Both HENRY FOOL and FAY GRIM take place in a world where literature is enormously powerful.
In the first movie, Fay posts the first few verses of her brother’s epic poem on a brand-new thing called the Internet, at first triggering local outrage, then a publishing deal and ultimately a global sensation culminating with Simon Grim winning the Nobel Prize. In FAY GRIM, Henry Fool’s “Confessions” – the handwritten scrawl of which take up several volumes of lined composition books – become the objects of desire, as they are said to contain encoded revelations that could bring down any number of Western governments, including that of the United States, France and Germany.
Hartley keeps the new movie’s head in the same literary firmament he celebrated in the first. But in the years since Henry Fool arrived on the scene and turned Woodside, Queens on its head, New York City, the United States of America and our standing in the world have all undergone radical changes, and somehow, quite astonishingly, Hartley has managed to thrust these characters and their narratives into our absolutely contemporary – and absolutely terrifying -- geopolitical circumstances.
“I was motivated to pull the characters in this direction – into an international espionage farce – because the world was feeling crazy, mixed-up, and very dangerous,” Hartley said recently. “As with HENRY FOOL, I wanted the on-going story of this family from Queens to provide the occasion for a wider consideration of the world as it is.”
“It was interesting for me to find this,” Hartley says today, “because I really did forget this note to myself. The earliest reference to a sequel I remember was in 1996, when we were rehearsing HENRY FOOL and an updated version of the script was missing some scenes that Parker, James, and Tom were sad to see go. I tried to console them by saying those scenes would be in part seven. And from that time on there was always this running joke that HENRY FOOL was a kind of our local version of the STAR WARS epics.”
A producer of FAY GRIM, Michael S. Ryan, who has produced such independent classics as Todd Solondz’ PALINDROMES and Phil Morrison’s JUNEBUG, remembers first sitting down with Hartley at the 2005 Sundance Film Festival.
“When I heard that Hal’s next film would be a sequel to HENRY FOOL, I was skeptical,” Ryan admitted recently. “But when I learned that FAY GRIM would be about Parker’s character searching for Henry, I was intrigued. Hal and I started to discuss how such a grand, expansive narrative could be done on a low budget. Ten months later we were on our way to Europe.”
An executive producer on FAY GRIM, This is that’s Ted Hope, was involved with Hartley’s earliest films and has been a fan, supporter and collaborator ever since.
“HENRY FOOL was always my favorite Hal Hartley film that I did not produce,” Hope offers.
“When Hal told me about the idea to continue it, I was smitten, and when he delivered to me that first 150 page script, I was initially taken back by the world travel and gun play and stunts -- especially when I considered the amount of money, or rather lack thereof, that I could raise.
“But I had forgotten what it meant to work with Hal: the impossible was rendered doable,” Hope continues. “We set a budget number that we thought achievable both for the market and the story. I remembered that my friends, [HDNet Films’] Joana Vicente and Jason Kliot, understood and enjoyed Hal's unique brand of cinema almost as much as I did. They were my first call and as it turned out the only one that I needed to make. A day or two after submitting them the script, they told me they wanted to make it. It wouldn't be another year or so until we were actually filming, but that initial green light came very fast.”
Indeed, Kliot and Vicente announced FAY GRIM at the 2005 Toronto International Film Festival, exactly one year ago.
Hartley was ready.
“I’d called Parker in the early spring of 2002 and asked her if she would play Fay again,” Hartley said recently, “because I wasn’t going to bother to write it if she didn’t want to do it. But she said she wanted to, and I started writing in earnest.”
With Ted Hope on board and a green light from HDNet, Hartley pulled together the original cast.
“It wasn’t so difficult,” he says today, “because we’d been talking about it for years.”
“I always knew Part Two would be centered on Fay,” he adds.
This meant that the character of Fay Grim would need to be updated from a1998 single working mother from Queens to a 2006 single working mother from Queens.
Per Hartley: “Fay’s evolution was intended to be just about what anyone would imagine of a girl like her in that situation. She’s not terribly sophisticated, but she’s smart, and she’s brave. She was a hard partier and sexually adventuresome in her earlier years, but the day to day realities of being a mom and running a household claim her best instincts now. She probably has regrets, aspirations... she is still very curious.”
Just as the character of Fay Grim has evolved over the last eight years, so has the career of the actor who plays her. In 1998, Parker Posey was an indie darling. In 2006, she is a movie star.
“What I try to do here is let the age and further experience of life that the actors possess exist and use it,” Hartley comments.
He continues, “It wasn’t hard to imagine what everyone’s relationship to each would be like seven years later, at least not once I understood what Fay was like. And I never had any real doubts about that. Her son, Ned, is probably her best friend. They talk about everything and learn everything together. Even her brother, Simon, whom she is sincerely proud of, is hard to talk to.”
FAY GRIM reunites Posey with her HENRY FOOL co-stars James Urbaniak, Thomas Jay Ryan and Liam Aiken; in moving from Woodside, Queens to a more global canvas, Hartley had to populate the new film with a few new faces.
“It was relatively straightforward attracting Jeff Golblum and Saffron Burrows to the film,” says Hartley.
“Jeff’s manager sent me a note saying he had gotten hold of the script, Jeff read it, loved it, and wanted to play Fulbright. Then he offered me tickets to go see Jeff on stage in New York in The Pillow Man. On my way to the theater to get the tickets, I met Jeff on 43rd Street on his way to work. We stood around for half an hour talking about movies and acting and his interest in Fulbright. It was clear he had been studying my films and he was totally tuned in to what I do with performers in terms of language and physical activity. So, when Parker and I saw the play a few hours later, it was like he was playing exclusively for us, which, in fact, he later said he was... Still, I could never have anticipated the colors Jeff would bring to the character.”
This larger global canvas not only brought new characters into the mix but also gave Hartley a chance to riff on how Americans are perceived – and how he perceives Americans – overseas.
“Fay is intended to be the representative well-intentioned American who is, however, ill-informed,” Hartley offers with typical candor. “That was my aim. I like to think that what I do in my writing most of the time is to present characters in situations that force them to push aside abstractions like, for instance in this case, “patriotism,” “civilization” or “terrorism,” and witness things concretely, for what they actually are. Bebe being shot at the end has nothing to do with those big ideas – it is simply a woman being shot by accident.”
The home base for the production of FAY GRIM was Berlin, the city Hartley has called home since 2004. From Berlin, the creative team traveled to shoot on location in Paris and Istanbul, with a few exterior shots picked up in New York City. Production on FAY GRIM began in mid-January 2006 and was completed before the end of March.
FAY GRIM was a reunion of sorts for Hartley and German producer Martin Hagemann, who had served as line producer of Hartley’s 1995 feature FLIRT, part of which was shot in Berlin.
“It was such a pleasure to work with him,” Hagemann recalled recently, “that I’d always hoped to be able to have a sequel to that experience. When Hal Hartley planned to move to Berlin, Mike Ryan wondered if we could shoot all of FAY GRIM film in Europe. We did a location scout and discovered we could present a number of Berlin locations which could work as most of the New York locations the script called for.”
“When I was asked to produce FAY GRIM,” Hagemann continues, “I was thrilled to work with Hal again and have the opportunity to attract attention for Berlin as a truly independent production location.”
FAY GRIM is the first film Hartley has shot in High Definition.