SXSW Film Interview: Aubrey Plaza and Hal Hartley discuss Ned Rifle

After just finishing up after seven seasons on NBC’s Parks and Recreation, Aubrey Plaza certainly hasn’t slowed down. Not only does she star in another SXSW film, Fresno, she also stars as Susan in writer/director Hal Hartley‘s film Ned Rifle. The AU Review spoke to the film’s star and writer/director about religion, Kickstarter, and all things deadpan.

I overheard you saying that it’s very western, were there any westerns in particular you were inspired by?

HH: Well, the two westerns I know most and have impacted the way I structure my stories are Red River and The Searchers. There’s something of The Searchers in here, I mean John Wayne goes out to find this little girl and kill her because she’s now an Indian, so I was thinking about that and I asked Liam to watch The Searchers as his prep, I mean he’d watched alot of others, but there was a sort of righteousness that I wanted him to have, this kind of religious certainty and I think that’s one of the great things in cinema, you know, in American cinema – John Wayne is going out to do this terrible thing, and it takes you half the movie to realise just how terrible it is, what he’s going to do. But then he finds the girl, Natalie Wood, and he lifts her up and he’s like “I can’t do this”.

You mentioned the Kickstarter campaign, and it’s something we have to talk about of course. I didn’t get a chance to see all of the rewards, but what was one of the bigger rewards, and what was it like, going through that whole process? Because obviously it adds a different layer to the film.

HH: It’s exactly like trying to get elected president of the United States, except in thirty days we’ve got to convince all of these strangers all over the world that they want your movie bad enough that they’re willing to give you a certain amount of money a year in advance. So most of the things were a combination of like the DVDs, the music and the script, that was kind of the $35 dollar deal. That was the main core, and there were some big-ticket items like Executive Producers, so I have eight people, eight executive producers, and they were terrific because they were actually people who do this often, they use Kickstarter, and they were honest, you know? They say “I have a lot of wealth and I want to make things that I like”. So they had a lot of advice for me, they came on board right away, like in the first forty-eight hours, and they said “Ask me anything”. So when things got a little spooky, around day fifteen, day sixteen, and that line, that graph is flat-lining, and I’m thinking “What do I have to do?!”, they were good, and they’d say “Don’t worry, don’t worry, it’s going to change”.

Would you do it again?

HH: I would do it again, but for smaller type things. This was too difficult, emotionally, psychologically, physically. It’s tough, although the people at Kickstarter were like “Wow you did it, we tried to talk you out of it but you did it! You hit that number, and now you should use that as your base”, but I don’t know, I don’t think I can make films anymore where I don’t get paid in advance, that’s it. I can’t continue risking my entire life every time I make a film.

Speaking of the film itself, one of the moments that I loved the most was Simon’s attempts at comedy, so I guess I was wondering if you yourself had ever flirted with commercialism and that was some sort of parody of the desire to maybe stay relevant?

HH: Am I not a commercial filmmaker? I don’t know –

Where did that dig come from?

HH: A dig?

Yeah, that dig on appealing to mass culture.

HH: I wouldn’t even call it a dig, that’s just my thing. American centered mass culture is garbage, and I’m just trying to save my life from it. That’s my entire business of being a filmmaker my whole life, is trying to save myself from this garbage.

So the first part of the question, have you ever been tempted to make more money?

HH: Yeah, there’s nothing wrong with making money. And it’s always been very important to me from before I was a professional filmmaker that I wanted to make a living making my art and I think I’ve done that, I’ve done alright when a lot of people haven’t. And I don’t try to make movies that are obscure, of course, but I know that there’s a middle ground between obscurity and mass cultural acceptance. Like The Beatles.

So you’ve been thinking about this third film for a while, you said when you made the second one you knew you were going to make this third film, did you always know you were going to use Aubrey in this new film, did you always have her in mind? 

HH: No, I didn’t. I was writing, and she was suggested to me by her representation, and I checked out some of her movies and TV show, but it was Safety Not Guaranteed, that was the one that really ticked it over for me. That was that one that I was really able to see her sense of humour, and her acting chops best, and charisma and charm.

