Many of the filmmakers who emerged from the wave of American independent filmmaking of the late 1980s and early '90s, such as Richard Linklater, Quentin Tarantino, Jim Jarmusch and Steven Soderbergh, have remained active. Filmmaker Hal Hartley was once spoken of as part of that group with a run of films at that time that included "The Unbelievable Truth," "Trust," "Simple Men" and "Flirt," which mixed irony and romance, comedy and drama. In a recent interview, Hartley joked that his influence is largest among "people who were young and impressionable in the early '90s."
His new "Ned Rifle" may yet change that, as it finds Hartley re-energized as a filmmaker, not least by the addition of the actress Aubrey Plaza to a coterie of actors that includes Parker Posey, Martin Donovan, James Urbaniak and Thomas Jay Ryan. The film just premiered as part of the Toronto International Film Festival, with Variety declaring it Hartley's best since 1998's "Henry Fool," while the Hollywood Reporter celebrated Hartley as "a true independent at a time when that term no longer means much."
"Ned Rifle" is the conclusion to a trilogy that began with "Henry Fool" and continued with 2007's "Fay Grim." In the new film, Ned (Liam Aiken) is now a young devout Christian. His mother Fay (Posey) is in prison and Ned decides he must find and kill his father Henry (Ryan). Along the way he meets a young woman named Susan (Plaza), who has already worked her way into the lives of Fay and renowned poet Simon Grim (Urbaniak), Ned's uncle. Once Ned finds Henry, things unravel quickly.
While the film wraps up the larger saga of the Grim and Fool families, Hartley didn't initially see the story as part of something larger. But sometimes idle comments can become reality.
"I used to joke about it a lot when we were making 'Henry Fool,'" said Hartley, "and at a certain point Parker, James and Tom, they all said, you're joking about this way too much, making our own 'Star Wars' out of this family in Queens. And they know me well enough to know that if I let my imagination run like that, I am probably working on something. And I was."
With all the attention recently given to Richard Linklater's "Boyhood," shot over 12 years to capture the growth of one young man and those around him, there is a way in which Hartley's trilogy functions the same way. Though actors such as Posey, Urbaniak, and Ryan appear in all three, Aiken first appeared at age 7 in "Henry Fool" and is now 24 with his title role in "Ned Rifle."
Hartley is in part simply grateful that Aiken is still interested in acting.
"Lo and behold, I couldn't believe my luck, this young kid has grown into a young man who is exactly the type of actor I like to work with," Hartley said. "It was tremendous to direct him opposite Martin Donovan and Bill Sage, these guys who were the young men in my earlier films. He's grown into the same type of motion picture actor as them."
But it's Plaza, co-star of television's "Parks and Recreation" and an in-demand indie it-girl, who really gives the new film not only an added boost of current name value, but also brings an extra charge to the story and Hartley's world. It's similar to the way Greta Gerwig seemed to perfectly synch up with the sensibilities of filmmaker Whit Stillman for his return with "Damsels in Distress" – in which Plaza also had a cameo role. In "Ned Rifle," Plaza is an exact fit.
"This is one of the more adventurous casting things I've done," said Hartley. After seeing dozens of other actresses for the role, he was only halfway through watching Plaza's performance in 2012's "Safety Not Guaranteed" when he emailed her agents. Within 72 hours she had read the script and they were talking on the phone about the part.
In a Q&A after the film's world premiere screening in Toronto, Plaza noted that she "100 million percent" wanted the part after reading the script and as a longtime fan of Hartley's work.
Plaza's typical deadpan takes on an added dimension of pathos and depth in Hartley's hands, and the very specific tone of Hartley's work, the partial extra beat between lines or the awkward yet graceful way in which the actors move, serves her well.
"It's not something that's easy to talk about when you're doing it," said Hartley of his style. "And a lot of times it's not obvious. I remember the first thing she asked me was 'why am I saying the line in this direction when he is behind me?' And I could only answer, 'well, this is more interesting.'
"There's this other aspect to the character and the storytelling, which is the frame," he added. "And that's what I'm bringing to this. The actors bring what they know and feel about the character and I'm framing it a certain way to help articulate better the subtleties of the characters and dialogue. It sounds very technical, but it comes from the character and situations."
Hartley said that Plaza reminded him not of the spikier (and more obvious) Posey, but rather the softer style of actress Adrienne Shelly.
"There was a kind of way she got my dialogue in her mouth," he said. "She introduced a different kind of music to it."