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Interview with Please Give Writer-Director Nicole Holofcener

After studying film at Columbia University, writer-director Nicole Holofcener made her first feature, Walking and Talking, in 1996, and she has been going strong ever since, directing feature films such as Lovely & Amazing, Friends with Money and Please Give, as well as working in television, for acclaimed series such as Sex and the City, Six Feet Under, Bored to Death and Parks and Recreation. I had a chance to speak briefly with Holofcener on the occasion of Columbia’s panel on women filmmakers.

Ezra Stead: There is a striking realism and intimacy to your films, going back to the first one, Walking and Talking, and I know a lot of material is taken from your own life or that of your friends. Is your apparent muse, Catherine Keener, generally playing the Nicole Holofcener alter-ego, or is your own personality spread out more among all your characters?

Nicole Holofcener: I guess I could say she has been my muse, but in a couple of movies she has not played the “me” character. She certainly does play me well, and all the characters, I suppose, are a part of me, and even if that character she’s playing is based on someone else, there’s still pieces of me. She has been a muse, definitely.

ES: I read somewhere, in another interview with you, where you said your friends say, “Don’t say that around Nicole, it’ll be in a movie.”

NH: I know, just one friend in particular; she’s very nervous [laughs]. If somebody has shame, I suppose they don’t want to be revealed. Most people’s shame is not very interesting or theatrical, so don’t worry I’m not gonna write about it. Whatever you’re doing that you’re embarrassed about, I don’t care [laughs].

ES: So in general, your films are fairly autobiographical, or was Walking and Talking more that way?

NH: No, they all are. I mean, none of them are real, none of them come from things that really happened; I suppose there are moments that really happened and lines that really happened, but most of it is made up but, I would say, based on me and my experiences, and my friends.

ES: What future projects are you working on now, if you can tell us?

NH: I’d love to tell you. I’m so glad I have that, thank god, it’s so hard when there isn’t one. Yeah, I’m in pre-pre-production for a movie that I wrote that Fox Searchlight has been making, and I start shooting in August, I think. I hope.

ES: Untitled, so far?

NH: It is. Not fun. I’m not good at titling things. The only title I really like, that seems correct, is Friends with Money, and that’s what I wrote when I first started writing it, you know, this is gonna be about “friends with money,” it was easy. This one has Julia Louis-Dreyfus in it, and James Gandolfini, so I’m happy to publicize my next movie.

ES: I also read that you were involved at one point in directing the Seth Rogen / Joseph Gordon-Levitt film 50/50. Is that you’re still interested in pursuing – directing features written by other people?

NH: I’m still gonna direct 50/50 [laughs]. It’s something I am very interested in, and I’m sad that I didn’t get to direct it, but it was family stuff, and that’s okay, it turned out well. I liked the movie.

ES: But you are interested in directing someone else’s script?

NH: Yes, if I fall in love with it. I really want to, have to, fall in love with it. Yes, please send me things. Send me good things [laughs].

ES: You’ve directed a lot of TV as well. What are some of the differences in TV vs. feature film directing?

NH: There’s not much difference. The television shows that I’ve worked on have all been single camera. It feels like I’m working on a little film. It differs from show to show. A show like Enlightened, I feel like I’m working on a movie; a show like Parks and Recreation, I’m at a party. I mean, it’s different. I guess, to some extent, working on a television show is easier because it’s not my problem, in the end – I didn’t write it, I didn’t create it – and for the same reason, it makes me more anxious because I have someone else that I wanna please, besides myself, and I really only work on shows that I respect and am proud to have my name on, so I really do wanna please the writer, and the creator. Other than that, they’re pretty similar.

ES: So you think that, when and if you end up directing someone else’s script, it’ll be similar to that?

NH: I hope so, yeah. I hope that I have that relationship where I turn to the writer and say, “You happy with that? Is that how you saw it?” That’s a real collaboration.

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Interview with Imogene Co-Director Shari Springer Berman

After years of directing documentaries, Shari Springer Berman made big waves in the independent film world with her first feature, American Splendor, co-directed with her husband and filmmaking partner Robert Pulcini. Since then, the pair has continued making narrative features such as The Nanny Diaries, The Extra Man, the HBO film Cinema Verite and the upcoming Imogene, starring Kristen Wiig and Annette Bening. I had a chance to speak briefly with Berman on Wednesday evening, as part of Columbia University’s panel on women filmmakers.

