Filmmaking through Machines: Hal Hartley on TRUST

In advance of our screening of TRUST on June 10th, we exchanged some questions over email with director Hal Hartley about his early films and independent film distribution.

JA: A theme I admire in your films is a respect for people who work with their hands and do technical things. Robert Burke is a mechanic in The Unbelievable Truth, DJ Mendel fixes typewriters in Meanwhile, and Martin Donovan builds computers in Trust. I think that respect comes through in your films, which feel very carefully constructed – no loose screws or defective parts, and honest! Does working on a small budget play into this? Did you have the usual confluence of people breathing down your neck to make the film something you didn’t want it to be? How have you managed to resist the forces of capitalism?

HH: Gradually, through trial and error in my early years of writing and shooting, I began to appreciate the beauty of strong, clean gestures—in dialogue, in physical activity, in shot composition and so on. But I would have worked that way even if I were telling the story of someone totally incompetent—say like Henry Fool. I think the interest in what people do—for a living, certainly, but as a vocation too—this came from my upbringing. My father was a skilled laborer, a structural steel iron worker, as were most of my uncles. All union men. We were raised with a particular work ethic that—without being discussed much (they were not a talkative bunch)—took it for granted that doing one’s job well was the least you could do for your fellow man. As I got more and more into film and reading I gravitated to characters like that and the obstacles they encountered. It seemed to me to be the most relevant thing to make stories about.

One way or the other there are always show biz professionals whose expectations I need to address and, usually, counter. I usually countered by saying I needed half as much money. They would usually acquiesce at that point and I could go do my work in peace.

I’m not sure it’s possible to resist capitalism—or, at least, I haven’t got an option. I’m a commercial producer of non-mainstream entertainment and, as things go, I do okay. But it’s true: I don’t need much. I don’t drive. That seems to be the most significant factor when my family and I compare our relative financial needs. I have a lot more freedom of movement because I don’t have a car, cable TV, or a need for weekend vacations.

JA: There’s not much time between the release of your first feature (The Unbelievable Truth), and Trust. Were you planning both projects at the same time? How did funding come together? If IMDb is to be believed Trust cost about ten times as much as The Unbelievable Truth! Still not a lot though.

HH: Trust cost about nine times more than The Unbelievable Truth—$600,000. The first film was getting some serious festival screenings and was already picked up by Miramax and other foreign distributors when I met Scott Meek of Zenith Productions in London. I was at the London Film Festival. He read the script of Trust in an afternoon and just wanted to know if Adrienne was to be in it. Then we were in business. We made three films together—Trust, Simple Men, and Amateur.

Different versions of Trust existed in the late ’80s. But when I had the chance to make that first feature, I sat down and wrote The Unbelievable Truth the way I did because I knew I could make it for $65,000, which was all we had—it had to be that simple; a few characters, a few locations, the willingness of my extended family to put up with the “circus” again—which is what they called me and my filmmaking friends who would show up in town about once a year to make another of my strange movies. But directing Adrienne Shelly made me rewrite Trust and get it ready in case I had the opportunity to make another film.

JA: Can you talk a bit about working with Michael Spiller on your first several films? Again, the work is very careful and deliberate, and the camera feels very sympathetic to the characters.

Mike and I met at SUNY Purchase. We were classmates and friendly, but did not run with the same crowd. I admired his application to the technical aspects of our training, which were always a trial for me. I was always impatient with machines. Mike loved machines. A car, a camera, a jukebox, a cigarette lighter—machines delighted him. Semester by semester, as I became more obviously a writer and director, Mike became known as a DP. I asked him to shoot my junior year dramatic scene exercise and we became friends. And it just kept going through 1999 when we worked for the last time together on No Such Thing. (He decided to move towards directing TV.) Mike got me over my reticence with machines and showed me—as he himself learned—what a dolly could do, or a dolly and a boom—a dolly and a boom while panning!! And lenses! Exposure! The engineering of shots became my chief joy once something was written.

Trust was shot on an Arri BL. Standard issue 35mm machine back then. Noisy as hell. But solid. Once during Trust I watched as Sarah Cawley, the first AC (who would become my principal DP after Mike) took the camera apart and put it back together again to find out what was causing the noise.

JA: What was the original theatrical release of Trust like? Do you remember how long it screened? What did people make of it? If you look at the US poster, Fine Line Features was marketing it like Pretty Woman or something like that!

