Q&A: Hal Hartley Returns to New York With the Riveting, Intimate “Meanwhile”

Q&A: Hal Hartley Returns to New York With the Riveting, Intimate “Meanwhile”
Danielle Meyer as Wendy in Hal Hartley's "Meanwhile"
(Courtesy Possible Films)

At 8 and 9:45 tonight at the IFC Center in Manhattan, Hal Hartley will present the US premier of “Meanwhile.” The 58-minute featurette marks a homecoming for the indie auteur, whose last American film was “The Girl From Monday.” Between 2004 and 2009, he lived in Berlin where, on a fellowship from the American Academy, he researched the life of the French philosopher and social activist Simon Weil (1909-43). During that period he also shot “Fay Grim” (2006), an intricate thriller sequel to “Henry Fool” (1997), and a cluster of shorts that comprise an oblique, experimental diary of his life abroad.

After the globalized meditations of his last few features, “Meanwhile” is a riveting return to the intimate philosophical storytelling that characterizes Hartley’s cinema in the era of “The Unbelievable Truth” (1989), “Trust” (1990), “Simple Men” (1992), and “Amateur” (1994). It doesn’t drag its coattails in the romantic glory of those films, however, being fully attuned to the harsh realities of 21st century survival.

The protagonist, Joe Fulton (D.J. Mendel), is a multitalented but cash-strapped Manhattan jack of all trades – would-be German window importer and salesman, unpublished novelist, unproduced filmmaker, jazz drummer, video director. Like the rest of us, Joe’s just looking for a break, but he complicates his pell-mell surge through a New York undergoing reconstruction (a nod to the aftermath of 9/11) by stopping to lend a hand to anyone who wants one: a woman thinking about jumping from the Brooklyn Bridge, a writer with a clogged typewriter, a cleaning lady with a bad back. Beautiful women surround him (the delicious curse of the Hartley hero), but such is his momentum, they elude him or he eludes them – what’s a guy to do but just get on with getting on?

After tonight’s screening, Hartley will subsequently present at IFC his Jesus film “Book of Life” (1998) on March 21, and the three-in-one romance “Flirt” (1995) on April 4. I met with him recently in the West Village. The following conversation does not include his disclosure that he is seriously interested in becoming a German window-importer.

In “No Such Thing” [2001], “The Girl from Monday” [2005] and “Fay Grim,” you dealt with subjects like media control, globalization, and espionage. Although “Meanwhile” is more of an intimate individual story, it also comments on the need for people to multitask and do different things to make an income, which is common nowadays.
Yes. “Meanwhile” is not as expansive as those three films, but it’s tied to them. “The Girl From Monday” and “Fay Grim” are so dense, and I guess that’s what the world feels like to me.

It’s changing so fast and every aspect of life is intricately tied to something else. The media and espionage, for instance, are almost two sides of the same coin.

After looking at all that, I wanted to make a simpler story, but I didn’t want to stop being aware of what's going on around us. And I think that’s why the shorter films I made in Berlin actually helped a lot, because they’re the buffer between “Fay Grim” and “Meanwhile.” On those films I was exercising looking out into the world and turning that into very intimate, smaller stories, and I felt I had some real success there artistically.

When I moved back to the United States, I decided I was going to try the same thing on a bigger scale. So “Meanwhile” grew from looking out into the world, which is itself a result of just being older and living in the world differently than you do when you’re thirty. I don’t think of myself as a full-time politicized person, deeply preoccupied by the machinations of politics every second of the day, but it’s hard to ignore how the world operates and changes and what the big issues are.

When I show “Meanwhile” publicly, it always gets a laugh at the point where Joe runs out of the subway and passes the kid [begging] on the steps who’s holding a sign saying, “Overqualified.” People understand that. In some sense I wanted to create evidence of what the world is like at the moment.

