Film Scouts Interviews

"Henry Fool" Press Conference
at the 1998 Cannes Film Festival

by Henri Béhar

Buy this video from

Books from
Buy The Screenplay.

Music from
Buy The Soundtrack.

Attending: Hal Hartley, director, Ms Mino Nikaido, MMr. Thomas Jay Ryan, James Urbaniak, actors

Beware of still waters and sleeping tigers, as the saying goes. One might add: ...and of quiet men. For with their calm manner and poised voice, they can speak volumes and say the most outrageous things, loud and clear. Case in point: Hal Hartley, a cineaste of silence if there ever was one, at least in his generation, and Henry Fool, his latest film, presented here in competition. For all intents and purpose, Simon (James Urbaniak) is considered a loser. A borderline dolt, apparently, he picks up garbage for a living, lives with a depressive mother and a way-too-expressive sister (Parker Posey). All right, forget expressive: she's a slut. Enter a lodger, Henry Fool (Thomas Jay Ryan), and chaos ensues. Part grunge rock star part beat generation poet, Henry Fool carries with him the work of his life, his mysterious Confession that might dynamite the world. Simon also writes - a bit - and the first poem he lets go of elicits violent - and violently physical - reactions from accidental readers. Whose work eventually will rock the world? Oh, by the way, did I mention Henry Fool is a comedy?

HAL HARTLEY: I didn't want the audience to have the opportunity to judge either Henry's confession or Simon's poem, because ultimately I thought that would take us away. It would involve us in a way that would distract us from what was at issue, which was friendship and mutual dependency of these two men. That was a key design of it...

Henry and Simon are two aspects of... probably any creative person: the shy, retiring, humble side and the arrogant, brave exhibitionist. Those are the only two aspects of the creative individual, but they are 2 of the most common - and I wanted them to balance each other out that way. We don't really know if Simon was desperate for communication prior to meeting Henry. He certainly lived in a world that was abrasive and loud, and he didn't seem to fit in. He kind of got banged around in that environment. But maybe, all he was asking of Henry was friendship. Maybe he was asking something very simple. But Henry sensed something in him and pushed the wrong way and then Simon eventually becomes famous and gets to produce world-class poetry.

QUESTION: Henry Fool looked vaguely 19th Century, whereas Simon Grim looked like a young Samuel Beckett. Now we see that's James Urbaniak's usual look. Were those two flavors deliberate?

HAL HARTLEY: You're right. The Sam Beckett look is something that I responded to very much in James' bearing and how he styles himself. Obviously, it was very appropriate for the story. As for Henry... I wanted to sort of make one feel he has existed forever; for instance, he says that a few hundred years ago, his name had an "e" at the end. Maybe he's being perfectly frank about that. There's something of the mid-19th century romantic notion that I incorporated in the look and design and in what he said.

HAL HARTLEY: We really wanted to create a supernatural kind of feeling. I wanted his appearance to be bigger than life. Mythic. I wanted him to be sort of like the devil. Or some angel. Confusing, contradictory, bigger than life image. And then bring in more and more towards our common experience of being a human being.

THOMAS JAY RYAN: The mythic entrance you're talking about, the way the character enters is like Clint Eastwood in some spiritual Western fable. The great joy of the film is that I don't have to live up to that. (Laughs). Subsequently, you enter into a film like that and people think, Oh, I get it. It's this kind of story, this kind of character, this kind of vocabulary that the filmmaker is using that sets me up all wrong to be the human flawed loser that he also is, and that's the great journey of the role, too.

HAL HARTLEY: I was very familiar with both James and Tom's work and at a very early stage, I began thinking of them as the characters. That contributed to how I sculpted them. I have always noted the work that James was in, and I've always responded to it. He's got a particular kind of cryptic expression which speaks volumes but is very fast and sharp. Tom's exuberance seems to fit. On stage, Tom has done some characters who were very forthright. Very... I wouldn't say arrogant, but rather confident.

HAL HARTLEY: It just seemed right. Ideas - about art, for instance - are brought up in the story and the conversations. I didn't want these conversations to be had by people smoking pipes and wearing corduroy jackets. I didn't want it to be in that world. I worked really hard to come up with a lot of representative examples of vulgarity, in film-making, and also what Henry would be like. All of us - James (Urbaniak), Tom (Thomas Jay Ryan), Parker (Posey) and I - had a lot of discussions. It was a long time before we made the film, so we had many opportunities to talk about the characters and determine how vulgar Henry might be, or how shy Simon might be.

THOMAS JAY RYAN: The thing I felt about the vulgarity of the character is that it should never be apologized for. It should exist without neuroses. An early version of the script gave a little more self-doubt to the character, and I thought that, on the contrary, what was unusual about this character was his monumental arrogance. On some level, he's also got to be a loser, an everyday shmoe.

HAL HARTLEY: We ourselves used the word "vulgar" all the time. In retrospect, "profane" may be better. It was important that Henry represent some really eventually offensive postures and attitudes. Ultimately, my aim was to show that he was capable of the highest human qualities but I didn't want to show it so easily. I wanted it to be a bit of a chore for us to appreciate the very high qualities of the man.

THOMAS JAY RYAN: Whatever the character's activity, whenever it was vulgar, whenever it was troubling, the thing was, it had to be amoral. The character is this amoral creature entering into a community in chaos. It's a movie about the chaos of the community and how people find a moral compass from a completely amoral character. Even though you come down to his humanity in the end, what you're talking about is how we do it.

