Unbelievable Truth Top Hal Hartley

The son of a steel-bridge worker, Hal Hartley studied film at State University of New York, Purchase. He was answering phones at an industrial video company, when his boss agreed to bankroll his first feature, “The Unbelievable Truth.”

A black comedy set in Long Island flat lands, the film revolves around Audry (Adrienne Shelley), a high school senior who has decided not to go to college, and Josh (Martin Donovan), a paroled killer who works as a mechanic at her father's garage. They fall in love, but stay apart until they can clear up some misunderstandings. Like Jon Jost, Hartley satirizes commercial transactions–using the “deal” as a metaphor for the ways people negotiate with one another. As Audry asserts: “You can't have faith in people, only the deals you make with them.”

For his lyrically offbeat explorations, he takes the audience to familiar-looking yet utterly strange places. Truly Godardian, Hartley's tales are logically constructed; “Simple Men” contains a dance number that pays homage to Godard's “Band of Outsiders,” a quinessential film for indie directors. Hartley also cites Wim Wenders and Preston Sturges as influential directors, along with Robert Bresson's spare style and Carl Theodore Dreyer's religious overtones.

Hartley's actors simultaneously echo and mock movie icons: Adrienne Shelley is Hartley's sulky Brigitte Bardot, Robert Burke a version of the steely Clint Eastwood. His movies are personal in another way–his leading men are tall and thin like him–Hartley stands about six-three and weigh 150 pounds. Hartley likes to read, and the characters in his movies read books too.

“I try to eliminate everything that's superfluous in the dialogue and in the gestures,” Hartley said about his laconic language. He prefers to think of his films as precise rather than deadpan: “in each moment of the film, I'm trying to get down to something exact.” The humor derives from an “inability to see the difference between the serious and funny,” Hartley allows. “The comic effect is not a result of intellectual thought but a visceral reaction. I put that stuff in because the characters are having some esoteric conversation and it's difficult to follow.”

In all of his films, young people are forced to make decisions and, as he said, “if decisions are the subject, you are going to deal with issues of ethics. The process of making decisions is how our moral selves are evidenced.” His urge for self-expression is “a reaction to questions, the only way to find out more is discourse. My films are a discourse that starts with myself, and then the characters begin to take on more of the load.”

The look of Hartley's films is as coherent and distinctive as their language. The visual consistency derives from working with the same team: Michael Spiller's precise cinematography and Steve Rosenzweig's exquisite design. There's also the cash factor. According to Hartley, the budget is the ultimate aesthetic: “When I know how much money I have, I know how the film will look.” “The Unbelievable Truth” was made in 11 days for only $75,000.