Excerpts from an interview with Hal Hartley in New York, October 2009, by actor, filmmaker and playwright, DJ Mendel. The collection, POSSIBLE FILMS 2 (“PF2″) will be screened at the IFC Center in NYC on April 22.
DM: It feels very much like an album, this collection of films. These are the new songs.
HH: Yes. That’s right. I noticed this somewhere along the way. None of the films were completed. They all existed in some state of incompleteness and I would just play them, tinker with them here and there, going from one to the other. This would have been, I guess, early 2009, before leaving Berlin. I would make changes to one because of something I had discovered in another. And I began to sense that they could possibly respond to one another.
DM: Which one came first?
HH: The first one was Adventure. Miho and I visited her family in Japan in November 2006. (Note: Miho Nikaido, Hartley’s wife since 1996) I started just making pictures of my in-laws in order to show my own family back here in the States, because I’m sure they’ll never meet each other. I always need a person, a human figure, in order to make pictures of anything – mountains, fields. Without a human figure, I’m sort of lost. So Miho was always there to be the human figure. She’s used to it after all these years; being asked to walk here, look there, etcetera. But then I started focusing on her, asking her questions. Then, after we left her family, we stayed for a week by ourselves in Tokyo. We decided to interview each other.
DM: Only because he shows up later in this group of films, I wanted to ask if you were thinking about Godard’s film, with his wife. You showed it once at the old apartment.
HH: Yes, Godard and Mieville’s Soft & Hard. (Note: “Soft and Hard – A Soft Conversation Between Two Friends On A Hard Subject”, 1985, Video, by Godard and Anne-Marie Mieville) It was on my mind once we decided to interview each other. I mean by this that I tried to take some encouragement from their example – a couple talking very straight to one another on camera, under their own auspices, so to speak. I was nervous about allowing ourselves to be seen, Miho and I.
But in the end, I found these pieces that manage to convey something larger than just the two of us. It took a long time to make. I had a version of it as early as February 2007. But then I kept revising and expanding as I came to see it mostly as a portrait of Miho. But, of course, at this point, a portrait of Miho would have to include this man she’s married to – me.
DM: If Adventure is the most personally revealing, is Implied Harmonies the most professionally revealing?
HH: I wasn’t sure for a long time if I would include Implied Harmonies. I guess I considered it just a television friendly doc about making la Commedia. But as the other films came together, I saw it as part of that continuum – how I live, creative action at the center of life, my friends, the things we talk about. Louis is a friend and we really do talk like that to one another. And he is, of course, also of an earlier generation that I want to learn things from. Not unlike the way I want to learn things from Godard. I think I probably asked Andriessen the same questions I asked Godard. (Note: In 1994 Hartley interviewed Godard for Filmmaker Magazine in New York).
DM: For that matter, I never knew Rembrandt was such a big inspiration for you.
HH: He wasn’t, necessarily, before I was there in Amsterdam living next door to the museum. They made a museum out of one of the houses he lived in.
DM: I see you really do keep his portrait on your editing desk here.
HH: That’s a postcard I bought in the museum shop. It’s called Rembrandt Laughing. It was only designated as one of his own works in the early nineties, I think. I have nothing but admiration for this man, Rembrandt. He was, like I say in the film, an artist, a businessman, and a technologist. If he were alive today, he would have invented PhotoShop or something. But why I keep his picture there is because I learned a lot about his life when I was there (in Amsterdam). On any given day, he was making art, selling art, haggling about all kinds of business, and, up there in his etching room, inventing and perfecting the way people would be etching for the next three hundred years. He had lots of pressure on him, loads of responsibilities – wives, girlfriends, students… And he still had time to laugh. So, here at my editing desk, where I generally face all the crap the modern world throws at me; technology, business, criticism… I just look at Rembrandt. He seems to be saying: I’m getting away with murder! I can’t believe I’m still alive! Which is a healthy state of mind, I think.
