Interview with Hal Hartley

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Interview by Greg Carlson

Filmmaker Hal Hartley will be in Fargo on Wednesday evening, March 6 to screen his most recent feature “Meanwhile” as well as thirty minutes of additional, specially selected material. Hartley will accept the Ted M. Larson Award from the Fargo Film Festival following the screenings and engage in an on-stage conversation. The event begins at 7pm at the Fargo Theatre and tickets are available at the door.

 

“Meanwhile” places its protagonist in a New York City that appears to be mutating and changing through busy construction and enterprise of all kinds. How does NYC compare to Berlin, where you lived for several years?

It’s about speed. Berlin mutates very slowly, NYC by the day! Part of the irony of Joe’s story is that these brief easy generous encounters he has happen in a city that is perfectly unsentimental. There is no point in becoming fond of a certain street or a cafe or a group of shops. They’ll be gone in a decade.

Even the kinds of people one would, say in Berlin, associate with a certain neighborhood… That happens less and less in New York. It’s in constant flux. But kindness does happen. Easy selfless interaction between strangers. It’s odd.

 

In “Meanwhile,” Joe Fulton seems to spend a great deal of his time helping others, even at his own expense. Is Joe a genuine altruist?

DJ Mendel (who plays Joe) and I never discussed Joe’s altruism. In fact, we found it more helpful to think of his willingness and ability to help others as some kind of “defect.” Some kind of obsessive compulsive disorder.

He’s a can-do guy, a born fixer, but he has trouble prioritizing his efforts. He can’t keep himself from fixing something if it is broken. Anyway, if Joe is an altruist, he doesn’t know it. We knew we were creating a character who is very unusual this way.

 

Where does altruism fit in a society accelerated by and in the grip of the solipsism fostered by handheld electronics, smart-phones and social media?

Again, I don’t know if I can call it altruism if it is, on Joe’s part, unconscious. But we found comedy in the fact that this perfectly honest and forthright man would be (to the police, for instance) suspicious for being forthright, not calculated and perfectly transparent. But Joe would certainly seem to challenge solipsism. He doesn’t seem to acknowledge a boundary between himself and others.

I think it is worth pointing out that I have been taken to task by some younger journalists in the mainstream entertainment press for being “dogmatic” in this film. I find that really interesting. I can only guess they take umbrage with Joe’s impatience with a young girl’s histrionic suicide appeal. Or maybe it is Joe’s never complaining about his own plight?

 

As we spend time with Joe, there is little outward difference between his public and his private behavior. His basic decency raises as many questions as it answers. To what extent is Joe designed to be presented to the viewer as “what you see is what you get”?

Yes, I’m not a big one for subtext. Joe’s complexities are there to be seen for what they are, contradictions, even, that become meaningful, if not perfectly analyzed, as he moves through his day.

 

I understand that at one point, “Meanwhile” might have been an ongoing series. It occurred to me during the movie that so many of the people encountered by Joe – like Danielle Meyer’s Wendy, Chelsea Crowe’s woman on the bridge, and Penelope Lagos’ Tuesday – invite all sorts of intriguing possibilities. Do you think about or construct inner lives for all these characters? Or is the mystery more appealing?

I myself do construct all sorts of inner lives for the characters. And I imagine possible further interaction between the characters. It starts in the writing but once I cast a role the personality and the manner of the actor suggest things too.

For instance, Penelope’s sharp, concise, ultra efficient manner as she first read for Tuesday gave me and her the idea that, though she distrusts Joe, she is intrigued by him too. If I had gone on to make a series there would have been a love affair going on there at some point.

 

Joe never meets Tuesday in person, but the audience is allowed the privilege of seeing that she has taken the time to read his substantial, unpublished book. Books are often present in your work as a very particular mode of communication distinct from face-to-face, interpersonal interaction. What is special to you about the printed word?

People reflect more when they read. More so than when they watch movies, I think. And in most cases more than when they are talking to each other. Though, of course, there are exceptions.

 

Do you spend more time reading books or watching movies?

Reading books.

 

You have often mentioned Terrence Malick as a filmmaker whose work you admire. What recent films and filmmakers earn your recommendation?

I don’t watch films until they have been out for two years and all the silliness and hype are over and forgotten. That said, of course, Malick, the films of Kelly Reichardt: “Old Joy” and “Wendy and Lucy.” Olivier Assayas’ “Carlos” miniseries… Godard’s “Film Socialisme,” a great little film called “Exit Elena,” by a young man from Brooklyn called Nathan Silver…

 

 

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