Hal Hartley’s latest NED RIFLE is a slick dramedy-noir with deeply developed characters and an exuberance seldom seen with this sort of subject matter. A conclusion of a trilogy Hartley began in 1997 with HENRY FOOL, the film follow Ned (Liam Aiken) who has been in witness protection with a pastor’s family while his mother Fay Grim (Parker Posey) serves out her jail sentence. Now 18, Ned wants nothing more than to hunt down his prize-winning poet father Henry Fool (Thomas Jay Ryan) and murder him. A majority of the film is a drawn out goose chase through the characters from Ned’s past (and the previous two films) each one leading him one step closer and finally ending with the showdown.
Hartley has been one of the guiding voices of indie film since the early nineties, featuring stylized, character-driven comedies that often cross into film noir and thriller territory, but never lose their heart. NED RIFLE may be his best-executed film yet. The performances are fascinating, both because of the history of the characters and the new situations in which they find themselves. To his trio of trilogy stars, Hartley adds Aubrey Plaza, as Susan, a Grim stalker. She has staked out a couch in the lobby of Simon Grim’s hotel, she is ghost writing Fay’s autobiography. She wrote her graduate thesis on Henry. When she runs into Ned, she latches on to him like an octopus, never letting him far from her sight, no matter how hard he tries to lose her. Although Ned is the one with the journey of vengeance, Susan own indelicate meeting with Ned’s father is just as unavoidable (and anticipated).
In honor of the Los Angeles premiere of NED RIFLE, Cinefamily in Los Angeles is presenting retrospective of Hartley’s films including the other two parts of the trilogy (HENRY FOOL and FAY GRIM) and his first two films TRUST and THE UNBELIEVABLE TRUTH, April 2nd to the 4th. Three additional films will be presented over the next three Saturdays. The series will feature an exhibition of film artifacts and limited edition photographic prints of stills from Hartley’s films and Hartley himself for intros and Q&As for the April 2-4th weekend. For NED RIFLE on Friday, film stars Aubrey Plaza, James Urbaniak, and Liam Aiken will join Hartley for the Q&A. Screenings take place at The Cinefamily at the Silent Movie Theatre, 611 N. Fairfax Avenue, LA 90036. I had a chance to chat quickly with the indie auteur Hartley about Ned Rifle and his career the other day.
BEARS: It’s been so much fun to watch Ned (and Fay and Henry) develop over the years. What keeps drawing you back to these characters?
Hartley: when I was making HENRY FOOL, the actors and I found it easy to imagine other stories for these people, for the Grim family. They’re an odd combination of intelligence and intuition and white trash. A few years after I made Henry Fool, it occurred to me that I could make films about different things, and different kinds of movies, always using the Grim family at the center of it. They’re my prism through which different things can be looked at.
BEARS: I’ve enjoyed watching Liam [Aiken] grow up through these films. It reminds me of a conversation I had with Ellar Coltrane from BOYHOOD – he’s always going to have this record of himself at those ages. And it’s not him, but it’s the same character, at three different ages. It’s a snapshot. Nobody in real life gets that experience.
Hartley: Yeah, to see your life, your aging process right there. I’m just so happy that he grew up to be an actor, and a good actor. When he was a teenager and we were making FAY GRIM, he wasn’t sure what he was going to do, he was in a rock band … I needed to ask him what his plans were because if I made FAY GRIM, I knew I would be making a third film which would be based on his character. I just intuited it. I don’t think he knew so much at sixteen, but I had been making films long enough… I guessed, I put my money on Ned.
BEARS: Aubrey Plaza is such a dynamic addition to the cast, she has this great awkward sexuality that really adds a lot of humor to the story and Ned’s journey. What kind of conversations did you have with Aubrey about Susan?
Hartley: you know, there wasn’t really that much discussion. I write very clearly about what I think the character is. And so the actor picks up on that in they go for it. They always bring something different. I think I wrote Susan to be a little less obviously sexualized than she is in the movie now. Aubrey brought that. She wanted it to look a certain way. … I’ve done that with female characters before, where there is this balance between their natural sexuality in their uncomfortableness somehow with like their beauty. Me and Adrienne [Shelley] used to do that, in the first couple films [THE UNBELIEVABLE TRUTH and TRUST] and working with Aubrey reminded me a lot of those.
BEARS: The retrospective should allow people to look back at your career and follows some of your themes and stylistic choices. What do you see when you look back?
