“Sometimes I Think We Romanticize Not Having Enough Money for a Film”: Nancy Savoca on Household Saints
With its digital restoration world premiering at the 61st New York Film Festival tomorrow, we are publishing online for the first time Noam Christopher’s interview with writer/director Nancy Savoca about her Household Saints from our Fall, 1993 edition. Originally released by Fine Line Features, the new restoration is a Milestone Films release. — Editor
Nancy Savoca made her directorial debut with True Love, an unsentimental, widely acclaimed look at love and marriage in the Bronx. The winner of the Grand Jury Prize at the 1989 United States Film Festival, the film not only launched Savoca’s career, but the career of Annabella Sciora. It also gave Savoca the privileged opportunity to cross over into the world of Hollywood and make Dogfight, a Warner Bros. film with River Phoenix and Lili Taylor. Despite the comfort of having a big studio behind her, Savoca wanted to return to the independent film scene to make something a little closer to home. We recently sat down with Savoca to discuss the resulting project, Household Saints, a feature which Fine Line is releasing this fall.
Filmmaker: Your new film, Household Saints, which deals with three generations of Italian-American women, opens with the line, “It happened by the grace of God that Joseph Santangello won his wife in a card game.”
Savoca: Isn’t that great!
Filmmaker: Well it’s interesting because the women in your films are very strong characters — they have a sense of purpose and desire. But at the same time they are attracted to somewhat sexist men.
Savoca: Mmm, hmm. Very conventional, very traditional. Well, that’s the way the book opens, and I think it’s a great opening for a book. What I love about this movie is that it starts off being one thing and you think, “Okay, I know what this is about,” and then it takes you to very unexpected places. It turns on you about three or four times. Dogfight turned on you once — you thought you were seeing one movie and then you realize it’s something else. This does it like three times. You start off thinking “Here’s a story about a guy who wins his wife in a card game,” but it’s done in a way that you don’t feel, “Oh, isn’t it awful that he wins his wife in a card game.” By the end of the movie, you realize why everything had to happen the way it did. It turns out that it’s not about the guy who wins his wife in a card game, it’s about his wife. And then it turns out that it’s not just about her, but it’s about her relationship with her mother-in-law, and then God gets involved in it and then spirituality gets involved in it. then she has a daughter and it turns out that the movie is really about her daughter.
Filmmaker: So there’s a religious or spiritual subtext to Household Saints?
Savoca: I would use the word spiritual. Yeah, very much so. It’s about a spiritual journey. One of the things it’s about, because it’s about so many things, is the different ways in which each of these women relates to God or whatever they call God. It starts with the Grandma [Judith Malina], who’s superstitious, like the women who put up the candles and pray to Saints…
Filmmaker: For good sausage?
Savoca: Exactly. It’s very egotistical. Like. here’s God, let’s make a deal, I want you to do something for me, I want you to help me with my problems and my family, which is the way some people relate to God; you ask for favors. And then her daughter-in-law, who is the next generation, decides that all this God stuff is too Dark Ages for her. She does away with that kind of religion, with the old way and the old country, decides to be the all-American housewife. To her, God is maybe you go to church once a week; you don’t bother me, I won’t bother you, I can take care of my own life. The next generation is the Lili Taylor generation and she takes it one step further, which is “What can I do for you?” I’ve had all three feelings. I know what all three are like. The way I grew up, it was very similar. I come from a very religious Catholic and Argentinian family.
Filmmaker: That’s an interesting mix.
Savoca: Yes. And both are in some ways similar to what goes on with these people here. You had your saint, your family had a saint…I know what all the different saints do; there is a saint that takes care of your eyes, a saint of impossible causes and any time you had a problem you could just go and ask a favor of them. As you get older, sometimes that embarrasses you and you want to go away from that, but then as you get older again, you realize that there’s something missing if you’ve rejected your background. You realize you have to come back and that if you reject your spirituality you’re left feeling empty. You don’t know what’s wrong and you go, Oh, it’s because I don’t go to church. But what takes the place of that? Now I have kids. What do I tell them? [laughs] It gets more complicated — it’s not as easy to say, “All right, good-bye, I don’t need this.” You can’t say good-bye and close the door on your background, because it comes back to haunt you.
Filmmaker: You try to look at the the day-to-day things that women have done for ages in Household Saints. How do you reconcile that with the “magical” tone of the film?
