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Adrienne Shelly and Robert John Burke in The Unbelievable Truth
Adrienne Shelly and Robert John Burke in The Unbelievable Truth

Q&A: Hal Hartley on The Unbelievable Truth

Prominent directors discuss their breakthroughs in this weekend's "First Time Fest"

This weekend, a new NYC film festival, "First Time Fest," makes its debut. It's a showcase devoted to the movie director's first outing—as scary and euphoric as that can be. One sidebar, "First Exposure," invites prominent directors to discuss their breakthroughs. Among this year's guests is Hal Hartley, who will present 1989's The Unbelievable Truth. We reached Hartley by phone at his home office in Washington Heights.

You went to SUNY Purchase and had made several short films. Were you ready to do a feature?
We were optimally prepared. We could have used a little bit more money. I'd been running around doing production work for a couple of years in New York City. We actually had more experience than we had resources.
You have a signature way with dialogue. Was that all on the page beforehand?
You've got to write it out. Get it on paper. Don't go out until you're perfectly confident with your script, that it's a good read, whatever that might mean for you. That's the best foundation. It gives you the confidence; it gives everyone on set the confidence. And was a pleasure to discover—and have older people point out to me—that I had some facility with writing.
Did you make any mistakes?
Certainly, lots. I don't really give myself a hard time about this, but the fact is, we shot The Unbelievable Truth in 11 days. And at certain point, at around day six or seven, my cameraman Michael Spiller, who's like a brother to me, said, "You know what? I think you need to get 48 hours of sleep. You really need to stop for a little bit."

Were you tweaking?
I was staying up all night writing. I think I should have taken his advice. I didn't. There's one shot in the film that—I swear to God—I fell asleep during this take. We were sort of awake, but not really. I called cut and it was time to move on, and we looked at the far end of the diner. One of our lights wasn't even on. I remember saying "action" at the ends of takes. Or "Action Productions," which was the company where I answered the telephone.

Why didn't you get some sleep?
I thought I would lose my handle on the crew. They were great: all working for nothing with the hopes of getting paid later. We'd done that before with other projects and it had never worked. In this case, it did work. I knew I could do this, direct a feature, and I had to do it my way. Classic obsessive-compulsive egomaniac.

Was there anything about making a feature that you didn't expect?
The entire business end of it, basically. We learned it from reading the trades. When we did get a deal, we started hearing about this mysterious thing called "deliverables." What were they? Turns out they're everything a distributor needs to sell your film: the mixed tracks, the on-set photography, the insurance. That ate into our $200,000 check from Miramax significantly
Was there an encouraging critic or a festival that helped you to embody your new professional identity?
After a year and a half of nothing, we went to the Toronto International Film Festival, where it was an audience favorite. That's when everything started to heat up. That was the first time I heard the word indie. I had to pull my co-producer aside and ask him, "What do they mean by indie?"

The Unbelievable Truth screens Fri 1 at 4:30pm at Loews Village VII. Click here for tickets

Read our First Time Fest Q&A with The Virgin Suicides' Sofia Coppola
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