Interview: Hal Hartley And Aubrey Plaza Talk NED RIFLE
This is certainly true of Henry, a wandering Übermensch who is felt as a muse wherever he rambles, and it quickly becomes true of Simon under Henry's influence. Like a walking big bang, Henry saunters into Queens in Hartley's 1997 film Henry Fool, where he sets into motion the profound career of Simon - a garbage man savant, whose own honest poetry earns him community hatred - and acquires the infatuation and love of Simon's sister, Fay.
Fay is given the title role of Hartley's 2006 Fay Grim, a comedy that takes aim at post 9/11 paranoia through bumbling espionage. Nine years after the events of Henry Fool, Fay finds herself amidst international intrigue, trying to make sense of Henry's poorly written, unpatriotic journals, which may or may not actually be an advanced code using Milton's Paradise Lost as its concordant. That's appropriate, considering Henry himself is like the antagonist of Paradise Lost, aka the devil, with his impressionable tangents and dark counsel.
Now, almost 20 years later, Hartley concludes the trilogy with Ned Rifle, wherein Henry's influence is felt by his vengeful son, Ned, as well as a young woman named Susan, whose infatuation with Henry's teachings isn't made immediately clear. Susan, played by Aubrey Plaza, is the newest addition to the Grim cast, yet Plaza fits into Hal's world of trashy intellectualism effortlessly. With Liam Aiken as Ned, who made his first appearance in the trilogy at age seven, Ned Rifle is a profusely funny and welcome addition to a series that, despite its conclusion, fans cannot get enough of.
After having seen the film at the Toronto film festival and more recently at SXSW, I had the chance to speak to Hartley and Plaza about the endlessly watchable Grim trilogy and the tribulations of closing an indie series in a less friendly landscape for Hal's 90s sensibilities. Thankfully, the release of Rifle is inciting Cinemateques across North America to host Hal Hartley retrospectives, where audiences have the opportunity to view the trilogy in full.
Currently, LA's Cinefamily is hosting such a retrospective through mid-April. Toronto's Royal Cinema begins screenings of other Hartley flicks this coming Friday, April 10. If you're unable to attend either, Hartley's back catalogue can be found by anyone looking. Catch up and see Ned Rifle today!
(For more information; visit Hal Hartley Retrospective at Cinefamily.)
ScreenAnarchy: How was the process of raising money for a film via Kickstarter?
Hal Hartley (HH): It's exactly like trying to get elected President of the United States, except in 30 days you've got to convince all these strangers all over the world that they want your movie bad enough that they're willing to give you a certain amount of money a year in advance.
Most of the (incentives) were combinations like the DVD, the music and the script. That was like the thirty-five dollar thing and that was the main core. There were some big ticket items. People become executive producers - so eight people - I have eight executive producers. They were terrific because they were actually, in fact, people who do this often, use Kickstarter, because they're interested, they're on the field, have a lot of wealth and want to do things I like, so they had a lot of advice for me. They all came on board right away, like within the first 48 hours. They said, "Ask me anything." When things got a little squeaky, like they were in day 15, day 16, that line, that graph is just flat-lined. Wow, it'll have to do. They were good. They said, "Don't worry, don't worry, it's gonna change."
Would you do it again?
HH: I would do it again, but for smaller type things. This is too difficult, emotionally, psychologically, physically. It's tough. Well, and now the people at Kickstarter are telling me like, "Wow, no, you did it. We tried to talk you out of it and you did it, you hit that number, so now you should use that as your base." But I don't know. I don't think I can make films anymore where I don't get paid in advance. That's really it. I can't continue risking my entire life every single time I make a film.
One of my favorite aspects of NED RIFLE is Simon's attempts at popularity via comedy. Have you personally ever flirted with commercialism? Was that a sort of parody of the desire to maybe stay relevant?
HH: Am I not a commercial filmmaker? (laughter) I think mass culture is garbage. I'm just trying to save my life. That's my entire business in being a filmmaker. My whole life is trying to save myself from this garbage.
Have you ever been tempted to make more money, shall we say?
HH: Yeah, yeah, there's nothing wrong with making money. It's always been very important to me, from before I became a professional filmmaker, that I wanted to make a living through my art, so I think I've done that, I've done all right. There's a lot of people who haven't, so I feel lucky. Yeah, and I don't try to make movies that are obscure, of course. I know that there's a middle ground between obscurity and mass cultural acceptance... The Beetles.
When did you decide Aubrey would be right for the film?
HH: I was just writing and then she was suggested to me by her representation and I checked out some of her movies and TV shows, but it was Safety Not Guaranteed... (Turning to Aubrey) That's the one I just was able to see your sense of humor and your acting chops best, and charisma, charm.
Aubrey, were you familiar with Hal's previous films when you were first approached to be a part of the series?
Aubrey Plaza (AP): Yeah, I was really a big fan of Hal's. I had seen his movies years ago when I was in film school actually. I was very familiar with Henry Fool and I didn't have to even read it before I knew I wanted to work with Hal. I was just so excited that he wanted to work with me.
