Hal Hartley by Martin Donovan

BOMB 37 Fall 1991
037 Fall 1991
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Hal Hartley. © 1991 Susan Shacter.

I met Hal Hartley two years ago when I auditioned for his film, Trust, the tale of a suburban teenager’s ascetic beginnings. Through both working and spending long idle hours jabbering together, we have become friends. I sat down with him a few weeks ago, after completing photography on Surviving Desire, another Hal opus for American Playhouse, and tried to rack his brain.

Martin Donovan Hal, where would you be without rock ’n’ roll?

Hal Hartley I might have wound up in the same place. It was encouraging to be able to see that just anybody could pick up a guitar and learn a couple of chords and make rock ’n’ roll. I seemed to always be trying to get back to that mentality, in filmmaking, raw expression, hands-on creativity …

MD What kind of guitar do you play?

HH I play an Ibenez copy of a Strat—sky-blue, white pickboard.

MD It’s beautiful.

HH The most inspiring thing to me as a maker, as a filmmaker, was seeing Neil Young at Brendan Byrne Arena. You know precisely what it is, it’s conviction.

MD Longevity?

HH Economy. Conviction, a refusal to disguise his actions. Himself. I thought that’s great, that’s what’s made this 50-year-old man so much more exciting than just about any rock star or entertainer. I mean, there were some songs he played that I didn’t even like, and they were still holding me.

MD What is the quote you like of Exene Cervenka’s?

HH ”When you’re really not part of the main society, you’re left to your own devices. You make your own music, you make your own movies, you write your own books.” I cut that out of a magazine years ago, and I taped it to the inside of my notebook.

MD From your point of view, what is the worst reaction a respected friend can have to one of your films?

HH Probably, no reaction. Probably, what’s more important to me than the reaction to the film is the friendship. Ultimately, you know, I’m always expecting to get the absolutely worst criticisms. I mean, it’s only work, it’s only creative work. And it’s probably more than 50 percent experimentation in even the best of circumstances. You have to expect that the work will sometimes be not as good as you had hoped. Anyway, one of the things that makes it possible to continue being a creative person and taking those kind of risks is having friends who aren’t going to bullshit you. They’re willing to say if they don’t like something. They’re going to be honest about it, so you can talk about it and remain rooted in a reasonably well-adjusted world.

MD You don’t see the reaction to your work as being a direct reflection on your soul? Doesn’t it come that close to you?

HH It does … but, it’s just taken for granted, that somebody’s work is not their soul. It’s really just the formal execution that most people have something to say about. Most of my close friends enjoy seeing my work, even when they’re not crazy about the execution because it’s like spending time with your friend. I’m not going to surprise them with anything. A lot of my friends know me better than I know myself.

MD Isn’t it nice when you do surprise them though?

HH It’s wonderful, when you make people you like laugh out loud.

MD When was the last time you laughed out loud?

HH Oh, when you did that kiss with Mary Ward a couple of days ago. (laughter) It was hilarious.

MD What was funny about that?

HH The kind of snobbish bore you became in one take. It just cut right to the quick. It was exactly how the line should be said. Everybody on the set cracked up. It was over the top, I don’t even know I can use that take because it’s almost too much. It’s one of the few takes in the entire movie that is so real that cumulatively, it doesn’t fit in the movie.

MD What are you afraid of?

HH I’m afraid of being alone.

MD (laughter)

HH I’m afraid of actually not being as sensitive to people as I try very hard to be. I know I work very hard at it.

MD You’re afraid of being an asshole.

HH No.

MD No?

HH I mean, I know I’m an asshole. (laughter) That’s different. But sometimes, for instance, with a woman, I know exactly what you’re supposed to do in a certain situation. You’re supposed to call and you know, just touch base, the day after your first date. You’re supposed to do the thing that’s real easy. The rules are right there, and you know she’ll appreciate it. But, I get all confused somehow. I don’t do it. And then two days pass and I say, now it’s too late, now I can’t do it. And you wind up being an idiot. And the next time you see her, like a month later, she’s pissed off.

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Marko Hunt, Merritt Nelson, and Adrienne Shelly in Trust. Photo by Chris Buck. © 1991 Courtesy of New Line Cinema.