Savoca: Anything that was ordinary and everyday we wanted to be magical, and then when the big magical stuff happens, like Judith Malina’s husband coming back from the dead to advise her, we wanted to treat that as if it happened all the time. We just wanted to switch things around. The way women run a household seems trivial and boring to most people in our society, mostly because we don’t value what women do, but this book took that and made it magical and wonderful, akin to my experience growing up. Women took real pride in what they did and they passed that on
Filmmaker: I know you had about $750,000 to work with for True Love and about $8,000,000 for Dogfight. What was the budget for Household Saints?
Savoca: I can tell you that people worked for scale and that we had very little money. I’d love to give you the number for it. The only reason we’re not allowed to do that is because when we go to sell this in foreign markets, they usually inflate the budget a little bit, so that it’s worth more, but we did not do this for a lot of money.
Filmmaker: What was the difference in filming with a larger budget and then a smaller budget again? Was it a blessing or was it an obstacle?
Savoca: Very mixed, very mixed. The good thing about having a big budget is you have a little bit more time to think on the set. You have a little bit more down time because the crew, the DP can take a little bit longer in setting up lights and all that stuff. I was able to rewrite on the set in Dogfight. Strangely enough, Dogfight was a big budget for me, but not a big budget for Hollywood, and I wasn’t able to film in San Francisco, which is where it took place, so we went to Seattle. But within that we were able to say, “I like this location, let’s go here, let’s do this.” And it was a period piece, and we were able to get the cars. They wanted a helicopter shot of the Bay Bridge in Dogfight — I gave it to them, fine, no problem… I had a little bit more time to experiment. When you have a low-budget movie, you don’t have any time at all to do that.
Filmmaker: Does that change the kinds of decisions you make on the set?
Savoca: Yes, absolutely. You’re always compromising with, “Do I lose this scene?,” “I have to get this shot done, but that means I can’t get the other shot done. What do I drop?” You’re constantly dropping things you wish you could keep and making hard decisions very fast. But, when you have a lot of money, you have to answer to a lot of people. I had creative freedom on True Love and Household Saints and that, to me, is worth it.
Filmmaker: Would you consider yourself an independent filmmaker or are you aiming towards a more mainstream audience?
Savoca: That’s a good question. I think independent filmmaking is a state of mind. I think that an independent filmmaker is someone who goes out and puts their stamp on something and has very strong ideas about what they want to do with their script. So you can be an independent filmmaker like Spike Lee is within Universal studios, or you can be an independent filmmaker with Fine Line Features, like we are. Or you can be a non-independent filmmaker if you do a hack job for blah-blah-blah productions and get paid very little money. You can also be a non-independent filmmaker on low-budget movie. Sometimes I think we romanticize not having enough money for a film, the way some people romanticize what it’s like to be poverty-stricken. It’s not fun to not have a lot of money. You always think you could do a better film with more money, and you’re very frustrated. It affects your life personally, and whenever I get to this stage in making a small, low-budget movie, as much as my heart is in it and I am so glad that it’s here, I always feel like I wish the next one was a big-budget movie where I could get paid well and not have to worry about where the next one comes from. So I always have very mixed feelings at this stage of the game. Once I get the ball rolling and I have a script and I’m looking for money, I always want to try and find the place where I have to make the least commitments to people. I start saying, “Fine, we’ll do it for less money,” but I always regret it when I’m in the middle of shooting because [sighs]… it’s just really, really hard. There’s so many things I wish I could have had for this movie that I didn’t have and that I knew this story deserved because it’s a very interesting, different story.
We were constantly having to compromise and some of those compromises are okay and it’s a good discipline because you don’t need a lot of this stuff, but some of them are not okay and it’s sad. Though I’m not allowed to tell you the number, I can tell you this: that we could not have made Household Saints for a dollar less than we did. We shaved the budget and shaved the budget and finally we went back to our investors and we said, “If we make this budget any smaller you’re gonna get a movie that’s unreleasable.”
Filmmaker: Do you have less trouble with Fine Line than you did with Warner Bros.?
Savoca: When you’re the big fish in the little bowl, you mean a lot to them. Fine Line is not about pressuring you into changing things. But it’s a business, and if they could have made this a little bit more appealing and commercial they would be happier. That’s understandable.
Filmmaker: Was Household Saints shot in New York?
Savoca: We couldn’t afford it. The story takes place in Little Italy, but it was a period piece so we knew that we couldn’t shoot in the actual Mulberry St. of 1949. So I wanted to do what I heard they had done on The Godfather, which is they went to East 7th St. and they made it look like Little Italy. Little Italy today is all restaurants and we couldn’t close down those restaurants and pay them what they would be losing out on. So I thought maybe we could go to the Lower East Side.
