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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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