An art student accidentally turned filmmaker, Hal Hartley established himself as a major voice in the nascent indie movement with his self-produced first feature, 1989's The Unbelievable Truth. A deadpan stylist who owes equal debts to Buster Keaton, Jean-Luc Godard, and Robert Bresson, Hartley quickly earned a cult following that stuck with him throughout the '90s, as he balanced accomplished features such as Trust, Simple Men, Amateur, and Flirt with shorts and experimental work in various formats. He made another critical leap forward with 1997's ambitious Henry Fool, a comic meditation on art and commerce that won him a well-deserved screenplay award at Cannes. Hartley ushered in the millennium with the religious comedy The Book Of Life, a one-hour digital-video project produced as part of the "2000 As Seen By…" series for French television. The writer-director's latest comedy-drama (and his first film for a major studio), No Such Thing, sets monster-movie conventions against the backdrop of a contemporary world gone mad. Sarah Polley stars as a sensitive New York journalist who takes an assignment from her craven boss (Helen Mirren) to do a story on a half-human beast (Hartley regular Robert John Burke) that resides in the far reaches of Iceland. The Onion A.V. Club recently spoke with Hartley about monster movies, the perils and rewards of independent filmmaking, and what he hopes to get out of Legally Blonde.
The Onion: When you look back on your earlier films, like The Unbelievable Truth and Trust, and consider your current work, what has changed? What hasn't?
Hal Hartley: I think I've learned to move away from a strict dependence on dialogue. My earlier films are definitely more dialogue-driven. When I started out, I didn't have the resources to make films of just stuff happening—people riding horses and what have you. Particularly in my shorter work these days, I'm working toward not using language at all. After the first couple of films, my actors would tell me that the writing on the page would tell them how they were supposed to say the dialogue. So I don't worry about that much anymore. Now, I just work to give the actors actions that are physical. I don't try to get into their heads or their hearts, because I trust they're creative enough to do that themselves. I just pay a lot of attention to the way they move within the frame.
O: How much of a film do you have worked out before you get to the set, and how much is determined through the process of shooting?
HH: I try to get everything I really need to know, and everything the actors really need to know, down on the page. Even if I'm making things like the shorter films, which are much more experimental, I try to get it all on the page, so at least we have something to talk about before we go to the set. That said, I want to be affected by the environment, by the situation, by last-minute ideas and things that we could only discover in the moment. But I like to be thorough and completely prepared before shooting.
O: Even though No Such Thing has a monster at its center, it seems to address the world more directly than anything you've done before. Would you agree with that statement?
HH: Yes, I think I would, but maybe it's just more obvious, in a way. I feel like I'm addressing the things I always address, but I grabbed hold of bigger, broader, current subjects now. It's funny that it takes making a monster—a patently fantastic creature—in order to face certain things about our common experience as directly as I can. When you're being realistic or naturalistic, it's actually harder to talk about our common experience.
O: What about the urban setting in which the film takes place? It's extremely dark and violent, with all these incredible horrors that are looked upon as commonplace.
HH: Well, I just looked at the world around me and found that we do take all that scary stuff for granted. It takes a lot to shock us these days. Even the most sensitive among us are pretty hard to shock. So I took that as a jumping-off point, because I think, ultimately, I wanted to convey the possibility of an optimistic and encouraging worldview. But I didn't want to be soppy about it. It's obviously very difficult to maintain an optimistic worldview, but it's totally possible. You can manage it, but there's a lot of opposition.
O: Is it difficult bringing different actors like Sarah Polley or Helen Mirren into your way of doing things? I ask because you tend to use the same circle of actors in your movies.
HH: It turns out not to be a big problem at all. I learned this years ago, because I used to worry about it a lot. The actors, people like Helen and Sarah, tell me that the rhythm of language is right there on the page, and an experienced actor can hear it when they read the script. Also, when I begin to give them physical activities to do with the dialogue, they understand exactly how it works, and can very often improve upon it. After the script is written, I think I work with actors the way any director would work with actors—except in my case, the text is obviously dealing with a certain cadence.