MD You worship women, right?

HH I don’t worship them, but I appreciate them a lot.

MD You worship women, Hal. (laughter) You told me …

HH Why not? It’s better than worshiping handguns. (laughter) I love women. All my life, I just … appreciated their presence and their particular outlook on things, much more readily than I have my male friends.

MD Your mother died when you were 12 years old …

HH Uh huh.

MD I can’t help but think that the loss of your mother at such an early age is one of the driving forces behind your life, if not your work, if not your opinion of women. For instance in Trust, Matthew’s mother dies while giving birth to him. And Maria, while at Matthew’s house, grabs one of his mother’s dresses unknowingly, and wears it for the rest of the film. Was that conscious writing?

HH Yeah, that was conscious writing. I got the idea of the mother dying, while giving birth to the protagonist from Rousseau’s “Confessions,” ’cause that happened to Jean-Jacques. Our good friend Jean-Jacques. And it just struck me as a very potent situation with which to start. Just the attendant guilt and suspicions …

MD Rarely happens in the 20th century, but I buy it anyway.

HH There’re a lot of things in Trust that don’t happen in the 20th century. (laughter) Yeah, Trustdefinitely deals with my—I don’t know what to call it. It never feels, in my adult life, like I spend too much time thinking about my mother. Or that I grew up without a mother from 12 on. I spend a lot of time thinking that I grew up alone in a house with a father. Trust actually let some flood gates open, remembering. I don’t know if I do adore women—I do put them on pedestals, I do have maybe an even stupid respect for them—it’s not formed by anything I can put into words. My memory of my mother is very powerful. She’s … real fun. I remember her endorsing my creativity a lot against my father. It took my father a lot longer to be openly encouraging. He just didn’t have the words. But my mother did. Women seem to speak even when they don’t have the words. If men don’t have the words they just shut up. I do it myself. I remind myself of my father so much, it’s incredible. But women, like your wife, Vivian …

MD What about my wife? (laughter)

HH Vivian speaks her mind even before she has words with which to articulate. I’m speaking in such a broad generality. Please forgive me. But generally, I do feel that women—it’s something I like about them. They throw themselves forward in a situation.

MD They’re not afraid.

HH And men …

MD … Are afraid …

HH … Step back.

MD You said the death of your mother gave you an identity.

HH Yeah, during my adolescence, I definitely was able to utilize my awareness of myself, as the kid without a mother, as a source of strength. And it makes me think that maybe all anybody needs to get that first granule of strength is an identity. A very rock solid, specific identity. I started from there and it gave me life. I know that my creative pursuits redoubled, at just about the time my mother died.

MD What is the most damaging criticism you’ve ever received for anything, other than film?

HH I can’t think of anything, offhand. I’ve been criticized sometimes. And it hurt. But I also felt it was entirely unjustified. So that doesn’t really come under the heading of adequate criticism that really stung. I generally take criticism pretty well, by maintaining a method of not letting criticism damage me.

MD Your father never criticized anything you did?

HH Oh yeah … I mean, he criticized the entire way I lived my life, for a while. But I could see so clearly that it was his lack of understanding and his inability to deal with a young kid. He was a young kid himself in many ways.

MD You always knew that?

HH Yeah.

MD You knew that as a young boy?

HH I would get angry. I would get really fired up angry. Ultimately, it wasn’t damaging, it was only strengthening. That process of rising above your immediate instincts for vengeance and anger, ultimately made me feel better—I succeeded. It’s much easier to feel good about people than to feel bad about them.

MD When we were up in Poughkeepsie working, we watched a tape of Chaplin’s Modern Times. How did viewing that again remind you about work? What does it say about work?

HH It made me feel terribly lazy to see the amount of work that went into one of Chaplin’s films. I mean, the guy worked relentlessly. A very inspired thinker and performer. All that. But there are a lot of inspired people. The work that went in to make it absolutely perfect really jumped on the screen. It’s coordinating that energy with your ability to work.

MD You’re the most prepared director not only that I’ve worked with, everybody on the crew talks about your preparation.