Ezra Stead: I’ve noticed a strong fascination in your films for a sort of cranky and eccentric, but lovable, type of character, such as Harvey Pekar (Paul Giamatti) in American Splendor or Henry Harrison (Kevin Kline) in The Extra Man. From what I’ve read about your next film, Imogene, with the title character faking a suicide in an attempt to win back her ex, it sounds like that character fits the bill. What attracts you to these kind of characters, and what else can you tell us about Imogene?

Shari Springer Berman: I am attracted to cranky, lovable people. Bob and I … both are; I don’t know why, I guess my therapist could probably answer that question better than I could [laughs]. I guess I love the idea of someone who isn’t overtly nice, and I feel like so many movies, especially Hollywood movies, it’s so about people being nice. One of the biggest notes when I write for studio films … is that the character has to be likable, and I think that people can be completely lovable and not, on the surface, nice. Some of the most amazing people I’ve met in my life are people who are a bit cranky, not necessarily traditionally nice, but underneath, some of the kindest, most giving people you’d ever want to meet … My grandmother was kind of a little bit cold, and very snarky, but I knew she loved me more than anything in the world, and when she said something kind, it was very real. So I like characters like that … and Imogene is definitely a continuation of the slightly brittle but completely lovable, root-for-them, character. Imogene’s mom [Annette Bening] is not one of those people; she’s very out there and wears a lot on her sleeve – who she is, is very available.

ES: You started out making documentaries, and certainly some of the techniques you brought to American Splendor reflect that background. What kind of advantages and disadvantages do you think documentaries have over narrative, and vice versa?

SSB: It’s completely different. I love documentaries because you don’t know what you’re going to get. When you make a narrative film, your whole goal is to know what you’re going to get … In a documentary, when you’re approaching it the way I like to approach it, you go in with sort of a general idea and then you allow it to happen to you, and you’re open to all kinds of things, and there’s something really thrilling about that experience. It takes you in directions you had no idea you would ever go … Docs take years, and you have to just give yourself over to it. Sometimes it’s really boring, but I like the adrenaline of shooting verite footage – not seated interviews … but just going out and covering events – it’s this really crazy adrenaline rush, and I love it … I miss that sometimes. In this movie, Imogene, that we just shot, we wanted to shoot a scene of a guy walking around with this strange outfit … in Chinatown, and my ADs [assistant directors] were stopping everybody and we were just putting this guy in a crowd and letting him walk, and I was like, ‘Okay, you know what? We have to shoot this like a doc.’ I told the Ads to go get a cup of coffee … I’m gonna take over … and we got all this stuff … genuine reactions to this guy walking down this massive street, and it was one of the most fun days … Working with actors is probably my favorite part – that or writing – is my favorite part of the filmmaking process.

ES: How do you and your husband divide up the duties of directing a film? What is your working process like?

SSB: We have different strengths, and I think that’s why it works, because we sort of take different areas and run with it. I do a lot of … sort of organizational stuff, and he spends a lot of time with the camera, the shots. I used to be a casting director, so I do a lot of casting and, obviously, Bob’s involved in it and I’m involved in everything, too, but these are just the things that we each take the lead on … I talk to the actors, that’s my sort of arena, and if Bob wants something [from them], he’ll tell me … but usually, we see eye to eye. I mean, you have to have the same aesthetic approach; if you don’t see the world the same way and you don’t like the same films, then you’re gonna constantly be battling, so luckily, we tend to agree a lot.

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Columbia University Film Fest Presents Panel on Women Filmmakers

Last night, the Film Society of Lincoln Center in Manhattan presented a panel entitled “What Glass Ceiling: The Remarkable Success of Columbia’s Women Filmmakers,” as part of the Columbia University Film Festival‘s 25th anniversary this week. Introduced by Columbia’s Film Department Chair Ira Deutchman, the panel was moderated by film director and Columbia Film faculty member Bette Gordon, and featured acclaimed filmmakers Shari Springer Berman, Cherien Dabis, Lisa Cholodenko and Nicole Holofcener.

Gordon began the panel by proudly proclaiming the fact that Columbia has “produced more women directors than any other film school today,” but lamented that in spite of this, “the film world is predominantly white and male.” She then turned things over to the four filmmakers to discuss the challenges they faced in getting their own first features made. Berman joked that “only half my answers are valid [because] I actually work with a partner who’s male,” her husband and co-director Robert Pulcini, whom she met while they were both attending Columbia. Dabis spoke about the extra difficulties of finding financing for her first feature, Amreeka, which “was not just about women, it was about Middle Eastern women.” Cholodenko’s advice for aspiring first-time filmmakers was to “have your intention in place, articulate it and stick to it,” while Holofcener told an unhappy tale of how she and her first agent parted ways. “After a while,” she said, “he sent me a Xerox bill, and I knew that was the end of my agent.”