I don’t remember. I was busy making Surviving Desire and Simple Men when Trust was released. And I spent most of 1992 in foreign countries promoting all of these films. I wasn’t impressed with any of the distributors. They were dead set on not recognizing what Trust was. They needed it to conform to some norm that had nothing to do with it. They’d ask my opinion about posters or trailers or whatever. I’d say what I’d say and they’d complain I was a naive self indulgent bastard. The American distributor demanded I never refer to Godard or Fassbinder again in interviews. So I just shut up and made the new films. The French distributor did okay, but only because he had a smart publicist who totally got the film and talked the guy into taking it on.

JA: For a while the only thing available on Trust was a PAL DVD, but now you’ve been able to put out these great Blu-Rays and CFS was able to make some beautiful 35mm prints. Can you talk a bit about what the process has been for getting the rights and elements to your films back? Are there any that are still studio owned?

Basically, I’m the only one who has remained in business. And, luckily, I had always negotiated half-ownership of the films. So that put me in a good position to take control of them when everyone else dissolved. But in the US, for Trust, I had to wait for the existing license granted to Republic Pictures, and subsequently bequeathed to Paramount, expired. They had no interest in monetizing it.

Only Fay Grim and No Such Thing are owned and controlled by other companies. But with Fay Grim I’ve been able to gain control over sales on behalf of myself and the owner. I’ll try the same thing with No Such Thing. But it can take years to work through the corporate bureaucracy.

I was paying attention as digital technology and the internet evolved. I know it means different things for different people, but for me globalization means I can manufacture and distribute my work directly to the people who want to see it without the imposition of costly intermediaries. I’ve got a small but sustainable business being a maker of art films.

JA: Did you envision eventually owning the rights to your films and distributing yourself or is this something you’ve become more interested in recently?


No—I didn’t see it coming back in the early days. But I learned that from Spiller: everything we do as filmmakers, no matter how artistic, is through machines. And when I met Kyle Gilman, who would become my editor for many projects, he too trained me to see how everything was becoming computer based—virtual machines. So I’m constantly learning new technologies so that, recently, I can preserve and monetize my old films. It’s wild.

Trust screens on June 10th at the Music Box Theatre in a new 35mm print commissioned by CFS. Click here for tickets.

For more on Hal Hartley, visit
www.halhartley.com

Posted in Blog | Comments Off on Filmmaking through Machines: Hal Hartley on TRUST

Taking Auteurism Too Far: The Short Films of Jacques Tourneur

The mythos of Jacques Tourneur often begins with his innovative and atmospheric horror film Cat People, the talent fully formed from the very beginning. Of course, when Cat People arrived in 1942, Tourneur was thirty-eight and had been working in movies for the better part of his life. He began as an assistant to his father, the distinguished French director Maurice Tourneur, and subsequently to David O. Selznick. The younger Tourneur directed features in France shortly after the coming of sound, as well as several ‘B’ features in the US before the feline breakthrough. He made some twenty short films between 1936 and 1942, which constitute one of the most underappreciated runs in the annals of American movies.

The shorts are not entirely unknown. Chris Fujiawara’s singles out these one- and two-reel M-G-M films on the second page of his critical biography Jacques Tourneur: The Cinema of Nightfall, and goes so far as to cite no less than seven of them as masterpieces. That designation might sound faintly ridiculous when applied to titles like  “Killer-Dog” or “What Do You Think? Tupapaoo,” but the challenge in evaluating Tourneur’s shorts ultimately speaks to broader problems in getting a handle on the genre as a whole.

It’s one thing to celebrate short films that premiere in festivals and tour the country in packages, like the annual Oscar shorts programs or the Spike and Mike animation showcases of old, but it’s another thing entirely to elevate the hundreds of shorts that filled out theater programs in the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s. Upon reviewing a Chuck Jones retrospective offered by the Gene Siskel Film Center in the Chicago Reader, Fred Camper highlighted the basic credibility issue: Continue reading

Posted in Blog | Tagged , | Comments Off on Taking Auteurism Too Far: The Short Films of Jacques Tourneur

Taking the Taboo Off the Cinema: A Million Bid

Very few people have seen Michael Curtiz’s A Million Bid (1927), but it’s an interesting picture, moreso than its meager reputation would suggest. The film merits barely more than a paragraph in James Robertson’s The Casablanca Man: The Cinema of Michael Curtiz and earns a passing mention in Alan K. Rode’s newly released Michael Curtiz: A Life in Film. (Rode provides additional context on A Million Bid in his recent interview with Ben Sachs.) Yet the story of its production, release, and restoration of A Million Bid suggests a film of enduring, imponderable mysteries. Rather than attempt a critical evaluation of the film, I hope to demonstrate how rich and contradictory a record A Million Bid left behind in primary sources alone.

