THE CRAFT OF SCREENWRITING:
Hal Hartley - Surviving Desire & other stories
producer once said to me that writers arent essential anymore.
If you get the right software, anyone can write a screenplay. You
just fill in the gaps with words.
is true, I know it is true because there are thousands of people
out there with a PC and a piece of software that pre-formats your
script, prompts you when you forget a character, provides useful
suggestions as to when to kill off the heros best friend,
when to get laid, how to get laid and how to strangle the one
you love because the devil made you do it - and never lets you
write a piece of dialogue that will last more than five seconds.
I am not going
to write about the other 3 million people writing screenplays; formula
scripts for a preconceived market and sending them to illiterate producers
who care nothing for accuracy, historical fact or timing (See The Patriot).
Blockbusters is full of examples of these films and there is a good reason
they are on video and didnt make it to the screen.
I want to talk to you about the other kind of writing, the one that involves
the heart, the mind, the soul, passion and utter stupidity. Independent
cinema, the real cinema, the one where no one hardly ever makes any money,
but somehow, films still keep get on getting made.
The king of Indie cinema has been Hal Hartley. You can talk about Kevin
Smith, but hes just another hard working slacker, you can talk about
Ed Burns, but as nice and cute as his films are, they lack a layer of
acid that is present in greater work. Peter Hedges is someone new on the
scene with hsi brilliant and funny 'Pieces of April' starring Katie
Holmes and this film may owe something to my favourite director Hall Hartley.
The great thing about Hal Hartley is that he takes risks, constantly refines
his story and characters and he doesnt pander to his audience. Sometimes
I dont think he thinks about his audience at all. Yet here is a
film-maker who reads, who considers his stories and characters with a
depth that is quite extraordinary. For those of you who dont know
his films. Here are some titles:
-a short film about ambition - Im good at what I do.
Achievment - a funny satire on a Hemingway et als Paris
pretentions, set in the Cultural Capital of America, Williamsburg,
Desire - a harrowing tale of a lecturer obsessively infatuated
with a female student who is just using him so she can write a novel
about disappointment one day.
Truth - Can you trust someone who has lied before. A
mystery man returns home after some years disturbing results.
- Fight for what you believe to be right, even though you know no one
cares and you will ultimately destroy yourself and the one love you
- two brothers, one a college drop out, another a thief, go in
pursuit of their infamous terrorist father who has escaped capture for
years - only to discover he never actaully committed the crimes he is
famous for and that love literally grows in the weeds of life.
- a nun who wants to be a pornographer meets a pornographer
who has lost his memory who is looking for the wife he enslaved who
turn tried to kill him, meanwhile they are being pursued by a highly
respectable yet ultimately sinister international corporation with political
man wants his girlfriend to come with him to Europe, but she
needs commitment from her other lover before she can make up her
mind- and he has many doubts. (Three shorts on same theme)
- into the life of a simple garbage man and his lusty sister
and drug addled mother comes a crazy and wild stranger full of
dangerous ideas and literary concepts that shakes the foundation of
their lives and the community around them. (Hartley won the best
screenplay award for Henry Fool at Cannes in 1998)
The Book of
Life - Jesus and Mary come back on the cusp of the
millennium to fight Satan - filmed with Digital Camera for French TV.
A wide choice, yet always, you somehow instinctively know you are watching
a Hartley movie. No one ever takes the obvious route to a solution and
emotions tear apart the soul, yet everyone remains curiously passive.
An example: from the screenplay of AMATEUR:
who has amnesia has been rescued by the ex-nun who wants to write pornography.
Thomas (the man who doesnt know who he is) is in the bathtub,
reading a pornographic magazine. He looks at a picture, then shakes
his head, impressed, but bothered and turns the page. He turns around
as.... Isabelle (the nun) enters the apartment, frustrated from a pointless
blind date, stands in the bathroom door.)
THOMAS: How was
ISABELLE: I think theres something wrong with me.
(THOMAS closes the magazine and throws it down on the floor)
THOMAS: How long has it been since you left the convent, Isabelle?
ISABELLE: Ten months.
THOMAS: How long were you a Nun?
ISABELLE: Fifteen years.
THOMAS: Thats a long time.
ISABELLE: When I make mistakes, they tend to be big ones.
THOMAS: Were you always religious?
ISABELLE: No (She lights a cigarette and comes into the bathroom)
When I was a girl I wasted a lot of time writing bad poetry about being
lonely and too fat.
THOMAS: You were fat, huh?
ISABELLE: Not so fat. But I was ugly (Pauses...) Well anyway, it was
around that time that the Virgin Mary began appearing to me.
THOMAS: (Uncertain) Pardon Me?
ISABELLE: Its true. She appeared to me three times in one year.
THOMAS: (washing his chest) And what did she say?
ISABELLE: She said I should become a nun.
ISABELLE: Because I am a nymphomaniac.
ISABELLE: Its true.
THOMAS: You dont look like one.
ISABELLE: Like a nymphomaniac?
ISABELLE: How would you know?
(Shes got a point and THOMAS considers it as ISABELLE sits)
But I lied. I told the priest God wanted me to join the order and become
THOMAS: After all that?