Aubrey, were you aware of the previous films when you were approached to be a part of it?

AP: Yeah, I was. I was a really big fan of Hal’s, I’d seen his movies years ago when I was in film school actually, so I was very familiar with Henry Fool, and I didn’t even have to read it before I knew I wanted to work with Hal, I was just so excited that he wanted to work with me.

Going into that group you were kind of the odd one out, because everyone was coming back after how many years it’s been since the last one was filmed. Was that like a reunion that you were sort of a voyeur of, in some ways?

AP: I guess, in some ways. It never felt like that to me, I never felt like an outsider, or anything like that. Everyone was so welcoming, and they were so great to me, so I felt really comfortable. It was fun to talk to them about their previous experiences and I got to pick their brains a little bit, like Parker [Posey] and I met for coffee a couple of times and she told me about her experiences with Hal and shooting a movie, so they all kind of took me under their wing a little bit and helped me.

What kind of advice did Parker Posey have for you?

AP: Know my lines. Know them, know every single word of them, be perfect at them. That was some advice that I got, which I already knew going in, that Hal’s very specific about dialogue and that’s one of the reasons I love his movies, because you can tell, so that was something we talked about a lot.

How would you describe what you love about his style?

AP: I love all things about his style. I like his writing –

HH: She likes the way I dress, mostly.

AP: I like the way he dresses, I just like the way his brain works and I like all things, all of the above.

Aubrey, you play a lot of these crazy, psycho, apathetic characters, how is that authentic, or why is it that these kind of deadpan characters appeal to you?

AP: That’s a hard question to answer because I don’t pick things based on their deadpanness or not, I just kind of go from project to project and pick things that I really respond to for many reasons, so I don’t have perspective on myself in that way, I guess. I think there’s a tone of – I think the way my voice sounds, maybe people think I’m – I don’t know…

HH: I used to say that deadpan, because when my career started people always used that word, and that’s not something that I’ve ever used. But I thought about “what are they indicating when they use that word?” and what I think it is is a lack of obvious interpretation, that’s something that I look for, and I think your work as Susan in this film is crucial because she’s saying something, something that she actually means, with an intensity, because the words are intense, but the expression – she’s not underlining the meaning with a particular form of expression, you’re kind of holding that back, and I think it makes a richer experience because you don’t really know – Is she crazy, or is she just really into poetry? That’s how I’ve always thought of that, and when I watch your work, that’s what I see, just not being obvious about what this line means.

It’s more about the ambiguity, I guess.

HH: Yeah, it’s got some colour. Some dimension, rather than a lot of the storytelling being the words say exactly what you mean, the actions say exactly what you mean, and just for good measure they put in a piece of music that says exactly what you mean, so there’s absolutely no way you could possibly mistake what this means.

Religion plays a bigger part in this film than perhaps in your earlier works, in a very interesting tone in terms of how Ned’s received by his parents as suddenly being a religious being. How did you tread that line between saying what you needed to say about religious without having people pick at your film in the streets?

HH: Well I want to be respectful. I’ve written a lot about religion, and my film The Book of Life has Jesus Christ in it, and I’ve written a play, which is probably what started all of this, back in the mid-nineties called Soon, which had to do with the events in Waco with the Branch Davidians and so that was really the beginning of my study of ‘What is Christianity? Who are these people?”. I was brought up catholic, sort of socially, I didn’t really connect too much. But then it became like my major reading – what is all this? Why are these people waiting for the end of the world and and all that? So it developed over the years and I’ve become quite acquainted with people like Ned, who are around that age and searching for a spiritual ground, and I was always surprised, like “Wow”, it just seemed so old fashioned to me. But that’s what fashion’s like, it changes. A twenty year old in 2014 might find this all fresh and new, and so that’s how we dealt with it. I knew I didn’t want to make fun of it, but I did want to treat them as actual people, with foibles and so it was important for me that the minister has a mistake in his past, you know he made a sexual mistake in his past.

