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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Box office preview: Will “Saw 3D” bloody “Paranormal Activity 2”?

I have no bloody idea, actually, because the entire box office prognostication community — all two members of it that I rely on, anyhow — seem to be taking a break. I know for a fact that both the L.A. Times‘ Ben Fritz and THR‘s ever jolly Carl Diorio are writing stuff, they’re just not venturing any guesses or passing along the usual tracking rumors about this coming weekend. I guess with only major new release, it just didn’t seem worth it. Mr. DiOrio did, however, write a piece yesterday, which is not visible on THR but is via Reuters, explaining why, beyond the fact of Halloween, there actually are a number of reasons why horror pictures tend to come out when the leaves turn orange and the breezes turn chilly. Interesting, but not what I need to get me out of this predicament.

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Indeed, I don’t even have any reviews of “Saw 3D” to mention, because we all know that critics can’t really help, and just might hurt, a picture like this. For you “Saw” fans, however, I can pass along some roundtable interviews our own Will Harris posted a bit earlier today as well as David Medsker’s Bullz-Eye compilation of the most beloved “Saw” series deaths and near-misses. Honestly, though, I’m at a loss, especially I’m too squeamish to have ever seen a single entry in the series.

Regardless, the gory horror tale will be facing some serious competition from the second week of the so-far over-performing ($40 million worth) non-gore driven scare follow-up, “Paranormal Activity 2.” On the other hand, there’s no particular reason to think it won’t suffer something like the typical horror-flick second week drop of 50% or over. That shouldn’t be too hard for the 3D sado-splatter film to beat, but you never know. We’ll see whether the ticket-price raising format can ameliorate the fatigue the “Saw” series has shown on past sequel go-rounds.

In terms of limited releases, we have the final film in the “Millennium Trilogy,” Swedish edition. “The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest,” which isn’t overly exciting critics opening in 123 theaters according Box Office Mojo’s theater counts. Though an internationally huge franchise like this should, in theory, be critic-proof, this is the art-house trade we’re talking about and some might decide to wait for home video or, like me, who enjoyed the first film but haven’t read any of the books yet and skipped the last film, might decide to simply catch up with the books at some point instead. On the other hand, the even-growing fame of the “girl” herself, Noomi Rapace, might help things out a bit.

Also suffering the slings and arrows of often unimpressed critics is “Welcome to the Rileys” a festival drama starring James Gandolfini, Melissa Leo, and Kristen Stewart. Directed by Jake Scott, son of Ridley, the film has generated a little attention but I fear that may be over now given its decidedly “meh” critical reception.

Doing a little better with critics, including my esteemed colleague Jason Zingale, is Gareth Edwards’ “Monsters,” a very unusual monster flick arriving just in time for the holiday. It’s generated a lot of online attention and you absolutely have to give it props for its visual power — accomplished on a truly miniscule budget by is special effects trained director — and for its good intentions in attempting a character driven romantic tale with, yes, actual monsters and some genuinely clever chilling moments. Still, like 37% of Rotten Tomatoes critics, I was kind of let down by it and I blame the fact that the film was made with only a story outline and no formal screenplay. On the other hand, it’s easily the most visually striking monster flick that I can think of not directed by Guillermo del Toro.

Whitney Able in

  

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A chat with Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, directors of “The Extra Man”

Shari Springer Berman and Robert PulciniThe recent death of autobiographical comics writer Harvey Pekar at age 70 was a more bitter than sweet reminder of one of the first really great films of our young millennium. Released in 2003 and written and directed by the husband and wife team of Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, “American Splendor” dared to place actors Paul Giamatti, Hope Davis, and Judah Friedlander — portraying Pekar, wife Joyce Brabner, and their ultra-nerd friend, Toby Radloff — alongside the real Pekar, Brabner, and Radloff, seamlessly combining traditional fiction, documentary film, and some charmingly minimalist comic book-style animation to make easily the most inventive and rewarding comics-to-film translation so far. (Yes, I think it’s better than “The Dark Knight.”)

What made it even more impressive was that this was the first fiction film by its makers. Prior to “American Splendor,” Berman and Pulcini were the documentararians behind a pair of films focusing on film and show-business landmarks. They chronicled the death of a venerable, movie-star-beloved Beverly Hills restaurant in “Off the Menu: The Last Days of Chasen’s” and the rebirth of the ultimate movieland cemetery into the world’s hippest burial plot in “The Young and the Dead.” The pair also made a 2006 IFC documentary about road movies, “Wanderlust.”

Their return to fiction films, 2007’s “The Nanny Diaries,” was less well-received, but now Berman and Pulcini are back with an imperfect but enjoyable comedy. Co-written with author Jonathan Ames (HBO’s “Bored to Death”) from his semi-autobiographical novel, “The Extra Man” stars Paul Dano as Louis Ives, a courtly 20-something with a fixation on 1920s literature and a certain amount of sexual/gender confusion, who finds himself spending a lot of time with his new roommate — an aging, ultra-obscure, ultra-reactionary playwright named Henry Harrison (Oscar and Tony winning veteran stage and film star Kevin Kline).