ISABELLE: Well I was scared.
THOMAS: Of what?
ISABELLE: I was scared of what I knew God had planned for me.
THOMAS: God had planned something for you, huh?
ISABELLE: Yes. I didnt know what yet. The Virgin didnt tell
me that. But
she did say its going to be difficult. Its going to hurt.
And I need to be out
in the world to do it. Not in a convent. I was seventeen. I was scared.
lied. I lied for fifteen years. I lied until I couldnt bear it
THOMAS: (Impressed) Shit.
ISABELLE: (Thoughtful for a moment) Will you make love to me?
ISABELLE: When you finish your bath.
THOMAS: Why me?
ISABELLE: Why not you?
THOMAS: Well, you dont know me. You dont even know my name.
ISABELLE: You dont know my name either.
THOMAS: Have you ever had sex?
THOMAS: How can you be a nymphomaniac and never had sex?
ISABELLE: (Smokes...considers this) Im choosy.
© Hal Hartley AMATEUR 1994
At once you can see that HARTLEY loves the absurd, but enjoys placing
his characters in very everyday settings. A nymphomaniac who is still
a virgin, a pornographer who cant remember anything. She seeks
meaning to her life, he seeks his memory. He has the potential to live
a new life, but this being a Hartley movie, it will all end in pathos
and tragedy. This was his first attempt at something approaching a thriller
or action movie.
But it is neither.
It is a highly stylised pastiche of the thriller where characters pause
to discuss philosophical issues and mobile phone technology and accountancy.
Even the violence is comic. Jan, a villain, is torturing an accountant
Edward with a power cable
Edward: Jan look...we go way back. We were accountants together. You
were a good accountant.
Jan: I was younger then, I didnt know any better. I moved up.
Im more realistic now.
What Hartley does is emphasise the emotional distance between characters.
Never mind the story, what are these people doing, why are they there,
why are they saying these things and why arent they listening
to each other. Hartley is particularly good at creating conversations
where people dont listen to each other and the misunderstandings
compound and complicate everything. Hartley is a specialist in flawed
characters. And therein lies his genius.
Going back to Surviving
Desire - starring the wonderful Martin Donovan as Jude the Literature
Professor. Jude, is somewhat obsessional. Completely stuck on a paragraph
in Russian literature which is tormenting his students. But what is
really happening is that he has been stricken by love for one of his
students. He meets his friend Henry in the coffee bar after the lecture
and his is moody, irritable, unhappy. The girl is there, obliquely discussing
him with her roommate. Henry tests the empirical evidence of Judes
love for this girl and finds it active. The mood lifts, he is moving
towards active love.
But to test this,
is it real? He must go to the bookshop where she works. She finally
agrees to meet him for a drink if he agrees to leave the bookshop. When
they meet in the bar, aside from a cynical exchange with the barman,
who signals that perhaps Jude can only expect Trouble and Desire and
that he is hoping for too much out of this relationship, the girl finally
arrives and after a moment coyly hints that they are now about to start
on an affair. They kiss and the effect on Jude is devastating. She knows
this and leaves him stunned.
How Hartley chooses to show that very real moment of JUDEs pure
happiness, is uniquely him. It is a very real moment, as in real life,
when the object of your affection seems to promise love and you are
lifted up to euphoria. Hartley has JUDE enter a courtyard and two complete
strangers accompany him in a silent dance. It is pure joy, we understand
that this is how JUDE needs to express his expectation and longing for
this girl, but this moment catches us off guard and is a pleasure to
watch. The fact that they seem to doing a dance routine from The Jets
in West Side Story without music is surprising, but somehow acceptable.
Hartley doesnt pause to explain this quirk, but later develops
the dance motif in a later film SIMPLE MEN. It is simply something you
have to accept. People will find ways to express their feelings, not
always in the most logical way. Equally, as the title suggests, SURVIVING
DESIRE is never going to be boy meets girl, girl and boy get together
and live happily ever after. Even at the moment when she finally comes
to him, she wants to know before they make love, that if this is the
only time they sleep together will he be crushed, mortified, whether
from hence forth all other women will remind him of her, whether indeed
he will be able to go on living. His listens to this, impatient to be
getting on with the passion, but she has a different agenda, his love
for her blinds him to it and when he says Ill risk it,
we laugh, but in reality, giving into his obsession, it is a risk too
far. She is reeling him in and afterwards we see her putting it all
down on paper for her novel. The girl lives inside some
idealised romantic novel where men are tortured by their exquisite feelings
for the women they love .... ironically, it is true, because now Judes
torture will begin as she denies him and will no longer see him. She
wants him to be tortured - it will make better material for her novel.
Denial is a powerful tool. The bible has traded on it for nearly 2000
years. We love, but we are denied, because we are denied, we cease to
exist. Powerful elements of conflict. SURVIVING DESIRE is about that
need for our love to be requited and the pain we suffer when it is not.
The film ends up they way many Hartley films end up. The man is left
lying in the gutter, literally, destroyed by the desire he himself created.
Men in the gutter is a common theme in Hartley stories. No one in a
Hartley movie seems to do anything without a motive, a calculation.