Hartley: When I look back I see a lot more similarities and consistencies. Even if I’m making a very different kind of film, one to another, my interests, my anxieties, preoccupations, they’re pretty consistent. I was 28 years old when I wrote that first film, THE UNBELIEVABLE TRUTH, I think I really found my subject then. Regardless of whether the films are different one from another, underneath the core interest is the same. And I can see that more easily now.
BEARS: Do you feel like there is a particular film in your past that’s maybe been overlooked, that when people are rediscovering your work as a whole you would say ‘don’t miss out on this one.’
Hartley: The two films that I don’t own the rights to are the ones that didn’t get distributed enough. They were made at big corporations and these corporations do not understand how to distribute films like these. That would be FAY GRIM (which people can see at Cinefamily this time, and NO SUCH THING). They just took it out like it was some American studio picture, you know, asking ridiculous prices for it overseas. So the people who generally distribute my films couldn’t afford that much. Those are worthwhile, on the other hand those tend to show up on digital platforms often, so that’s good.
BEARS: You’ve seen indie film change a lot over the years, is there anything that’s possible now that gets you particularly excited?
Hartley: I like watching episodic TV, or what ever TV-like entertainment because people watch on their computer, mobile devices. I think a lot of interesting things are being done that way.
BEARS: In addition to a video-on-demand release through Vimeo, I’ve noticed that audiences will be able to see NED RIFLE through your own website (halhartley.com) as well as several of your older films. Is that something that you would encourage all filmmakers to do?
Hartley: Yeah, I think it’s great. It’s kind of what I was imagining almost 20 years ago, but the technology wasn’t there. And even in the early 2000s the film I made, GIRL FROM MONDAY, that was the idea. To make a little film and start a website and to stream it. And the technology was there, but it still wasn’t affordable, so that film got a more conventional distribution. But yeah, we’ll see how it works.
BEARS: Do you think you’ll be able to go back to the characters from the trilogy for a fourth film?
Hartley: Two months ago I said ‘No, it’s completely done,’ but a lot of the journalists do ask that, so I don’t know. [He goes on to explain why that might be a problem, but I can’t reveal that because it gives away a bit much of the Ned Rifle story].
The Schedule for the CINEFAMILY HAL HARTLEY RETROSPECTIVE is below. Tickets and more information can be found at: http://www.cinefamily.org/films/the-films-of-hal-hartley
Thursday, April 2, 7:30pm
HENRY FOOL (1997, 137 min.) and FAY GRIM (2009, 118 min.)
*Hal Hartley in attendance for intro and Q&A
Winner of Best Screenplay at Cannes in 1998, Henry Fool is that perfect mix of chaotic energy and taut, meticulously constructed dialogue that makes auteur Hal Hartley so great. The story of a struggling novelist, a rising poet and an unlikely love affair, this uproarious drama (with a touch of thriller) plays with the very “Hartley” themes of failed expectation and unexpected redemption. As always, the writer/director takes his skilled cast (Parker Posey, Thomas Jay Ryan and James Urbaniak) to strange, new places –- with performances as deep and roiling as an oceanic abyss. Hartley later forged an unlikely sequel in Fay Grim, nearly a decade after Henry Fool‘s release. Here, we pick up on the trail of his rogue anti-hero via his beleaguered wife Fay (the fantastic Parker Posey) as she travels through Europe on the hunt for her fugitive husband. Shot almost entirely in tilted “Dutch angle” shots, the film is wonderfully off-kilter. Jeff Goldblum appears, sly and dry as ever, as the slick CIA agent who coerces a fragile Fay to investigate the increasingly labyrinthine mystery of Fool. As well, Posey gives the performance of her career, careening through a strange and dangerous world with an unshakable, glorious-to-watch naiveté.
