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Indie Filmmaker Hal Hartley Talks Becoming Truly DIY, The "Difficult" Edges Of His Actor D.J. Mendel & His Latest Film 'Meanwhile'

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by Brandon Harris
March 1, 2012 6:31 PM
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Hal Hartley, Meanwhile,

One of the preeminent voices in American independent film’s nascent boom years during the H.W. Bush and Clinton administrations, Hal Hartley’s visibility has waned as his stylistic preoccupations have diverged from American arthouse audiences’ tastes, but his trademark sensibility is in fine form in his most recent film "Meanwhile," which, after bowing at last year’s Era New Horizons Film Festival in Poland, had its American premiere last night at the IFC Center in New York (more screenings of his films are playing with Hartley in attendance up until until April 4).

Focusing on a middle-aged, down on his luck jack-of-all-trades man who seems to be pathologically incapable of not helping people -- even when displaying his myriad talents on someone else’s behalf hinders his own struggles to get his novel published, find a new band to drum for, create a green tech start-up involving German windows and borrow the keys to the lower Manhattan apartment of Hartley’s real life wife Miho Nikaido. Embracing the simple storytelling and self-reflexivity of Hartley’s recent shorts, it’s a return to form for the fifty-two year-old director, whose work will be screened several times in the next few months as a part of IFC Center’s new “Evenings with Hal Hartley” series. The Playlist caught up with the veteran director to talk about the downsizing of independent films, the effect of the internet on his career and how to make movies in a way that is simultaneously humane and efficient (plus check out our retrospective of all the films of his career).

The last time we talked to you in 2010, you spoke about how you had not been making movies under a $100,000 in recent years, and yet this film has a DIY feel to it. I know you raised some money on Kickstarter for it.
Yeah this isn't an expensive movie, this is definitely under a $100,000. That was before the Kickstarter campaign I did which was for distribution. I did it in order to be able to create the deliverables I need in order to enter into a deal with New Video for worldwide digital distribution. There's a lot of things you need to take care of, masters, and it's just a lot of insurance and so on. So yeah, this was a $100,000 thing.

Was that liberating in a way? Not having to worry about big financiers or go through the whole process of cobbling together European money?
Yes. Because there isn't any of it anyway, there's no pre-sale money anymore.

And that's how a lot of your films were getting financed.
In the 90's. But by 1998, 1999, that had all dried up. Mostly because of this technology, the internet, has changed the playing field entirely in terms of how one can make money, and not just a producer, but a distributor or a sales agent, by making or distributing entertainment. Even if only the advances in technology of cameras, audio equipment, editing and other things like that had occurred, even those advances would have completely changed the nature of the motion picture business, at least the independent thing, non-star-commodified entertainment. The internet has changed it ten times more. For one thing, so many people of the new generation honestly don't know why they should pay for entertainment. That changes everything right there.

I've found myself in this situation where I have this skill set, I have this very inexpensive equipment which makes excellent imagery.

What did you shoot “Meanwhile” on?
It was on a DSLR. One of those 5Ds. I grabbed hold the the creative strategies I had used on my short films in Berlin, the PF2 collection. There I had said, "let's make these little films and not reach too far for subject matter. What's happening everyday in the life of an American living in Berlin who's a filmmaker. So things could be shot in my house, on the staircase, so on. They're not documentaries, but they are little fictions made out of the raw materials of everyday life as I experience it. Not always about me, but also things I see out on the streets sometimes.

When I moved back in 2009 here to New York I thought, "I'm going to do the same thing here in New York, but I'm going to do it leaner." So that's how I started. My wife Miho has an apartment she rents that looks out on the Brooklyn Bridge. That's her place. I live up on the Upper West Side here. Sometimes when it's warm out, Miho and I will walk all the way from her house up to here!

That's about a two and a half hour walk.
About two. Or sometimes we'll ride bikes. I thought, that's a great road movie. I just had to figure out a problem that takes this guy on that journey. Little by little I began writing what is sort of a modular movie, thinking about the island neighborhood by neighborhood, Soho, Tribeca, Midtown, Upper West Side, Harlem, and tried to make little incidents happen for this guy on each step of the way.

It was a very small crew. We had an extraordinarily talented post-production person, Kyle Gilman. He invented the workflow. These camera generate files that aren't the easiest to work with.

You have to go from H.264 codec to Apple ProRes to cut and then back again when you're grading and timing the image. 
I was more than happy to let him do all that. He's a genius at that kind of stuff. It didn't cost much. I was able to pay everybody. It's the first production in my career, apart from the short films, that I consider a humane and efficient way of shooting.

