The acclaimed indie director talks with us ahead of the film’s September 28 screening at UW Cinematheque.
The current landscape of American independent cinema might look a lot different without the contributions writer-director Hal Hartley made in the late 1980s and ’90s. While the native New Yorker is not as much of a household name as Linklater, Soderbergh, or Gus Van Sant, Hartley’s prolific, tenacious output is undeniable, as is the distinctively theatrical dialogue of features like The Unbelievable Truth (1989), Trust (1990), and Simple Men (1992).
As the central part of this “Long Island Trilogy,” Trust is most enduring for the defiant, vulnerable, humorous, and altogether thrilling performance by Adrienne Shelly as its troubled central teenager, Maria Coughlin, who is physically and psychologically transformed throughout the narrative. With consistently wry observations and elegaically deadpan tone, Trust directly confronts familial dysfunction, death, abortion, divorce, suicide, and the constant emotional desperation of not only Maria but also of Matthew Slaughter (Martin Donovan)—an intimidating, restless soul who finds a kindred spirit in Maria as he learns about the ongoing and suddenly new strains in her home life involving her mother (Rebecca Nelson). Yet, against fateful odds, a certain tenderness prevails between Maria and Matthew, and Hartley lends an attentive gravity to each gesture and stinging inquiry. Even in the film’s quirky iconoclastic turns that seem indebted to the French New Wave, audiences are led to a realization that, even in life’s inevitably defeating march on, Hartley’s characters never slip from memory and idealistically persevere.
The Chicago Film Society recently commissioned a new 35mm print of Trust, and it will be screening on September 28 at Vilas Hall as part of UW Cinematheque’s fall collaborative series with CFS. Ahead of the screening, Hartley spoke with Tone Madison via email. He discussed his sensibilities and writing process, how (some) audience members reacted to the film’s premiere at TIFF nearly 30 years ago, what he hopes younger audiences take away from the film today, the revitalizing effects of crowdsourcing, the challenges of writing for television and streaming, and his recent foray into publishing. Hartley will not be at the screening in-person, but CFS co-founders Julian Antos and Becca Hall will be visiting to introduce Trust.
(Editor’s note: Extra special thanks to Possible Films. Interview contains major spoilers for Trust.)
Tone Madison: I’d like to start by asking about the casting process for the film, in particular Adrienne Shelly as Maria Coughlin. She delivers such a defiant and memorable performance in your debut feature, The Unbelievable Truth (1989), which carries into Trust the following year, as if Audry and Maria are sister characters. Did you have her specifically in mind when you wrote the screenplay for Trust?
Hal Hartley: No, I did not have Adrienne in mind when I first wrote Trust. In fact, a fully fleshed out version of Trust existed before I wrote and shot The Unbelievable Truth. When editing the first feature, I decided to show her the script for Trust. She and I agreed Maria in Trust was a more demanding role. But I was confident she could do it.
Tone Madison: What do you remember most about working with Adrienne on Trust? In the archival interview on the “Long Island Trilogy” Blu-ray set, she talks about how the feature was the hardest she ever had to work on. Unfortunately, it was in part due to an illness that was initially misdiagnosed, but I feel like she’s also speaking to the demands of the character of Maria, who goes through such a complex transformation (both internal and aesthetic) from the first frame to the last. How did the shooting experience change your future working relationship with Adrienne?
Hal Hartley: I pushed Adrienne pretty hard on Trust. I didn’t have the time or resources to wait for her to really understand and appreciate the dramatic, emotional, aesthetic pitch I was after. She picked it up as we went along. Adrienne would have said her natural inclination was toward broader comedy—which, in fact, is where she went in her own writing and filmmaking. But so much about her manner, her looks and her intelligence (which I could observe thoroughly while editing The Unbelievable Truth) convinced me she would be very moving as Maria.
Tone Madison: Did you end up personally consulting Adrienne in any way on developing her own sensibility and filmmaking style, like with her feature debut, Sudden Manhattan (1996)?
Hal Hartley: Only to the extent that, like other people, I was telling her to allow herself to be funny. My favorite scene in Sudden Manhattan has her walking down the street trying to be happy and positive or something—and people think she’s insane! It’s kind of hilarious.
