Eighteen years after "Henry Fool" and eight years after "Fay Grimm," indie filmmaker Hal Hartley completes his bizarre, touching family drama trilogy with "Ned Rifle," wrapping up the saga of reprobate writer Henry (Thomas Jay Ryan), waitress turned convict Fay (Parker Posey) and young Ned (Liam Aiken). Hartley turned to Kickstarter and his loyal fans to fund the project since, as he laments, our culture doesn't know how to support the arts.
You've actually been using the name Ned Rifle as a pseudonym for a while. How did that come about?
I had an Uncle Ned on my mom's side of the family who lived in Brooklyn. I didn't know him too well, but everyone always referred to Uncle Ned. I think he helped get my father and my uncles into the ironworkers union. It's a name I came up with in college, just like Henry Fool, for a totally different story. We had a lot of writing classes in my film school, meant to sharpen our skills. There were only about 14 students in this one class and we were all always trying to crack each other up. The first time I used the name Ned Rifle in one of my assignments everybody cracked up, and so I just started using it for every assignment and it stuck. Once I started making movies professionally, I'd been contributing a lot of the music and at a certain point it became necessary for royalty reasons to apply a name to it. Back then I wasn't that confident about my music-making abilities, so I started registering it as being written by Ned Rifle.
You weren't trying to avoid being one of those filmmakers with a slew of credits on a movie?
I never had a problem with that. I guess, because that's not how I introduce myself. I don't say, "I'm a writer-director-producer-composer-editor." I'm just a filmmaker, and a filmmaker should know how to do all of it. That's how we were trained in school. Different parts of it weren't so specialized.
How do you compare your early filmmaking days to now, especially with the advent of crowdfunding and digital filmmaking?
Well, it has definitely evolved, and in ways that were unforeseen. But I should start out by saying that when I made "The Unbelievable Truth" and "Trust" in 1988 and 1990, nobody I knew used the word "indie" or "independent filmmaking." We were all just filmmakers or wanted to be filmmakers. That being said, in my own case I knew that my ambitions were to make films that were not geared to the mainstream. In fact, I was kind of surprised when "The Unbelievable Truth" and "Trust" got the notoriety that they did — happily surprised, but still, wow. (laughs) So I got lucky there because those weren't very expensive films to make, but it was still hard. It was important that we were physically young and resilient. And so now everything's changed. Really, the economy has changed, and things like Kickstarter and have introduced a viable alternative to speculative capital, particularly in regards to the arts. For me, it was hard to exist in the commercial world and it was impossible to exist in the arts and culture, grants kind of world, and that was kind of f—ed up, that it was this black and white thing. But I was just somewhere in the middle. But with crowdsourcing, luckily I have 25 years of a fan base built up. It's viable for me to just go to the people I know are going to want to see the work and say, "If you'll trust me for about a year, I'll get you the work." So it's really exciting.
It's reassuring to see that system working for you.
It's weird, but the only way our western culture can deal with … it's kind of socialist. Like, we won't allow ourselves just to be sensible and decide all of us get taxed 15 cents more a month and it goes into this thing so that there can be arts. They won't do that because of, you know, the Red Peril. So crowdsourcing seems to be a private enterprise approach to spreading the wealth. I met terrific people — who are really a core group of people now for me — who want to give to the arts but have a hard time sifting through it all. And things like Kickstarter and Indiegogo, they present a great place for those people to go.
You've been very careful to keep the same actors in the roles across all of these films, including Liam Aiken, who was just a kid in "Henry Fool."
It wouldn't have worked without him. I guess I could've re-cast, but before I started raising the money for "Fay Grimm," while it was being written, I came back to New York to take him out for coffee — because he was 16 or 17 — and I just wanted to see, get a read on what his future plans were. And he was wishy-washy, as 16-year-olds will be. "I don't know, maybe I'll make a big film, I'd like to direct." But as far as I was concerned, reading him after 20-odd years of making films, I was like, "No, he's going to be an actor. He's got charisma." We were at this place and all these girls from NYU were falling all over him. So we made "Fay Grimm," and then I didn't see him for another four years after that, but he just grew up to be the kind of actor that I like working with. It's a miracle.