Director Hal Hartley discusses the legacy of his 1990s indie masterpieces
His early films Amateur, The Unbelievable Truth and Simple Men are set for DVD and Blu-ray release
To those who recognise it, the influence of Hal Hartley can be discerned in the work of many a current filmmaker who came to maturity in the 90s, from mainstream comedies through arty Oscar-baiters to the indiest of hipster indies. Though Hartley is too modest to take much credit, he does concede that, ‘when I see work by certain filmmakers I do sometimes feel this kind of simpatico thing … I think we all get encouragement from each other.’
Hartley’s particular thing – which many will have a new chance to fall in love with now that his early films Amateur, The Unbelievable Truth and Simple Men are getting a DVD and Blu-ray re-release – comprises deadpan wit, careful visual compositions and a sharp eye for the confusions and compromises of life. Early praise soured somewhat as critics fell out with his work in the late 90s, but this most affable and open-minded of indie icons remains appreciative, not least of the current opportunity to have his own work re-examined.
‘What’s most fun is when I manage to hit this cross-section of established fans and new viewers,’ he says. ‘It happens at festivals that present retrospectives of my films. They did one of these a few years ago in Poland and it was the most exciting conversation I’d ever had with audiences. Showing the films in the order I made them didn’t occur to the programmers, so they’d have these double features: a film from 1990, another from 2000. And it was just amazing what parallels were highlighted. I myself learned a thing or two about my ongoing preoccupations and formal interests.’
One preoccupation is Hartley’s mini-stable of favoured actors. Among the most memorable of his discoveries was Adrienne Shelly, who made her debut in 1989 when he did, with The Unbelievable Truth, but whose continued career met an abrupt and tragic end when she was murdered in 2006. ‘Gratitude is the feeling I most remember in regard to Adrienne when making The Unbelievable Truth,’ says Hartley. ‘She just understood the character perfectly. And she knew what was funny and why. I’m proud that I stuck to my guns and cast her when a few suggested she was not right, not conventionally beautiful enough, too short … ’
Hartley also bucked convention as an early adopter of digital technology, which he ‘played with’, as he puts it, from the late 90s. More recently, he’s harnessed the power of the internet to crowdsource completion funding for his next project, Meanwhile. Hartley’s willingness to experiment, combined with a commitment to his own aesthetic, has made his such a peculiar, inspiring and occasionally confounding career. Old fans and new converts alike are encouraged to seize this chance to see where it all began.
Amateur is released by Artificial Eye on DVD and Blu-ray on Thu 11 May (followed by The Unbelievable Truth, Mon 27 May and Simple Men, Mon 10 Jun).