The neglect of A Million Bid is understandable. The script is rote melodrama, and the film itself (presumed lost for decades until a copy was rediscovered in Italy) is somewhat extraneous in assessing Curtiz’s legacy. It was Curtiz’s second American film, but his first, The Third Degree (1926), long ago preserved by the Library of Congress, seemed a sufficient example of his work from this period. The Third Degree was released amidst of flurry of Warner Bros. publicity, touting the studio’s newest filmmaker (already a veteran director of sixty films in Europe) as a technical wizard. “I do not see a scene with my eyes,” boasted Curtiz in a Los Angeles Times profile, “I see a scene with camera-eyes.” The film earned decent reviews, with favorable comparisons to E.A. Dupont’s Variete, one of the German imports frequently invoked as a rejoinder to pedestrian Hollywood technique.  Continue reading

Posted in Blog | Tagged , | Comments Off on Taking the Taboo Off the Cinema: A Million Bid

An Interview with Filmmaker Danny Lyon: Part II

I made this recording with my parents Danny and Nancy Lyon in March of 2017, sitting in their apartment on Avenue A in New York City where I was visiting for the occasion of my dad’s 75th birthday. This is Part II of a two-part interview. Part I can be found here.
– Rebecca Lyon

Willie (1985) – Murderers (2005)

DL: By the middle of the ’80s, photography is starting to take off, and I’m going, “Well, here I am, I’m probably the greatest photographer of my generation, I haven’t taken a picture in fifteen years, everybody’s making money, this is crazy.” I might as well announce that I’m still alive and still a photographer. And I start doing photography again. And I did the Haiti book [Merci Gonaïves]. We go into self-publishing. But the big period of making films that were mostly ignored and in that sense failures, is from around ’70 to ’86, and that includes Los Niños, ending in Willie, and all the films in between.

RL: I wanted to ask you about Michael Guzman. Because that’s such an amazing story about filming him later in life and then realizing he was in an earlier film.

DL: Right, so the great film I had made at this time was Willie, and ironically I made it while I was living in Long Island, not when I’m living in New Mexico. But you and I and the family had gone back to Bernalillo because we would go back on different summers and I was there, I think, with the camera. This might have been around ’82 or ’83, whenever I was shooting Born to Film and I took the camera with me.

I went downtown and I came back and said to Nancy, “I just saw Willie.” In fact, he had recently been released from  prison  but I didn’t know that at the time.

I had filmed Willie as a child in Llanito,and I had filmed him as a teenager in Little Boy and then he had kind of vanished. In fact he had vanished into the penitentiary for five years. But that day I was so stunned and I said to Nancy, “You know I’ve got to film him.”  I did film him, and by the time we returned home, I said, “I’m going to make a film about Willie because I have the earlier footage.”

Continue reading

Posted in Blog | Comments Off on An Interview with Filmmaker Danny Lyon: Part II

An Interview with Filmmaker Danny Lyon: Part I

I made this recording with my parents Danny and Nancy Lyon in March of 2017, sitting in their apartment on Avenue A in New York City where I was visiting for the occasion of my dad’s 75th birthday. Many toasts were made on the eve of his birthday party the night before, most of them to Franklin D. Roosevelt, one of them to Eleanor. My dad finished his first film in 1969, and continues making them to this day.

After becoming a member of the Chicago Film Society last year I finally had some co-conspirators to help me lure my dad out to Chicago for a screening of his films. We will be screening two of them on Thursday, April 20 at the Logan Center for the Arts: Willie (1983) and Born to Film (1982), both in 16mm prints from Anthology Film Archives. This is Part I of a two-part interview. Part II can be found here. – Rebecca Lyon

Danny and Nancy Lyon in the New Mexico State Prison filming “Willie”. Photo credit: Jack Foley

The Traveling Filmmakers

DL: So you were saying we never talk about film. I was saying we never talk about anything.

RL: That’s not true. We worked together! I helped you make two films. We did Two Fathers together…

DL: I think the perfect helpers for me don’t say anything. They just do what they are told [laughing].

RL: That’s why you like me, because I don’t ask any questions.

