Born and raised in a working class suburb of Long Island, New York, Hartley showed an early interest in art. He went on to study painting at the Massachusetts College of Art in Boston in the late 1970s and eventually became interested in directing films. By the early 1980s Hartley was studying filmmaking at the State University of New York at Purchase, where he cultivated a strong network of actors and film technicians that he would later employ in all of his movies. Hartley graduated from college in 1984 and began taking a series of low-paying production assistant jobs to pay the bills. It was also during this time that he began making short films in and around Long Island. By the late '80s Hartley was fed up with dead end P.A. work, and managed to convince his boss to finance his debut feature. The film was an unconventional take on a modern love story, and featured a teenage girl from Long Island falling in love with an older criminal. Despite its rather taboo subject matter, "The Unbelievable Truth" was a critical hit when it premiered in 1989, and went on to be nominated for the 1990 Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival.The critical success of the film allowed Hartley to focus entirely on filmmaking, and over the next five years he shot several equally lauded independent dramas, including "Trust," "Amateur," and "Flirt," all of which featured the director's signature offbeat dialogue and philosophical ramblings. In 1997 Hartley released his biggest hit to date, "Henry Fool." The film, about a trash collector who rises to become a literary celebrity, earned Hartley the Best Screenplay award at the 1998 Cannes Film Festival, and spawned a 2006 sequel, "Fay Grim." Hartley's continued directing in 2000s, although his films took on a more satirical tone: both "No Such Thing" and "The Girl From Monday" (2005) tackled themes of celebrity-driven culture and media manipulation in the 21st century. In 2011 Hartley directed "Meanwhile," his first film to be funded in part by the crowd-sourcing website Kickstarter. "Meanwhile" told the story of a man having to traverse around the streets of New York in order retrieve his house keys from a friend. Hartley began a Kickstarter campaign to see the film through its completion and eventual DVD release, which occurred in 2012.