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Berman and Pulcini are also preparing their next film. “Cinema Verite,” with James Gandolfini, Diane Lane, and Tim Robbins starring in a screenplay by veteran scenarist David Seltzer (“The Omen,” “Punchline”). It’s a tailor-made premise for the couple: the making of “An American Family,” the groundbreaking and highly controversial PBS documentary series which essentially created the modern reality television genre in 1975. The series was also the inspiration for the 1979 Albert Brooks comedy, “Real Life.”

When I was escorted to the room at L.A.’s Four Seasons where I was to meet with the writing-directing pair, I was surprised to see only one person and at first I wasn’t sure I had arrived at the right place. Robert Pulcini and I talked about our shared first name (he’s a “Bob” too), and he explained cordially that his wife would be returning in just a moment. Shari Springer Berman arrived and then somehow got into the topic of the unusual spelling of my last name. All very fascinating — to me — but I figured I’d better talk about Berman and Pulcini’s movies instead.

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Midnight at the movies

Not quite a movie news dump, more of a movie news sampler…

* The various Deadline folks have a lot of reporting going on tonight, starting with the news from Mike Fleming that Robert Downey Jr. is negotiating to possibly star in a new science fiction film Alfonso Cuaron wrote with his son. He also reports on the somewhat delayed sale of a hot Sundance feature staring “Twilight” fave Kristen Stewart, James Gandolfini, and Melissa Leo. In addition, there’s word from the London office that 72 year-old Dustin Hoffman is finally graduating to directing with an upcoming project with BBC Films.

* Todd Gilchrist has the closest thing yet to an official review I’ve seen of “Kick-Ass” and it’s…mixed. Could the film already be a victim of its already amazingly effective hype? Or is it that Gilchrist is, after all, just one guy? Of course, there’s always the possibility that it’s simply not as good as we all seem to be expecting. If so, shoot me now, I say!

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* The Red Skull has always been one of my favorite supervillians — just pure evil and nothing but. I think casting  Hugo Weaving to play him in the upcoming Captain America flick is probably about as good a choice as they could make. If anyone can act without skin, it’s Weaving.

* Quentin Tarantino will not be smurfing around, after all. He did, however, accept an award at SXSW, which is just getting started and where our own Mr. Jason Zingale is hanging out.

* Patrick Goldstein doesn’t approve when Tom Hanks has the temerity to voice a strong opinion because it annoys rightwingers and that’s just the worst thing ever.  Yes, it’s a celebrity’s job to play it safe at all times. Good to know. I wonder if he’ll hold rightwing actors to the same standard when they say something controversial. It’s a true fact that many journos who probably themselves vote Democrat wind up carrying the water of the far-right through their obsession with being even-handed at all costs at all times and regardless of the merits. The American rightwing really did a number on the press during the late 20th century, and it doesn’t look like they’ll ever recover.

* I hate to see any creative person lose their job, especially in this economy, but I hope this item means there’ll be some kind of shift in the creative direction of Robert Zemeckis’s future animated/motion-capture projects. How anyone can think that style of animation is  anything other than creepy — and not in a good way — is beyond me.

  

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Wild paranormal law-abiding stepdads to rule box office, almost for sure

Where the Wild Things Are

If you’re craving variety and unpredictability in your movie weekend, then this weekend is for you. Still, most of the smart money seems to agree that the week’s likely fiscal winner is Spike Jonze’s new PG-rated adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s multi-layered picture book classic, “Where the Wild Things Are.”  The family film boasts an outstanding cast, both onscreen and as voice talent, including Catherine Keener, James Gandolfini, Lauren Ambrose, and Forest Whitaker. It’s also got a director synonymous with high-quality and not-quite-mainstream fare and its hep cred is further bolstered by the name of bestselling author and McSweeney’s founder Dave Eggers on the screenplay. Best of all, commercially speaking, it’s based on a book that’s been read and loved by practically everyone. All told, it seems like a canny blending of mainstream recognition, family appeal, and more than a dash of arthouse appeal, but therein may lie the difficulty.

This is a film that really should bit a big hit with critics, and its advertising certainly sells the film’s visual beauty — always a plus with cinephile critics. However, it turns out our David Medskar’s very mild 3/5 star review is pretty typical of the critical reaction. Rating a good-but-not-great 68% Fresh on the Rotten Tomatoes scoreboard, critics are expressing sentiments similar to Dave, who found it “lacking in terms of emotional weight.” Since emotional weight — laughter and tears, etc. — not arresting filmmaking technique — is what most people are looking for at the movies, you have to wonder about whether the film will show any legs over the long term. Still, jolly Carl DiOrio’s prediction of a $25-30 million dollar weekend seems more than reasonable given the audience’s voracious appetite for strong family films with cross-generational appeal. On the other hand, Disney’s decision to extend the run of the 3-D double bill of “Toy Story” and “Toy Story 2” could cut into the “Wild” numbers just a bit with a terrific package of tried-and-true family fair bolstered by the appeal of 3-D.

Gerard Butler and Jamey Foxx in
For some decidedly non-kid-friendly fair, Director F. Gary Gray and writer Kurt Wimmer’s “Law Abiding Citizen” boasts two more or less A-list leads as Jamie Foxx portrays as a careerist D.A. pitted against against tragedy stricken family man turned imprisoned vigilante serial killer played by Gerard Butler. I think Butler has starred in like 200 million mainstream movies this year. None of those movies has been a hit with the critics so far, and “Citizen” is no exception.

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