That scene where he’s being told about the intentions of Ned, his reaction is just brilliant. Of Henry’s many tangents, one that sort of stood out to me was the importance of comparing the holy mountain to the condom on the sidewalk, that to me seems like a pretty good description of Henry himself.

HH: Yeah, he has a line in Henry Fool where he says “I make no distinction between -“, well he doesn’t judge anything, so the holiness of the stained glass window and the profanity of the used condom on the sidewalk is just all to him – maybe that’s his problem, he doesn’t have any moral fences, I mean that’s how he got into trouble in the first place, you know, getting into a relationship with this thirteen year old girl.

What compels you to that kind of character that drives three films?

HH: It had been hanging around a long time. When I was in school, in my twenties, I started writing about Henry Fool and it took me years for it to develop, but that had something to do with Paradise Lost, Milton’s Lucifer in that was arguably the most interesting person who says the most interesting things, but he’s flawed, he’s deeply flawed. And there was something similar in Goethe’s Faust, you know, Mephistopheles in Faust is sent by the devil to do one thing. You’ve got one job, you’ve got to go and get this guy Faust, and corrupt his soul and bring him to Hell, and he blows it, because he’s petty and he’s silly and when he’s supposed to be doing his work by corrupting Faust, he’s flirting with girls and stuff like that. So I saw the possibility of an anti-hero like that.

Back to the faith idea, when I was watching I get the strong sense of – like Ned is very religious, but I get the sense that you weren’t, just because he’s religious as a result of his circumstances and things like that, is that something that you consciously brought as a distinction? 

HH: Yeah, but what you said, I mean I think anyone’s religion is worthless if it’s not a result of their experience, and I think that’s what we see in this two ways: the trauma of his childhood has turned him into this very righteous and domineering and judgmental kind of Christian, but then by meeting Susan and going all the way, kind of pulling the trigger, thank God it didn’t happen, then we see him finding an actual spirituality, one that’s less righteous and less judgmental. Yeah, I’m not religious in that way, as a result of my own experiences. For me, it doesn’t do what it needs to do.

The make-up for Susan is one of the first things you notice about her character, everything’s smudged and a bit of a mess. How was that processed for you, in terms of trying to balance that, was there a lot of direction on the make-up side of things or were you basically just told do a really bad job of your makeup in the morning?

AP: It was all in the scripts, every single thing was in the scripts, down to the smudge of my lipstick, the business with the lipstick, all of that was in the script.

HH: But we got it wrong a couple of times, continuity wise. It was in the wrong place.

AP: Really?

HH: Yeah in post, we had to take parts of it out, because it didn’t make any sense. It read as though you’d been making out with Bill Sage.

AP: Oh.

The reason I ask that question, with the makeup, would you look in the mirror and go “This is Susan, this is who she is”? 

AP: I guess, yeah. All of that stuff, any physical thing like that I think helps you feel like you’re a different person. But the lipstick in particular, I was really attached to that lipstick and the purse.

HH: Yeah, you did things that I didn’t write in there, like when you’re waiting for them at the motel you do this little thing with your lipstick, where you kind of put it on but then you’re like “No, enough!”, kind of like an alcoholic thing.

Aubrey, when you first read the screenplay, what about it were you most compelled to about Susan, what couldn’t you wait to do?

AP: All of it? I don’t know, it’s hard for me to choose. I couldn’t wait to stab myself in the stomach, I’d never gotten to do that before, I never got to murder anyone on camera before, I was excited to pull the trigger.

HH: Really? That’s your first on screen murder?

AP: Yeah.

HH: Spoiler alert.

AP: Oh, sorry! I don’t know how to answer that, there were so many things.

What compelled you about the Susan character?

AP: It was really fun for me to play someone that is so much smarter than I am in real life, and someone that is obsessive in that way. It’s so great to be able to dive into a character that’s got a really true obsession with something, and that was really compelling for me, to play something that’s really smart and also just really off and disturbed.

HH: Well, that’s Henry too.