Hal Hartley, Not So Simple: Part II

Robert Avila May 7, 2007

As we noted last week in this space, Hal Hartley’s "The Unbelievable Truth" helped jumpstart the independent film movement in the U.S. almost 20 years ago. Hartley followed "Truth" with eight more features in the next ten years. Since then, changes in geography — yes, the quintessential New York filmmaker doesn’t live in New York anymore — and work styles have put a little more distance between Hartley’s pieces and also given the director a chance to experiment with form, as he tells Robert Avila in this wide-ranging interview (the second of two parts; for the first, go here) conducted during his visit to San Francisco for the SF International Film Festival. Hartley and his wife, designer and actress Miho Nikaido, have been Berlin-based for the past several years now. Because they share a distributor and leading actress, Hartley and Zoe Cassavettes ("Broken English") have been traveling on an overlapping promotional tour, which began at Sundance and touched down in San Francisco a few weeks ago. His film, "Fay Grim," opens Bay Area theaters this Friday, May 18.

SF360: This is the third film you’ve made outside the U.S. What opportunities does filming abroad afford you?

Hal Hartley: Earlier they’d been aesthetic reasons [for shooting abroad]; there was nothing economic about it. This one posed certain problems. I was already living in Berlin, and the script of course had been written for Queens, but also for Paris and Istanbul. It’s not a totally small film, but we didn’t have the money to travel to all these places and do all these things there. And we couldn’t base it out of New York either. It’s just become too expensive there. So then we just reread the script. One thing I discovered right off the bat is that like 90 percent of the movie is indoors, which is unusual. So we started thinking about sets, building sets that would match the first film. But we got lucky. It was mostly about Parker’s, Fay’s, home. At the eleventh hour we found a German prefab Bauhaus neighborhood that had these homes that could be Queens, or Brooklyn. We had to change a lot of the details but the layout could definitely be a home in Brooklyn. It was just a lot of work doing location scouting, finding the interior of the French Ministry. Those kinds of things were easier because European cities all have that monumental eighteenth-century [building] somewhere.

SF360: Did this slow you down at all?

Hartley: No, we shot as fast as I’ve usually had to shoot in the United States. It’s only 28 days, I think — less, like 26. No, certain things were harder to find, like the big set for Fay’s home. That took us a long time. This really good locations guy, Roland Gerhardt, at the eleventh hour found [it]. Because a lot of the page count — if it’s a 130-page script, 70 pages happen in Fay’s house. So we knew that if we shot for 26 days we were at that location for like six or seven. Other things were kind of easy.

SF360: You say you were living in Berlin at the time. I read you were a fellow at the American Academy of Berlin. What were you doing there exactly?

Hartley: Well, it’s a kind of colony, like the MacDowell Colony, so they give you a stipend for three months to work on something that ostensibly has something to do with American-German relations or history, or just about Germany. I’d been working on a script for a long time about the life of Simone Weil, the French social activist, and she had spent some time in Berlin before the war. That seemed to be enough.

SF360: Are you still working on that project?

Hartley: Yeah, but it’s a long way off.

SF360: She’s a fascinating figure. A deep thinker, but also a pacifist willing to join the French resistance and so on.

Hartley: She’s a much more representative person of the time and the place than people think.

SF360: So you were based there.

Hartley: And I liked it. My wife, Miho, and I decided that some changes needed to be made. It was getting difficult to be in New York. A lot of our friends had left after the Patriot Act and things came in. We just really didn’t feel like that was the center of our lives anymore.

SF360: So that’s where you’re based now?

Hartley: Berlin is where we’re based. We keep a small apartment in New York, because she’s designing fashion and that work is in New York.

SF360: Getting out of the U.S., I think it’s probably a widespread urge these days.

Hartley: It’s uncomfortable here. It’s subtle. You don’t realize; the devil is in the details. You only realize after a couple of years, these laws that seem so abstract when you read about them in the paper, how they really are affecting your life.

SF360: Do you feel very far away in Berlin?

Hartley: No, I feel really at home in Berlin. Even though I can’t speak the language, if you can believe it. Much more at home than I’ve ever felt in the United States outside New York. And I guess New York was simply because of the density of family and friends.

SF360: I’ve found, living outside the country, it can be nice not to speak the language.

Hartley: In a way it’s very calming. I feel really calm walking around Berlin. It’s sort of an existential disconnect. Sometimes I used to hyperventilate, when I was first there. What happens if I get hurt? And I need to go to the hospital or I need help from my neighbors? Now I’ve accumulated a little bit more German. But there is that peace. When I leave my home, workshop, and I go down onto the street, I really feel free. I don’t have any obligations. It’s really quite nice to be an ex-pat. Also, the normal expectations of what one needs for one’s regular day is so different than in America. You see it with kids most obviously, with families. The poorest American I know who has a child has to have a separate room for all the child’s toys. Whereas in Germany and France it’s just not that way. We have such a weird insistence on giving them all that. They actually deal with the kids in a way. [Laughter.]

SF360: I’m wondering if being an artist in an environment where you don’t necessarily speak the language can help you focus.

Hartley: It lends a focus, that’s true. I guess certain people in my position might take a house in Spain, by the ocean, to really get away from everybody and work on something. Well, I’m a city person. I can’t go too far into the country. I don’t like to drive or anything. So Berlin is that place for me. I’m in the midst of the city. But one of the things I love about Berlin is that it’s got all the great things of a city but, also, it feels like being in the country really. There are so many trees; they have a big insistence on a kind of calmness, you know, the weekends are the weekends. I can be in my flat in Berlin for weeks at a time and not see anybody if I don’t want to. So I have been getting a lot done, preparing more work.

SF360: Do you find opportunities for creative mistranslation?

Hartley: A lot of my writing of course now has to do with this, an American being in Germany, or Europe generally, and miscommunications and discoveries that you only make in that manner.

SF360: Did you see Fay operating that way?

Hartley: No, I can’t say that those kinds of things affected that because Fay was written before. That was written in the years I was working at Harvard [2001 to 2004