Nicole Holofcener may not be a household name, but since 1996 her female-oriented social comedies have been growing steadily in both budgets and box office. Her fourth movie, Please Give, debuts in a limited release later this week. Speaking of giving, Holofcener gave Kimberly Gadette some phone time to discuss such topics as grandmothers, ampersands, Woody Allen & lollipops.
A teacher turned maid takes a break during her housecleaning duties to help herself to her employer's vibrator; an 8-year-old adopted black girl straightens her hair, hoping to look more like her white mommy; an older woman undergoing liposuction flirts with her plastic surgeon just after he's sucked ten pounds of fat from her belly; a twentysomething's date disparages her musical taste as "vagina music." Welcome to the terrain of Nicole Holofcener (hall´-off-senner), an indie darling whose collection of films examines the many sides and ages of the modern neurotic female in all of her funny, dramatic glory.
Such examination is perfectly represented during the opening scene of her current film, a close-up tour of a variety of breasts as they're being handled and squashed during routine mammograms. In the past, Holofcener has taken such subjects as upcoming nuptials disrupting the fragile balance between two best friends (1996s Walking and Talking), dysfunctional sisters coping with their scattered mother and her problematic body image that reflects on them all (2002s Lovely & Amazing), the touchy subject of wealth mangling marriage and friendship (2006s Friends with Money) and now, with Please Give, guilt about the haves and have-nots, filtered through the eyes of a quasi-philanthropist who makes her living by selling vintage furniture that she's bought from "the kids of dead people."
Holofcener's batting a thousand, each character-driven film critically acclaimed, each one attracting such stellar talent as Catherine Keener (who's starred in all four), Jennifer Aniston, Brenda Blethyn, Joan Cusack, Jake Gyllenhaal, Anne Heche, Jason Isaacs, Simon McBurney, Frances McDormand, Emily Mortimer and Liev Schreiber. Along with Keener, her current cast boasts Rebecca Hall, Amanda Peet and Oliver Platt.
IMO: It seems that your films are growing in complexity and humor; each successive one blending the comedy and drama. If you were looking at your films for the first time, would you agree?
NH: Probably. I'm the hardest on my earliest movie [Walking and Talking]. I was younger and it was my first. Even though I feel an affection towards all of them, I tear them apart, too, probably more ruthlessly than anybody else. It's normal to evolve. I hope that I'm going in a direction of strength.
IMO: Dumb question #101: why an ampersand in the title Lovely & Amazing but not in Walking and Talking?
NH: (giggling) I just had to mix it up! Not an "and" but an ampersand. That's truly the only reason, because I was afraid that people would think, "Oh, she's starting a series of these 'and' movies." Since I couldn't think up a better title for Lovely & Amazing, I went with it.
IMO: A Sundance programmer once described you as "the Woody Allen of Los Angeles." I'd love your thoughts on that one.
NH: You know, it's a terrific compliment. I grew up watching Woody Allen's movies, love the older ones. I've actually stopped watching them as of late but ... (sighing) ... if you're a New York Jew writing scenes on the streets of New York, I guess it's inevitable. It's OK ... unnecessary, but OK.
IMO: Speaking of Mr. Allen, since you worked on a few of his earlier sets as an extra, then a production assistant [on Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy], and an apprentice film editor [on Hannah and Her Sisters] ... were there any gems of filmmaking advice that he ever gave you along the way?
NH: (with a big laugh) No. He didn't pay any attention to me ever.
IMO: Not even given who you were? [Interviewer's note: Holofcener's stepfather is Charles H. Joffe, producer of every Woody Allen film from 1969 until his death in 2008.]
NH: No no. He's not the warmest of people. When I was a kid, he goofed off with me, was more fun to hang around with then. But later, when I was older and working on his movies, I was just a production assistant like the others and he ignored me. So no, absolutely no filmmaking advice.
IMO: Do you recall any anecdotes about his goofing off with you in your earlier years?
NH: He was shooting Take the Money and Run in San Francisco, I was 8 years old, and I had one of those big lollipops where the candy and the colors swirled around and around. He said, "Oh, let me see your lollipop." I handed it to him – and he cracked it over my head.
IMO: What a kidder.
NH: Yeah. It was the kind of thing where I knew I should laugh ... but I wanted to cry. I mean, you're an 8-year-old kid, and your lollipop gets cracked over your head? (Takes a long pause) That was Woody Allen ...
IMO: But let's get back to your films. You've stated in earlier interviews that Walking and Talking reflects your own feelings when your best friend was getting married; Lovely & Amazing harkens back to your mom adopting an African-American child. Was there a particular autobiographical incident that sparked the idea for Please Give?
NH: Not as specifically as the prior films. My friend did buy an apartment next door to hers, and that inspired me to write about the situation and expand on it. I think that the things that the lead character of Kate is wrestling with are things that I wrestle with – meaning the moral issues, as opposed to the specific issues with her daughter or her husband. There's a lot of me in all the characters; I'm the teenage girl; I'm the young woman taking care of her grandma; I'm Kate ...
IMO: Oh, that grandmother! What a great character, so outrageous in her negativity, spouting whatever she thinks without any societal filters whatsoever. Is she based on a family member of yours? Your own grandmother?
NH: Not exactly; it's more reflective of my relationship with my grandmother. I was very close to her, and I took care of her before she died, helped her with her pills, her doctors' appointments. The only thing I borrowed verbatim from my Grandma was the scene where her granddaughter gives her a pink nightgown for a birthday present. I used her exact words of, "What am I going to do with this? It's too fancy, I'll save it for a special occasion." Short of that, everything else was made up.