Tone Madison: My friend and filmmaker Brandon Colvin initially turned me on to your work when I was co-writing a screenplay in 2014 and 2015 that included a lot of surreal, elliptical questioning in its dialogue. He recommended your early work, likely thinking of that famous “I know what you need” scene in The Unbelievable Truth with Edie and Robert. The Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award-winning dialogue in Trust is perhaps even more brilliant and vivid to me, maybe because I recognize how it’s tethered to darker subject matter. Through the narrative’s course… familial dysfunction, premature death, abortion, divorce, suicide, and constant emotional desperation. It’s as contemplative as it is theatrically comedic somehow… a deadpan elegy. Did you model the style of dialogue-writing directly off your first feature, The Unbelievable Truth?
Hal Hartley: No, in fact, Trust was written a couple of years before I wrote The Unbelievable Truth—maybe as early as 1986. I did a thorough rewrite while editing The Unbelievable Truth, when I decided I wanted to have Adrienne read it. But the way I approached dialogue in both might have been driven by my immersion in, first, the farces of Moliere which I re-read closely in 1987, and, in another way, by Peter Brook’s film of his staging of Peter Weiss’ play Marat/Sade (1967). On the other hand, TV shows like M.A.S.H (1972-1983) and The Mary Tyler Moore Show (1970-1977) influenced me in terms of verbal comedy…
Tone Madison: How do you remember audiences responding to your portrayal of the abortion thread in the film 28 or 29 years ago, particularly the scene where Maria, her sister Peg (Edie Falco), and Peg’s friend candidly discuss their relationships with men— married life, bearing children, and abortion? Have you watched it recently with an audience or by yourself? And if you have, how has your feeling about the film changed or stayed the same with regard to social culture?
Hal Hartley: There was considerable push-back at the time regarding abortion in particular. After the premiere at the Toronto Film Festival, where it was very positively received, a woman did stand up and say the film was hateful toward women. Adrienne and I were both baffled by this, as we thought of the film as very loudly a celebration of female autonomy, generosity, and a takedown of male patriarchal habits generally. And despite its warm reception at Toronto, Sundance and elsewhere, distributors waited quite a while to make offers. Recently, a college in a right-leaning state chose to show most of my most popular films—except Trust. That was clearly a choice to avoid controversy.
Tone Madison: If you could provide a short introduction to a younger audience watching Trust today, what would you especially highlight or say?
Hal Hartley: A lot of us are raised to accept fucked-up values as normal. Sometimes a personal crisis makes you see things differently. Having yourself reduced to zero, you might find yourself capable of a generosity, selflessness, and bravery you didn’t know you were capable of.
Tone Madison: To continue on the topic of writing, are you familiar with teleplay and screenwriter John Enbom? Some of the dialogue’s hilarious, back-and-forth semantics and wordplay (like the recurring distinctions between getting fired and quitting, “soda keeps my skin clear,” and “dangerous but sincere” exchanges) remind me of Enbom’s style of writing on recent shows like Party Down (2009-2010). I know you’ve directed a number of episodes in a couple tv series this decade, the socially conscious monologue-driven My America (2012) and the more coming-of-age sitcom-like Red Oaks (2015-2017), but have you ever had any interest in writing for television or streaming? Or, back then, did you perhaps share in Matthew (Martin Donovan)’s view that “television is the opiate of the masses?” I’m also curious to know if you ever thought about casting yourself in Trust, too, maybe as Matthew or another character.
Hal Hartley: No, I don’t know Enbom. I have written one complete 10-part TV series that was optioned by Amazon for a year and a half. But nothing came of it. It is called Our Lady Of The Highway and is about a lovely gang of radical activist Catholic nuns in a cloistered convent in Brooklyn who start to brew craft beer to support themselves. I’ve developed two others but have lost the interest in dealing with corporate bodies. I’m not ruling out the possibility of some radically inspired corporate gatekeeper suddenly desiring a Hal Hartley product. But I’m focused on a way of working that is more satisfying and meaningful: financing my work by pre-selling DVDs and Blu-rays of it to my worldwide audience base through crowdsourcing. Manufactured filmed entertainment for the masses still seems to me to be, largely, a narcotic. And, no, I never would have put myself in a film if I could avoid it. (In Flirt a few years later, I could not avoid it.) I’m not an actor.