DL: Nancy [Lyon] was the perfect sound recordist. And I thought, well, this is great, I’ve met the perfect companion, let’s put her to work. And our tax form has said ‘traveling filmmakers’ ever since.

We made many films, five, six seven films together. Nancy did the audio, but she also helped with the editing. Nothing happened without mom seeing it. She was an assistant editor on some films. She’s been involved in everything. So… you want to talk about the films?

RL: Do you want to start a little farther back?

DL: My formal education ended at the University of Chicago. I was a history major, ancient history mostly, and a philosophy minor. Self-taught in photography. I think the first movie camera I actually picked up was in Chicago, so I would have been doing The Bikeriders by then. So I was already past the Civil Rights [book, The Movement], and had done Uptown and The Bikeriders. So I think at that point I already was interested in film. Continue reading

Posted in Blog | Comments Off on An Interview with Filmmaker Danny Lyon: Part I

Fantastic Prints and Where to Find Them

For the past couple years, Silver Cinemas’ Market Square Location has been one of the only places to see new Hollywood movies on 35mm. On this visit INSIDE OUT and ANT-MAN were both playing on film, with the other three titles on DCP. About 5 months into its run, the print of INSIDE OUT had probably been run over 400 times (and still looked very nice).

Even for those paying close attention, the conversion from 35mm to DCP on all of Chicago’s multiplex screens happened with very little fanfare.

In December of 2010, Regal City North 14 was playing True Grit on 35mm, but by the time Super 8 came out in June 2011 all screens were DCP – some bitter irony. Kerasotes Webster Place (best worst 7th grade date spot) installed its first digital projector around February 2009, was taken over by Regal in May of 2010, and by August of 2011 all screens had been converted. The AMC-owned Piper’s Alley simply closed in May of 2011 without a word. The Logan Theater (best $3 date spot) closed for renovations in September 2011 and reopened in March 2012 as an all-digital 4-plex, with inaugural DVD and Blu-Ray screenings of The Wizard of Oz and Enter the Dragon – one 35mm Century SA projector and Christie AW3 platter was kept for special events. The Landmark Century was the last major holdout: Samsara screened on 35mm in August 2012, but The Master opened on DCP in September, with all projectors being swapped out and installed the night before. The single-screen Patio Theater closed Argo on November 21, 2012 and added a new, Kickstarter-funded digital projector the following week.

The Music Box and the Gene Siskel Film Center can still run 35mm and do with great frequency for repertory programming, but as far as first-run art-house movies go, the 35mm well pretty much dried up by mid-2012. Any subsequent runs on film would be anomalies, usually at the request of the filmmakers à la Son of Saul or The Love Witch, and many independent and arthouse titles that were shot on film didn’t have the luxury of 35mm release prints (most notably Certain Women, Queen of Earth, the partially-shot-on-65mm Sunset Song). Continue reading

Posted in Blog | Tagged , , , , | Comments Off on Fantastic Prints and Where to Find Them

2016 in Review: Not Coming Soon to a Theater Near You

What makes a movie?

This is a richly theoretical question that’s often been answered by glibly practical guidance. The most common criterion is highly circular: if it’s exhibited in a movie theater, then it’s automatically a movie.

Never mind that there have long been grey areas—misfit media whose very names suggest their dual identities, like ‘made-for-TV movies’ or ‘direct-to-video’ feature films. By dint of their general disreputability, these works were rarely regarded as deep challenges to the established boundaries of cinema. In the 1980s, a number of long works produced for television by established art house directors—Krzysztof Kieślowski’s Dekalog, Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Berlin Alexanderplatz, Edgar Reitz’s Heimat—successfully slant rhymed their way to festival success. Treating them as films, rather than TV miniseries, was an honorific gesture, an acknowledgement that their high artistic ambitions automatically marked them as works of cinema. There was no other vocabulary to describe them.

By the conclusion of 2016, these distinctions were lying in shambles, if they ever mattered at all. To talk about the year in moviegoing necessarily requires engaging with this shift. It wasn’t the first year that disruptive new entrants to the film business—Netflix, Amazon, and assorted VOD proponents—sought to change the way we conceive of movies, but it may well be the year they convinced a substantial portion of the public to go along with them.

