Fans of director Hal Hartley’s early work share a special bond. They obsessed over his films not because they represented the world we live in, but rather, the world they wished they lived in — one where every word and movement was carefully calculated, where every utterance is infinitely quoteworthy, and where the absurd is frequently commonplace. In 1997, Hartley released Henry Fool, a film that bore all of those trademarks, but was also a progression. He introduced new faces to his ensemble cast, and he became more visceral in his approach, touching on scenes and subjects that would previously have seemed too base in a Hartley film. But what no one saw coming — even the director himself — was that nearly a decade later, he would return to the world of Henry Fool with a sequel that tossed everything about it on its head.
That film, 2006’s Fay Grim, focused on Parker Posey’s character from Henry Fool, reinventing both her and Henry as people with far different motivations than the previous film ever hinted at. It also introduced Henry and Fay’s son, Ned, setting the stage for a third and final entry in the series — which would be almost another ten years coming. Debuting in select theaters and on vimeo on demand this month, Ned Rifle sees the return of many familiar faces from throughout Hartley history, along with the very welcome addition of Aubrey Plaza in a lead role. We caught up with the director during the SXSW Film Festival in Austin, where the film screened prior to its release, to talk about the nature of the project, the logistics of telling a story over two decades, and what he looks for in a star.
Shutterstock: What made you decide to create a trilogy? Did you always know it was going to be a trilogy?
Hal Hartley: I didn’t know it was going to be a trilogy. Henry Fool was just a one-off film, but we fell in love with the characters. We got intrigued. I had been trying to figure out ways to work with Parker Posey for a while. She was a friend and she had done little things for me before. And then the supporting role in Henry Fool, Fay, she read that, and she said, “Yeah, I really want to do this.” So she did that, but the role really became much larger than what was written in the script. Without me writing any dialogue really, her character took on so much more importance in the movie than there was in the script.
So after that, I continued trying to interest Parker in another movie. I wanted to make a movie where she was the lead. I wrote two or three scripts that I gave to her that she didn’t want to do; she’s very smart about what’s right for her, and I trust actors that way. So eventually I just said, “Well, what about Fay? Why don’t we do something again with Fay?” And she said, “I’d love to expand on Fay.” So I said, “Let’s make an entirely different movie about entirely different things. Different style. But this family, the Grim family, is the center of it. And then that got me really excited, too.
So when you created the second film, did you know at that point that you would be going on to do more?
Yeah, I knew then that I would do three. And I think I want to end it there. I’m classical that way — three acts. And once I wrote the script and sent it out to everybody, everyone was on board. But before I started raising money for it, I was living in Europe at the time, and I flew back to the States to have lunch with Liam Aiken, who was 16 at the time. I wanted to know what his future plans were; if he intended to be an actor professionally. He didn’t, but my feeling, seeing him and talking to him, was that he would. He had the charisma, and he had done a lot of work already.
If he hadn’t made that choice, would the film still have gone ahead, or was it dependent on that?
I thought about it. Flying back, I thought, maybe I’ll make Fay Grim — he was going to be in Fay Grimm at 16 — but maybe the third one, which I knew had to be about Ned, the son, I could possibly recast. But I’d stay in touch once a year or so, and then his career kept building and building as an actor. By the time he was 19 or 20, I said, “Wow, he’s exactly the kind of actor I like working with.” It was really fun in this film, directing him against Martin Donovan, Bill Sage, and Robert Burke — guys who were a little bit older than he is now at the beginning of my career. Because they were really the kind of actors I liked. And he grew up to be that kind of actor.
When you go back and look at Henry Fool now, do you see it differently? Since you reinvented the characters, do you think, “Does that make sense in this context?”
