“PLEASE GIVE”‘s NICOLE HOLOFCENER | By Jason Guerrasio
This piece was originally printed in our 2010 Winter issue.
In a New York Times piece written last month on the commercial success in 2009 of films aimed at female audiences (Twilight: New Moon, Julie & Julia, The Proposal), critic Manohla Dargis also took note of the relative paucity of female directors in Hollywood. Sure, there’s Kathryn Bigelow, who won many critic’s Best Director awards with The Hurt Locker, and there are Nora Ephron, Ann Fletcher and a few others but, for the most part, wrote Dargis, “Only a handful of female directors picked up their paychecks from one of the six major Hollywood studios and their remaining divisions this year.” Noting that Bigelow took seven years between pictures, she wondered why female directors have had a hard time sustaining careers in this business while their male counterparts are given regular opportunities and are even forgiven for a flop or two.
One female director who has been able to make her films while not being dependent on the whims of studio development executives is Nicole Holofcener. Although Holofcener does Hollywood screenwriting work and directs television (Bored to Death, Sex and the City), as a director she has received little assistance from those major studios. Nonetheless she is returning in 2010, just three years after her Friends with Money, with Please Give, another semi-autobiographical story about modern women and the ways in which female identity is modulated by contemporary social convention. Like all her films, it is funny, but, as always, her humor is laced with a shot of pain, this time the lingering angst that comes from her 40-something character’s recognition of her mortality. And with this fourth film, Holofcener’s project — a series of movies that explore the different issues women face as they age — becomes clearly visible.
In her debut feature Walking and Talking, Holofcener explored female friendship between two very different women in their twenties. In 2001’s Lovely & Amazing she highlighted insecurity and body-image issues. In 2006’s Friends with Money she turned to midlife crisis. Now with Please Give, Holofcener considers, among other things, death as well as ethics. Set against the backdrop of New York City real estate, she asks why materialistic actions can make us feel better while selfless ones sometimes don’t. Catherine Keener stars as Kate, who along with her husband (Oliver Platt) wait patiently for their elderly neighbor to die so they can knock down her walls and expand their apartment. Rebecca Hall (Vicky Cristina Barcelona) plays Rebecca, the granddaughter of the elderly neighbor, who has shut down her social life to care for the ailing woman and who forms an unlikely bond with Kate. Gradually Rebecca comes to terms with her grandmother’s impending death while Kate, who also has a business with her husband selling high-end furniture of the deceased, displaces her guilt by giving money to the homeless — all the while ignoring the needs of her daughter (Spanglish’s Sarah Steele) and not realizing that her husband is having an affair with Rebecca’s sister (Amanda Peet).
Okay, it’s a far cry from The Proposal — even if Sandra Bullock was originally attached to star in Holofcener’s Walking and Talking. Perhaps controlling her own destiny in the independent sphere, continuing to pen her multilayered, tonally tricky ensemble stories, and not doing for-hire romantic comedies is why Holofcener is one of the few female writer-directors in America who has maintained a singular, unmistakable voice throughout her entire filmography.
Holofcener talked to Filmmaker the day Please Give was named to the Premiere section of the 2010 Sundance Film Festival. Sony Pictures Classics opens the film in early April.
Filmmaker: Where did the idea for Please Give come from?
Holofcener: The idea of buying an apartment while someone is still living in it and then waiting for them to die was the jumping-off point for this story. A friend of mine had done that and actually became friends with the old woman and went to her funeral. We actually shot in the building that my friend lived in. I know someone else who did the same thing in New York and he’s waiting for the woman to die. I mean, that’s a weird way to say it — it’s not like he’s waiting, but the apartment will become his when she dies. It’s this phenomenon in New York, and it’s a strange relationship, like every time you see this person in the elevator you’re reminded of death. The Catherine Keener character is not a bad person. Amanda Peet’s character puts it best, “You don’t think she would die if she didn’t buy the apartment?”
Filmmaker: On a broader level, was the theme of mortality on your mind when starting the film?
Holofcener: More when the script was done. I didn’t sit down thinking, I want to write a movie about death or homeless people or infidelity or any of those things. I probably would have been paralyzed if I thought I was taking on such a big subject. The characters just slowly evolved and the issues erupted naturally.Whatever is important to me consciously or unconsciously ends up on the page, I guess. I mean I’m always thinking about death. I’m on the other side of half over, so [laughs] what else is there to think about?
Filmmaker: It’s almost like you’ve made one long movie across your whole career. You’re going through the progression of life through your movies.
Holofcener: Definitely, but completely unconsciously. I can’t imagine what I’ll come up with next — an old-age home or something. I’m not ready for that yet. But because what I write is autobiographical I suppose it’s inevitable. As long as I continue to mature in the right direction these things will come up.
Filmmaker: You’ve said in interviews that you don’t constantly write and stow away scripts, so when did you start thinking about this project?
Holofcener: After Friends with Money I got this idea about the apartment and started taking notes. And then at a certain point I don’t want to take notes anymore so it inspires me to start writing, which is a pretty quick [process]. I don’t think about the script; I just start writing and assume it’s going to be terrible, which is kind of a weight off my shoulders. I’m able to be free to have it be messy and bad. This particular script I threw away in the middle because I couldn’t find it. The characters just were not good and it wasn’t ending. It wasn’t falling into place. I kept trying and I finally just put it down. A couple of months later I picked it up and reread it and had some other ideas and finished it.