Do you find filmmaking an inhumane business in general, that you have to become a person you don't like in order to get your film made?
Yeah. People are always inviting me to their sets. They're like, "come by the set," and I'm like, "no way!" As soon as I walk on someone else's set, I get the same familiar knot in my stomach that for years I got before I approached my own set at six o'clock in the morning, I'd hear myself say, "now the aggression begins," Everybody becomes a different person, but the reality of producing a movie is moving a bunch of people from one place to another and feeding those people, and if there's time left over, you make some motion pictures, that's a realistic summation of the standard way of making motion pictures. So I started with, there's no movement and no food! We're not going to work more than eight hours and there's no company moves. It worked great. On this film, which we shot for twelve days, some days we shot one page and we worked for three hours, then we'd buy everybody a sandwich and split. The next day we'd meet at another place and we might shoot seven or eight hours.

And the package is small enough that you're in one truck or two.
No trucks. No vehicles. It was two cases. It was just humane. You really had time to think about the work you were doing, you're not just rushing around struggling to get it all finished. You don't get sluggish. My experience after lunch on most movies is everyone falls asleep, so you don't get any work done for the first hour afterwards. Then, just as everyone's starting to wake up again from the food coma, people start walking around with the little craft service stuff which serves to plunge everyone back into a food coma again. So it was really great.

When you talk about removing those two basic impediments to making films efficiently while maintaining this leisurely and humane quality about the shoot, there is something about this film, despite the fact that it's about someone who needs to get somewhere to acquire something important, that also has the qualities the shoot was imbued with. He's always being sidetracked by his humane nature.
["Meanwhile" Lead actor] D.J. Mendel called it something yesterday that was really great, he said that the character couldn't help himself, he's a compulsive fixer. If something is broken, whether it be somebody's back, somebody's computer, he can't leave something busted. If he knows how to fix it, he has to fix it. He's compulsive. That's how DJ brought his own sensibility to that character. That's how he understood the character. Even the girl on the bridge. She's broken in some way, he's not quite sure how. He wants her off that bridge.

Did you write it for him in mind?
Yeah. We've been working together, he's been doing supporting roles in my films for ten years. He's my go-to guy. He's a great language actor. He's a great physical actor. Largely working in off-Broadway theater. He's worked in my theater pieces. For me though, he's my go-to guy for movement. He's the best actor I know about. He's not famous, he's not even in the Screen Actors Guild. He's difficult, he's got his own kind of ideals which puts him into confrontations with unions and society I suppose. He's coming around though. [laughs]

You get along fine with him?
Yeah, we do. I really think he should be a Screen Actors Guild actor though. He would work non-stop on television. He simply hates television. Everything about it. He also does a lot of things. He writes, he's obviously a very good stage actor. He's made some films. His films tend to be very surreal. More so than what I do for instance. He's the smartest, hardest-working and most naturally talented actor I know. I'd like to do more with him.

Did he help you invent the piece as you went along? How much of his own spontaneity did you incorporate as you went on? Your films often feel very much written by you and have a distinct amount of authorial control.
Everyone who enjoys working with me knows it's a text-driven thing, I write the text and that's it. Nevertheless, that leaves a world of possibilities and those change all the time, you just have to allow them to change for the right reasons. An actor [who] works regularly and has storytelling ability will know when something works great and why other moments don't, why something feels redundant once they're actually doing it. That happens all the time, where you lose something because you realize it's already being said. As much as I trust my instincts in terms of text, I'm also very interested in movement. The physicalization of the story. Mendel is a really wonderful, alert, physical actor. I generally want actors to come to the set with that kind of awareness. If they come to the set and suggest things that are misguided or stupid, I'll just say, "No, that's wrong," but most of the performers that work with me know that I'm alert to interesting movements, that I can use and shape those. Sometimes I come back with very raw physical ideas, but they're interesting. Then we rehearse and refine those, and in a very real sense, this is what happened in "Meanwhile", we weave it together with the text, so that the words and the physical activity together create a rhythm that's compelling.

Why this length of 60 minutes only?
Probably because I was not thinking very professionally. [Laughs] My company financed these films with money we'd made on the old movies so we're just sort of trying to reinvest. Part of me was thinking it was still with the short films, it was only when I had written a hundred page script that I realized that it was kind of a feature, but it never felt like a feature-length film to me.

You started out with a hundred page script but it came down in the editing all the way to an hour long?
It was a hundred pages, but it was a lot of description of activity. The longest cut we ever had of the film was about seventy minutes. I showed it to friends and other filmmakers, and people thought it could be tighter. They were right. It worked better at sixty minutes. I hear on the street and I know as much; people appreciate shorter films.