The year saw countless think pieces proclaiming that movies had been firmly supplanted as the center of popular American culture. The real energy, the driver of the proverbial water cooler conversations in increasingly anachronistic office parks, was peak TV, or perhaps Pokémon Go. The Los Angeles Times even inaugurated a series devoted to the topic: The Blur. Veteran movie reviewers wrote from a defensive crouch; a great new work, like Maren Ade’s Toni Erdmann, was first and foremost a refutation of the “death of the movies” narrative. Continue reading

Posted in Blog | Tagged , , | Comments Off on 2016 in Review: Not Coming Soon to a Theater Near You

David Shepard: A Lion (1940 – 2017)

I heard last week that my friend David Shepard was in the hospital with pneumonia again, but not to let word get around. Yesterday I learned he was, in fact, in the hospital with stage four cancer and had been taken off life support. This morning I learned he had passed on. My last letter arrived too late.

No obituary can detail all of David’s achievements. Most film scholars and collectors know him from his days at the American Film Institute or Blackhawk Films, through which he saved and preserved countless films. A later generation knew David through the laserdiscs, DVDs, and Blu-rays he produced under his Film Preservation Associates banner and released through Image Entertainment, Lobster, Kino, and Flicker Alley. But how many know that David also worked briefly for the Director’s Guild of America, through which he arranged campus appearances for a vanishing generation of film pioneers like Henry King? How many knew he was also a voting member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences?

I interviewed David five years ago for this blog, and that conversation should serve as a modest introduction for those who knew never him. In the very least, it should give you a sense of David’s droll, old-fashioned verbal gentility. I guarantee that no one else working in the home entertainment business would ever describe a successful release as “selling like hamburgers.” Continue reading

Posted in Blog | Tagged , | Comments Off on David Shepard: A Lion (1940 – 2017)

One Movie Worth a Fight: Restoring The Front Page

In 1967, the newly-formed American Film Institute released a preliminary list of 150 significant feature films that were considered endangered, already lost, or thought to survive only in substandard copies. Lewis Milestone’s 1931 adaptation of The Front Page was among the titles at risk.

Based on the reviews that greeted The Front Page in 1931, it’s sobering to recognize that the survival of such a highly-regarded film could be in doubt scarcely four decades later. To put that in perspective, it would be as if no one could readily ascertain whether a single copy of a film like Reds or Atlantic City still existed in 2017.

Admiration for The Front Page was professed in publications high-brow, low-brow, and every brow in between. The Chicago Tribune’s spectral critic Mae Tinee proclaimed that “Lewis Milestone’s direction is the last word in snap: lines click, photography and sound are all to the good.  What this production lacks in nobility it makes up for in ‘It.’” Writing in Vanity Fair, Harry Alan Potamkin rhapsodized that “Milestone’s contribution in The Front Page is the first American contribution to the ‘philosophy’ of the sound-sight cinema. It puts forth the principle of pace set by the verbal element. The film itself is a tour de force, a vehicle which by its speed makes a superficial cargo appear profound.”

The Front Page earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Picture, too, but the passion aroused by the film was perhaps best captured by Pare Lorentz’s column in Judge:

Continue reading

Posted in Blog | Tagged , , | Comments Off on One Movie Worth a Fight: Restoring The Front Page

From Boardinghouse to Angry Birds: The Adventures of Misfit Media

If you’re at all familiar with our activities at the Chicago Film Society, you probably know that we place special emphasis on the act of projecting motion picture film. At a point in cinema history when digital video has become the exhibition “norm,” we pride ourselves on providing a link to a pre-digital past and a critical framework to contextualize film images. Look at the first page of our program book or click on the About Us section of our web page and you’ll find this paragraph:

The Chicago Film Society exists to promote the preservation of film in context. Films capture the past uniquely. They hold the stories told by feature films, but also the stories of the industries that produced them, the places where they were exhibited, and the people who watched them. We believe that all of this history–not just of film, but of 20th century industry, labor, recreation, and culture–is more intelligible when it’s grounded in unsimulated experience: seeing a film in a theater, with an audience, and projected from film stock.

The argument that film remains a vital and important exhibition medium into the 21st century, even as cost-cutting measures drive it out of more and more cinemas, often takes a historicist angle that can breed misconceptions about the medium even as it elucidates the importance of the inherent historical memory found in media. Arguments for the value of presenting works of film art in their original media often focus on the ways that analog media can highlight the visual decisions and strategies of the technicians who authored the works. However, we at the Film Society are also interested in the authorship of exhibition, and in understanding the context of media through the marks left on its physical form by various production and exhibition histories.

Continue reading

Posted in Blog | Tagged , , , | Comments Off on From Boardinghouse to Angry Birds: The Adventures of Misfit Media