Mr. Movie

Interview with director Nicole Holofcener

Writer/director Nicole Holofcener is being compared to Woody Allen. It’s high praise. Holofcener worked as a production assistant on one of Allen’s films and he visited her parents when she was 10.

Her impression of Allen — according to some interviews — isn’t that impressive. Her writing and directing is.

Holofcener done four feature films. Three of them have gotten raves from critics — especially her latest Please Give with Catherine Keener, Oliver Platt, Amanda Peet, Sarah Steele and Rebecca Hall.

Holofcener and Tri-City Herald film critic Gary Wolcott talked recently about Please Give and a bunch of other topics. Though the conversation got serious occasionally, the two also had a great time sparring.

Gary Wolcott: I loved Please Give. I also loved Friends with Money and Lovely and Amazing. Where did you get this story?

Nicole Holofcener: It comes from things that are rolling around my head these days. Two apartments interested me and the conflict it could create in neighbors. It was kind of hard to put it all together but there it is.

GW: You get really good actors to be in your movies which tells me something.

NH: (Laughs) I have a good casting director.

GW: It’s more than just that. Your scripts are good. How do you write dialogue like that?

NH: Characters just start talking. I just try to be as natural as I can and hear that person’s voice distinctly and have it be distinct from someone else’s.

GW: I like talking to screenwriters because I believe great movies begin with great writing. The best story in the world will suck if it’s not well written.

NH: Some movies have great writing and the director screws it up. You can have a great script and see the movie and say “what happened?”

GW: That won’t happen to you because you do your own stuff.

NH: Damn straight! I don’t want to wreck my own stuff.

GW: You just think you don’t wreck your own stuff (laughs).

NH: (Laughs) I hope I don’t wreck my own stuff.

GW: So far. So good. I remember Friends with Money really well but remember liking Lovely and Amazing though I don’t remember much about it.

NH: You mean you don’t remember the six-minute frontal nude scene?

GW: Now that would be lovely and amazing. (Laughs) You have used Catherine Keener in all four of your feature films. Are you good friends?

NH: Yes. But I have a lot of good friends I wouldn’t put in my films. She’s an amazing actress. She has all the qualities I look for in an actor. She’s funny and intelligent, natural, a good listener, a good sport.

GW: The chemistry was good between her and Oliver Platt who plays her husband and that was very important to the characters.

NH: I really believed they were a couple.

GW: So did I. When you’re writing a character do you have someone in mind for that part? Did you have Catherine Keener and Oliver Platt in mind for these two?

NH:Yes, I did have them in mind. I wasn’t certain they were going to actually end up playing them. You never really know. But they did. And they worked out well. The others came about as part of the regular casting process. I didn’t picture them in my head when I was writing them.

GW: Going back to my first question. Where do you come up with the situations you put your characters in. A good example is the conflict between the daughter and the mother over buying a pair of $200 designer jeans. She’ll give homeless people that much money but won’t spend it on the girl.

NH: I don’t know where I got that from. It just popped into my head while I was writing and I had no idea it would become such a significant part of the movie. I was just writing scenes between a daughter and her mother; the daughter wanting some stuff and having zits. That’s how I write. It just sort of unfolds, things just scream out to be made permanent. I kind of let it happen. Sometimes it works. If it doesn’t, I take it out.

GW: It’s not so much that the scene is signifiant. It just fits even though the jeans don’t fit her. She’s kind of chunky.

NH: I thought she was thin?

GW: (Laughs) Did we see the same movie?

NH: That’s the universe of a teenager. Pimples and jeans. That’s what it should be. They shouldn’t be thinking about anything else. I guess I got into the head of a teenager and remembered vividly what it was like. It’s not my teenager but me as a teenager.

GW: Do you have a teenager?

NH: Twin boys. They’re 12.

GW: You’re lucky.

NH: In what way?

GW: They’re not girls. My granddaughter is 13. It’s frightening. I bought her a mirror and a cell phone with internet access for Christmas.

NH: A mirror and cell phone?

GW: At 13 that’s what they’re into.

NH: But they pass through it. Just give it time.

