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Since winning the Grand Prize at the U.S. Film Festival in 1989, Nancy Savoca has distinguished herself as one of our most sensitive chroniclers of the emotional lives of contemporary women. In her new comedy, The 24 Hour Woman, she draws on her experiences juggling children and career to deliver a hilarious portrait of the pregnant urban warrior. Peter Bowen chats with the director.

Rosie Perez in The 24 Hour Woman, Photo: Adger W. Cowans

While not overtly autobiographical, Nancy Savoca’s new movie, The 24 Hour Woman, covers familiar territory for this independent film veteran. When a female television producer gets pregnant, the show’s handsome host, who is also her husband, pulls her into the spotlight and makes her the focus of a new show. And indeed, this hurly burly mixture of the personal and the professional has long characterized Savoca’s filmmaking.

Because her work lacks the consistent stylistic tropes of a Hal Hartley or a Jim Jarmusch as well as the real-life references of a Henry Jaglom, the relationship of her life to her films is often overlooked. However, Savoca’s films, whether they be larger studio dramas or low-budget independent productions, are deeply personal, but not because they tell her story. Rather, Savoca continually uses her life in its many guises – mother, wife, filmmaker – to verify and validate the experiences of her fictional characters.

Savoca’s True Love was her debut feature. Co-written with and produced by her husband, Richard Guay, the film won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance at the same time that she was giving birth to her first child. She followed this success up with an unlikely studio film. A complex drama set on the eve of the Vietnam war, Dogfight tells the story of a group of Marines competing for the ugliest date. With Household Saints, Savoca returned to independent production and tight-knit Italian families as she adapted Francie Prose’s tri-generational novel. Dogfight-star Lili Taylor gives another remarkable performance, this time as a young girl caught between love and religious calling.

After a long hiatus, some of which was spent attempting to launch a biopic of Janis Joplin, Savoca and Guay teamed up with producer Peter Newman as well as The Shooting Gallery to radically change gears. The 24 Hour Woman is something of a screwball comedy suffused with an anarchic streetwise performance style. Again, Savoca gets a great performance from her lead actress, this time Rosie Perez as the flustered but dedicated producer. And by conflating motherhood with the media, Savoca manages to tackle a wide range of contemporary issues while mastering the genre’s breezy pacing and improbable plot twists.


Filmmaker: To what extent have the demands of maintaining a career in independent film –a sometimes impossible task – and raising a family fed into the development of The 24 Hour Woman?

Nancy Savoca: The 24 Hour Woman actually was a film that I had thought about a long time ago. Originally we were going to do a film about a woman in the music industry. But when I had my kids and True Love hit, I started going on publicity tours and watched how people reacted to me. I was not jumping up and running after this opportunity that I had been given. I was in this creatively competitive, cutthroat world and loving that very much, but there was also this family thing coming up, part of which I really loved and wanted, and another part that was cultural and was foisted on me. There was this big mess in my head. When that happens, I try and turn it into a movie, because when I throw it up on a screen, I can actually see it rather than have to live it.

Filmmaker: Your films always seem rooted in a point in time, a neighborhood, or a family. The 24 Hour Woman feels like a departure in that it is not rooted in a particular culture other than show business.

Savoca: The entertainment world is very unpredictable. On the one hand, it is a community, and on the other hand, it’s completely isolating. You have to have this tunnel vision and often become very, very selfish to succeed. Being successful is just being very clear and focused. To be a creative type, which Rosie’s character is and which I also am, you have to be very focused and inside yourself to the degree that you push other people away. And that’s the opposite of what a good woman and a good mother does.

Filmmaker: We’ve seen this conflict between being a good mother and having a career dramatized before. What new elements were you trying to bring to the genre?

Savoca: I feel I brought a sense of danger –there is no safety net when you are being both a professional and a parent. Other films about parenthood make you feel reassured and safe. I wanted to get at that feeling when you really don’t know what you are doing. That feeling that is very scary. That is why I wanted to do [the film] as a comedy, because otherwise it would turn into a horror film!