Joe has had to reinvent himself in order to survive. Do you feel that’s something you’ve had to do as a filmmaker?
There’s a personal dimension there, but I wouldn’t use the word “reinvention,” either for Joe or for myself. It’s just reaction. You’ve got to react to a change in environment. I’ve never believed, even before I was making films professionally, that I would just make a particular film and stick with it. What I’ve made has been influenced and shaped by the world around me and how that world affects me. So, in the simplest use of the word, it’s reactionary.

Joe meets a novelist in a bar and fixes his typewriter. The novelist had a success with one of his books, but isn’t coasting on it, whereas Joe has yet to have a breakthrough. Where did that come from?
I had a conversation with a younger director, a guy who does a lot of things, not unlike me. And he said, “I’ve never had a hit. At least once, you had it. You were in the big, bright lights for, like, six months or whatever it was.” It was moving to hear a man who is no longer young admit that he hadn’t had success and really wants it but was beginning to resign himself to never having it. That stayed with me, and then I began to think of Joe in a different way. Joe is indefatigable. He goes, “Well, if that doesn’t work, I can try this.” If there’s anything autobiographical in the film, that’s it, because that’s what my entire life has been.

Why did you make Joe a do-gooder?
I wanted him to be a positive everyman. I thought it would be more interesting, psychoanalytically, than telling the story of a guy who refuses to help people. He’s on a very definite journey that day and has these things that he has to do, but he can’t seem to keep himself from fixing other people’s problems. I found that conceptually something fun to work with.

It’s surprising that he shows up to pay the woman who acted in the video he made. That’s not what you necessarily expect from small-time producers.
I just thought a morally solid character was more interesting than a morally shady character. I came up against this when I was writing Fulbright [the CIA agent played by Jeff Goldblum] in “Fay Grim.” It was so easy to write him as the evil representative of the immorally infused government, but it got much more interesting when I began to understand what that guy’s situation probably was. I had to work out the actual morality for him, which wasn’t bogus morality. He really did believe these things. Your villains have to be on their own turf. Also, outside the motion picture business, most people I meet aren’t like Fulbright.

As a jazz musician, Joe’s definitely...
An improviser?

Yes, and jazz musicians aren’t noted for staying with one woman. “Unmoored” is how I’d describe him.
Yeah. He’s always moving. I didn’t think about it in terms of his relationship to women. I tried to think of it more in terms of it being a working-class thing. The first girl we see [Wendy, played by Danielle Meyer] wants to marry a lawyer. And we go, “Yes, of course. Why wouldn’t this girl marry an attorney, rather than Joe?” I was trying to avoid stasis and I knew he would have an emotional life. His relationship with his ex-wife, Nathalie  [Anais Borck], is very common. People outgrow a certain type of affection and call up a different type of affection that could last longer.

She’s angry at Joe because he thinks she should play the Virgin Mary in his film, “The Stations of the Cross,” whereas she wants to play Mary Magdalene. Was it a joke to put her in a blue robe?
The art director, Richard Sylvarnes, brought that in. I don’t know if he was thinking the way I was thinking. He’s a Protestant. Blues and reds don’t mean the same thing to him. I said, “That’s a Hail Mary blue, that’s really cool.” But it still didn’t mean that much to me until we were on the set. We had to shoot this scene in twenty minutes and then get out of the location. It was the time of day when nobody wants to shoot, noon, with he sun right overhead. I was like, “Aw, shit. This is always the worst kind of light.” But we were lucky because of her hair and this blue. Indoors, her hair was pretty, but outside it was like a halo, and then we had this spectacular blue and a church right behind us, I was thinking, “This is perfect. This is really Hail Mary.”

