Preston Barta // Contributing Writer
NED RIFLE marks the closing chapter of writer-director Hal Hartley’s Grim family saga. The story has taken nearly 20 years to tell, kicking off with the Cannes prize-winning HENRY FOOL (1997), continued with FAY GRIM (2006), and now capped off in NED RIFLE.
This trilogy chronicles the life of Henry Fool (Thomas Jay Ryan) and those unfortunate enough to cross his path. However, this particular story focuses more on Henry’s son, Ned (Liam Aiken), who embarks on a mission to track down his father and kill him for ruining his mother’s life– respectively played by Parker Posey. But when a sexy superfan (Aubrey Plaza) of Henry enters, things get stirred up.
NED RIFLE is holding its regional premiere at SXSW in Austin, TX, on Friday. But before you make the trip to the capital, read our interview with Hartley, where we discuss his conclusion, how each chapter functions as its own film, and his process for continuing the Grim family arc.
Are thrilled about bringing your closing chapter to SXSW?
Hal Hartley: “I am. I’ve never been to Austin and to this festival. I know all about the festival, and it just seemed like this was the best place for it to receive its premiere.”
Where did the other chapters in your trilogy premiere?
H. Hartley: “HENRY FOOL won best screenplay at Cannes in 1998, I believe. And FAY GRIM, I believe it was Berlin and Sundance.”
I imagine there are going to be some audience members who are unfamiliar with HENRY FOOL and FAY GRIM before seeing this. Will that effect their viewing experience? Or, does each chapter function as its own film to you?
H. Hartley: “No, I actually try to downplay the whole trilogy thing, personally [Laughs]. Each film is designed to sell by itself. The three films aren’t really so much sequels; they are three totally separate stories that involve the same family, the Grim family. So yeah, I think people who see this for the first time will be just fine.
People who saw the second one, FAY GRIM, didn’t really know about HENRY FOOL. I get a lot of fan mail about that. They’ll say, ‘Wow! I saw FAY GRIM and got excited after learning that there’s HENRY FOOL. It’s exciting for people that way, too. So that was encouraging.”
What was the deciding factor for continuing this family’s arc through these three films?
H. Hartley: “Well, at first, I wanted to make another film with Parker Posey. I talked with her about different stories and things that I had written, but then we both had to admit that the character of Fay in HENRY FOOL was a tremendous character to revisit. That’s when I began thinking about more films.
Like I said, I wanted to think of these less as sequels and more as their own films. I made FAY GRIM almost 10 years after making HENRY FOOL. At that time, I think I was working a different way and was interested in different things about filmmaking and different subject matter, but I did think that this Grim family was something exciting to explore. That’s how it really started. But I knew if I made a second chapter that I would make another; I tend to think in threes [Laughs].
Was that the fun part– to explore them, think about what they’ve been up to and how they’ve changed?
H. Hartley: “Yeah, that is essential to it. I didn’t want to disguise the fact that it had been 10 years and these people are different. The actors came on set of FAY GRIM and NED RIFLE and they hadn’t seen each other in years. Some would say, ‘Ah, you don’t look any different.’ But when you make the film they say, ‘Wow! You do look different.’ That was something that I was aware of as a filmmaker. I mean, the most obvious change was Liam Aiken. He was seven in the first one and now he’s 24. I wanted that to be obvious with the other characters, too.
What sort of obstacles did you hit after bringing these characters back after so many years?
H. Hartley: “There weren’t too many obstacles actually. They all liked this idea of revisiting these characters, and I think that’s probably where the germ of the idea started. When we were shooting HENRY FOOL, we were having such a great time. I had so many ideas and I was writing all the time. I remember saying, ‘Well, we’ll save that for another story,’ all the time [Laughs]. At the time, I wasn’t being serious, but after awhile it really became the case.”
Did you reach out to the actors at all during the writing process to get their input on certain things?
H. Hartley: “No, there wasn’t really too much of that. I mean, I would tell them what I was thinking and feeling. During this one, especially, because I don’t spend a lot of time with Liam. We do have a close acquaintance, but I have gone more than three or four years without hearing from him. I was getting closer to finishing the script and figuring out what it was about; I wanted to hang out with him for a little bit to see what he was like now. He happily responded to the whole religious aspect of his character. That cracked up Parker and Tom. I was like, ‘Yeah. Ned grows up to be a Christian.’ That cracked them up because it’s pretty unlikely that it would happen after everything. While it was unlikely, I found it to be a strong. I think I hit something that people Liam’s age are going through– those people in their 20s who are trying to find this spirituality for themselves. It’s something that is foreign to me, personally, but it’s something I wanted to treat with respect.”
You did the music for the film as well. Is music something that you’ve doing since you began your film career?
H. Hartley: “Yeah. When I was a kid I made music, but I didn’t pursue. I went to art school, and it was at art school that I discovered filmmaking. I didn’t really make much music until after I got out of school and started making films. It was kind of small music– sounds and things of that nature. But as the years have gone on, I worked with other musicians and producers, so I was always learning more and more through the experience of filmmaking. I became friendly with musicians and became more confident in my composing and playing.”
You talked earlier about how each of these films work as their own. You have so many great side characters in all of your films. Are there any other characters that you would love to explore and see what they’ve been up to after all these years?
H. Hartley: “Yeah, it’s an interesting question. After I made TRUST in 1990, which is still one of my more popular films, I wondered what they were up to 10 years later. Yeah, it happens. You grow inside a character after you spend so many months or years writing about them and figuring out who they are. Making one movie means you have to limit yourself to one story, but there are lots of things those characters could be capable of.”
Have you ever considered a television series?
H. Hartley: “Oh yeah! All the time. I am trying to put all my energy into developing a television series. Yeah, it excites me very much.”
And lastly, if you teach a college course of your creation, what would you teach?
H. Hartley: “It’s about making. I mean, I have taught college level courses before in filmmaking. I don’t really care how good of a film you make or what it is about– anything you do you need to know how to make, how to work and how to take your tastes and sensibilities and turn them into practical activity. That’s how I’ve taught it, and I don’t think I would change it. I would do it the same way.”
NED RIFLE screens at the Vimeo Theater at SXSW on Friday, Mar. 13 at 5:30. It also screens on Wednesday, Mar. 18 and Friday, Mar. 20. All information on tickets/badges can be found on sxsw.com/film.