Filmmaker: Were there specific comedies that inspired you?

Savoca: It is hard to say, because I always look at a lot of stuff. There’s Adam’s Rib, there’s Baby Boom, and then there is A Woman Under the Influence. But if I were to think about one filmmaker – it’s Almodovar. I don’t know why. Maybe it is because his characters wear high heels all the time.

Filmmaker: Why the critique of television?

Savoca: Sometimes I get pissed off at myself for such an unoriginal critique of TV. Originally the movie was going to be about a woman in the music industry, but then when I was having a kid, I started reading all the books that would tell me how to be a better mother. It’s terrifying raising kids. You are not perfect, but you want them to be perfect. So I started listening to advice, which I think women are more susceptible to than men. That sort of inspired Rosie’s character. As the producer of the show, she is giving out advice in soundbytes. And the other issue for this movie is that there never is enough time. Put these two together and you get TV.

Filmmaker: True Love won the Grand Jury Prize in 1989 at the U.S. Film Festival, which soon became the Sundance Film Festival. The same year sex, lies, and videotape won the Audience Award. In hindsight that year seems like such a defining time for independent film. Looking back, what would you say about how you felt then compared to what you feel now?

Savoca: That moment at Sundance never really hit me because I was having a baby, which oddly takes me back to this movie. When I got home, the house was filled with flowers from every studio. For six years we tried to make True Love, and for six years, no one called us back. Of course, we were nobody and the cast was unknown. It was ridiculous what we were trying to do, but we went ahead and did it anyway. And it hit. It made no sense why. It was not a polished film. But something in it hit people, and it hit a much wider variety of people than I would have thought.

Filmmaker: Did that change your view of filmmaking?

Savoca: You don’t need to push me very far to get me idealistic. We went through a period where we said, "If it is not going to be easy to make films in Hollywood, we will just stay and make films here." Eventually you learn that there is no "here." Here is there. It is all one big place you go to find money. No matter how small a production company, you still need to market the movie.

Filmmaker: How have you managed to carve out a working relationship with your husband, Rich?

Savoca: The easy answer is to say that I am the creative one who works with actors, and he is the producer trying to figure out how to get the money. Except that we have this writer thing. In the writing phase, it is up for grabs creatively, but once we get into production, we pretty much respect each other’s territory.

Filmmaker: What does that give you?

Savoca: Distance. And also, since he so different from me, I get another point of view that I trust. When you are making a movie, everybody has ideas about every thing. But most of the time [the ideas are] from people who are so not on your plane that you don’t know what to do with them. His approach is like the polar opposite of how I would approach it, and sometimes therein lies the answer. If things are getting convoluted, I go to him, because he is a clearer thinker. I could take a scene on for 80 pages and never be able to get out of it. Rich will say, "The scene ends here." In Household Saints, the novel was something like 235 pages, and the script was longer, and he just came in and cut it.

Filmmaker: For a while you have been working on a film about Janis Joplin with Lili Taylor. Now Melissa Etheridge is also making a film about her. How does that affect your film?

Savoca: When I first heard another movie was being made, I thought, Oh, it would be really interesting to see them side by side. But then you realize that in this business it is quite problematic to have two films on the same subject. Okay, so now we will have to fight and make sure our film gets made first. And every day I hear they are about to start, but they have no actor, no script, and no rights. We still have the rights from the family.

Filmmaker: What made you want to make movies?

Savoca: Because the alternative was something that I knew I was not going to be very successful at. Every time I envisioned the future, I could see it if I thought of making movies.

Filmmaker: What defines your own personal taste in movies?

Savoca: Now, as a mother, my sons take me to everything. I’ll see anything – Enemy of the State, which I really liked. But I have to sit on either side of my kids who just scream at every car crash.

Filmmaker: You don’t just think about how much money they are spending up there?

Savoca: Oh yeah, I talk about how much I would like their catering budget. And if the movie is really bad, I tell my kids what’s wrong with it, which they don’t want to hear, because they are enjoying the movie. But if the movie is good, I am just lost in it.


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