Is “Stations of the Cross” an active project of yours?
No, but I’ve often thought about it. I wrote a draft of something like that before I started making feature films. I never did it, but it’s always there. For the past few years, I’ve worked on this script called “Acts,” as in “Acts of the Apostles,” which is the story of St. Paul. This is where the Simone Weil project eventually led me. I got to a certain point after working on it for years where I realized I didn’t know how to make a biopic that would be good enough for my taste; I’m trying to avoid period costume stuff. There’s something about Weil’s particular philosophy and her spiritual dilemma, as well as her political thoughts and moral dilemmas in life, that turned out to be too complicated for me to turn into a motion picture story without grossly reducing their complexity and importance. Nevertheless, she was crazy about St. Paul, and from my own reading it was a subject I kept hitting up against. So at a certain point, I moved from Weil to St. Paul.

When I see movies about the Jesus story, at a certain point I say, “The story about the nice Jewish rabbi is not as important as this guy Paul who, thirty years after Jesus’s death, invented what we think of as Christianity. I find his story, which is documented in his letters, absolutely fascinating. I finally finished that script in 2008 and I’ve applied for a grant to get it made. It would be similar to what I did with “Book of Life,” but an even better analogy is Peter Brook’s “Marat/Sade,” where de Sade and a bunch of people in an asylum in 1808 are trying to do a play about the French Revolution and it keeps falling apart. They keep having arguments about the presentation. “The Acts” is a lot like that.

One thing that drives Meanwhile is whether or not the woman Joe meets on the Brooklyn Bridge committed suicide. The video actress also talks about killing herself. Were you taking a sidelong look at the fact that many people live with despair?
Yes. And it’s been real in my family. A very loved kid, my cousin’s son, killed himself in 2003. It brought up a lot of these issues. Abstractly, all my life, I’ve thought about what suicide is, wondering if the Catholic Church’s attitude toward it is appropriate or not. When somebody in your family actually does it, you wind up clarifying your own feelings about it.

Despair is what we have to avoid. That’s what being human is. But there’s a cheapening of the battle. People say, “I should just kill myself,” all the time and that’s what this young, naïve girl says. It pisses Joe off that she so flippantly expresses despair and he reacts with immediate force, accusing her of a deep moral failing while still being caring and responsible. I don’t think he sees the woman on the bridge as flippant. He really feels she is in trouble and so he offers to take her out for coffee.

What happens next to Joe?
I’ve thought about making additions in the shape of other 60-minute films. One would be set a year later. Joe’s wealthy now because his window business has gone through the roof. But by the end of that hour the whole thing has gone bust. Part three would occur another year later. Joe hasn’t much money but he’s working on another book, his memoirs or something like that. But the thing is, he will live, because there’s no alternative.

In all your films, you’ve maintained a kind of emphatic naturalism, whereby characters draw attention to what they’re saying by the way they speak. I guess it’s a Brechtian thing…
I try to artificialize what I actually see. Naturalism” isn’t a word or a notion that comes up when I’m writing or directing, but realism is. I want it to be appropriately formalized, so it’s heightened.

Do actors adapt to it easily?
It depends. Actors who know my work and who’ve worked with me understand it. D.J. Mendel, who plays Joe and has worked with me before, is a real performer, not just an actor. He can dance, he can play the drums, and he’s a writer and director himself who comes from an avant-garde tradition, so he’s never had an issue with what I do, though it probably would take him a little while to hear the cadences and the melodies, and what I build into the text.

Other people? Well, if you get somebody young, it takes a little work. I don’t think one of the actresses on the film ever understood it, but at a certain point, physically, orally, she got it.

It’s different with everybody. I had bad experiences back in the ’90s with actors who saw too many of my films and thought, “Oh, he does a certain thing.” And then they’d come to the rehearsal and do what they thought was what I wanted. But it had nothing to do with anything because it wasn’t based on observation or commitment to the exactitude, but was just a style, which it’s not at all. Whatever comes out of the process is the result of a particular method that I use just to get to truthful expression. There’s no school of Hartley acting.

It’s all a process. The end result might be consistent throughout my films. How we get there, one way or the other, requires an exposing of emotions, a digging into assumptions. Pulling the text apart, fleshing that out. What’s the phrase they use now? Interrogation of the text. That’s what directing really is.