HH Chaplin was even more than prepared. He was a titan of work. I got the impression that he must have just worked on those routines for months. And that he couldn’t have been a really nice guy all the time. And that’s a big thing, trying to be a nice guy. It’s important.

MD Do you really think it’s important?

HH No, I jettison the whole concept very easily when I have to. But sometimes I wonder, when things are working really well, really smoothly. Sometimes I begin to get more suspicious and say to myself, maybe I should be more of an asshole. Maybe I should really start making it harder.

MD I have the same reaction. I’m really paranoid about it, because I was so relaxed on Surviving Desire, I thought my work was going to suffer. I have a feeling that my work can’t be that good if it was so easy. Or it wasn’t easy, but it was relaxed. Both of us being raised Catholic … One of the early connections I had with you was over Elaine Pagel’s Gnostic Gospels. You said it very much influenced your writing of the character, Maria, for Trust.

HH Not so much the writing, I read that book just after I had written the script. My approach to directing Adrienne Shelly as an actress took on—I gleaned a lot from Pagel’s Gnostic Gospels. I took away what I could use in the person of Adrienne.

MD For instance?

HH Well, I just happen to have my notebook here, from that particular film, Trust. But I would pose certain questions to Adrienne: how to convey the rigorous simplicity of the character Maria’s chosen life. This quote is from Gnostic Gospels: “The self or spirit discovers itself in the world. The only freedom possible is an inhumane desperate freedom. To be saved, the spirit must be taken out of its body, out of its personality, out of the world. And freedom requires an arduous preparation. Whoever seeks it must both accept extreme humiliation and exhibit the greatest spiritual pride. In one version of the Gnostic principal, freedom entails total asceticism.” And then, a few days later, in making notes to give Adrienne, I wrote this: Don’t be mistaken, what I’ve written here for Maria, is a tale of spiritual transcendence. Maria’s break with the world, her crisis, occurs when she realizes she has accidentally killed her father. This is also the brutal culmination of a day of hard-to-take realities. She has been brought low. She can now see the world for exactly what it is. She has become enlightened. She sees the vanity and pointlessness of human ambition. And begins to transcend these things. That’s her physicality, the physicality of the saint, the person without: simple, relaxed, patient, the clarity of decision and movement.

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Adrienne Shelly and Martin Donovan in Trust. Photo by Chris Buck. © 1991 Courtesy of New Line Cinema.

MD What kept you from joining a monastery?

HH (laughter) Girls. But also, my appreciation for religious sentiment and religious conviction is something that has only come to me in my late twenties. All my life, I’ve had a naive respect, more like awe, for religious people. But I had such distrust for those people too, because I grew up in the suburbs. You know, we were all brought up to be like Catholics …

MD It was religion, not spirituality.

HH Exactly. But as I got older and moved about in the world a bit, I met truly spiritual people, truly religious people, with good religious humor. They’re some of the most intelligent and articulate people I’ve met. So, even though I still am not sure if I’m religious or not—I don’t think I could safely call myself religious—I do spend most of my time, certainly most of my evening, trying to get a better handle …

MD I’d like to talk about realism or naturalism in films. You were talking the other day about taking away from the text in an effort to be realistic …

MD Well, it’s not necessarily about being realistic. This is not new, Godard talks much more certainly than I do about the fact that as a medium, as a recording medium, film is almost inherently documentary. So when you’re making a narrative film, a made-up story, it seems to me, that things are often the most difficult. I’m not talking of a preconceived stylistic ideal of what is natural. But recording an actual event of somebody performing a role—to embrace the fact that I have here an actor who’s doing these tasks, saying these things, becoming this other person. This actor has immersed himself or herself, so much in what he or she knows about the characters and now they’re going to perform them. I appreciate seeing that. I don’t appreciate seeing mannerisms or naturalisms, that seems dumb. It seems cheap. It seems easy. I think pretending is something everybody can do very easily. Confronting an actual act, performing it with full knowledge, and knowing that the audience is confronting it, watching it, is carrying it—carrying out is one of the most sublime expressive events that can happen. We grew up Catholic, the mass is fascinating. The simple but convicted execution of belief I find very fascinating. The simple execution of what you know and what you believe. So an actor or director can understand the character, and want this character. And it comes. It’s like stripping the mystery away. That’s all that’s required from me. Is to do these things. And then happening between these things comes this totally honest looking at a person, an actor’s, an artist’s execution. And behind it real emotion.

