Like Josh Hutton, his alter ego in "The Unbelievable Truth," director Hal Hartley is tall, thirtyish, blue-eyed and blue-collar. But unlike Hutton, the ex-con mechanic whose return to his hometown propels the movie's action, Hartley has taken control of his life. And his films.

It wasn't always that way.

An introverted, skinny kid from Lindenhurst, Long Island, whose ironworker father and two older brothers were perplexed by his apparent lack of direction, Hartley didn't start out headed for acclaim as a hot young auteur.

"It was clear I had a creative bent," he recalls. "But it wasn't clear whether it was for carpentry or for telling elaborate lies."

Now, with the success of "The Unbelievable Truth," a movie he wrote, directed, edited, co-produced -- and shot in 11 1/2 days for $200,000 -- Hartley has become bona fide and maybe even bankable. For "Trust," his second feature film, which he shot in April with a $1 million budget, he was able to command, and get, complete creative control. "I can't imagine working without it," he says.

Of course, creative control is easier to maintain in your twenties, when you're making the kind of short films that Hartley -- a gangly guy who looks like a stretched-out cross between Nicolas Cage and Ray Bolger -- started out with. No major money was involved, and he worked in whatever medium his budget allowed. "If I had $100, I'd make a three-minute movie in super-8," he says. "If I didn't have any money, I'd work in video or write. The budget is the aesthetic. You can't be too precious."

For Hartley, who studied at the Purchase campus of the State University of New York, the point was to film through his own eyes, with his own voice. And in the '80s, he wasn't exactly crazy about what he saw. No fast-track compromises for fame and money for him. No life-as-a-business-deal arrangements like the ones he implicitly criticizes in "The Unbelievable Truth." ("There's nothing inherently wrong with a deal," he says. "But if the deals are motivated by a bad end, then it will probably turn out wrong.")

Instead, he was -- and is -- into ethics, aesthetics, metaphysics, self-questioning. And also into working as much as he can.

"I like to work fast, get it done and move on to the next project," he says. "I don't think enough of my contemporaries practice enough. You have to work all the time to get better, to do more exciting work."

Hartley has done his share of practicing. Although he graduated from SUNY with honors, jobs in film weren't exactly falling into his lap. After starting out as an ironworker with his father and brother, he branched out to grip/electrical work and then found employment as a freelance production assistant. ("I never had to take a job I actually despised," he says.) And all the while he was making short films and writing film scripts.

Two years ago, while working as a production assistant at Action Productions, a company that made informational videotapes for industry, he went into his bank with a friend for "money to get drunk" on the Fourth of July. "I looked up and saw posters saying 'ask us for a loan,' " he remembers. Claiming that he wanted money for a computer -- he still doesn't have one -- he filled out the forms, offered no collateral and, to his amazement, soon found himself with $6,000. The next thing he knew, his friend had $6,000 and so did one of Hartley's brothers. And his boss at Action, Jerome Brownstein, said that if Hartley did a budget for a feature film and it looked sound, Brownstein would go out and get the rest of the money.

They did, and Brownstein -- the executive producer of "Truth" -- did, and Hartley persuaded his friends who'd be working on the movie to put off being paid. But they had to shoot it quickly, because they all had day jobs and had to fit "Truth" into their two-week vacations.

That, of course, is not the way Hartley imagines doing things in Hollywood. But Hollywood is unlikely to give Hartley the kind of leeway he's after. "They have the money to be flexible, but I don't know if they have the mind-set," he says. "I'd just cause trouble for them and for me -- but it is a lot of money. ..."

Money, after all, is not exactly insignificant in filmmaking. And despite his somewhat arcane tastes and the decidedly art-film nature of his work, Hartley wants to be profitable. "So people invest," he explains. "So I can work all the time and work fast. I don't want to spend three years cleverly developing a project with big stars, and risk ending up with nothing. I'd like to have health insurance -- I'm working steadily toward health insurance."

Such a mainstream goal sounds surprising coming from a guy whose films are more at home with "Twin Peaks," "sex, lies and videotape" and much of the work of Jonathan Demme than they are with blockbuster flicks. Hartley shrugs off the comparisons. "We're all working now," he says.

The filmmakers he's interested in are Jean-Luc Godard, Howard Hawks, Wim Wenders, Preston Sturges, Stanley Kubrick, Jim Jarmusch, Pedro Almodovar, George Lucas. "I really miss that Lucas doesn't make films anymore," he says.

One of the things that give Hartley a kick about the success of "The Unbelievable Truth" is that his family finally knows what he does. His short features -- "Kid" (33 minutes) and "Dogs" (25 minutes) and "The Cartographer's Girlfriend" (29 minutes) -- somehow weren't enough.

"My family knew I answered phones and made movies," he says. "But now they have actual information." With "Truth," which like all his films was made mostly on Long Island, his family couldn't help but find out: His cousin Patsy's house, his cousin Donald's house and his father's front yard were used as locations.

And as Hartley's family learned more about what he was up to, paths of communication were opened, and he learned more about them. "I've admired their unpretentious way of asking about something they don't understand," he says. "The older I get, the more impressed I am with them."

His life now is admittedly different from the world he grew up in. He lives alone in "a very expensive tiny apartment" in a building with a doorman between two New York University dormitories in Greenwich Village. He starts each day by going out for coffee and a croissant, returns to take care of business, and for the past few months has been editing his second feature film and making a lot more music. (One of the first things he did when he made some money from "Truth" was to purchase a Yamaha keyboard with 63 sampled instruments.)

His friends are still mainly his pals from film school, a group of people he describes as "very intelligent and diverse" from whom he learns about the world. Fortunately they read the newspapers and watch television, because Hartley hasn't since 1977, when he felt television was making him brain dead, and the news-reading habit was making him lose a lot of his faith in humanity. At the moment he is bothered by the fact that he has no desk -- a problem for someone who writes all the time (even on the road he is careful to keep a journal). So he often works at the Action office, where his company, True Fiction Productions, has space. His current plan is to find himself a desk, rearrange his room and continue on his next film, "Simple Men."

He is delighted by the favorable critical and audience response to "Truth." "The film did $27,000 in New York {the first} weekend," he says proudly. "There must be a lot more people like me than I ever imagined." And he's even managed to maintain his balance about where he stands vis-a-vis the cinema establishment.

"Now I'm just the flavor of the week, the hotshot," says Hartley. "Let's see how things work out four or five films down the line."