Even though she’s ‘so damn ancient,’ the director still defies Hollywood convention
“You know,” I said in a phone interview this week with Nicole Holofcener, the writer and director of the new film Please Give, “from Hollywood’s perspective, you do everything wrong. You make small, smart films that are dialogue-heavy and character-driven. The emotions are subtle, not super-sized. You focus on female characters, usually well past the ingénue stage, who are prickly and discontented. You use –”
“ – the same actress [Catherine Keener] over and over,” Holofcener jumped in, way ahead of me. “I write ensemble films, so I can’t get a huge star because there isn’t one clear lead character. My movies are too dark, or the humour’s too weird. They’re hard to market, because they don’t have a hook – they can’t be reduced to one line.”
I tried to come up with a few. For Walking and Talking (1996), Holofcener’s debut feature: Amelia (Keener) can’t manage to be happy that her best friend (Anne Heche) is getting married. For Lovely and Amazing (2001): Despite their closeness, a mother (Brenda Blethyn) and her two daughters (Keener and Emily Mortimer) continually baffle one another. For Friends with Money (2006): Four women (Keener, Frances McDormand, Joan Cusack and Jennifer Aniston) feel empty in lives that appear full. And for Please Give, which opened in select cities yesterday: When married Manhattan furniture dealers (Keener and Oliver Platt) buy the apartment next door but allow its elderly occupant to live there until her death, strange and complicated relationships arise between the couple and the woman’s granddaughters (Amanda Peet and Rebecca Hall).
“You’re right, it’s pretty tortuous,” I said. “The movies are so much fuller and funnier than a tag line can convey.”
Holofcener sighed. “I have no idea why I can keep getting movies made,” she said. “I write a script on spec – which means nobody pays me – and then shop it around. Mostly I hear, ‘Great script,’ or even, ‘One of the best scripts I’ve ever read.’ And then I hear, ‘But we’re not going to make it.’ It’s always the same. Studios will say, ‘We want to make your next one, but notthis next one.’ It’s always the script I haven’t written that they want to make, not the one that’s in their hands. It’s really hypocritical and so full of shit. Or they want, I don’t know, some Nicole Kidman vehicle about a woman crossing the desert. It’s like, ‘What? That’s not what I do!’”
I thought I should tell her that she’s not supposed to be this honest, at least not to a journalist. But I didn’t, because I really wanted to hear what she’d say next.
“But somehow eventually I can convince the right people,” Holofcener continued. “For Please Give, Sony Classics first said, ‘This movie is so sad, I think I’d want to kill myself after seeing it. Why should we make it?’ So I went through it page by page and said, ‘This scene’s gonna be funny.’ They said, ‘You’re joking. It’s tragic!’ I said, “It’s tragic, but it’s also funny.’ That’s what the process of trying to get financing has always been like.”
In between features, Holofcener is in demand to rewrite other people’s scripts, or to direct episodes of smart-talky television shows, including Sex and the City, The Gilmore Girls, Six Feet Under and Bored to Death. She’s just adapted her first thriller, Every Secret Thing, for producer/star Frances McDormand, which they’ll soon be shopping around.
Almost every profile of Holofcener – who is 50, recently divorced, and the mother of twin 12-year-old sons – mentions that she grew up in New York and spent time on Woody Allen’s sets. (Her stepfather, Charles Joffe, was Allen’s long-time producer.) At Columbia Film School, her peers called her “the female Woody Allen.” But she says her connection to him was slight: “I was so young when I was on Woody’s sets. I worked as a production assistant on one when I was 19, but I was with the bagels and cream cheese. And Woody whispers to his actors, so the very few times I was allowed on the set, I couldn’t hear what he was saying. The only thing I picked up is what everybody picks up from being a huge fan of his early movies and watching them over and over: His long takes, and the dolly shots, and the natural performances. And his brilliance.”
What most profiles don’t mention is that Holofcener’s first professional gig was as a writer on the hit Canadian tweener TV series Ready or Not, for creator Alyse Rosenberg. “I have wonderful memories of us sitting on living-room floors bashing out ideas and memories from our own tween lives,” Rosenberg told me.
The intense female friendships, the long and winding conversations, the delicate calibrations of emotions – all the characteristics of Holofcener’s movies were nascent in Ready or Not. “It’s all the same, yeah; I think it’s all exactly the same,” Holofcener said. “You try to put your feet in someone else’s shoes and go. I tend to like things that, I don’t know, tell the truth.”
I’ll say. Holofcener boldly strides into conversations that others would consider minefields. She admits to “freaking out” prior to turning 50: “It just seems so damn ancient, and it’s the unsexiest number, in our culture anyway. We should be dead, right, because we’re useless to the population. But I would never lie about my age. I think women especially have to stop that.”
On money, the focus of her last two films, she says: “I feel it’s one of the last taboos, like race. It evokes such strong feelings of shame or greed or envy, whether you make too little or too much. My screenwriter friends might make $700,000 for a script, which of course is obscene – and not even the highest amount. When I ask, ‘How much?’ you should see the embarrassment on their faces. I feel ashamed of the amount of money I make, compared to normal people who have normal jobs.”
And on Please Give’s opening credits, which show a panoply of older breasts being squished in a mammogram machine, she says, “I’m aware of being shocking, and that a lot of people might not like it. But I think it’s funny. In French movies, women are topless, and they have these big hanging boobs. But in this country people say, ‘Oh, that’s disgusting.’ That’s sad.
“I guess I like to be shocking sometimes,” Holofcener sums up. “When I was younger, it came from a more immature place. At least now when I’m doing it I’m aware of it.” I’d say hyper-aware. And thrillingly so.