MD Didn’t that happen in On the Waterfront, or The Group Theater, the kitchen sink dramas of the ’40s and ’50s?

HH That was 40 years ago. I don’t compare 13th-century paintings to Rothko. Forty years ago, films in America were essentially theater. Yeah, I can look at them, but ultimately, it’s not that immediate excitement of witnessing an event. Even if an actor is a personae, to use the term with the greatest respect, then it’s a collaborative moment, that image on the screen between the actor, the director and the cameraman. And it’s a different perception, I guess, of what is dramatic.

MD You don’t read newspapers. Why?

HH Because they don’t help. I mean, ultimately, when you get past the facts of day-to-day news, you’re left with what everybody should know already: human beings cause immense damage to each other. I don’t need the facts of the world to help me make better decisions on how to live my life.

MD If you were a news junky, let’s say, like I am, is it unfair to ask how you’d work with the difference? How would you be different?

HH It is tough, because it’s very theoretical. My work generally centers on getting past the particulars and paying attention to the universals. People hurt each other. And that sucks. (laughter) You know selfishness is a bad thing. I don’t know. Facts don’t help.

MD You have very strong reactions to what’s going on, on a daily basis in the world. You don’t read the newspapers, but …

HH I get the news.

MD You get the news, through friends. Your political persuasion is to the left. (Yeah) Does that enter into your work?

HH Yeah, because my general attitude is all over my films.

MD Are you left or are you radical?

HH I would probably be radical, if I was political. If I felt like I needed to be attached to a group.

MD Does an artist have a moral responsibility to society?

HH I don’t know if all artists have to have a moral responsibility. The particular form my art takes is fiction and, for a long time, I considered fiction the exercise of a moral responsibility in terms of the fact that it is the exercise of watching how people make decisions, or more perfectly, how characters make decisions. Stories are pretty much, to me, a situation where a character runs up against something, and they either lie about it, address it, run away from it, or whatever: they make a decision. And it’s the mechanics of what goes into that decision and then, the living of the decision that the character has made, which fascinates me. Somewhere along that line, I read …

MD It’s political?

HH No, not political. I’m just talking about the moral aspects. Somewhere along the line, I read a definition of what “moraliste” is, in French, in English we don’t really have the equivalent. But it refers to that particular study of simply how people make decisions. It’s not moralism in the sense of Jerry Falwell. It’s a priori to judgement. And so, the moral responsibility thing—I don’t think every artist has to have that. Art is generally the other. Art is very often outside of society. It’s like outlaw stuff, anyway. And that’s what’s exciting. It’s like a thorn in society’s side. That just seems very good for society, something powerful.

MD Aesthetics … is that its sole purpose?

HH Art’s sole purpose?

MD Yes.

HH No, I can’t speak for all art. Maybe, what I think about film might pertain to that larger thing: I keep finding myself stopping myself from trying to explain and just simply, to look. It’s the process of simply looking, not trying to explain my ideas or somebody’s idiosyncrasies, but simply looking at those idiosyncrasies, just looking at those views, even if they’re my own. You asking the artist to look and not turn his eyes away.

MD Why do you wear white tennis shoes?

HH I wear white tennis shoes because, they’re not tennis shoes, first of all.

MD What are they?

HH They’re basketball shoes, they’re sneakers. I wear white basketball shoes because I can see them out of my peripheral vision. And I always feel reassured when I can see my feet on the ground. I like to know that my feet are on the ground or that they’re attached to me.

Martin Donovan is an actor living in New York. He starred in Trust and is a member of Cucaracha Theater.

Martin Donovan by Alec Meacham
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Originally published in

BOMB 37, Fall 1991

Featuring interviews with Nan Goldin, Elizabeth LeCompte, Robert Duvall, P.M. Dawn, Jane Wilson, Louis Edwards, Craig Coleman, James Chance, Hal Hartley, and Constance Congdon.

Read the issue
037 Fall 1991