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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