IMO: There's a scene in which the grandmother concentrates on her piece of birthday cake while everyone else is discussing the upcoming remodel of the apartment – a remodel that happens as soon as she dies and the neighbors can officially take possession. She sits there, pensive, silent, slowing chewing that cake as if it were made of concrete. Was that written into the script or was that just one of those magical moments that just happens?
NH: It was written in – I really wanted that shot of her just eating that cake, retreating into her own world. In fact, I wanted to make it more prominent than we had time for.
IMO: I was amazed to realize that the grandmother was played by Ann Morgan Guilbert, who played one of the most famous sit-com neighbors of all time: Millie Helper from the '60s The Dick Van Dyke Show! Wow, Millie Helper!
NH: (laughing) Can you believe it?
IMO: Did you write it for her? Do you know her? How did it happen?
NH: Initially, I wasn't even there. Either her agent or a casting director sent in her tape. I immediately loved her, loved her face, thought she was perfect and then I realized, my God, that's Millie Helper! It's weird because she still does some of the same mannerisms. Some of the outtakes where she's clowning ... well, she really is just like Millie Helper! It was wild.
IMO: Women and their emotional lives have been your primary focus in all your films. Given that Oliver Platt has added such a huge spark of fun and energy to Please Give, have you toyed with the idea of fashioning a film around the other gender?
NH: You know, I have. I don't know if I'm able to, and I haven't yet figured out what that story would be, but it would be an interesting challenge. Or, what would be cool, would be to write a part for a woman, and then cast a man. Given that it's not about her having her period, or being pregnant, I could try the swap and see if it works.
IMO: Speaking of casting, particularly since she's starred in all four of your feature films, Catherine Keener has been called "your muse." If you were ready to go with your next project but Keener was tied up with another film, would you wait for her ... or might you consider casting another leading lady?
NH: You know, we're really good friends but we're probably going to take a break. Not for any reason other than it feels like time. Unless I come up with a script that is so her, I'd be interested in working with someone else playing "me." And she's fine with that. I'm not sure who would replace her yet. But I do want to work with Rebecca Hall and Amanda Peet again. I love continuing to work with the same people once I've initially loved working with them.
IMO: I read that Amanda Peet had said she'd been stalking you for seven years, begging to be cast in one of your films. True?
NH: (laughs) She didn't stalk me, but I definitely knew she was out there. She did continuously audition, and I read a couple of interviews with her where she'd say, "I want to do a Nicole Holofcener movie." I was so flattered. So let's say she stalked me politely.
IMO: In the film, I loved the mania about the urge to drive upstate from Manhattan in order to see the fall leaves – personally, when I first lived in New York, I didn't get it, thought everyone was nuts. And then I went and saw for myself, and understood. You captured that so well! By the way, since you shot in the middle of summer, did you have to CGI those leaves?
NH: Thank you and yes, we did CG the leaves.
IMO: The opening music to all of your films is so perfect, simultaneously on the nose and yet slightly ironic. [Interviewer's note: Please Give opens with The Roches' "No Shoes."] Is this an arduous process for you and your various music supervisors?
NH: Um, yeah. This music supervisor, oh God, she did more harm than help, unfortunately. I found this music because I love The Roches and I heard this song, having just bought their new album. Music is hard for me; I'm not like Cameron Crowe, I don't come with a hit list that's already in my mind when I'm making the movie. I usually wait too long, but it's always worked out. This particular song was just so much part of the opening. One could not work without the other.
IMO: From what I've read, you only take on a new project when you're good and ready. But what with Kathryn Bigelow having crashed through the ceiling with all her best directing awards for The Hurt Locker, if we're about to enter a golden age of women filmmakers, do you feel a greater urgency to take on more, do more, create a larger body of work?
NH: (pausing, thinking) I don't feel that, no. I don't feel that kind of pressure from Kathryn Bigelow's success. I already feel shocked and amazed that I have the opportunities that I have, that I'm one of the few who get to do this. I'm already kicking myself, "Do more! Work harder!" And yet I do wait for inspiration, I don't want to work on just anything. So it's a constant battle, to try to do more. I do want to direct a bigger movie, I do want to get more money, to make more money, to have longer days to shoot -- but I'm generally very happy with what I'm doing right now.
IMO: The character of Jane in your third film, Friends with Money, who's disillusioned to the point of refusing to wash her hair because, as she puts it, there's no more wondering what her fabulous life is going to be like. Would you say that you've personally arrived at the place called "fabulous"?
NH: (laughing heartily) I'm sitting in fabulous right now! So fabulous! It's incredibly gratifying yet also incredibly disappointing because ... you're still going to die no matter what. I love my life, and I'm enjoying every moment. I've just turned 50 and yes, there really is that moment where you say, "OK, this is it." And no matter how much fun we have, it still is going to end. I think a younger person doesn't face that. It's traffic stopping, at least for me.
IMO: Reversing my earlier question about ambition, do you find that some pressure's been alleviated now that you're on the other side of 50, that you're no longer facing an uphill battle to get to that Big Brilliant Career?
NH: Right! This is my career. I'm doing it. This is what it looks like, I'm enjoying it as it's happening. And with you know, people dropping dead from cancer every two seconds, what's the alternative? I'll take my wrinkles. I'm thrilled to be 50 and alive.
IMO: 50 and alive ... that works. Or, with the ampersand: 50 & Alive!
This interview was edited and condensed.