Friday, April 3, 8:00pm (Los Angeles premiere)
An Evening with Hal Hartley featuring NED RIFLE (2014, 85 mins)
*Hal Hartley, and film stars Aubrey Plaza, James Urbaniak, and Liam Aiken in attendance for Q&A
Hal Hartley’s cinematic universe — born out of the scrappy ‘80s underground, flourishing brightly in the ‘90s Golden Age of American Indies and blooming even further onto the modern landscape — is dense with deadpan poetics, insouciant attitude and a nicotine-stained East Coast whimsy that will live forever. As we geared up for Ned Rifle, Hal’s latest, we realized it absolutely was the time to bring his previous works to the Cinefamily screen. Join Hal as he regales us with tales from across his entire career, followed by the L.A. premiere of Ned Rifle, and a Q&A with co-stars Aubrey Plaza. James Urbaniak, and Liam Aiken. NED RIFLE: Kickstarter-funded and cast from Hartley’s career-spanning pool of favorite faces, this is a truly independent cinema, tailor-made on a level that big studio flicks will still never match. The story beginning with Henry Fool (starring Thomas Jay Ryan) and continuing with Fay Grim (starring Parker Posey) concludes with the two namesakes’ son in the driver’s seat. Liam Aiken plays the soft-spoken teenaged holy warrior on a totally un-ironic mission to kill his father, who may or may not be an extremely well-educated agent of Satan. Along for the ride is Parks & Rec’s Aubrey Plaza, who, totally in line with Hartley’s ongoing vision, beautifully plays up an unsettling ability to deliver a line with total sincerity, laced with arsenic sarcasm. NOTE: This Los Angeles premiere screening is the kickoff of a weeklong run at Cinefamily of NED RIFLE (April 3 – April 9th). See Cinefamily website for more information and screening times & dates.
Saturday, April 4, 7:00pm
TRUST (1990, 107 mins) and THE UNBELIEVABLE TRUTH (1989, 90 mins)
*Hal Hartley in attendance for intro and Q&A
A double bill of the darkly comic gems that launched Hal Hartley as one of the primary indie auteurs/arbiters of Nineties cool. Would you describe yourself as both high-minded and hopelessly childish? Maybe withdrawn in disgust but without apathy, wishing you could sucker-punch every chump you meet? Do you dream of locking the door and reading Tolstoy until the ozone burns off, and humanity finally toasts itself? If so, you might be a Hal Hartley character. Both of today’s films take place in Hartley’s native Long Island, and star the unforgettable Adrienne Shelley as a disaffected suburban teenager, each time drawn to a potentially dangerous man of mystery. In Trust, she and her star-crossed young reject (Hartley fave Martin Donovan) suffer so stylishly you almost forget she accidentally killed her dad. In The Unbelievable Truth (shot on a shoestring, and nominated for a Sundance Grand Jury Prize), she’s enchanted by a genius auto mechanic recently released from prison for murder. Every withering deadpan comeback, heartfelt guitar line, absurdest lyrical flourish, and photographic étude of color and geometry feels precision-tuned and laser-guided, thanks to Hartley’s obsessive command of the form.
Saturday, April 11, 4:15pm
SURVIVING DESIRE (1991, 60 mins)**
Jude (Martin Donovan) is sleepwalking through his life as a literature professor. Meanwhile, most of his students are sleeping through his Russian literature courses. But one of Jude’s undergrads, Sofie (Mary B. Ward), is markedly different. Spunky and outspoken, Sofie catches Jude’s eye, and soon the two start a steamy romance. While Sofie provides a welcome change for Jude, their May-December romance may be little more than a meaningless tryst for her.
Saturday, April 18, 4:30pm
SIMPLE MEN (1992, 105 mins)**
If you’re a fan of angry young men with a mind for motorcycles, anarchy, arson and the moves to match Sonic Youth’s “Kool Thing”, this one’s for you. Hal Hartley describes Simple Men, his third feature and international breakthrough, as “…a romance with an attitude problem.” Two brothers, one a sensitive intellectual and the other a jackass computer thief recently betrayed by his girlfriend, go on a road trip to search for their father: a famous shortstop turned underground ‘60s radical in hiding after a prison escape. This highly amusing, handsomely filmed ‘90s slice of absurdest life captures a bygone era when the rent in Long Island was low enough for Simple Men like these to actually exist. Oh, and there are nuns, lots of nuns — and Catholic school girls, who do what Catholic school girls generally do.
Saturday, April 25, 4:00pm
THE BOOK OF LIFE (1998, 63 mins)**
On the last day of 1999, Jesus (Martin Donovan) and Magdalena (P.J. Harvey) touch down at the airport and are thinking about the end of the world. Once they retrieve a laptop computer from a locker, with a few simple clicks prophecy will be realized and Armageddon will commence. Seeing humanity in all its complexity causes Jesus to have second thoughts, though. Meanwhile, Satan (Thomas Jay Ryan) sits in a bar trying to move a couple of souls to his side before the whole thing ends.