Sundance Features

January 18, 2007

Hal Hartley, Fay Grim

"Even now, when I contemplate a part three, the big question is whether the whole story will come back to Queens."

Jeff Goldblum and Parker Posey in director Hal Hartley's Fay Grim

(This feature is part of an ongoing series of Reeler profiles of New York films and filmmakers at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival. Click here for a complete list of this year's interviews.)

Fay Grim's played at some festivals already, but I have the disadvantage of not having seen it. What can you tell me about it?

Well, it's really a sequel to Henry Fool. It follows Henry's wife Fay; Henry's been missing for seven years, and the CIA gets in touch with her and basically says Henry was not the man he appeared to be. It becomes a sort of espionage thriller farce about this housewife from Queens who goes off and gets involved in international espionage.

It does have that globetrotting quality to it, but it also has the sense of being anchored in New York -- Woodside, Queens, specifically, as you said. Is that a dynamic or contrast something you're interested in exploring as a native New Yorker?

Not particularly. I mean, it's really just what the story is. When I wrote Henry Fool in the mid-'90s, I didn't seriously conceive a sequel to it, but as I was editing it and a few years went on and people kept talking abut the film, I did imagine at least one more part, maybe two. It was just one of those things I was doing. Before I made Henry Fool, I made a film called Flirt over three years in different parts of the world. I thought my filmmaking had gotten better in that period of time, and I thought it had to do with being a foreigner -- being in someone else's land. My ears and eyes were more finely attuned. And I said to myself, "When I go back home to New York, I want to look at my home with these eyes -- almost the eyes of a foreigner." And so I dropped myself down in Woodside, Queens, which is a town I didn't live in but had always been intrigued by because the train from New York to where I grew up ran through Woodside, Queens, and I could always see the town from the train. It always seemed kind of complicated, messy and intriguing. And that's where I set that story. Now I'm sort of married to it; even now, when I contemplate a part three, the big question is whether the whole story will come back to Queens.

A year and a half ago at an event here in the city you said you were headed to Berlin -- that you were skeptical about the opportunities and ability to make the films you wanted to make in New York. Do you still feel that way?

Yeah. It's pretty impossible for me to make films in New York. That's why I moved to Berlin. I tried to make Fay Grim in New York, but you know, the combination of the city's new attitudes toward low-budget filmmaking and the union's attitude toward union filmmaking made it impossible.

Nevertheless, it has some pretty significant backing -- Todd Wagner, Mark Cuban, Magnolia Pictures. Can those kinds of associations help get part three made, or maybe bring you back to the states in the future?

This is still a very low-budget film; there just wasn't enough money to make the film that I had written in New York, regardless of who was involved. It's a very low-budget film.

Last year, the New York film community was devastated by the loss of Adrienne Shelly, and in remembering her, especially as a filmmaker, people often brought up your mentoring and directing relationship with her. I'm also interested in what kinds of things you might have picked up from her, either while directing her or viewing her films.

We started making films together, essentially; my first feature films were her first feature films as an actress. And I think we did learn a lot from one another, as I do from a lot of actors -- particularly in my youth. I did learn what actors need from directors; I made films back-to-back with Adrienne, so she was the principal actress I was working with at the time. We had a lot of opportunity to discuss what we were doing, to reflect on it. I learned lots of practical things about how to deal with actors from her. And as the years went on, mostly we used to get together once or twice a year; we lived across the street from each other, so we would grab lunch and talk shop. I was very impressed with how her writing was evolving. She wanted to write things that were funny, and she tended toward sweet, but not sentimental, which I thought was really an interesting thing she was balancing. You see it in Waitress quite clearly -- some hard truths about life are said unflinchingly, but it's also funny and sweet.

You're obviously a Sundance veteran. Does it ever get any easier for you to address nerves or apprehensions before sharing your work there?

I was there two years ago; The Girl From Monday received its US premiere there. It was the first time I'd been there in about 10 years, I think. But it's always exciting to see a big room full of people watching your film. The rest of it, though... I don't get terribly exhilarated any more. I know a little bit more to try to be responsible in what I say, and I try to help the film get seen and discussed in the appropriate way. But it's not like the heady days of my first films, where basically I had no idea what the hell was going on -- I really didn't know the industry was about or what any of these film festivals were about.

Well, in a lot of ways, you and the industry had that in common.

Yeah. We were all completely lost. It was fun.

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