“I put 70 very good actresses on tape before I started talking to Aubrey” – Director Hal Hartley on Casting Aubrey Plaza
Ned Rifle, the final film in Hal Hartley‘s trilogy that started with 1997’s Henry Fool and 2006’s Fay Grim, is the perfect ending to the story he started almost 20 years ago.
The film tells the story of a now grown-up Ned (Liam Aiken), the son of Henry (Martin Donovan) and Fay (Parker Posey). He makes it his mission to find and kill his father for destroying his mother’s life. But when Susan (Aubrey Plaza), enters his world, everything is turned upside down.
I talked to Hartley at SXSW about Ned Rifle and crowdfunding the film, casting Aubrey Plaza, working with James Urbaniak and more!
Check out Ned Rifle via Vimeo On Demand.
At what point did you think this should be a trilogy? Even when you’re making the first film, do you have even a tiny idea where this could go?
Hal Hartley: No, when I made the first film it was just a movie that was different than my other movies. But we used to joke a lot on set that we should make it like Star Wars. We loved these characters. But that was joking around. But then, as a result of making Henry Fool, I really wanted to work with Parker Posey again. I had been trying very hard to find leading roles for her. The character of Fay in Henry Fool was a supporting role. If you read it, you’d say this was a supporting role. But she became quite important.
After about 3 or 4 years, after giving her 3 or 4 scripts – which she turned down – she said, “No, this is not for me.” I gave her the script for No Such Thing. And she said, “You know who should play this? Someone like Sarah Polley. Not me.” She’s smart that way.
Eventually, I just said, “Why don’t we resurrect Fay? We’ll do a totally different movie about a totally different subject matter but that family is at the center.” And she was all for that. And she liked that script.
And I never think in two’s, I always think in three’s. So if I was gonna make two, I have to make three. I said, “Well that’s easy. When Liam grows up, we’ll make a movie with Liam called Ned or whatever.”
Did they know you were working on this final film?
Hal Hartley: Yeah, I think once I decided to make Fay Grim, everybody knew that we’re in for the long haul.
Actually, before I started to raise money for Fay Grim, after I had written the script, I was living in Europe at the time. I flew back to the United States and I had coffee with Liam Aken who was 16 years old. He was already on board he was going to be in Fay Grim. I said, “What are your intentions? What are you going to do with your life? Do you want to be an actor?” He was 16, he didn’t know. He said, “Oh, I might want to become a director.” But I could tell from that afternoon he was going to grow up to be an actor. Because he had charisma and a certain daring.
By the time I came back to talk to him about Ned Rifle, he was 20 and he had developed a real career for himself. He was the kind of actor I wanted to work with too. He was very much like Martin Donovan. He had a certain kind of attitude about male masculinity that’s not chauvinistic. He was the guy.
How did Aubrey Plaza get involved?
Hal Hartley: He agents suggest her. Yeah, it was simple. Chris Andrews at CAA said, “Please check her out.” He knew the script because he represents Parker too. At the time he did. And I checked her out. The TV show was helpful a little bit but I couldn’t get anything from that. But I saw the movie she did opposite Mark Duplass, Safety Not Guaranteed, and I said, “That’s it.” She’s charming. She has charisma. She has skill. And that’s it. And I told Chris, “If she wants to be in a $300,000 film, I’m her man.” And she did. I was talking to her on the phone like 72 hours later.
When you were writing it, was her character and what she brought to it exactly what you were looking for?
Hal Hartley: No, it’s never like that. You never know exactly what you’re going to get. I put 70 very good actresses on tape before I started talking to Aubrey. I met some really talented actresses, some of whom are in the film. But I wasn’t satisfied. The people just didn’t have that quality that I can’t name. It’s hard to say it. But when I saw her, I thought, “Yeah, she could do it.” She reminds me very much of Adrienne Shelly.
You have this way people talk in your films. For someone like Aubrey, who’s new to your world, do you have to say this is the way it is?
Hal Hartley: Well, Aubrey is a hard working actress so she did the research. She watched the films. The first thing she did was talk with the other actors. She got in touch with Parker Posey and she asked Parker, “What do I need to do?” And Parker told her, “Know your lines and don’t believe that you’ll be able to mess around with these lines. He writes poetry and he writes them exactly. If you can’t hear the poetry and you can’t speak the poetry, you’re gonna be fired.” She knew that and she came in and she was spot on. I was blown away.
Your work is almost like Mamet’s. It’s very lyrical and very stylized.
Hal Hartley: We mean what we say when we write it.
Every comma, every bit of punctuation is there for a specific purpose.
Hal Hartley: Exactly. And with actors of this caliber; Parker, Aubrey, Liam, James Urbaniak… you can talk about those commas.
James Urbaniak, he’s got some dialogue in this film, the way it comes out of his mouth, it’s so beautiful.
Hal Hartley: Yeah, Some of the best work I’ve been involved in in my entire life are is with James Urbianiak.
You crowdfunded this film?
Hal Hartley: This one I had to do. Because there was no help coming from other places so I had to do it this way. And I did think that this film stands the chance of being popular. And if you have a popular film, people start to talk to you differently in terms of financing so I figured it was worth the risk and effort. I’m a very, very strong supporter of crowd-sourcing.