O: Like Amateur, No Such Thing plays around with genre elements. How did you intend to comment on genre in the film?
HH: I didn't want to comment on genre so much as I wanted to use it. I appreciate the structure of those kinds of monster movies, like the Godzilla movies or the Mothra movies. It's satisfying in the same way as a pop song. Everybody knows what they want from a pop song: It's got a good hook, then it has to have some nice melodies and return to the hook, and so on. With No Such Thing, I wanted to give myself over to those kinds of expectations. Of course, you could have an empty kind of pop song, or a great pop song that's very rich and thought-provoking. Somebody my age thinks of Elvis Costello in this regard. [Laughs.] Ultimately, I wanted to use genre elements to make a good, thought-provoking pop song.
O: How did Francis Ford Coppola become involved with the project?
HH: Well, it was at the 11th hour. Me and my producer Fridrik Thor Fridriksson were setting out to make this $1 million monster movie, and we needed some advice about getting special-effects makeup people. I had talked to Francis a couple of times over the years, and he always very graciously invited me to call him if I ever needed advice or contacts or anything like that. So I took him up on that and called his office looking for advice. To my surprise, he was actually right there in New York. He asked me, "What are you doing?" I said, "I'm making a monster movie." He said, "Well, I have to make all these movies for MGM, and yours should definitely be one of them." I forget what they called the deal, but he was contracted to produce something like 10 fairly low-budget features for MGM. So Fridrik and I sent him the script, he liked it, and suddenly it became a $5 million movie. [Laughs.]
O: Are you finding it harder to secure financing for your work?
HH: Yeah, but it's always difficult, and it's always difficult in different ways. It's hard to get out of a certain budget level because of the nature of the work I do. If the same people were in the sales and distribution business and journalism business as were in it eight years ago, it wouldn't be so difficult. But, see, everyone moves on and the landscape changes, so I have to convince a completely different set of people every time out. Everyone said Trust was going to be dead in the water, everyone said Simple Men was going to go nowhere, everyone said Amateur... You have go through that all over again every time you want to make a movie. I always have to educate people about how my films can make money, even if they're idiosyncratic.
O: In light of all the films about suburban rot made in the last decade, how do you think your earlier work is distinguished in its attitude about the suburbs?
HH: The main difference, I think, is that I really didn't think that much about suburbia. It's just where I was at the time, and I could only make movies about the world I know. I didn't try to make suburbia an exotic place, or develop any sort of attitude about it. It was very indigenous to me.
O: Does your tendency to do film projects of varying lengths and formats reflect a belief that the medium is being put to excessively limited work?
HH: Not really. I just like to work a lot, and it's a lot easier to make short films. You don't need as much money, and when you have something of a reputation, you usually have a lot of opportunities to get financing for a short, low-budget project. I use shorts as an exercise, a way to experiment with different creative strategies that I might use later in a feature film. But, since you bring it up, I am really excited about the new technologies that are becoming available, and shorter films in an odder format might be able to find a life where they can be shown to more and more people. I like the idea of these Internet companies that allow people to download shorts that probably wouldn't be seen otherwise.
O: What is your philosophy in composing your film scores? What do you want them to accomplish?
HH: It's different for each movie. In No Such Thing, I think I let the music do a lot more of the work that dialogue might have done in my earlier films. Also, in other parts, the music is behind the dialogue and behind the scenes, setting the tone that holds the dramatic pitch together. But at other times, the music is really driving the action. I found real pleasure in putting together scenes of people traveling from one place to another, and crafting music to accompany that. In the earlier days, I wanted the music to cue you almost like a curtain. As the curtain opens, the movie shifts in another direction.
O: What about songs? How do you want them to play off the action?
HH: Sometimes I just like the pleasure of watching people perform. Songs and music can be a good alternative to writing a scene of dialogue or action. Sometimes the right song can carry insights that are expressed better than words. In Surviving Desire, there's a scene where these characters are walking through the street, and they come upon this rock band serenading a girl up in a window. It struck me that the words to this very simple love song were perfectly appropriate to convey pages of this stuff I'd been writing. It was lighter and more eloquent.
