspires us to put birds on literally everything.

Colin the Chicken

Who’s your chicken, really? Behold the emerging locavore trend captured perfectly to the nth degree.

Dream Of The ’90s

This treatise on Portland made it clear that “the dream” was alive and well.

No You Go

We Americans spend most of our lives in cars. Fortunately, there’s a Portlandia sketch for every automotive situation.

A-O River!

We learned all our outdoor survival skills from Kath and Dave.

One More Episode

The true birth of binge watching, pre-Netflix. And what you’ll do once Season 8 premieres.

Catch up on Portlandia’s best moments before the 8th season premieres January 18th on IFC.

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WTF Films

Artfully Off

Celebrity All-Star by Sisters Weekend is available now on IFC's Comedy Crib.

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Sisters Weekend isn’t like other comedy groups. It’s filmmaking collaboration between besties Angelo Balassone, Michael Fails and Kat Tadesco, self-described lace-front addicts with great legs who write, direct, design and produce video sketches and cinematic shorts that are so surreally hilarious that they defy categorization. One such short film, Celebrity All-Star, is the newest addition to IFC’s Comedy Crib. Here’s what they had to say about it in a very personal email interview…

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IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Celebrity All-Star is a short film about an overworked reality TV coordinator struggling to save her one night off after the cast of C-List celebrities she wrangles gets locked out of their hotel rooms.

IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Sisters Weekend: It’s this short we made for IFC where a talent coordinator named Karen babysits a bunch of weird c-list celebs who are stuck in a hotel bar. It’s everyone you hate from reality TV under one roof – and that roof leaks because it’s a 2-star hotel. There’s a magician, sexy cowboys, and a guy wearing a belt that sucks up his farts.

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IFC: What was the genesis of Celebrity All-Star?

Celebrity All-Star was born from our love of embarrassing celebrities. We love a good c-lister in need of a paycheck! We were really interested in the canned politeness people give off when forced to mingle with strangers. The backstory we created is that the cast of this reality show called “Celebrity All-Star” is in the middle of a mandatory round of “get to know each other” drinks in the hotel bar when the room keys stop working. Shows like Celebrity Ghost Hunters and of course The Surreal Life were of inspo, but we thought it
was funny to keep it really vague what kind of show they’re on, and just focus on everyone’s diva antics after the cameras stop rolling.

IFC: Every celebrity in Celebrity All-Star seems familiar. What real-life pop personalities did you look to for inspiration?

Sisters Weekend: Anyone who is trying to plug their branded merch that no one asked for. We love low-rent celebrity. We did, however, directly reference Kylie Jenner’s turd-raison lip color for our fictional teen celebutante Gibby Kyle (played by Mary Houlihan).

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IFC: Celebrity seems disgusting yet desirable. What’s your POV? Do you crave it, hate it, or both?

Sisters Weekend: A lot of people chase fame. If you’re practical, you’ll likely switch to chasing success and if you’re smart, you’ll hopefully switch to chasing happiness. But also, “We need money. We need hits. Hits bring money, money bring power, power bring fame, fame change the game,” Young Thug.

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IFC: Who are your comedy idols?

Sisters Weekend: Mike grew up renting “Monty Python” tapes from the library and staying up late to watch 2000’s SNL, Kat was super into Andy Kaufman and “Kids In The Hall” in high school, and Angelo was heavily influenced by “Strangers With Candy” and Anna Faris in the Scary Movie franchise, so, our comedy heroes mesh from all over. But, also we idolize a lot of the people we work with in NY-  Lorelei Ramirez, Erin Markey, Mary Houlihan, who are all in the film, Amy Zimmer, Ana Fabrega, Patti Harrison, Sam Taggart. Geniuses! All of Em!

IFC: What’s your favorite moment from the film?

Sisters Weekend: I mean…seeing Mary Houlihan scream at an insane Pomeranian on an iPad is pretty great.

See Sisters Weekend right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib

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Reality? Check.

Baroness For Life

Baroness von Sketch Show is available for immediate consumption.

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Baroness von Sketch Show is snowballing as people have taken note of its subtle and not-so-subtle skewering of everyday life. The New York Times, W Magazine, and Vogue have heaped on the praise, but IFC had a few more probing questions…

IFC: To varying degrees, your sketches are simply scripted examples of things that actually happen. What makes real life so messed up?

Aurora: Hubris, Ego and Selfish Desires and lack of empathy.

Carolyn: That we’re trapped together in the 3rd Dimension.

Jenn: 1. Other people 2. Other people’s problems 3. Probably something I did.

IFC: A lot of people I know have watched this show and realized, “Dear god, that’s me.” or “Dear god, that’s true.” Why do people have their blinders on?

Aurora: Because most people when you’re in the middle of a situation, you don’t have the perspective to step back and see yourself because you’re caught up in the moment. That’s the job of comedians is to step back and have a self-awareness about these things, not only saying “You’re doing this,” but also, “You’re not the only one doing this.” It’s a delicate balance of making people feel uncomfortable and comforting them at the same time.

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IFC: Unlike a lot of popular sketch comedy, your sketches often focus more on group dynamics vs iconic individual characters. Why do you think that is and why is it important?

Meredith: We consider the show to be more based around human dynamics, not so much characters. If anything we’re more attracted to the energy created by people interacting.

Jenn: So much of life is spent trying to work it out with other people, whether it’s at work, at home, trying to commute to work, or even on Facebook it’s pretty hard to escape the group.

IFC: Are there any comedians out there that you feel are just nailing it?

Aurora: I love Key and Peele. I know that their show is done and I’m in denial about it, but they are amazing because there were many times that I would imagine that Keegan Michael Key was in the scene while writing. If I could picture him saying it, I knew it would work. I also kind of have a crush on Jordan Peele and his performance in Big Mouth. Maya Rudolph also just makes everything amazing. Her puberty demon on Big Mouth is flawless. She did an ad for 7th generation tampons that my son, my husband and myself were singing around the house for weeks. If I could even get anything close to her career, I would be happy. I’m also back in love with Rick and Morty. I don’t know if I have a crush on Justin Roiland, I just really love Rick (maybe even more than Morty). I don’t have a crush on Jerry, the dad, but I have a crush on Chris Parnell because he’s so good at being Jerry.

Jenn: I LOVE ISSA RAE!

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IFC: If you could go back in time and cast yourselves in any sitcom, which would it be and how would it change?

Carolyn: I’d go back in time and cast us in The Partridge Family.  We’d make an excellent family band. We’d have a laugh, break into song and wear ruffled blouses with velvet jackets.  And of course travel to all our gigs on a Mondrian bus. I feel really confident about this choice.

Meredith: Electric Mayhem from The Muppet Show. It wouldn’t change, they were simply perfect, except… maybe a few more vaginas in the band.

Binge the entire first and second seasons of Baroness von Sketch Show now on IFC.com and the IFC app.

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