Within seconds of sitting down with filmmaker Nicole Holofcener, it’s easy to see where her films get their endearing sense of humour. The writer and director behind Lovely & Amazing, Friends with Money, Please Give, and this week’s Enough Said, has a naturally self-effacing and matter-of-fact tone that comes across splendidly in the comedies she crafts about everyday people dealing with everyday problems that have somehow magnified into high drama for the participants. She laughs and openly jokes about the things she always wanted to do or could have done, but never had the chance, never responding cynically but giggling that she had the opportunity in the first place.
For her latest, Holofcener gives Julia Louis-Dreyfuss her first big screen starring role as a divorced mother beginning a cautious new relationship with a new, sweet, and slightly slovenly beau (the late James Gandolfini, who passed away shortly after the film was completed). She also begins a friendship with a new-agey poet (Catherine Keener) who initially comes to her as a client in her door-to-door massage business, but once she becomes aware that her new bestie and her new man were once married, it throws a wrench into her sense of loyalty and ethics to both parties. With neither person able to say anything nice about the other behind their backs, Holofcener’s heroine is forced into awkwardly reading between the lines and only seeing the most annoying personality traits of both parties.
While in town for TIFF, Holofcener talked to Dork Shelf about how she draws inspiration from real life, the passing of James Gandolfini, how the late actor wasn’t her first choice, why it took so long for anyone to give Julia Louis-Deryfuss a starring role, and the difficulties of modern filmmaking as a female director who likes making age appropriate movies about real women.
Let’s get this out of the way first since you’ve probably already talked about it a bunch today: How was it for you when you found out about James Gandolfini’s passing?
Nicole Holofcener: It was horrible. It was horrible for me as it was for you or anyone who really loved him or was a fan of his work or who knew him. I hadn’t known him for that long, and I still really didn’t. Once the movie was finished, I saw him a few weeks before his passing to do the ADR for the movie. It’s devastating, and I’m still kind of in shock. I just can’t even now believe that he isn’t just going to walk in the room right now. I know he would have loved to be here.
It was great to shoot with him. He was a complicated man. He wasn’t the easiest man, and I know he didn’t like be interviewed that much. He was never difficult. I think that he could at times be kind of intimidated, which worked for his character, because Julia and Catherine and I were all like sisters. We had a shorthand. Jim took his part seriously, but he wasn’t always that confident when it came to his sense of humour and his comedic chops. Julia is really fast and Jim was a lot slower, and I think to some degree he thought he always had to match wits with her in a way. But he didn’t, and we just told him to just do it his way. His comedy was so much better than he gave himself credit for.
Did he see the film?
NH: (shakes her head no) He didn’t choose to before it was finished. He saw only the few scenes that we showed him when he came in to do the ADR. That was it.
Knowing what you know now, could you have imagined anyone else playing the role other than James?
NH: It’s kind of funny because I wrote the film with Louis CK in my head for the part. So you can kind of see where it was supposed to head, but Louis CK actually wouldn’t give me the time of day. (laughs) And thank goodness, right? I’m blessed with Jim’s performance.
Seriously, though Louis CK honestly never gave me the time of day, which at first I was a little hurt by. I do get it, though. He’s a pretty big deal right now and he’s doing great for himself. He probably just had no idea who I am or what I do, and he just had other things going on. I know his show has to keep him pretty busy.
The film has a very distinct sort of classic Los Angeles vibe to it, and it’s a theme you have touched on before in your films. Is there something that draws you to that sort of personality that seems to exist in that area?
NH: Well, it’s definitely a West Hollywood story, this one. I mean, I grew up in New York and lived there for twenty years, so there’s always a small bit of that in there, I think. I wish I was bi-coastal now. I wish at times I still had a place in New York, but I don’t think these stories would be any different wherever they took place. I mean, I like having it in California because I know the locations and I don’t want to move my family around too much. I live in Venice. It’s all there on the streets, everything I need, but really I could have set this anywhere.
Is this story based on something that actually happened to yourself or someone close to you?
NH: (laughs) No, thankfully. I’m sure it COULD happen, but really I just came up with it. I was thinking about how we find out about people’s flaws and quirks a bit too late, and what it would be like if we could hedge our bets and see what we could find out before it’s too late. It was just an idea in my head thinking about my ex-husband and him having a new girlfriend and wondering if she was ever going to call me to find out everything about him in advance. But then the thoughts changed when I realized that those experiences would only be hers, and robbing someone of those moments would destroy any relationship.
I think the most truthful thing in the film from my life that’s almost word for word is how Jim’s character has a thing against feet. That’s totally my boyfriend. (laughs) He’s such a great guy. He’s just disgusted by feet. He always has to point out people’s feet. My boyfriend would never wear sandals.
More generally rather than specifically I draw from real life. My boyfriend is such a great guy and he knows what I do and he just says, “Write whatever you want.” (laughs)
It’s kind of funny that you didn’t have something similar happen to you because it feels so real. It’s also amusing because you have also written a great mother-daughter relationship for Julia and Tracey Fairaway to play with when you don’t have a daughter yourself.
NH: (laughs) It’s true! But I am very close to my niece. She just turned 20, and I am really close to my sons who are 16 year old twins. And being a daughter myself who left her family to go to college, I can relate to the daughter’s journey. I like to put myself into other people’s shoes from time to time, but mostly I’m just putting them into my own.
There are a lot of different relationships that come into play in the film, but do you think there’s a common binding factor between everyone in the film?