Anyway, Implied Harmonies was supposed to be a real making-of documentary. But I was so overwhelmed by the production of the actual opera I had no time to shoot much. So, after I was back in Berlin for a few months, I watched the footage I did have – the orchestra rehearsing, blocking rehearsal with the singers, some interviews… And then I just copied out parts of my diary and turned them into letters to Jordana, who did, in fact function as an assistant for me in Berlin…
DM: You shot all these films yourself, then. It’s a fairly rigorous and insistent aesthetic you pursue.
HH: Shooting your own things isn’t such a big deal anymore when the equipment is so manageable. But I’ve always liked to shoot anyway. Not a feature, of course, when there is so much to do and such intense schedules. But with things this intimate, it’s my principle joy.
DM: But there is a way of looking that – I think – demands a lot of discipline.
HH: The frames don’t move. For the most part, the shots are locked off. There are, of course, in the non-fiction films here… shots that are hand-held or panning, tilting, and so on. But what I’m really after are frames like the ones in A/Muse or The Apologies. The performer and I work to discover what needs to happen and then I start thinking about how to see it. I make adjustments to my frame and adjustments to the performer’s score of movement. I have a few lights, usually one good assistant. I allow us the time required… to find something good.
DM: The Apologies falls right in the middle of the five films and it, itself, is divided into three neat parts. And the middle part concerns a young actress rehearsing an old monologue about being – what? – dumped by her lover.
HH: That would seem to be the gist of it, yeah.
DM: But it is meaningful, I think, that there is something Romantic… funny, of course, but regretful, like something has been cut off or abused somehow… about all these films that radiates out from that particular film; from the center of that film.
HH: Tragic melodrama, maybe. (laughter…) That’s my inheritance from German literature – all those well dressed people wandering around in the wind and rain on the seashore. I love that stuff. But… yes, there is this embrace of… the idealist incapable of making him or herself understood. And that is… that is what we all live with if we want to be creative people rather than manufacturers.
There is no distance between the heart, the mind, and the mouth here. What one feels, one speaks. I’m trying, in a sort of man-in-the-street way, to appropriate the elevated sentiments of classical tragedy. But with the economy of a radio commercial.
The Apologies began because Ireen (Kirsch), who is a friend of mine trying to figure out if she wants to be an actress, asked me to direct her audition tape for the drama school she was applying to. She wanted to do this, well… kind of musty old Hofmannsthal thing; standard issue stuff from the “Monologe fur Frauen” book every young actress in Germany keeps on a shelf somewhere. (Note: Hugo von Hofmannsthal, Austrian dramatist, b:1874 – d:1929) First of all, I tried to talk her out of going to drama school. Then I agreed, but only if she would allow me to take some liberties with the thing. Basically, I wanted to make moving pictures of this girl practicing the monologue. And I invented a little situation within which this could happen; that she would be lent this apartment by an older man friend of hers while he was away so she would have some privacy and time to rehearse. Only then, did I decide to actually write the sequence with the man, which comes before, and the sequence with the girlfriend, which comes after.
DM: And they represent the battle between the creative personality and the critic.
HH: Yeah, the love affair between the artist and the critic; the commercial artist and the commercial critic. The best fights always happen in love stories.
DM: And the Hofmannsthal made you think of this artist/critic situation?
HH: No. It was the other way around. I think I had been wounded around that time by some article someone had written about me. So there were these principles I wanted to expose and consider in a frank, in fact – unapologetic – light. And that made me use the Hofmannsthal differently.
DM: But what does the title, The Apologies, refer to; apologies, as in, I apologize?
HH: No. It’s the old thing they used to do in the renaissance. A book used to be prefaced by an “apologia”, an expression of gratitude that someone would take the time to read the efforts of such an idiot as oneself. That kind of thing. At first, I was calling this “Apologia”. I think that’s what led me to start it off with Nikolai reciting Aeschylus – the high tone of the ancients, etcetera. But then I wanted it more down to earth.