When asked about how they went from their initial success to their second features, Dabis, who is currently in this particular process, said, “It’s never going to be easy, and when you accept that, it is what it is, and you just sort of keep going.” Cholodenko echoed this sentiment by adding, “If you have the stomach for that, then you’ll make it, and if it turns you off, then you should maybe find another profession.” The conversation then turned to the work of creating believable characters and situations with which an audience can relate. Cholodenko offered this secondhand advice: “Someone said to me once, ‘Just write it until it breaks your own heart.’” Holofcener responded the question of how much description she uses in her scripts, as opposed to dialogue, by saying, “I hate reading scripts that tell me about the character in the description of the character,” as opposed to dramatizing it through action.

As the discussion moved on to casting and working with actors, Holofcener spoke about her close working relationship with Catherine Keener, who has appeared in all of her features. “Just looking at me,” Holofcener said, “helps her access what I need from her … It’s a very intuitive connection. If she’s crying in a scene, I’m crying.” Berman spoke about the importance of casting the right actor for any given part: “I really believe that if you cast the wrong person, there’s little you can do to save the film.” Holofcener added to this by addressing the pressure felt from studios to cast a star: “One time, I did buckle and … offered this actor the part, and I had this sinking feeling … and she passed,” she said with a sigh of relief.

The panel wrapped up by addressing the topic of its title: the idea of “women filmmakers,” a moniker that Cholodenko said she doesn’t feel is “particularly modern.” “If it has to be modified, it’s like a handicap,” she expounded, while Dabis said that “because it is that much more difficult … I’m proud to be doing it.” “The statistics [of women in the industry vs. men] are horrible,” Cholodenko continued, “but I don’t think it’s going to go backwards, to where there’s this invisible other gender with no representation.” As to why Columbia seems to be a breeding ground for female filmmakers, Cholodenko said, “The energy there is really … what’s the word?” “Feminine?” Holofcener offered. “No, it’s not,” Cholodenko responded, “it’s androgynous. You go there and you don’t feel like it’s a boy’s club.” With a new semester of Columbia’s Film program beginning in the fall, we’re sure to see many distinguished filmmakers, both male and female, ascending from its ranks in the coming years. The panel can be viewed in its entirety here.

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John Cusack discusses the lasting appeal of Edgar Allen Poe

While making the rounds last week doing press for “The Raven,” Bullz-Eye’s Bob Westal had the chance to sit down with John Cusack to discuss the actor’s new film, his recent star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and other projects in development. But perhaps the most interesting tidbit in the interview is his explanation of why late American poet Edgar Allen Poe has remained so contemporary for all these years:

“I think he’s this classic sort of archetype for all of the shadow parts of ourselves that we don’t want to admit out loud or you’re not supposed to admit in polite company or society. You know, all of these terrors and fears and phobias and anguishes and torments, and also this kind of grave, deep love of language and poetry. I think he’s a genuine genius and he spoke to the language of the subconscious and he was a great poet and artist. A great storyteller; a wild creator of different genres and hybrids of genres and mash-ups of genres. He was a pretty talented man, and he was also just wired way too tight, so it was a volatile mix.”

Be sure to check out the full interview with Cusack at the Bullz-Eye Blog for more on “The Raven,” the possibility of a “Say Anything” sequel, and his upcoming role as Richard Nixon in Lee Daniel’s “The Butler.”

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Kristen Connolly talks about getting scared on the set of “The Cabin in the Woods”

Last month, Jason Zingale headed down to Austin, TX for the South by Southwest film festival, and in addition to seeing a number of movies (some really good and some not so good), he also had the pleasure of interviewing the cast and crew of the new horror film “The Cabin in the Woods.” Though the movie’s biggest star is undoubtedly Chris “Thor” Hemsworth, there’s not a single bad performance among its mostly fresh-faced cast, including up-and-coming actress Kristen Connolly, who spoke briefly about some of the real-life scares that took place during filming:

“When they blew that cellar door, they blew it early. When we rehearsed it, there was sort of a pause between when I finished speaking and when the door went, and they blew it early when we actually did it, because they were like, “We just wanted to see your reaction.”

Be sure to check out the full interviews over at the Bullz-Eye Blog with the cast (including Connolly, Jesse Williams, Anna Hutchison, Bradley Whitford and Richard Jenkins) and writer/director Drew Goddard and co-writer Joss Whedon. “The Cabin in the Woods” opens in theaters April 13th, and we’d highly recommend seeing it opening weekend before your friends on Facebook and Twitter ruin it for you.

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