Hal Hartley was born on November 3, 1959, at Good Samaritan Hospital in Islip, New York, to Eileen (nee Flynn) and Harold Hartley. He is the third of four children, having two older brothers and one younger sister. His mother died when he was eleven and he and his sister spent some time living with their close relatives.
After graduating Lindenhurst High School in June 1977, Hartley attended the Massachusetts College of Art in Boston for the 1978/79 academic year. He then returned to his hometown of Lindenhurst for a year to earn money for more schooling. He worked in the camera and book section of a department store while making a number of super 8 millimeter films which he would eventually show as part of his application to State University of New York at Purchase Film School, where he studied from September 1980 to May 1984.
His father, who has since retired, was an Ironworker with the Ironworker's Union, Local 40, out of New York, as were most of Hartley's uncles, cousins, and one of his two older brothers. He helped get himself through college by working as an apprentice on Local 40 building sites during his summer and winter breaks from college. He continued ironworking for the summer and fall after his graduation from Purchase in 1984, but was happy to call it quits when he had earned enough to pay off the debts incurred from making his senior thesis film, Kid (1985).
After a year doing various Production Assistant jobs - the most fondly remembered of which was as an intern in the art department on Laurie Anderson's Home Of The Brave - he settled into a more steady office job with Action Productions - a company producing commercials and public service announcements owned by Jerry Brownstein. Brownstein would largely finance Hartley's first feature film three years later and the success of that venture led to the formation of True Fiction Pictures, Hartley's own production company which Brownstein managed. True Fiction Pictures was disbanded after Brownstein's retirement and Hartley now operates under Possible Films, Incorporated.
Hartley made a lot of films, very quickly, over the coming years and won the Young Filmmakers Award at the 1994 Tokyo International Film Festival for his film Amateur (1994), which was also premiered at the Cannes Director's Fortnight of that year. Retrospectives of his work have been presented at The Rotterdam Festival in 1992 and Gijon, Spain, in 2003.
In 1996 he married Japanese actress and dancer, Miho Nikiado, who was one of the leads in his film Flirt (1995).
He won the Best screenplay award at Cannes in 1998 for his film Henry Fool and, later that year staged his play, Soon, at the Salzburg Festival in Austria and at the de Singel Theater in Antwerp. A second staging was performed in California in 2001.
Hartley was made a Chevalier of arts and letters by the Republic of France in 1997 and taught filmmaking at Harvard University from September 2001 till May 2004. More recently, he was awarded a fellowship by the American Academy in Berlin for the fall of 2004, where he worked on his as yet untitled script for a film on the life of the French social activist and educator Simone Weil.
Hartley, who has lived in New York City since graduating college in 1984, has recently relocated to Berlin, Germany. He will be shooting his newest film, Fay Grim, in early 2006 throughout Europe and Southern Asia with Parker Posey, Tom Ryan, Jeff Goldblum, James Urbaniak and others.