Tone Madison: After watching the film myself a couple times recently, I’ve really taken in (and relate to) Maria and Matthew’s idealism and the impulses that drive them into extreme situations. There’s quite a bit in this film that addresses the selfishness and entitlement of men as well as the domineering role of parents. This is perhaps what leads Maria to get an abortion—seeing how her meathead jock boyfriend Anthony (Gary Sauer) treats her and how Matthew’s hyperbolically stern father Jim (John MacKay) treats him, and how Maria’s own oppressive mother Jean (Rebecca Nelson) intends to keep her captive in her own house. Was there a particular experience in your own life at the time that led you to side with a more empathetic, female perspective in Trust? Or was it more inspired by something else—a story, another film, or piece of art you were exploring?
Hal Hartley: Well, I liked women. And I always had before me examples of intelligent, autonomous and attractive females. But I think these films are also try to deconstruct received notions of masculinity—and that involves considering how a man respects a woman. I thought that was what was called feminism. And for me it seemed like the only thing worth talking about. Yes, there was a personal source: a girl I dated in college and whom I cared for greatly became pregnant and she decided to have an abortion. The scenes at the clinic in Trust are drawn specifically from that experience.
Tone Madison: Your films often contain certain literary easter eggs, including Trust, which has a couple texts—”Information Theory” by Henry Foole and “Man And The Universe” by Ned Rifle (one of your own pseudonyms). Both author names eventually became the basis for a forthcoming trilogy that concluded with Ned Rifle a handful of years ago. I’m just curious to know how this sort of thing started with the pen names or noms de plume. Had you mapped out a potential Hartley Cinematic Universe (HCU) by the early 1990s?
Hal Hartley: I never throw anything away. A cool character name gets written down and I use it where I can. It’s the same with dramatic situations or comic gags. If I can’t fit them in to the current piece, I’ll save it till I can use it elsewhere.
Tone Madison: Did you work closely or at all with the Chicago Film Society for this 35mm restoration that is screening at UW Cinematheque? If not, you could talk about restoring your films over the last several years with Possible Films, and how that has gone overall? Have you learned or uncovered anything new in these films, particularly in Trust or The Unbelievable Truth, in that process?
Hal Hartley: No, I let Julian Antos and his associates at the Chicago Film Society oversee the whole 35mm printing project. I’ve focused on restoring this film—and others—to HD and distributing all of them on Blu-ray and DVD around the world. The biggest work we do is coordinating the subtitling in five languages, authoring the discs and designing the packaging. For me, nothing new about the films has been uncovered. I recognize what I was getting at and why I was getting at it that way. But I am pleasantly startled by the single-mindedness of my efforts back then.
Tone Madison: Finally, as we head into the 2020s, what sort of loose ambitions do you have as a writer or director? Are you hoping to work more in television/streaming, return to indie features, or do you hope to work more in short film/video documentary? (You’re always welcome to visit and shoot in Madison.)
Hal Hartley: I hope to finance a new film this winter through a new Kickstarter crowdsourcing campaign and to be shooting in April. So I guess that is a continuation of my indie feature vocation. I doubt I’ll have the opportunity to make my own episodic television show. The landscape of the business has changed drastically recently. And I lack the specific kind of energy needed to endure corporate conference calls. I think about writing novels and am starting a small publishing company.
Tone Madison: What’s the name of the company? And what specifically are you looking to publish?
Hal Hartley: The Elboro Press. Or simply Elboro. It doesn’t really mean anything. I wanted to call the press Elbow but that was taken. So now it’s like “The Neighborhood.” To start with, we just want to get my produced screenplays and related unproduced work published in attractive, inexpensive paperbacks. The Interviews Etcetera book is our first title. The new volume of Surviving Desire (& Company) scripts is next. But since we’re learning a lot about making books, we’re starting to look beyond this to what we can do in the future. I’m imagining sticking close to scripts, plays, poetry and arts-related memoir.