One of my first TIFF experiences, back in the late ‘90s, was watching Hal Hartley’s Henry Fool at the Festival. This was already a few years after I first discovered and fell in love with his films. Hartley’s metaphysical stories and quirky characters crackled with deadpan humour and sharp social commentary. His films captured the zeitgeist of the ‘90s in a way that was refreshing and incisive. When I discovered him, he was quickly skyrocketing to indie-fame and success after debuting his first two films, The Unbelievable Truth and Trust, at the Sundance Film Festival, and finding himself in competition at Cannes in 1992 with Simple Men.
One of his greatest commercial and critical successes was the darkly comic Henry Fool, which premiered at TIFF in 1997 and then went on to Cannes, where it won the Best Screenplay award. Henry Fool was the first chapter of a trilogy that would span nearly two decades, and concludes with Ned Rifle, premiering at TIFF this year. Dramatic trilogies – those not based on comics or fantasy novels, at any rate – are a rare thing, and I asked Hartley whether he always envisioned it this way.
“We used to joke about it. Those actors, they’re all great storytellers, James Urbaniuk and Parker have a great storytelling imagination. So we would always say, oh, we’ll do that in part five. We used to joke that the Grim family could become like our Star Wars, on a funny local scale.”
There is something slightly epic about Hartley’s trilogy, the stories connected by the Grim family but also able to stand alone. “A lot of people tell me that they discovered Fay Grim first, became intrigued, and then went back to watch Henry Fool,” he confirms. “And it was a very satisfying experience for them.”
Hartley tells me he knew the second film would have to centre on Fay, but was mindful of other factors as well. “I wanted each one to reflect the time and place,” he says. “I wanted Henry Fool to reflect what it was like to be an American at that time, so you can see that the political shift to the right was represented, and this very new thing, the internet, and how people felt fearful and excited about it. Years later, after 9/11, I was thinking about how this family would deal with the new American paranoia, so Fay Grim became a very different kind of movie.”
For a fan of Hartley’s work, it’s wonderful to see the entire troupe of actors he’s worked with throughout his career reunite for Ned Rifle (along with a few notable newcomers like Aubrey Plaza, who fits into the tone and style seamlessly). But perhaps the most interesting transformation to observe between the three films is that of Liam Aiken, the titular Ned, who was only seven years old at the time of Henry Fool, and is now a handsome and confident 20-something.
I draw the parallel to Boyhood, not narratively but in the sense of watching a young person grow up on-screen. “All of us think of Linklater’s film a lot,” Hartley tells me. “In our case that wasn’t the aim of it from the beginning. Before I began to raise money for Fay Grim – I was living in Europe at the time – I came back specifically to meet with Liam, who was then 16. I had to tell him, the reason I’m bringing this up is because if I make Fay Grim, there’s definitely going to be another movie.”
“I think in threes,” he continues. “I thought it would be a nice classical resolution if there was a third and, it would be about Ned.”
Liam fits so perfectly into the landscape of Ned Rifle, his acting chops up to the challenge of working with Hartley’s other heavyweights, that it seems only natural that he grew up to be right for Hartley’s cinematic universe. “He really became a very serious and hardworking actor,” Hartley says. “Which he wasn’t at 16. At 16 it came easily to him and he just had to be himself, which made me nervous about the future, because that’s not really what I need in my films. I need a certain level of craft. But he had acquired that craft. What amazed me the most was my luck that he grew up to be the kind of actor that I like working with.”
Though perhaps it’s not luck. Perhaps when a boy begins his career with the likes of Hartley, the imprint of that experience remains, and shapes the type of actor that boy will become. “One of the most amazing things was directing him in scenes opposite Martin Donovan and Bill Sage and Robert Burke,” he tells me. “All of these guys who were the young men in my movies when I started.”
I was a supporter of the Ned Rifle Kickstarter campaign, which didn’t surprise me as much as other campaigns run by known filmmakers. This is because Hartley’s career has always been independent, and it made sense to me that he might want to throw off the shackles of traditional financing. When I ask, he confirms this suspicion.
“I got tired of the old way of financing films. You get the script written, you pitch it to people, various distributors think that perhaps it might do well in their territories and they give you a little bit of money to secure it, and then you get bank loans.
After using the crowdfunding platform to raise money for the distribution of his last film, Meanwhile, Hartley went after production funds for Ned Rifle. “I really wanted to do it. Liam’s the right age, they’re all the right age, Parker’s the right age, James, everyone. So, I asked everybody – if I went out and crowd-sourced between $300,000 and $400,000, would you all be interested in doing a movie at that level. And they all were.”
The goal Hartley set for himself is ambitious. Most films don’t crack the $50,000 ceiling, but he exceeded his goal of $384,000. “There’s no mistaking who your fans are,” he says. “Real fans will pay $25 for the DVD a year before it’s made.”
When I ask Hartley about the experience of trying to raise so much, he tells me it was very satisfying. “Statistically that’s a pretty tall order,” he says. “But I didn’t want to go out for just half of it and then have to get the rest through the same old techniques of speculative capitalism. I like the mercantilism of this. I’m a filmmaker, you watch films. You know who I am, I know who you are. I can do this. You know I can do it, I’ve done it 20 times before. And in this case it worked out great because they knew a lot about what the film would be even though they hadn’t read the script, they knew the characters, they knew what I was leading to. I like the clarity of that.”
The ability to raise nearly $400,000 through Kickstarter is certainly a huge change that we’ve seen take place in the film industry over the last few years, but the ability to make a feature film for that amount is also a relatively new thing. “Certain things have become easier and other things have become obsolete,” Hartley muses. “It’s much cheaper to make films, the equipment has become not expensive anymore, anyone can own it.” And of course, that’s good for independent filmmakers. But has it gotten any easier thank when Hartley started out?
“Most people of my generation, people like myself wanted to be able to support ourselves by being creative artists. And I was probably luckier than some of my friends in the early ‘90s. I hit some success without really aiming for it. I was able to turn that into a manner of making the kind of work I wanted to make, the way I wanted to make it, and retain my artistic and intellectual independence. And now it’s all changed, and I can see many ways that a fairly marginal artistic-minded filmmaker can really make a living independently if he or she stays on top of the technologies and platforms.”
An inspiring note to end on, from an American indie icon whose voice has only strengthened over the years. The thoughtful, sharp (yet sweet, and funny) Ned Rifle provides exactly the kind of closure fans of Hartley’s work hoped for, but also cements him as a filmmaker who remains relevant, and whose work remains powerful and fiercely unique, over 20 years after he first broke onto the scene.
Ned Rifle screens at the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival. Check their website for more information.