“I remember a magazine wanted to do a big photo spread with a bunch of us—Todd Haynes, Gus Van Sant, six or seven of us—the new indies,” recalls New York’s onetime next-great-auteur, seated at a long wooden table in the living room of his nearly empty West Village apartment. “Maybe I was just an asshole, but I refused to do it.”
Back in the early nineties, Hartley could shrug off that kind of attention. Many of his excellent early films were shot in his native Long Island on shoestring budgets, offering breakthrough roles to Parker Posey, Edie Falco, and Martin Donovan. The Unbelievable Truth, Surviving Desire, Simple Men, and especially his literate 1990 romance, Trust, were smart suburban dramas peppered with deadpan philosophizing, scored with Yo La Tengo tracks and Hartley’s own guitar playing—arty anthems for a generation of film lovers, embraced by a small, proud subculture and held very tightly by it.
“Distributors always wonder, Who’s going to see this movie?” says Hartley. “Earlier in my career, I used to think, Well, people who are sort of like me. Probably college-educated people who like art.” But since 1997, either Hartley’s left his audience, or his audience has left him. As he began to take on more of the world, his work, ironically, became more hermetic in the process. And while other filmmakers of that nebulous indie moment have gone on to big films with big stars, Hartley has receded. His recent films—No Such Thing, The Book of Life—have garnered mixed reviews and short runs. “There’s really a difference from the early-nineties films through the late nineties to now,” he says. “A person grows. And you have to go where the work dictates you go, even if it’s sad to leave behind what you feel to be a receptive audience of people.”
Hartley’s hoping to find a new audience this year with his dystopic film The Girl From Monday, premiering at Sundance and in New York at MoMA, and a new distribution company (Possible Films Collection). But the task may be a difficult one. His latest film continues on the path he’s been taking: toward big ideas and fantasies of isolation. Henry Fool, his 1997 epic, tracked a wannabe Great American Novelist who gets abused by the publishing industry. His dark fantasy No Such Thing introduced a yeti-like creature who ran as far away from humans as possible. His Book of Life followed a Jesus who had grown thoroughly sick of the modern world. In The Girl From Monday, that resentment reaches a fever pitch: It’s a barely contained rant about a corporation that launches a revolution of the consumer, in which sex is monetized and children are addicted to drugs and soda. The protagonist is not just another frustrated outsider, but an actual alien from another planet. “Sometimes you just want to write an essay, sometimes you want to write a rant, and sometimes you just want to jump up and beat the fucking thing up,” says Hartley, in a voice as muted as one of his characters’. “I could never do that too much before.”
With The Girl From Monday, Hartley thought he was making his most accessible film in years. He shot “girls in great clothes just beating the shit out of cops,” he says. He included more nudity than in any of his other films—chase scenes, even. “When we were shooting, we thought, People are going to love this. This is hip and cool. And then when we finished,” he says, “we looked at it and thought, This is really dense. We have a serious art film here.” As we discuss his plans to discover and distribute other art films through his new company, Hartley speaks quietly but confidently. He wears jeans and a plain black sweater (his wife, Miho Nikaido, is a fashion designer, but he bashfully says he doesn’t “understand fashion”). The apartment is even more spartan than his clothes—walls stripped of pictures and freshly repainted, personal effects packed into boxes. The last items left are shelves packed with books—everything else has been cleared out so he can rent the apartment and move to Berlin.
Hartley’s next movie—a kind of “Henry Fool 2,” he says—will star Parker Posey as “the well-intentioned, uninformed American who finds out what the world is like.” It sounds more overtly political than his previous works, but Hartley says it’s just the latest example of how his “personal films”—he prefers that term to “indie films”—spring from whatever happens to be around him. “Whether it’s Long Island or the suburbs or New York City,” he says, “I’ve always written about what’s in my world.”
Pressing a finger against his windowpane and talking above the din of buses on the street below, Hartley explains that the future consumer dystopia of The Girl From Monday was inspired by—and shot in—the advertising-addled world outside his window. “The evil empire’s headquarters in the movie,” he says, pointing to an unfinished office building on the far shore of the Hudson, “is right there.”