GW: Blue jeans are next?

NH: (Laughs)

GW: What inspires you?

NH: I’ve been doing this 15 years and so far my own life inspires me. That and the lives of my friends and what is generally right outside my door. If I look. And I don’t have to look far. I have written from personal experience. So far that’s what’s been getting me to complete screenplays.

GW: How long did it take you to write Please Give?

NH: On and off it took about a year. I put it down for awhile because it wasn’t working and I couldn’t bear to struggle with it anymore. Then I picked it back up and it was easy to finish. Sometimes it’s best to read with fresh eyes. But it’s different with each one. Sometimes it’s six months. That doesn’t seem that long to me but it might to a studio if I was being paid by them. They’d be mad at me.

GW: What I like about your characters is that they’re real people — including the teenager and her jeans that we spent entirely too much time on.

NH: (Laughs).

GW: You spend time in places a main stream movie won’t.

NH: That’s an interesting way to put it. I like that. Yeah, I guess I do. Sometimes I see similar themes on TV or similar jokes but I spend more with them or explore it deeper.

GW: People will spend a long time watching a scene that goes nowhere and not be unhappy or bored if the characters are being who they should be.

NH: Those are the kind of movies I love watching. You really can break all the molds if you’re honest and the writing is good and the acting is good and you’re engaged. Who cares if it is too long or even if you don’t know what it’s about.

GW: I recently caught Goodbye Solo again and reviewed it for a film club in the Tri-Cities. It’s a movie about a cab driver who picks up a guy that wants to be transported to a mountain in 10 days or so, so he can jump off. The film doesn’t really go anywhere. It’s just about people being who they are. You’d like it. It’s a lot like Please Give or Friends with Money. It’s about people being who they are. And when the movie is over I’m mad because I like these people and I want to know what happens next in their lives. I feel the same about Please Give. Why don’t you guys ever do sequels?

NH: Yeah.

GW: How come you can write something like this and other writers can’t?

NH: I don’t know. I’m me. I don’t know how to do anything else. I’ve tried to actually write something where I could make a huge chunk of money but I just bore myself to tears. And I don’t write well when I’m bored. I think some people just write to irritate other people or to sound funny or write a genre thing and they’re not coming from a place of individual inspiration. I think a screenplay should be written from that place.

GW: Do you the writer like yourself as a director or do you screw up your own script?

NH: This director treats this writer with a lot of respect and always loves her on the set. It’s great to be able to do both. It’s a great collaboration.

GW: Do actors like you as a director? Do you let them play with your stuff?

NH: Absolutely. If there’s mutual respect and I think they get the script and get me, then yes, I want to hear their ideas — preferably before the camera rolls and usually that’s when it happens. Oliver Platt did a great deal with his character. He really helped flesh it out for himself and answer questions for himself that I couldn’t answer. He’s male. I’m not. We have a good time. I don’t take the whole process as seriously as some. It’s serious to me but in the end it should be fun.

GW: If it’s not fun why do it? Do you go to movies?

NH: Not much.

GW: What’s the last great one you saw?

NH: A Serious Man, the Coen Brothers. That’s the last one I really loved.

GW: Who would you like to work with — you write, they direct?

NH: Neil LaBute (Lakeview Terrace), Lisa Cholodenko (Laurel Canyon) or Jane Campion (The Piano).

GW: Does 3-D work for you?

NH: For the first 10 minutes. I haven’t seen Avatar yet. That last one I saw that I liked was Coraline which I loved.

GW: So did I. Would you want to do an animated feature?

NH: Yeah, when I’m fed up with actors.

GW: You still have actors. They’re just drawn and you do get them separately and not together.

NH: True. But their characters don’t talk back. I probably won’t do one. I’m very technically un-inclined.

GW: You’re more of a character study kind of person anyway. You create great characters. We’re out of time. So sum it up. What are you trying to tell me about giving?

NH: I’m actually asking more questions than telling you about giving. The dynamics of giving are really complicated and interesting. Who do you give to, who do you not give to. I don’t have any answers. I just find it an interesting topic.