Every thought, usually hidden between men and women, are out in the
open. It is the trademark of his films. All unspoken thoughts will be
articulated. This makes for very funny dialogue and often really complicated
situations. However that is why, when you leave a Hartley film you have
more questions, more passion for them than say, something slick or something
bleak and violent. These films seem to capture ordinary people in hyper-reality.
They exist beyond the screen, continue on with the story after you have
left the cinema. Characters of seemingly no importance take on a vivid
persona in your own memory.
In the film Simple Men, one thinks of the smoking nun fighting in the
street with a cop over a medallion. Or the moment when one of the brothers
drops a note in a phone box and retrieves it between the legs of a schoolgirl.
It all looks more significant and erotic than it is, it is funnier because
of its innocence. When the embittered older brother who has been betrayed
by the woman he loves, talks about how mean he is going to be to the
next women he is going to meet, how he will lie to her, make her love
him and then drop her, we know that the next woman he will meet will
make him eat his words. Big time. Hartley men are soft hearted. Hartley
men are notoriously weak, the women, incredibly strong. It is part of
their appeal. Men articulate the ideas, great impractical ideas, the
women get on with the living and the loving and basically, seem to get
the better of the men all the time. Equally, few relationships survive
desire. Self destruction is the key to his films, people rarely give
themselves a chance to be happy, because in that road lies future unhappiness.
Following through on Hartley style, the beginning of the film Amateur
open with Martin Donovans character lying in the gutter unconscious
and similarly in Henry Fool, within four pages Simon, the main protagonist
is lying in the gutter, bleeding. Perhaps it is a metaphor for where
all men will end up, but it is a powerful sign that this is a Hartley
His latest released feature in 1998, HENRY FOOL was a departure for
him, darker, more linear in narrative, no longer a romantic melodrama
or romantic thriller, and not easy to categorise, but nevertheless,
curiously epic and involves a far larger cast than he usually has or
can afford. There are key elements here of the classic western, yet
it is set in decidedly suburban Queens, New York.
A stranger hits town to right-wrongs and Henry Fools arrival,
seen in longshot is very reminiscent of say, Ethan Edwards in Fords
The Searchers. Indeed, Henry is very similar to Ethan Edwards. Each
has a criminal past, is sexually attracted to a doomed older woman,
has a troubled relationship with his protege and seeks violent revenge
of a rape of a young teen and ultimately he has no place in society.
Only this being Hartley territory, Henry is no angel, is a not really
a candidate for redemption and is himself cagey about his past, where
he has spent 7 years in jail for raping a 13 year old girl. ( He tells
us she was mean to him and preyed upon his many weaknesses).
The writing is vivid and hooks you right in. The title is HENRY FOOL,
but right off we can see the real fool is Simon, the garbage man, who
is bullied by everyone. Warren and Amy are punks kids with malicious
streaks and Simons sister is a tart, his mother a zombie. It is
these people that Henry Fool must rescue. This is his purpose in life.
An honest man is always in trouble Henry declares. Hartley
asks us to judge, is he the devil or an angel? Henry is also impossibly
vulgar, scatological, sex-crazed, alcoholic and driven by living for
the minute. But he is voraciously alive and that is the lesson that
everyone around him needs to learn how to be.
Here is a film about talent, ambition, artistic and personal influence,
integrity and the demands of the market place. By the simple act of
saying to Simon, Whenever you think youve got something
to say, stop and write it down.
Thus Simon begins to write down his very personal and perverse poetry
that affects everyone in most striking ways. One person might read it
and be shocked by the pornography, another, a mute girl suddenly sings
for the first time - Henry has released an unstoppable force. Hence,
in the nature of lifes perversity, Simon, the village idiot ,will
end up a Nobel prize winner and Henry the village clown. Teachers rarely
achieve more than this.
One earlier short film made in 1991 is Theory of Achievement.
Here, Hartley pokes fun at American intellectuals. If you cant
go to Spain and Paris and hang-out with Hemingway because you are born
in the wrong generation and you cant chin-wag with Dorothy Parker
at the Algonquin, why not imagine Queens as the last intellectual cafe
society of the 20th century. And taking that idea further, why not establish
that same bohemian society in your own sublet. It is cinema of ideas
and cultural inversions. The characters are mostly white, middle
class, college educated, unskilled, unemployed, broke. One, William
Sages character says, I want to write timeless beautiful
love songs... but I cant sing or write music...
It is a funny, pretentious, wonderful spoof of a life we cant
lead, funnier perhaps than that other former Independent Director Alan
Rudolphs take on the same theme, American intellectuals in Paris
in his film The Moderns . A film you should try to
see anyway, because like Hartley, it is never the plot, it is ironic
juxtaposition. and the characters who count.
Hal Hartley is an independent film maker because he wants to be the
writer, director, producer, musician, he wants to protect his intellect
and his story to the bitter end. If that means he doesnt get distribution,
if that means he remains without a mansion in Bel-Air, so be it. Only
you will know what kind of person you are. But in the end, remember,
it is the people we go to see on screen, not the plot and that is no
© Sam North
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