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SUNDAY CONVERSATION

May 13, 2007|Choire Sicha | Special to The Times

HAL HARTLEY is the director of nearly two dozen films. His latest, "Fay Grim," is the sequel to 1997's "Henry Fool." It opens Friday, with a DVD release four days later.

It was a couple of years ago that you went to Berlin, and you never really came back.

I got a fellowship to the American Academy in Berlin -- a cultural exchange program, but for adults. They gave me a stipend to work on my writing for three months. The point is to introduce you to the cultural scene in Berlin. I had friends, but I made more. I just like the city. It was comfortable to live in. A nice place for a studio. I also have a lot of friends in Europe.

It's a crucial component to "Fay Grim" that Fay goes off and becomes involved with the drama of Europe.

I wanted Fay to be the representative American of a certain type: well-intentioned but ill-informed. This is a story of her getting tossed into the wider world, and hearing and learning about all the complexity at a political level. And she's sort of being a stand-in for people like me -- as hard as I try to understand everything, I never trust that I have a real good grip on it.

What movies are you looking at?

I've been re-watching Terrence Malick films -- "The New World" and "The Thin Red Line" -- a lot recently. I'm very moved by those.

With Malick, it's amazing how he has no one speak -- but that's very, very different from you, even as your interest in verbal comedy has changed.

His last four features over the last 40 years have been like that. He can think that way. He makes the images and language as two separate strands. "The New World" was a real masterpiece. The kind of scenes I make now -- I might not even be the best person to detail what the changes are. I do remember in the earlier films, I really built everything on dialogue. It was dialogue as action. Everything had to do with the words, misunderstandings, and inspired by a wide range of things -- the plays of Moliere, which were very helpful to me in my early years. Then Preston Sturges movies, or Howard Hawks. Then as the years went on, I wanted to outgrow that approach.

Have you ever wanted to work in nonfiction? Are you ever drawn to documentary?

I am working on something right now that I made in Japan in October, when Miho [wife Miho Nikaido] and I went to see her family. I brought camera equipment, footage of her family to show my family, because I'm pretty sure they'll never see each other -- they're farmers in the north of Japan, and my father's 84. I just started documenting them. Miho and I interviewed each other. We talked about being middle-aged and being married for 14 years and our aspirations, but it became about Japan and the culture and her personal situation. It's not done yet -- without knowing it I stumbled into it.

So how does it feel being middle-aged?

It feels good. It gives me a whole new group of subjects to consider. My earlier films were about boys and girls being in love or trying not to be in love. That was close to my experience. And so now a lot of the things I write have to do with being older, and having different kinds of responsibilities than when I was younger.

It's coming up: Funny situations where an older person is trying to just grasp what a younger person is taking for granted. I've been getting a lot of mileage from that in my writing.

You don't have the sound of the young filmmaker who's anxious about his work.

I guess it's nice to be middle-aged [47] ... when you know: I have done things, had that youthful experience, I have achieved something. You can look back and learn from them. There's one way in which films are made unconsciously. So, that pressure is off. When you're young, in my case, I thought when people find out what's going on they're gonna stop it. I'm getting away with murder, and people are getting paid for it and I'm having fun. They'll pull the plug! That rules the first three or four years of a person's career. I don't have that anymore.

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