O: Henry Fool, in part, dealt with the relationship between art and commerce. Have you come to terms with that? What is it like to put your films out into the world?
HH: Well, it's terrifying, but it's gratifying, too. Sometimes when you go through the papers, you have to read that you're a boring, untalented person, and you have to live with that. Then, later in the week, you hear about some article that says you're a talented, interesting person. I think anybody who does this for real has found a way to deal with criticism. You don't crawl into a hole and die every time you get a bad review. It still hurts, I'm sure, but people deal with it in different ways. The people who can't deal with it are usually the ones who don't seek work.
O: What have you watched lately? What are you excited about as a moviegoer?
HH: Well, I don't stay current. Only by accident do I wind up seeing something that's current. I'm teaching a class right now, so I watch a lot of films every week, but they're from all over the place. The films I've seen recently that have kept me really preoccupied are Peter Brook's Marat/Sade and Wim Wenders' The American Friend. One of my jobs as a teacher is to show these films to a bunch of bright 20-year-olds, everything I'm fairly certain they've never seen before, which is great.
O: So a lot of these things, you're just revisiting.
HH: Yeah. It generally starts from a conversation. I show them something, and then we have a conversation about it. I'll notice that everybody is curious about certain things, so I'll look for films that address those things they're curious about. Sometimes it's historical and sometimes it's formal, like films from the '60s that are made differently than they are now. But on current stuff, I'm usually many months, or maybe a year, behind on things. When a new Godard film or a new [Aleksandr] Sokurov film shows in New York, I'm there to see that, since it will only be shown a couple of times. But I did go out and see Moulin Rouge, for instance, in like its sixth week, after everyone had already seen it. [Laughs.] I just got up one morning and wanted to kill time before work, so I went to see that film and had a great time. You have to keep up with current stuff to a certain extent, because you can't sound like an idiot when you go to these meetings and don't know any of the actresses they're suggesting.
O: What are your feelings about digital video? How do you try to use it?
HH: I've always used video, even before it was DV. I try to use video in a way that makes use of video's characteristics. I'm not that interested in trying to make it look like film, but I am surprised by the degree to which that's possible these days. I saw Wayne Wang's film The Center Of The World recently, and was really surprised by how well it pulled off the film-like aesthetic he was going for.
O: But you feel like you have to do something differently with video?
HH: Not so much differently, but I want the character of the video to be seen for what it is. Video is not photography; it's electronic images, so it has an inherently different look. So much energy goes into trying to make this electronic medium look like photography, and I'd rather not do that. I love photography, so I'd rather just shoot on film, if that's what I want. On Book Of Life, I just took this camera and wondered what all the buttons could do for me. There's a way of thinking about digital videotape in the same way that you would think about digital audiotape, and a lot of contemporary musicians will use distortion as a characteristic of the music they're making. At least 30 percent of Book Of Life was trying to do that. Distortion can be another kind of color.
O: What do you hope for when you release a movie?
HH: I hope that everybody in the whole world loves it. [Laughs.] I hope everybody is talking about it constantly and going home to tell their families to go see it. But I'm realistic enough to know that that's not likely, given the kinds of films I'm interested in making. I'm happy if a fair number of people I know are likeminded like a film. I'm even happier when people who didn't think they'd enjoy this kind of film find themselves enjoying it. Enjoying a film, for me, is a big topic, because people expect different pleasures from different kinds of movies.
O: Your films offer a different sort of enjoyment than, say, your average Hollywood production.
HH: Exactly. When I go to see a film like Legally Blonde, and Legally Blonde doesn't give me what I'm expecting—light entertainment, really kind of stupid and easy—then I'm kind of fucked-up about that. [Laughs.] But what would happen if Legally Blonde turned out to be this really deep, penetrating, and provocative film? That could be very interesting, too. [Laughs.]