No, I don’t worry about that. But I’d always go back to the previous film and look at it closely, kind of as another person. As a storyteller, you have to develop this ability to be someone else — a person who’s kind of like you, but not you. And you look at things closer; it’s a different way of proofreading. You see what’s really there. I worked for years, three or four years, and I didn’t know how to make the script for Ned Rifle really connect — and then I watched Henry Fool again, as this other person, not me. And suddenly I heard afresh this line that Henry says: “I spent seven years in prison for being caught in flagrante delicto with an ugly and mean-spirited 13-year-old girl named Susan.” And I was like: Pause. Wow, there it is. That’s what I have to do. That’s what I have to go back to. And then everything exploded. I wrote the script in three weeks after that.
So you found yourself inspired by your previous self?
I don’t know if that’s inspired. That’s just direction. I was already inspired; I knew the heft. I knew the movement I needed this film to have. I knew how I wanted it to end — the moral, emotional weight I needed it to end with. But a young man going out to kill his father because he messed up his mom’s life? I couldn’t make that do it. And then, re-watching Henry Fool, that line was like, “Susan? Who was Susan?” And that was it. That’s the lodestone. The thing that started the whole thing is going to end it all. I got really excited after that.
Ned Rifle was your own musical alias previously. What made you give the name to this character?
That was a particular piece of circumstantial poetry. Ned is a name in my family. I have an uncle Ned, and we’re from Eastern Seaboard, North Canadian, Newfoundland kind of people. It’s kind of an Irish/English diminution of Edward. If you have an uncle Edward, most people call him Ned. So that’s the only reason I had called the kid Ned in Henry Fool. But musically, Ned Rifle was a totally different idea I started in college. And then I was thinking, what should I call Part 3? I’ve got Henry Fool, Fay Grim, and that all makes sense — because that’s his name, but her name is Grim. But Ned Fool, Ned Grim, none of them sounded good. And then I said, “Ned Rifle. Just use Ned Rifle, and I’ll make up some reason why.” Like one of his grandparents’ maiden names is Rifle.
Do you still make music under that name too?
I don’t. Ned Rifle Music exists, which is a publishing company for most of my music from the ‘90s and 2000s. I think the music for this movie is published under Ned Rifle. That made sense. But since Henry Fool — that was the first time I credited myself under my own name as a musician.
So it doesn’t symbolize anything autobiographical, or anything of that nature, that you gave him that name?
It does. I mean, I don’t know if it symbolizes anything specific, but it’s all part of the fabric. It’s all part of the carpet that is my body of work.
This was your first time working with Aubrey Plaza. How was that experience?
Lovely. I didn’t know her at all. I don’t watch a lot of television, so I didn’t know about that, but she’s represented by the same people who represent Parker, and they asked me, “Do you need anybody else?” And I said, “Yeah, I need the leading lady.” I had been looking all over the world for the leading lady and I had put a lot of very good actresses on tape for it, but I hadn’t found the right quality.
I saw her film Safety Not Guaranteed, and in that movie — apart from the television show, where I couldn’t really see skill, because that’s a multi-camera improvisational thing, where a lot of stuff can get faked — I saw not only skill, but charisma, charm, prettiness. And she had a kind of relationship to her prettiness that I found intriguing, which reminded me very much of Adrienne Shelly in my earlier films. They know they’re pretty, but they have a kind of screwed-up relationship to that. There’s something noble and charming about that. And I’ve written girls like that a number of times. They’re like, “What am I supposed to do with this thing that I have?” And it’s lovely if you treat it in the right way.
Do you find that it’s challenging for someone in her position to come into a production where everyone has worked together before and is familiar with each other and knows how things are going to go?
She was saying that, at first, theoretically, it seemed like a problem, but then she did a small, important thing. She called up Parker Posey. She said, “How do I deal with this guy?” And Parker said, “Know your lines. Don’t worry about it. If he cast you, he thinks you’re the right type of person. But the one thing that’s not negotiable is that you have to know your lines. And you have to be able to move the way he wants you to move. And you just have to give yourself to that.”
So has it been good to get back to the feature-length format?
Yeah, I’m liking shorter things though. And everybody else seems to like them too, like episodic television.
Would you ever work in television?
I’m actually working very hard trying to make something happen. I’ve got lots of great ideas, I just have to get somebody to get behind them!