They're also more time-sensitive and less attentive as well.
They engage with filmed fiction differently, because they watch it on computers and iPhones and on the move. I had a conversation with a professional producer last week who wanted to see "Trust." He hadn't seen "Trust" in years. I gave him a DVD. It's two and a half weeks later and he's like, "I got halfway through it, it's amazing. Incredible." [laughs] It's a ninety minute film and it's taken a professional two and a half weeks to watch forty-five minutes. So I don't know.

How does that play into how you try to position or market your films? On your website these days it says that you "write, direct and try to market your films." As if it's almost an after thought.
No, but that's the one thing you can't do by yourself. You have to get other people to like your films in order for them to be marketed. I followed the lead of a lot of other people and created a website so I could market my films directly to my audience. That was the interesting thing about the Kickstarter campaign, I could discover exactly who my market is, who the fan base actually is.

How many people donated?
Five hundred and ninety two. From ten dollars to five thousand dollars. Very interesting to really know who's out there. I'm lucky enough to have been doing this for long enough that I do have a body of work that can be marketed. Nobody's getting very rich, but you don't lose money either. In that kind of paradigm, people that go to Possible Films website and download or buy a movie, the desire or request among them for feature length films is not really that evident. Most of the DVDs we sell on my site are [for] the shorter films. "The Book of Life," "Surviving Desire," in the past I've made sixty minute films for television, which went on to have theatrical life. A good story is a good story, whether it's sixty minutes for ninety minutes.

Did you know you were going to have a hand in distributing it from the beginning?
Not necessarily. We began having these discussions with New Video, they're essentially an aggregator for digital distribution companies, I ventured into a deal with them where they have worldwide rights for digital distribution. From their perspective the difference between sixty minutes and ninety minutes, or sixty minutes and one hundred minutes is negligible. They'll do their best to position the film on the various platforms, iTunes, Amazon, Netflix, mubi, regardless of how long it is. Maybe that's a real difference about the movie business now. We don't need to think in those traditional shapes. I can't claim that I had this idea early on, but when my friends and other film professionals would watch the film, we were definitely having that conversation about what the life of the film could be.

The last time you made something of this approximate length was "The Book of Life." Your career and the outlook for digital distribution, workflows and shooting were at a very different place back then. You shot it in rough hewn, sort of hallucinogenic DV.
Those were the early days of DVD.

How has your perspective changed on filmmaking and the trajectory of your career since then, given the technological and industrial...
Well there's two issues there. "The Book of Life" was made for ARTE. French TV. I was getting paid fairly well. They had rights to distribute it however they wanted. "Surviving Desire" was made for PBS. There was TV for this sort of thing back then. That doesn't happen that much anymore. The internet and computers have changed all that. Once the internet came, that's when things changed. I was a little bit ahead of the time on this, but that was the idea for "The Girl from Monday," let's start a website where they can go and watch the film, and that was the beginning of the Possible Films site. In fact, the technology was not there at that time, but we had imagined the streaming technology.

It was only a few years away.
Yeah, but still it was not there at the time. Lucky Netflix came in and was happy to pay us for the film, that's worked out pretty well for me. Really, the way I make money even from my old films now is digital distribution. With "Henry Fool," Sony Pictures Classics has this thing called Crackle and people watch it for free, but there's advertising. I get a check every year because of "Henry Fool." "The Girl from Monday" I get a check every quarter. Thousands and thousands of dollars. It's good. It's following the time-tested pattern of the music business. I make music for my movies. When my movies show on IFC Channel or HBO or some other cable outlet, ASCAP collects and monitors what's due to me as a musician, second by second, which is pennies and nickels adding up. That actually ends up being the majority of my income. Now, digitally, it's so much easier to track, it's so much more transparent. That's what New Video is going to be doing potentially, they're going to be acting like ASCAP for filmmakers. That's where I'm putting my hopes. It's one thing for people to be open to shorter entertainment, but my hopes are they'll also be open to different types of films. You always have to work against the tendency of the audience to have the most homogenized thing.

You've never represented that.
But I've had to fight against it all the time, either before I made the film or after I made the film. It's not a mainstream film, but it's not obscure either. I always have to underline, there's nothing about my films that are difficult, but they don't fit the patterns of the mainstream. So I'm kind of hopeful that on the one hand there will be an interest in a wider variety of entertainment and that on the other hand everybody will get on board and recognize that artists have to be paid for their work. I think there are systems being set up like New Video to facilitate that.

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