HH: The best thing that happened making la Commedia was finding this actress Christina Flick. She had never been in front of a motion picture camera before the first morning we began shooting la Commedia. By lunchtime, me and Vlad (Note: Vlad Subotic, director of photography) felt we had found a new star. So, when I got back to Berlin, we stayed in touch. I told her that if she came to Berlin I’d write a movie for her. Well, she finally came in May 2009. Since I was already planning to return to the US, I wanted in some way to express my ambivalent feelings. Why was I returning? Why had I stayed? What had I accomplished? Like with The Apologies, it’s really a diary film, but passed through these characters. Which helps, I think, keep it from becoming too personal, too introverted. I want the films – even these – to be part of broader ways of conceiving the world. Muses are part of our way of thinking about inspiration. But here, we had the muse pursuing the artist who himself has gone off to be a businessman. Which, of course, is not such an unusual thing for an artist who has been staying alive for the past quarter century doing it. But I liked to see this in contrast to this youthful, eager, optimistic urge to create that the actress has. I still very much have that urge too. But I also have this experience someone younger can’t yet have.
HH: Accomplice was actually made in New York. The four other films were complete, but I felt they needed a short, succinct finale. It was clear to me that I had managed to create a suite. And the whole thing needed a recapitulation. So I thought I’d make a little movie using some unused shots of Jordana from Implied Harmonies. And then, I found the footage of Godard being interviewed by Bordwell, which had been lying around for years.
DM: Did you really steal those videotapes?
HH: No. I made that up. But I am, in fact, using someone else’s footage without permission. So I feel like a criminal anyway. And I did, in fact, rediscover those videotapes. Early in my career, in 1992, I was at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis when Bruce Jenkins was the curator. I did some interviews in the morning and then I had all day to myself before screening Trust in the evening. Bruce showed me their archive and in it – where they had all sorts of interesting stuff – way up high on some distant dusty shelf, there was this banged up cardboard box with “Godard Tapes” written across the side. I asked what that was. No one really knew. We brought down the box and found four or six big old ¾ inch U-Matic tapes, unlabeled, out of their cases, just tossed away almost… Some one remembered that Godard had come through town in the early eighties, promoting one of his films. That would probably have been Every Man For Himself, most likely. And I distinctly remember being told that the tapes were thought to be useless because Godard had been so difficult and uncooperative that there was no way they could use the footage to make a sensible TV interview. So, since I had nothing to do all afternoon, I asked if I could view the tapes and, in the process, identify and label them – just put them in order. I did this and found Godard to be remarkably generous with his responses; but it was true, he responded on his own terms. Not terms conventional TV in 1982 would make room for. Jenkins made me a VHS copy of the footage and sent it to me in NY a few months later.
DM: But that’s not from those tapes at the end is it? When he talks about filmmaking still being possible?
HH: No, in fact, that is from the audiotape I made when he and I spoke in 1994 in New York.
DM: Is that why you called your company Possible Films?
HH: No. It had been called Possible Films since 1991. But when I listened to that old tape and I heard him saying this – that films are still possible – I just knew it would be a perfect way to end this group of films.
DM: You made all these film in your apartment. You don’t seem to have made an effort to disguise this from one film to another.
HH: No. We moved some things around to perfect the shots. But, no, the idea was to let the viewer see that this is where I live. This is how I live.
DM: Even the restaurant across the street manages to become deeply, mysteriously, expressive.
HH: I made shots of that place throughout the final year in Berlin: Le Copains, or “the buddies” or “pals”, “Bar Americain”. There was this collision of cultural references all the time I was in Berlin. An American living in Berlin in the old French zone… The New German Cinema of the seventies brought me to filmmaking; the French New Wave set me afloat, American films gave me the tools… Still, there I was; an American living in Berlin, eating at a French Restaurant, with my Turkish-French assistant and her Italian boyfriend making calls each week to my Japanese wife in New York… It all tries somehow to relate that atmosphere… an unaligned creative person almost anywhere in the world… when they refuse to subscribe to the mainstream status quo. One feels like a criminal, or an exile, an auslander, or – as we say in the States – an alien.
DM: Fugitive, uprooted, adrift…
HH: Yes! And having you read those lines like a film noir crime drama was important. (Note: Mendel does the English Voice Over in Accomplice) This unseen criminal has big things on his mind and in his heart. Yeah, ok, maybe even romantic things.
Transcribed and annotated by Jack Patrick, New York City, November 2009