When we first meet the teenaged Audry (Adrienne Shelly) in Hal Hartley’s debut feature, The Unbelievable Truth (1989), she’s lying awake in bed waiting for her alarm clock to go off. In no rush to greet the morning, as she yawns and stretches her arms high above her head, the imagined noise of a nuclear explosion echoes loudly within the pink walls of her bedroom. To call the scene iconic is perhaps an overstatement—Hartley’s career has always existed deliberately under-the-radar—but it certainly remains memorable 25 years later. Shot on a shoestring budget in his hometown of Lindenhurst, Long Island, The Unbelievable Truth—which screens this Saturday, August 15th at BAM’s “Indie 80s” series—follows the romance between the atomic bomb-obsessed Audry and the fresh-out-prison mechanic who works in her father’s garage (a stoic Robert John Burke). Due in no small part to the now late and lamented Shelly’s captivating presence (this was her first major acting role), there’s a home-grown purity to Hartley’s first portrait of suburban life that never wants for sophistication.
The director’s now-trademark ability to pit everyday concerns against looming existential preoccupations is exemplified early on in the film when Audry reluctantly joins her parents downstairs at the breakfast table. She’s just been accepted to Harvard, but doesn’t see the point in pursuing higher education when “history is coming to an end.” As she lists the ways one might die as a result of a nuclear attack, her father, clad in his grease-stained mechanic’s jump suit, rants about the cost of sending her to such an expensive school. “What’s she talking about?” He finally interrupts. “The end of the world,” her mother answers matter-of-factly. Pausing to light a cigarette, she adds: “By the way, Vic, the washing machine is busted.”
Often pegged as the working class’s Whit Stillman, Hartley writes dialogue—rapid-fire, deadpan, and decidedly rhythmic—in a manner that’s unconcerned with the way “real” people speak but rather interested in the very nature of exchange. Conversations can be circuitous—the same lines will frequently be repeated more than once—and communication boiled down to a type of business deal: there’s a running negotiation throughout the film between Audry and her father to try and pin down the terms of her uncertain future. Other times, discussions are comically dead-end: people talk at each other without actually hearing what the other one is saying. Take, for example, the scene in which Audry decides to break up with her selfish, suit-clad boyfriend, Emmet (Gary Sauer):
Audry: I told my parents I quit my job at Burger World.
Emmet: You know, things are really looking up for me, Audrey.
Audry: The school psychologist says I’m apathetic.
Emmet: The world is out there in front of me and I’m ready for it.
Audry: Emmet, we’re on the brink of global extinction!
Emmet: The wheels of fortune are rolling in my direction.
Audry: Every night I go to bed dreaming about suicide and then I feel ashamed and I cry myself to sleep.
Emmet: My friends all like you a lot and my parents do too.
The formalism of Hartley’s dialogue is mirrored in the visuals: The Unbelievable Truth marks the first of many collaborations with long-time DP Michael Spiller, who sets his frames (and the bodies within them) with exacting stillness. Disorienting jump cuts replace classical shot-reverse-shot construction, faces are privileged over bodies (Hartley tends to shoot in medium-close and close-up) and off-screen space is given as much weight as on.
Nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance in 1990, Hartley quickly followed his debut with the more polished Trust (also set in Lindenhurst and staring Shelley) and has been working steadily ever since. Over the years, the low-budget king has made such notable films as Amateur (1994), Simple Men (1992), and recently completed the trilogy he began with 1995’s Henry Fool with last year’s Ned Rifle, which stars Parker Posey and Aubrey Plaza. Maintaining a firm hold on his artistic independence Hartley is, in many ways, the model indie filmmaker: the one who never “sold out.” Staying true to his trademark style without ever growing repetitive or stale, at it’s best, Hartley’s is a cinema that’s simple but never simplistic, utilitarian with distinctive craft and intellectual heft. On the occasion of The Unbelievable Truth‘s BAM screening, Brooklyn Magazine spoke with Hartley by phone to look back on his first feature and find out where he may be headed next.
