exchange: Hal Hartley & Joe Maggio
Hal Hartley’s latest film, The Girl From Monday, premiered at Sundance last month. Milk + Honey, the second film by Brooklyn’s Joe Maggio, premiered at Sundance last year and will open at the Quad on March 18. Hartley composed the score for Milk + Honey. Maggio recently sat down with Hartley at the latter’s apartment in the West Village.
Joe Maggio: So I watched The Girl From Monday. One of the things I love is this notion that desire has become commodified in some way. I think it’s a continuation of things we’ve seen in your earlier films, but here it’s taken to a new level.
Hal Hartley: It is funny. In Berlin last month I saw The Unbelievable Truth. I hadn’t seen that film for maybe seven or eight years. I was really surprised how consistent my angst is! When I made The Unbelievable Truth I wasn’t quite as well read in terms of contemporary politics or economics and those types of things. I was just shooting from the hip, just a young person who thought, “Boy, money really does drive the world, doesn’t it?” The Girl From Monday is one of the films of mine where I’m beginning to see that when I make feature-length films, sometimes I make ones that are more like novels, like Henry Fool, or the upcoming Fay Grim. And then there’s The Book of Life, The Girl from Monday, you know—I conceive of them a bit differently. I don’t think of them as simply character-driven.
Maggio: More like meditations?
Hartley: Yeah. Kind of rants [laughs].
Maggio: The Girl from Monday reminded me a lot of Godard’s Alphaville. Was that an inspiration?
Hartley: Oh, totally. The Girl From Monday, Alphaville, Fahrenheit 451, even Roeg’s The Man Who Fell to Earth was there.
Maggio: It carries on this whole idea that you touch on in No Such Thing, that somehow nature has been corrupted by this hypercivilization where people are trying to become so civilized that…
Hartley: Well, not civilized. So informed. They get very excited about their ability to acquire and transmit more and more information, regardless of whether the information is of any value. I don’t think I could have even said that five or six years ago, certainly not before I made The Unbelievable Truth.
Maggio: Have you read Neil Postman’s Technopoly?
Hartley: I haven’t.
Maggio: He traces this problem of information overload back to the telegraph, where suddenly a two-headed calf being born in Texas becomes news in Bangor, Maine, simply because it can. Even though this information has no bearing on what is happening in Bangor, Maine. News exists simply because the technology exists to facilitate the quick and easy flow of information.
Hartley: How does that play into Milk + Honey? [Laughs.]
Maggio: I don’t know.
Hartley: I like it when Joyce’s cell phone just won’t work when she’s trying to call her husband.
Maggio: A lot of reviewers comment that Milk + Honey has the feel of early Hal Hartley films. At first I thought that they were just responding to your score, but then I started thinking about it, and I realized that Rick and Joyce’s predicament is so similar to the predicaments in your films. In Milk + Honey you have these two people who are trying to redeem their lives, which have been corrupted by rampant materialism. They desperately want to get back to some sort of innocence, but neither one of them knows where to begin, which I think accurately describes several of your scenarios, from Trust to Simple Men and Amateur.
Hartley: Well, it seems like Rick and Joyce have become alienated from everything that might have drawn them together in the first place. Another thing I like about Milk + Honey is that the narrative continuously surprises us as it goes along.
Maggio: Yeah, we tried to set it up so that every scene would begin with very specific expectations that are then quickly subverted. So in the opening scene, where Rick re-proposes to Joyce and she rejects him in front of all their best friends and colleagues—you really feel bad for him. Joyce seems pretty cold-blooded. But in the very next scene, Rick shows up at the apartment of his girlfriend, whom he broke up with just a few hours earlier because he thought he wanted to repair things with Joyce! Suddenly Rick doesn’t seem so innocent.
Hartley: By the end, everybody has been totally stripped, emotionally and literally. Joyce even loses a shoe, doesn’t she? [Laughs.]
Maggio: I’d like to address this marked shift in tone, style, and content from your early work to more recent films like No Such Thing and The Girl From Monday. Early on, you had so much dialogue and not a lot of music. It was almost like the dialogue was the music. There was a rhythm to the way people spoke. But in The Girl From Monday it seems like there is music during almost every second of the film, and the dialogue is kept to a minimum.
Hartley: It’s true. From the time of my second feature, The Unbelievable Truth, I kept telling myself, “Okay, we’ve got to stop this dialogue thing. I don’t want to keep writing these dialogue-driven things!” “Dialogue as action” is what I called it at the time, and it was good. I like doing it, but I also felt that my filmmaking wasn’t going to change and grow the way it should if I kept doing it. Flirt was my first major attempt to break away from all that.
Maggio: You had a good thing going. Why change? [Laughs.]
Hartley: Yeah, I know. This is what I’ve always been trying to explain to my brother-in-law, for instance. He’s always like, “Why don’t you make films that people like, man?” [Laughs.] “That’s your problem.” That is my problem, but the main thing for me is using my work to grow as a human being. To learn and to grow. The work has to change because I’m not interested in being a person who has a particular skill that I use to produce anticipated product for a known market.
Maggio: That’s very nicely put.
Hartley: I’ve been thinking about it a long time [laughs]. You know, you change and you grow, and you have to go where the work points. This is what makes it really hard because it’s not just about the difficulty of raising money to make the films. It’s the difficulty of enduring when people don’t like your work. It’s tough to wake up in the morning and read the paper and people say, “He’s untalented and uninteresting and basically a bad person.”
Hartley: I’m sure you’ve had those experiences too.
Maggio: I’ve read reviews of Virgil Bliss and Milk + Honey that were so mean and so personal, it’s as if the reviewer had overheard me saying nasty things about his or her mother.
