Hal Hartley: Forgotten Filmmaker

In 1988, Hal Hartley burst onto the independent film scene with his debut film, THE UNBELIEVABLE TRUTH. It got nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance and received great reviews and critical acclaim all around.

Hartley would prove to be no one-hit wonder. He would follow up with films that would compete at Cannes, Berlin, Tokyo and other major film festivals around the world. Often, they would win.

His films were smart, dark and had deadpan comedy down to a “t.” Think Wes Anderson’s ROYAL TENENBAUMS but with even drier, darker, humor. He would go on to work with international superstars like Helen Mirren, Isabella Huppert and P.J. Harvey.

And then he faded away.

Hartley didn’t die. He didn’t retire from filmmaking. The truth is more cruel. After over a decade of success, there came a time when he simply couldn’t get his movies made any longer.

This wasn’t because his films became too expensive. In fact, with the establishment of digital technology, they got considerably cheaper. His film NED RIFLE, made in 2014, cost under $400,000 to make. Something which did not stop it from featuring at the Berlin, Toronto and SXSW film festivals.

So, what happened? Hard to say which of many possible factors put an end to his run. But Hartley was not alone in this trend by any stretch. As the New York Times published way back in 2006, he is part of an entire generation of once heralded indie filmmakers driven into obscurity.

The TIMES article stretches its credibility slightly by insinuating that a director named Jon Jost was on the same level as Hal Hartley or Mary Harron. Jost was always on the very, very fringes, even in his hay-day. However, the article still makes for a tragic warning on why no one in their right mind should ever want to be an independent filmmaker. Ever.

At the time of this writing, Hartley is attempting to raise $300,000 on kickstarter. He’s trying to make a new feature called WHERE TO LAND. Last time I checked, he was having a tough time raising even that much.

I know what you’re thinking. Maybe Hal Hartley just sucks. Maybe nobody wanted to watch his crap anymore and they finally got wise. And the thing is, you would be right. But only a little.

It’s clear that Hartley. was never the sort of filmmaker that appealed to everyone to begin with. To make matters worse, his films got a little less fun with every release. Not horribly so. But they did lose some of the pure joy and insanity of the early ones. So, this is what I suggest. Judge for yourself.

Start with his first film, THE UNBELIEVABLE TRUTH, or his second, TRUST. These two, along with SIMPLE MEN, make up what’s called “The Long Island Trilogy.”

THE UNBELIEVABLE TRUTH is the story of a young girl and an ex-con who moves into the neighborhood. TRUST is a romantic comedy, of sorts, featuring a young woman and the troubled man who she falls for. Both are smart, funny and distinctly Hartley.

I should mention that the female lead in those two films was played by an actress named Adrienne Shelly. Shelly would go on to become a Hartley regular as well as a budding indie filmmaker herself. She was quirky, beautiful and talented.

However, Shelly would become famous for a far more terrible reason. in 2006, she was murdered in her own apartment. She was found hanging in her shower in what first appeared to be a suicide. Eventually, a construction worker, who had been working nearby, confessed to her murder and trying to cover it up.

The grizzly episode captured the attention of the NY news media. It also was the basis for a LAW AND ORDER episode. Sadly, it’s also what many people will remember Shelly for instead of what a gifted and unique talent she was.

If you have the time, go watch UNBELIEVABLE TRUTH or TRUST. And the next time you think how great it would be to be some auteur film director, remember people like Hal Hartley and the price they paid to do just that.