Your first film, The Unbelievable Truth, is screening at “Indie 80s” alongside the likes of Spike Lee and Jim Jarmsuch. I’m interested in whether or not you felt at the time that you part of a “scene” or a movement, or if it’s more something that’s been imposed after the fact.
There wasn’t that much of a community feeling, but I think that what those people [like Jarmush and Lee] were doing was encouraging to see. It was different—by 1987 or 1988 there was suddenly a wider variety of films and idiosyncrasy wasn’t such a bad thing. There was a greater number of individual voices around and also, very noticeably, there were films that weren’t that expensive to make. Low budget was almost…attractive [laughs].
But you sort of created your own community out of Purchase alums—if I’m not mistaken you met both Robert John Burke and Edie Falco [who both star in the film] and your long-time cinematographer, Michael Spiller, at SUNY Purchase. I know you had the funding in place, but how did The Unbelievable Truth come together people-wise?
We were all at SUNY Purchase from 80-84 or so, and it was the nature of that filmmaking program that we all had to learn everything and we all had to make films. We were all in each other’s movies and, little by little, we all gravitated toward the thing that we were going to do. It was clear about halfway through my education that I would be a writer and director—if I could pull that off—and that Mike Spiller, was definitely going to be a cinematographer. We all moved to New York around 1984 and started getting work on TV commercials and bigger movies. I was about the only one who was really continuing to make films—I was making short films at the time. In 1988, a lot of them were at a place in their careers where they really needed a credit. Mike Spiller is the perfect example—he was a camera assistant, or second assistant, on a number of different films and he was getting a good reputation: he was reliable and he had good taste. But he didn’t have any DP credits so he jumped at it. We got lucky because we didn’t have that much money. But all of us had been working and had contacts and friends—older people who were more established, people who were able to give us advice or a break on prices…it was very local [laughs].
There’s a great piece on you by Kent Jones in Film Comment from quite a ways back that eschews the normal comparisons with your filmic contemporaries and instead places you within the framework of the 70s/80s SoHo music and art scene, specifically likening you to the David Byrne and The Talking Heads. It’s an interesting comparison that I think speaks to your structuralist over expressionist approach.
Yeah, that’s really interesting. I mean, the Talking Heads and David Byrne were extremely important to me as a young person. They’ve just got so much energy and good ideas and were getting better and better with each album. To a certain extent it was about not disguising who you were or where you came from. That music and what those songs were about was like: “Hey, we’re college-educated white kids from good homes and we wanna rock out.” I think there was something like that in my films. I didn’t see many films about the suburbs, specifically these Long Island suburbs and that was the world I knew. I wasn’t living there at the time, I was already living in New York City but that world—those highways, those parking lots, those streets—it was easy for me to set these sort of Romeo and Juliet type farces there, in the world that I knew, in the milieu that I was familiar with.
The sense of place in your films is hugely important, especially in those first two films. But because you hardly use establishing shots, place becomes more about the way people interact with each other within the frame. Your distinctive visual style is already firmly established in this film—can you talk a bit about where that came from?
I’ve always been a very visual person—I went to art school before I went to film school. But when it came to filmmaking it was space that excited me most. What’s outside the frame that’s part of the shot: what do we hear, what do we know, that’s on the right or the left of the frame? I found that much more interesting than establishing shots. I found inspiration by the time I was starting to make these feature films in the fall of 1988. I was watching the films of Fassbinder pretty closely and Godard and the work he was making in the 80s. There was some encouragement in the ways those guys portrayed action in space. Rather than showing the whole thing they would chose a particular vantage point. I found that really to be the grammar of narrative storytelling, though it might have had something to do with making low-budget films too [laughs]. For The Unbelievable Truth especially, I knew I needed very simple set-ups. I only had sixty thousand dollars to make the film, so I didn’t have the time or the resources to shoot so many angles. If possible, each scene is going to be one shot, I’m going to chose some kind of interesting shot and not just some tableau.