QUESTION: Two scenes I would like to ask you about: one, when a young woman bares her behind and asks Simon to kiss [her] ass and he pukes on it. The other is the moment when Henry Fool proposes to Faye (Parker Posey). He is sitting on the loo, in the throes of humongous - and humongously prolonged - defecation.


QUESTION: Would you care to comment on your Brechtian use of sound? (Laughs)

HAL HARTLEY: Well, it's very much a question of rendering emotion and character through sound. I don't think I use sound ironically. I think I just try to separate our habitual way of experiencing thing. Sometimes, I put the sound much more in the foreground of the picture. I don't really know or have a real theory or anything about it. That particular moment, I wanted sound... I didn't want to show defecation, but I was willing to let you hear it. It's the length of it.

Is it Brechtian? We were thinking mostly like "The Honeymooners," "I Love Lucy" and Troma movies. (Laughs) Making the things we generally don't expect from my movies - things like Simon throwing up on the girl's behind or Henry having an enormous defecation - those are the really hard things. I don't generally gravitate to wanting to do that kind of work, it's a particular kind of work that takes me away from certain things that are really interesting to me immediately. I like to watch people doing things. Even talking, to me, is a simple activity. My movies tend to be about people doing those things.

The puking scene. That's a type of film-making that is totally different from what I do. I've watched other movies and I've tried to see how it's done, see how it's put together.

I ultimately screwed it up. Apparently, I forgot to get a very important shot. If it has any character of its own right now, it does because it's sort of an inept execution on my part. I really needed a close-up of Amy responding. But it got to the point where we just couldn't have this girl standing there with her pants down for any longer. She was standing with her pants down with 6 or 7 of us lugs hanging around, she was getting upset and I was getting nervous. James had this big puke machine taped to the side of his face. We rushed through it, and I forgot the shot. But you make do.

THOMAS JAY RYAN: Well, I've been very lucky because I've had no fame whatever (laughs). So I'm depending on that to get me through. What I mean by that is that I've had 15 years of a relationship with my work. Really, none of that accompanying it and sitting here talking to you today is a surreal experience for me, but I'm glad it comes 15 years into my relationship with my work. If it had come 15 years ago, I might have confused you all and the conversation we're having with my work, as if it had something to do with it. I think the issues the film raises about fame and success and the unfairness really of those things happening to those people are touching. I can very much relate to it. But you have to continue forward. The beautiful thing about Henry that he's taught me, anyway, is that you notice that Simon and Henry are 2 sides of an artistic personality. Henry is the one that brashly moves forward, no matter how much people tell him he's not talented, he will move forward. Simon, especially at the beginning, is the voice in the back of your head that tells you you're really not worth listening to. So they're both of those sides. Henry will survive the lack of fame.

JAMES URBANIAK: I just think that the shift in the balance of power in these two characters interesting. And I suppose I've experienced that with people I know. I don't have much more to add.

HAL HARTLEY: I've never said it quite that way, the way that James just said "the shift of balance in this relationship." That is something that I've experienced, that I've witnessed in people's lives. Fame has always been... I don't personally equate fame and success. When I speak to myself, I speak about the success of work, whether or not the work is successful on its own terms. But fame is a different thing. Of course, if you're an entertainer, it affects the work. You want to bring all of yourself to the work, so if you have an experience like I did 10 years ago where in 8-9 months people were watching my film and talking about them and taking my picture and having press conferences. It's a lot... it changes you. But I'm also interested, I think the film is more about how fame is generated, and how a regard for work is generated and it's not about length of work. Another reason why I didn't want us to have the opportunity to judge the work. I was more interested in the relationship of the two men and also like with the publisher, Angus James, has a reaction to Simon's poem. He says he doesn't think it's any good but then the world around him responds to it in a way that he didn't expect. And he has to second guess his own first instincts. That's legitimate.

QUESTION: Several films here in Cannes - including yours - touch on the subject of sexual abuse of children. Do you think this is the biggest paranoia of the 90's?

HAL HARTLEY: There is something to that. In shaping this story, I reached for as many sort of very general common contemporary issues. The particular type of right-gleaning politics that Warren gets enamoured with, preoccupation with the Internet, accusations of child abuse, things like that. I really didn't look through newspapers for the years that I was working on the script. But it's everywhere, in the papers, on TV... Plus the fact that in America in particular, a group of laws were designed to protect the community from sex offenders who have already done their time. That's a big issue at the time in America.

QUESTION: Internet plays a substantial part in your movie. Does it play a part in your life and in your work?

HAL HARTLEY: I'm not net-savvy myself. My office has one.

THOMAS JAY RYAN: I've made a real choice in my life to keep away from it. I think it's frightening. I feel like once I get in, I'll never leave. As an addictive personality, I think it's perhaps a minefield of possibilities. But it's certainly a cultural influence. James (Urbaniak) has become totally addicted to the 'net.

JAMES URBANIAK: Yeah, I went online last week. As my girlfriend will attest, I'm really into it.

Back to the 1998 Cannes Film Festival Interviews

Back to the 1997 Toronto Film Festival Interviews

Back to Interviews

Look for Search Tips

Copyright 1994-2008 Film Scouts LLC
Created, produced, and published by Film Scouts LLC
Film Scouts® is a registered trademark of Film Scouts LLC
All rights reserved.

Suggestions? Comments? Fill out our Feedback Form.