Five Questions with Nancy, Please Director Andrew Semans
Sometimes the simplest premises can be the most devastating. Andrew Semans’ debut feature Nancy, Please follows Paul (Will Rogers), a Yale PhD student as he tries (or, kind of tries) and utterly fails to complete his dissertation. His excuse for this lack of productivity? He’s accidentally left an essential annotated copy of Dickens’ Little Dorrit at his old apartment. Worse still, the book is now in the care of his ex-roommate Nancy (Eléonore Hendricks), a woman who he views as something of a sociopath. As Paul’s attempts to get the book back grow more and more desperate, Semans plumbs the lowest depths of his lead’s psyche.
Filmmaker: You’ve described Nancy, Please as an exploration of “the perverse allure of victim-hood.” What inspired you to explore this topic? What about it interests you?
Semans: The idea of victim-hood as a desirable state came from writing a protagonist who yearns to be passive. Paul, the main character in the film, is falling behind and failing to meet his professional/academic obligations. Likewise, he’s fearful of new personal commitments. As a result, he dreams of slipping away. He wants to wrap himself in a sleeping bag and suck his thumb in a toasty closet until all his burdens evaporate. But to simply shirk his responsibilities would be cowardly and shameful. Therefore, he needs an excuse – an outside agent on which to place blame for his dropping out. If he were the victim of a great injustice, he could neglect his responsibilities with impunity. Handily for him, there’s a convenient villain on whom he can place blame – Nancy – and a situation in which he can easily cast himself as the hapless, blameless target. Over time, Paul becomes very invested in maintaining his “persecution” at the hands of the “evil” Nancy because it allows him to maintain the moral high ground while dropping the ball on everything. It’s a win-win!
I’m loath to admit it, but I can identify with this will to “righteous passivity” pretty readily. I frequently find myself fighting the urge to deflect responsibility while maintaining a protective layer of lofty sanctimony. Wow, this is making me sound like a terrible person.
Filmmaker: This role is a bit of a departure for Eleanor Hendricks – I’m not sure I’ve seen her as a character quite so volatile. What was the casting process like? And did she bring anything to the role that you didn’t expect?
Semans: For most of the roles in Nancy, the casting was very straightforward. We held auditions and picked the actors we felt were the best fit for the roles. However, in the case of Eléonore, I reached out to her directly after seeing her in other films. She is so striking, and has a raw, feral, lawless quality about her that I liked for the part, kind of like a young Béatrice Dalle.
Happily for me, Eléonore brought to the role exactly what I had hoped for, which was a kind of trailer park snottiness and injured-animal aggression.
Filmmaker: The film follows Paul as he tries and fails to write his master’s thesis on Dickens’ Little Dorrit. Why Little Dorrit? Are there aspects of the book that have some bearing on Nancy, Please?
Semans: Actually, Will Heinrich (my co-writer) and I picked Little Dorrit specifically because it had no thematic or narrative parallels with the Nancy story. We wanted the book to be a MacGuffin whose particular content signifies nothing, and we went with Dickens because his work is so popular and has been so thoroughly scrutinized – it’s not edgy or sexy or cool or obscure (Paul’s dissertation subject sounds particularly uninspired and bland). Initially, we had chosen Our Mutual Friend, but Our Mutual Friend is a bit of a mouthful, so we decided on Little Dorrit, which has a snappier title.
Filmmaker: How did you decide to set the film in New Haven, Connecticut?
Semans: Our idea was to set the film in a mundane, middle-class environment. We wanted Paul’s overheated mental state to stand in stark contrast to his calm landscape, so we chose not to set it in NYC (although setting it in New York would’ve made everything a hell of a lot more convenient)! Instead, we picked a nearby, mid-sized city that feels reasonably bland, yet boasts a fine university (Yale) for our protagonist to attend. As the script was written, I figured we’d shoot the whole thing in New Haven, but we ended up shooting most of it in and around NYC for practical reasons. Most of the time, the exteriors look more-or-less like New Haven, but the keen-eyed Brooklynite will surely spot some local landmarks.
Filmmaker: I’ve got to ask – is Nancy based on a real person? Has there ever been someone in your life who you’ve viewed with such visceral and complete disdain as Paul does Nancy?
Semans: Nancy was inspired a real person, to a certain extent, but I can’t tell you who she is! This person never caused me much trouble, but she did leave an indelible impression.
Oh, I’ve absolutely felt visceral and complete disdain. Not too often, thankfully, but there have been one or two people in my life that have inspired desperate loathing in my tiny, bilious heart. Ask me in private and I’ll provide the details.