I conducted a interview with director Hal Hartley by email about his then new film Ned Rifle about the struggle of being a independent filmmaker in the 21st Century amongst other topics, here is what transpired.
Your new film, Ned Rifle, is the second sequel to Henry Fool. What were the biggest challenges of living up to it’s two predecessors?
Keeping an eye on how Liam Aiken was growing up. Hoping he’d still want to bean actor as a young man.
Lloyd Kaufman has a small cameo in the new film. How did that come about?
A great young lady named Regina Katz was working in Lloyd’s office and mine simultaneously through a lot of 2013. When she left Lloyd’s office to come worked on Ned Rifle, he sent her to me with Toxic Avenger posters and the request to be in my movie.
You often work with many of the same actors and crew, and this has built a sort of family unit through filmmaking. What sort of changes have you seen over the years in this group?
Inevitably, people get married, have children, and need to work on higher paying and more commercial movies and TV. But they often replace themselves with younger folk who have been their assistants. And I still meet most of the best crew members through my connections with my school, SUNY Purchase.
You were an early adapter of digital film. With a push back towards celluloid among some filmmakers, have you had second thoughts? Would you consider going back to film if it was more amenably priced?
No way. I am so happy I don’t have to shoot film anymore.
A lot of your films have a very singular aesthetic, but you have done more genre-based films (science fiction, espionage etc.). What are your thoughts on moving towards a more genre-based approach in recent films?
I try to do what my core interest is—I think that’s what’s behind the “singular aesthetic” you mention—but I like to place it in different kinds of containers. My sci-fi, my monster movie, and my espionage film don’t really satisfy the genre expectations a real lover of those genres is expecting. They’re more like essays, using the superficial qualities of a genre for purposes of shorthand.
I find the detached take on subject matter in your more recent films similar to Godard and Bresson rather than the sort of youthful energy of the first few features, when did you decide to go in that direction and why?
This is an interesting question at this point in my career. In 1990, with my first films, people said I was doing some sort of American Godard or Bresson thing. In any event, those two filmmakers have been important references for my work since the 80’s. But if my later films are less youthful that is because I am myself less youthful. I want my own experience of living to effect what I make. What I address. How I express myself… I’m an older filmmaker now! It’s kind of liberating.
Many of your films including Ned Rifle, has themes about religion where did your interest about religion stem from because I know you aren’t a religious man at all?
It started with an interest in history. I always wanted to write about the society I lived in, a society I didn’t always feel very much a part of. So I had to study those people who did feel comfortably part of that society. And I discovered that religion—or even just religious mythology—plays a big part in forming society’s ideas about right and wrong, crime and punishment, curiosity and charity—even if it’s not an obviously religious culture. And it was there in all the poetry and literature I read, going all the way back to the Bible and the Jewish scriptures.
All of your films except one after Henry Fool have not had any release on DVD, Blu-Ray or VHS in the UK, as far as I can tell. Are there any plans to release them over here?
Some of them are just owned by companies who have no idea how to market certain kinds of work, like No Such Thing and Fay Grim—both with corporations without much imagination or sensitivity. I was paid handsomely to make those films in exchange for having no rights in them. So, that’s the pay-off. And then, I think, no UK distributor would touch The Girl from Monday with a barge poll. That happens too, your efforts are not appreciated. One must be ready for that. Any of my films that are not constrained by regional rights issues, are available from halhartley.com. I always have to wait for existing licenses to expire. That will change as the rights to each film revert to me. And then I’ll just rent and sell them from halhartley.com. I’m not really interested in the manufacture of physical products moving forward. Not enough people are watching films that way anymore, so it’s a hard business model to pursue. I cherish my own DVD collection, though. I’ve kept hundreds of my old vinyl LP’s too. But I was happy to see the demise of VHS.
This is the second time you’ve used Kickstarter. I have conflicting views about Kickstarter—for films of your size it works quite well, but I can see that in the future it’s likely to be abused by studios to save money on funding films (and this has already started.) What are your thoughts on that?
Crowd-sourcing is just a service. I don’t have any expectation of it as somehow morally or aesthetically pure. If a huge corporation wants to use it to gather huge amounts, or a small company like mine small amounts, it’s all the same. We’re probably not reaching out to the same people anyway. It’s just commerce by other means. In fact, it’s old-fashioned mercantilism. Less speculation involved. Less like capitalism. I like that. The clarity.
What do you think is the biggest hurdle for distribution of independent films?
Being independent. A filmmaker has to isolate his or her audience. Find out who they are and stay on their radar. And then build on that base and reach wider. At least, to whatever extent you can stand it. I used to just be a filmmaker. Now I’m some hybrid filmmaking, advertising, and marketing maven. And I’m not very good at it. I get tired. I lose interest.
When a film has a short theatrical run and is then released on VOD, the problem is that as soon as goes out on VOD it’s pirated. What are your thoughts on the impact of piracy on independent film distribution?
It’s pretty devastating. And it happens before it gets on VOD. Once you provide DVDs and Blu-Rays, some asshole puts it up on some pirate site. And in my own experience and research into the pirating of my own films, I see it is done by people who call themselves fans. There’s this strange entitlement of people who have nothing at stake in things: they give away other people’s livelihood and think they’re doing you a favour.
What films have you seen recently that you liked?
It’s an old film: Elio Petri’s Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion from 1970. In a terrific edition brought out by Criterion Collection.
What are you working on next? I want to make “TV-like episodic entertainment.” That’s the best anyone in the business has come up with to describe what a lot of people are doing successfully—making longer stories in short segments and offering them for rent or sale on the internet. I’ve got a lot of ideas but one is more developed than the others.
Most of Hal Hartley’s films are available on http://www.halhartley.com/ and many of his early films are available on DVD and Blu-Ray from Artificial Eye in the UK. For starters I would recommend Trust which is one of the best comedies to come out of the indie film boom of the early ’90s.