Filmmaker: Was it the voice of the characters, their interaction with each other or the story that was giving you trouble?
Holofcener: Sometimes you throw ideas at the wall and see if they stick. For some reason I felt someone should be cheating in this movie and I wrote versions where everyone was cheating. I had Catherine Keener and Oliver Platt working in a lotion store, like those stores in Chelsea where they sell four kinds of lotions. They were working there and she was having an affair. It was fun to write it for a while but it just wasn’t right. I just didn’t like it and the store wasn’t right. So I threw them in another store and then when I came up with the furniture store it kind of opened up a whole other world of buying things from dead people and “stuff” and the value of stuff. That added a layer to the script without really even trying. That’s why it’s good sometimes to just let your own unconscious play and not to be afraid of [the script] being really bad at first.
Filmmaker: Does feedback from your actors shape the characters, or do you direct them toward the way they are conceived on the page?
Holofcener: Certain characters I’m more in the dark about than others. Like in Friends with Money there were one or two characters that I didn’t know as well as the others. But I always want feedback from the actors as long as it’s within reason. If I start to wonder why they took the part, then it’s too much. Sometimes an actor will say, “Why am I saying this?” And I literally don’t know the answer — I just typed it out. [Laughs] Maybe there’s a reason and maybe there isn’t and usually at this point an actor will trust me and will say the words. But if it doesn’t work we’ll come up with something else.
Filmmaker: Keener’s character this time around seems a bit more sympathetic than in your previous films. Was that intentional?
Holofcener: Yes, she said, “Make me likable.” [Laughs] No, it was not conscious. You do sympathize with her character, but she’s kind of a boob. Really bumbling. I didn’t really think this was her chance to be lovable, but also I just don’t think like that.
Filmmaker: Were Amanda Peet, Oliver Platt and Rebecca Hall people you thought of while you were writing?
Holofcener: When I was writing it I pictured Oliver. I had him and a couple of actors in mind and he stuck in my head the most. Luckily he was available. And Rebecca, I didn’t know who she was, but Jeanne McCarthy, our casting director, said I should meet her, and she was lovely. Vicky Cristina Barcelona had just come out, and I rented Starter for Ten and she’s in that too, and I thought she was perfect. I thought she was a little too beautiful for the part, but hey, it’s a movie. [Laughs] I had to work hard to get her to look pretty plain. She didn’t read for it or anything, I think I ran into her on the street, in fact, and I said I want you to play the part and everyone was mad at me because I didn’t have permission to offer it to her yet. [Laughs] Amanda, I’ve wanted to work with her for a long time.
Filmmaker: You started your movies while living in New York, but now you live in L.A. Had you thought of setting this movie there instead?
Holofcener: New York was always the setting. It’s the only place I know in terms of this kind of real estate thing happening. As I was writing it I kept thinking, “I have to set this somewhere else because I didn’t want to leave my kids back in L.A.” But you just can’t set this kind of story anywhere else. I mean you couldn’t buy this story in somewhere like Long Beach. [Laughs] And there were so many creative elements, like the narrow elevator and their front doors right next to each other, that I couldn’t concoct anywhere else.
Filmmaker: So was it strange to come back and shoot in New York, which you hadn’t done since Walking and Talking in 1995?
Holofcener: It’s just life. Once you have kids you’re going to stick around where they are. I consciously wrote Lovely & Amazing and Friends with Money to take place in L.A. because I didn’t want to go anywhere. But now that my kids are older I think I want to have something take place in the Caribbean or some place real nice.
Filmmaker: Despite all the talk about how hard it is to get a movie made, you were lucky to have Sony Classics come in and finance the film.
Holofcener: Yeah. It was scary, though — I got in under the wire, right before the economy collapsed. I wasn’t sure if the movie was going to get made at all. They were kind of anxious about taking it on. I think they only saw its darkness.
Filmmaker: I would think that the kinds of films you make — character based, with complicated tones — would be the ones most affected by the industry’s current money woes. Do you think you’re going to be able to continue making these sorts of films?
Holofcener: I don’t know, but I am a little worried. Especially because it seems the only way to get a movie made, even a $3 to $5 million one, is you have to have more than one really big star, which is completely wrong for a small indie movie. So I’m definitely concerned. I hope that I can creatively go with the flow and make a living and continue directing. Believe me, I’m not trying to not make a really financially successful movie.
Filmmaker: What projects are upcoming?
Holofcener: I’ve adapted this book, Every Secret Thing [a novel by Laura Lippman], and we’re going to try to get money for that. It will be nothing like my other films. It’s a thriller, it has death, suspense, and I don’t think it’s going to be easy to make either. It’s kind of a Mystic River type of thing. The leads are female so that’s a whole different ballgame I guess, unless I get it to three big-name female stars who can get the movie financed but might not necessarily be right for the part. We’ll see.
Filmmaker: Have you made compromises to get your films made?
Holofcener: Absolutely. But I haven’t yet had to compromise in a way that I’ve lost sleep over. I haven’t felt like I’ve sold my soul. Making movies is so difficult that one is making compromises constantly, like casting someone who isn’t my ideal choice. But then that person turns out to be fantastic so you forget the compromise. Or choosing one location over another and then later you forget that you even had that other location. But I don’t think that I would, at least this point in my life, start compromising to the point where it feels really bad. Not yet.