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Premieres & Events

"Looking Long-Term": Hartley Talks at Fool-Grim Double Bill

By Chris Willard

Murder, espionage and laughs came to the Pioneer Theater on Sunday when The Reeler hosted a double feature of director Hal Hartley's 1998 film Henry Fool and his forthcoming follow-up Fay Grim. Hartley, actor Thomas Jay Ryan and photographer/production designer Richard Sylvarnes were on hand between films for a discussion; most of the questions were directed to Hartley and Ryan, who offered examples of their on-set experiences, from the practical to the philosophical.


Grim reapers: Globetrotters Parker Posey and Hal Hartley on the set of Fay Grim (Photo: Magnolia Pictures)

"The first thing we decided was staying true was not our biggest (concern)" Hartley said about following up Henry Fool. "That was really constricting. We had to assume that they could grow and, in fact, that's the kind of concern that led to the discussion Tom and I had about Henry. Because it wasn't the most obvious answer to say, 'No, Henry doesn't change.' If we make films like this 20 years from now Henry will still be Henry," Hartley said.

Henry Fool is the story of an ex-con drifter (Ryan) who shows up in Woodside, Queens, and completely changes the entire community by encouraging the writing talents of garbage man Simon Grim (James Urbaniak). Fay Grim extends that story after a seven-year gap, following Simon's sister Fay as she searches for her husband, Henry, throughout New York, France and Turkey.

While both films feature the same characters and a continued plot line, the two movies are incredibly different. In Grim, most of the characters have changed during the absence of an audience in their lives; Fay is now the mother of a rebellious teenager while Simon sits in jail for helping Henry escape the country. Both characters seem stronger and more self-assured. The narrative spans the Atlantic, exploring the Grim family's connection to a ring of anti-American terrorists. Hartley almost entirely abandons the straight-on camerawork from Fool in favor of Dutch angles, where the frame is tilted to indicate confusion or to hint that something is awry. It's an appropriate choice; the plot in Grim gets increasingly dense as the film progresses and the audience tries to determine Henry Fool's connection to the CIA.

The audience seemed to enjoy the event as a whole, though it would have been interesting if the Q&A had been held after both movies were screened. At any rate, follow the jump for some of the insights passed down from Hartley and co. during the discussion. Fay Grim opens Friday, May 18 at IFC Center. It will be available on HDNet the same day and released May 22 on DVD.

Hartley on the idea of community in the two movies: "In Henry Fool my idea was that there is no community at the beginning of the film. There's a place, and people live there. And there's businesses, but people are completely, tragically disconnected from each other even within their own families, and it's the arrival of Henry, this kind of principal of... He's a catalyst of some sort, and he kind of sparks something, which inadvertently makes a community where there wasn't one, and the way he does that is mostly through encouraging his friend Simon to write this poem. But even that has its effect; it's like Simon's creative ignition sort of affects Fay. It affects their mother. It affects the community around the family, and then ultimately the community around that community, meaning the culture, the general culture. And that was the scheme of Henry Fool, and Fay Grim kind of expands that ripple out into the world."

Hartley on the relevance of topics such as the Internet in Henry Fool and terrorism in Fay Grim: "Nothing in (Henry Fool) is not taken from the newspapers. The conversations that they're having about the Internet and its possible uses and possible dangers as well as their conversations about the election and the swing to the right and ... the occasional swing to the left, that's really just taken from newspapers, magazines, radio, whatever I was hearing. It was very important to me to tell the story in a way that gave evidence of the time and place in which it was made."

Ryan on playing Henry Fool as his first film role: "I told the people I was working with, you know, maybe I'll have a line or two, thinking I'm gonna get some sort of a small part, and I got the script and it really blew my mind that I didn't have to audition for it and, second, that what (Hartley) knew of me so far was enough to put me in that role. I tried to monitor what I was doing, and the thing I learned really is that some of the scenes don't work and some of the scenes really work and cumulatively it works all right, you know. Everything added up."

Hartley on creating names for his characters: "The first time I wrote down the name Henry Fool was in, like, 1982 when I was at college, and the image I had of him was in fact very much like Simon. It just seemed sort of to tie into a tradition of the big fat novel, you know, Tom Jones, Don Quixote. Henry Fool seemed ridiculous and somehow wavy, so I liked that. Grim had some sort of connotation, but I remember distinctly taking the name Simon Grim from a taxi cab driver. I remember on the corner of Park Avenue and 27th Street. I got in, and the guy's name was Simon Grim. I couldn't believe it. Such a great name."

Hartley on the possibility of a third chapter: "I just love these characters. … Probably deciding to finish (Henry Fool) on that suspension, you know, where it doesn't really resolve was because I did shoot it with... I think that was just me kicking and screaming a little. I didn't want to let go of these people. ... There could be a third or a fourth. I'm looking long-term. Franchise. When I'm dead and gone people will still be making Henry Fool (films)."

Posted at May 14, 2007 10:55 AM

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