Filmmaker: Where did you end up shooting?
Savoca: Are you ready? In Wilmington, North Carolina. No, Wilmington does not look at all like New York, but the Columbus studio is there. Dino De Laurentis built these studios years ago. We went on the back lot and we just worked really hard to give it the look that we wanted. And it’s okay, it looks good. What was also helpful is that the movie is about magic and it’s a little bit above reality. That helped a lot. If we were doing True Love or Dogfight we would have been in trouble. The neighborhood is definitely a character, but, like all these characters, it’s a heightened real-ty. We were able to create Mulberry St., but a Mulberry St. that belonged to this woman, this Household Saints world. We got a production designer whose name is Kalina Ivanoff. It was her first film production designing, but she was such a powerhouse. A New Yorker. She just did her second film, Naked in New York. She was a storyboard artist, and she’s a very, very talented woman. Jonathan Demme recommended her to us. She is someone to look out for. What she did with very little money is remarkable.
Filmmaker: You went to NYU film school. How has that shaped your experience as a filmmaker?
Savoca: It was really helpful to me. It’s funny, because when people ask me, “Do I need to go to film school to learn how to make movies?” I always say that it really depends on who you are, because you could certainly pick up a camera and make your own films. You don’t need to dish out the incredible amounts of money, especially nowadays — it costs so much to go there — to make a film if you can get a camera and a crew together and shoot something. John Sayles didn’t go to film school. I needed it to get into the groove, to get into a social atmosphere, where there were other people who wanted to do what I did, because I didn’t have that where I grew up.
Filmmaker: Did you meet your husband there?
Savoca: No, no. We met before. Actually he was the one who recommended that I go to NYU because I was at Queens College.
Filmmaker: Were you studying film there?
Savoca: Trying to [laughs]. I couldn’t get off the ground there ,and I was sort of ready to give up ,and he said “You should try NYU.” Queens College had a communications department, and two Super 8 filmmaking courses you could take. I did one of them and, between the fact that the school was really big and overcrowded and the fact that I didn’t know what the hell I was doing, it was not a good combination [laughs]. So I just left for a year and sort of hung around trying to figure out what to do.
Filmmaker: Have you been in contact at all with other women filmmakers, like Alison Anders or Stacy Cochran, who have come out with their first features in the last couple of years?
Savoca: I’m aware of them, but, no, it’s really funny — people think that in New York there’s this community of independent filmmakers. There is, but the reason why you’re independent is because you’re really independent. I’ve come across Gus Van Sant, and Sayles I’ve just known for a long time, and Jonathan Demme I know. But it’s more like we’ve decided to know each other outside of [film]. Which is one of the things I really like about staying on the East Coast; when you become friends with people in the film industry it’s not so much because of the work, although you could talk about it, but you actually have a life outside of the work, whereas when you go to L.A. you cannot get away from talking about your deal and my deal and your “what’s in development” and “who’s in development” and blah, blah… I think what usually happens is you’ll meet in film festivals, and whenever you meet independent filmmakers you’re always asking “Who financed your movie?!”
Filmmaker: Maybe you could say a word about your collaboration with your husband [Richard Guay], who co-wrote and co-produced Household Saints.
Savoca: When I went to film school Rich was in the business school at NYU, across the street from the film school. It’s so funny because people always say like, “You’ve always been very focused and really planning stuff,” and yes in a way and no in a way. We didn’t really think beyond school. We started working together because I’m a real airhead and he’s a real good organizer! And I always had ideas about stuff and I didn’t know how to get them out and he knew logistically how to do stuff, and so he went from being a production manager on my student films to realizing that there’s a title that’s called a producer — the person who puts the whole package together. And with his background in business I think he had a very good, practical outlook on how to get money. A lot of the film students in the school, when they came out all felt like, “I have to make a movie, and people have to give me money.” What Rich understood is that it’s a business, and that you have to be able to show that you’re a good commodity, and that’s how you get your films done. There was nothing starry-eyed about his approach.
Filmmaker: Do you have any projects in the works.
SAVOCA: What we want to do is find work screenwriting because we just want to make some money. [laughs] As far as our own thing, we’re sniffing around. Someone is talking about trying to make a movie of the Janis Joplin story, which we’re really interested in.
Filmmaker: You’ve got a very, very slight resemblance to her.
Savoca: (laughs) I know. When I was a kid, I was like, “Wouldn’t it be great to be just like Janis Joplin..!” I understood her so well. There’s a whole category of women who are into her. She’s beautiful, wonderful. I was ten when she died, but I remember that day so well.