NH: I don’t know. (laughs) I really don’t think anything connects them together on a deeper level. Obviously, the plot connects them together through specific things that happen. Other than that, not really.
But what’s interesting about those relationships is that they are all loving and based a lot in little details and interactions between these characters. Is that something that starts in the screenplay or do that actors bring a lot to that?
NH: There’s no time to let actors figure anything out. (laughs)
(laughs) Oh, so it was one of THOSE movies…
NH: Oh, absolutely. It was only about 24 days or something like that. I mean, it’s really in the script. Ostensibly, the actors could hate each other and it could feasibly still work. I hear that happens in movies all the time! (laughs) It thankfully hasn’t happened on any of my movies, though, thank God. Everyone hit it off, and that meant everyone felt comfortable to improvise and add new things, and tailor the roles a bit more to themselves. “Can I say this like this?” or “I don’t think I would necessarily say that.” And when it comes to things like that, I’m really open to it whenever it’s good.
Do you think it’s easier for you to flesh out these kinds of relationships more in a comedy than you might be able to in a drama?
NH: Yeah, I think so. I just don’t like melodrama and I just always write funny stuff. Once as a writing exercise I adapted a novel into a screenplay. It was this murder-thriller and it was fun, but I was always putting funny stuff into that. It was a different kind of funny, though. It was just a lot more awkward to me.
What keeps you coming back to work with Catherine Keener?
NH: Well, she’s amazing. She’s a wonderful character unto herself without a script. We have such a shorthand that I could say “I was thinking…” and she would just say “I know!” She’s usually right. She usually does exactly what I was thinking. It’s uncanny. She understands my writing and sense of humour. We have so much fun. We’re friends, too. We have kids similar ages, we don’t live too far from each other.
What made you want to work with Julia Louis-Dreyfus as your lead here?
NH: I wasn’t sure about her until I met her, actually, and when the chance to meet her came up, I jumped at it. I was a huge fan of hers. We sat down for lunch and we instantly got along. We had a similar sense of humour, a similar obsession with our sons. She was really emotional and warms and I could see she wasn’t really anything like the characters she normally plays. “Oh, yeah, you’re not really Elaine Benes. You really are a woman my age.” I knew she would be great and that we would have a lot of fun. And she’s really famous, and that doesn’t hurt.
It’s hard to make films about adult women and the relationships in their lives because it’s not an easy thing to sell. What was the struggle like to get it made, because it’s astounding to think it took this long to get Julia into a leading role in a film?
NH: It’s crazy, isn’t it? Why did it take so long? It’s so hard to get a film made with a middle aged, female star. It wasn’t easy at all. There were a lot of lists and a lot of negotiations that said, “Okay, if you cast this girl then it has to be that guy” or “If it’s this guy, it’s gotta be that girl.” Marketing is really important to these people. I mean, she’s not getting naked, but she’s gorgeous in a real-person kind of way. I think that once a woman turns 40, the general audience just diminishes. It’s terrible, and like to think I’m lucky I’ve been able to get my movies made.
Do you think it’s any easier now to get a film made as a female director making movies about normal women that it was when you first started?
NH: I would say it’s easier than it probably was about twenty years ago, but it’s still not easy at all. Just because Katherine Bigelow won an Oscar or Nora Ephron knew her way around a big budget, doesn’t mean much. It’s still very sexist and racist, too. America is just so far behind in culture and sophistication, don’t you think? I mean, other countries give money to people to go out and make art.
With women, it seems sad that so many people see us as being dead after 40. In Europe, I don’t think people see women like that. A French woman is often considered beautiful until they are dead. It’s a generalization, of course, but there’s some truth to it. There are still maybe only six women, at best, who would ever be entrusted with a large budget or to star in a big budget blockbuster without studios worrying. It’s changing, slowly, but it’s still an issue.
Do you have a problem with people looking down on something like this and dismissing it as a “chick flick”?
NH: Yeah, I don’t really like it. I think guys that are thoughtful and funny will be able to see it and laugh just as hard. Again, it’s just another sexist pigeonhole. And I don’t like to focus on my gender in general. I think we have to stop saying “women in film” and just call them directors and actors.
Do you think that long term there is still space for these kinds of smaller movies to get bigger releases in the future or do you think people are generally a bit more cautious today?
NH: Well, it’s harder now in some respects. Even in LA where I live and you think there would be a vibrant community for these kinds of things, theatres are closing down all over the place. So, no, things are getting smaller and smaller. If you have an independent movie that isn’t doing incredibly well, it will be out maybe for a week if you are lucky, compared to twenty or thirty years ago when something smaller could find an audience over time.
Could you see yourself at some point in the future potentially going the Netflix or online route?
NH: I think I might like that, sure. I mean, I would take Netflix over someone like Warner Brothers if it means I can make my own creative decisions. It’s the same thing where if you can’t get something made as a movie you can take it to HBO or FX and have better success there. I would always want it to be in the best medium possible for an audience to see it. And I don’t want to make it with some schlocky porn producer or anything like that. (sarcastically) That would be my second career. (laughs) But I will take whatever I can get.
The best thing about having a studio or distributor behind your movie is that I largely don’t have to peddle it. I mean, (laughs) I know I am kind of doing that right now, but I’m not too comfortable doing self-promotion, and I think that someone who sells something on video-on-demand, you have to be a heartier soul. I don’t think I could do that.