Hartley: You have to get past that. Anyway, since the late ’90s I’ve been thinking about this way of making films where I ask: Why should the picture always take priority? We usually write a script, we film that script, and then we cut it together, and then we think of the sound and everything. I’ve always been intrigued with the idea of reversing it. Could I make a movie where I make the entire soundtrack first? I write the script, we record the dialogue, we do the sound effects and the music, everything. We make this 90-minute audio thing and then, having that, we think: Let’s make pictures of this now.
Maggio: Was there a script for The Girl From Monday?
Hartley: Yeah, but it was a little different than a more traditional film. I let the actors hear the music all the time while we were preparing and while we were shooting. What I wanted to do was get away from this idea that we were just photographing the theatrical idea of a play. I mean, there’s a script, there are characters, these people are going to play these characters, and I’m going to make the best shot I can of their performances. I’m trying to wrench myself out of that way of thinking. I want to deny that. I want to come at it from a totally different way, but it’s very hard. I keep falling back into the habit of thinking that movie stories have more to do with theater or naturalistic playing than with, say, graphic design or music. Music has been really helpful to me. It’s forced me to think differently about how I’m looking at a scene, how I’m rendering a scene. Graphic design has also been a huge consideration. I remember making The Book of Life, which has a lot in common with the way I made The Girl From Monday. With Henry Fool I felt like a novelist. With The Book of Life I was like a magazine editor, cutting and pasting and putting interesting things next to each other to hopefully give somebody an interesting experience as they flip through this magazine. Maybe The Girl From Monday is a movie that will be unsatisfying for a lot of people if they just want a linear experience. Actually, I don’t think I should say that. I don’t think The Girl From Monday is a difficult, obscure movie. I think it’s quite accessible, but it throws information at you in a way that people may be unaccustomed to, so it feels much more difficult to grasp. But the idea of a film that would be pleasurable to watch four or five or six times over the course of a year. I mean, that excites me too.
Maggio: I think that’s asking too much.
Maggio: No, no [laughs].
Hartley: I don’t know. I learned early in my career that you have to let the audience know how to take a movie right in the first seconds.
Maggio: It’s funny you say that because with Milk + Honey, which I think is really, really funny—or at least I hope it’s funny—it seems like audiences are often not sure whether it’s okay to laugh. When it premiered at Sundance, I introduced the film as a comedy, and people were laughing from start to finish. For some reason, I forgot to mention this before the second screening, and it took 45 minutes before people felt comfortable enough to laugh.
Hartley: I guess it’s a genre that we’re very close to in a film like Milk + Honey. Something that is very popular right now: Is this documentary or is this fiction? One of the things that’s exciting about this dynamic and this ambiguity is exactly one of the things we recognize. Is this really happening? Or am I supposed to be seeing what that guy is doing? Is that character ever going to know? Is it ever going to amount to some sort of…? That’s the excitement of this kind of film. Although I think after seeing Milk + Honey a number of times, I realized that it is in fact very classically structured. It’s an old-fashioned melodrama in the best sense. Its stylistics are very—what would you call them—documentary, docudrama?
Maggio: I’m not sure. Aesthetically, I wanted Milk + Honey to unfold as a series of narrative shocks. I mean, it’s a fairly straightforward story. There are characters we can easily recognize, with clear-cut goals and ambitions and needs. But at the end of every scene, instead of proceeding to the point where you think the narrative should go, it darts off in some unforeseen direction. This is the exact opposite of what I was trying to do in Virgil Bliss. In that film, we know from the beginning what’s going to happen to Virgil. We come to love him, but we know that despite his best intentions, he’s not going to succeed in living a normal life, and sooner or later he’s going to end up back in prison. The drama springs from this tragic certainty. In Milk + Honey, the exact opposite is the case. The drama springs from constant uncertainty. Just when we think Rick and Joyce have achieved some kind of peace or perspective, that they’re going to go home and work things out, something else pops up, some coincidence or chance encounter drives them further apart. It’s something you could never do in a more mainstream, Hollywood film where the goal is to constantly ground and reassure the audience. I wanted to tell a story where the stakes feel as real as possible and you never know if the hero and heroine are going to make it. If I’d cast George Clooney or Julia Roberts in the leads, you’d never really feel that their lives or their sanity were in danger because everyone knows there’s no way the producers would allow the stars to be killed off before the end of the film! Sure, they can dangle from a cliff by a blade of grass, but somewhere in our brains we know everything’s gonna work out just fine. In a movie like Milk + Honey, we don’t know if Rick and Joyce are going to make it through the night, which is what life is all about after all.
Hartley: I don’t know how old you are, but one thing that stuck out when I first saw Milk + Honey was that it felt very mature to me. I was like, wow, he’s making a movie about early middle age.
Maggio: In writing the script I worked very closely with Clint Jordan, who plays Rick Johnson. We’re still young, but between us I think we had enough years of awful relationship experience to make 10 movies! That said, I think the central conflict in Milk + Honey applies to people of all ages, and that’s this question of choice. In a world of unlimited choice, how can we find any permanence or stability? What can we hold on to? Rick and Joyce Johnson are still relatively young, good looking, financially very well off, professionally successful, socially well connected. Their marriage is in a shambles. They’ve done everything humanly possible to destroy it and hurt one another. So why the hell don’t they just call it quits?
Maggio: Well, I guess that’s the story. After this harrowing night apart, I think they come to realize that despite all the grief and pain, there might be something worth salvaging. You can’t be married to someone for 10 years—that’s how long they’ve been together—and not develop some real and lasting bonds.
Hartley: It’s just easier to have somebody who likes you who will put up with your stupidity [laughs].
For more on The Girl From Monday, go to www.possiblefilms.com.
For more on Milk + Honey, see www.wellspring.com.