Did you feel like the new guy?
AP: I never felt like an outsider or anything like that. Everyone was so welcoming and ... They were just great to me, so I felt really comfortable. It was fun to talk to all of them about their previous experiences on Fay Grim and Henry Fool. I got to pick their brains a little bit. Parker [Posey] and I met for coffee a couple times and she told me about her experiences with Hal and shooting a movie, so they all took me under their wing a little bit and helped me.
What kind of advice did Parker Posey have for you?
AP: Know my lines. Know them. Know every single word of them. Be perfect at them. That was some advice that I got, which I already knew going in, but Hal's very specific about dialogue and that's one of the reasons I love his movies because you can tell. That was something we talked about a lot ... But yeah, I don't know.
How would you describe what you love about his style?
AP: I love all the things about his style. I love his writing...
HH: She likes the way I'm dressed mostly
AP: ... like the way he dresses. I just like the way his brain works. I like all things, all of the above.
When you first read the screenplay, what about Susan were you most compelled by?
AP: It was really fun for me to play someone that is so much smarter than I am in real life and someone that is obsessive in a way. It's really so great to be able to dive into a character that's got a really true obsession with something. That was really compelling for me, to play someone that's really smart and also just really off and disturbed.
I don't pick things based on their deadpan-ness or not. I just kind of go from project to project and try to pick things that I really respond to for many reasons.
HH: I used to say "deadpan" because when my career started people always used that word. It's not something I've ever used, but I thought about it and said, "What are they indicating when they ask that?" What I think it is is a lack of an obvious interpretation. That's something I look for, and I think your work as Susan in this film is crucial because she's saying something, she's saying something she actually means, with an intensity that might be... Because the words are intense.
The expression, she's not underlining the meaning by a particular expression, kind of holding that back, and I think it makes a richer experience because you don't really know, like in this case, is she crazy or is she really into poetry? Or being really into poetry, ipso facto, crazy. That's how I've always thought about it. From when I watch you at work, that's what I see, just not being obvious about what this line means.
Some color, some dimension, rather than being ... A lot of the storytelling is done like, the words say exactly what they mean, the action says exactly what they mean and then, just for good measure, they put in a piece of music which says exactly what it's supposed to, so that there's absolutely no way you could possibly mistake what this means.
Can you discuss the presence of religion in Ned's new life?
HH: Well, I wanted to be respectful. I've written a lot about religion, actually, and filmed The Book of Life, which actually has Jesus Christ. And I've written a play, which is probably what started all this back in the mid-90s ... I wrote a play called, "Soon," which had to do with the events in Waco with the Branch Davidians.
That was really the beginning of my study of "What is Christianity? Who are these people?" I was brought up Catholic socially, I didn't really connect two and two much. But then, it became like my major reading. What is all this? Why are these people waiting for the end of the world, and all that? It developed over the years.
I've become quite acquainted with people like Ned, who are around that age and are searching for spiritual ground and I was always surprised, it was like, wow, I thought you would ... It just seems old-fashioned to me. That's what fashion's like; it changes. You know, a 20-year-old in 2014 might find this fresh and new, so that's how we dealt with it.
Yeah, but I knew I didn't want to make fun of it, but I did want to treat them as actual people with foibles, so it was important for me that the minister has a mistake in his past. He made some sexual mistake in his past.
That reminds me of the moment where Simon says to Ned, "Well you're young and hip." Ned responds, "Am I hip?" and Simon says,"Well, you're young anyway."
Of Henry's many tangents, one that sort of stuck out to me in this film was the importance of comparing the holiness of the stained glass window to the condom on the sidewalk. This, to me, seems like a pretty good description of Henry himself, who has no modes of discrimination.
HH: Yeah, he has a line in Henry Fool that he says, "I make no distinction between..." Um, it was something I took out of a book, right out of the book. He doesn't judge anything. The holiness of the stained glass window and the profanity of the used condom on the sidewalk is just all for him, just the same. Maybe that's the problem, that's how he got into this problem, he doesn't have any moral fences kind of, so maybe that's how he got into trouble in the first place, getting into a relationship with this 13-year-old girl.
In HENRY FOOL he's always telling Simon, "You can't fence in a man's soul." What would you say compels you to this kind of character to the point that he's now driven three films?
HH: It had been hanging around a long time. When I was in school, I started in my 20s, I started writing about Henry Fool. That took me years to fine-tune, to develop. It had something to do with Paradise Lost. Milton's Lucifer in that was arguably like the most interesting person who says the most interesting things.
Then there's something similar in Goethe's Faust. Mephistopheles in Faust is sent by the Devil to do one thing. "This is your job, you have to go get this guy, Faust, and corrupt his soul and bring him to hell." He blows it, because he's petty and he's sully and he gets ... While he's supposed to be doing his work of corrupting Faust, he's flirting with girls and stuff like that, angels and cherubs. I thought... I saw the possibility of an anti-hero like that.