The Awful Truth
An Interview with Nicole Holofcener
by Kristi Mitsuda

I discovered Nicole Holofcener late one night while channel-surfing, fortuitously landing on her first feature, Walking and Talking, just as the opening credits rolled. Initially looking only to be mildly amused on this particular lazy, lonely night, as it concluded—on one of the most perfectly simple and lovely of final shots—it was with a sense of revelation that I realized what I had just beheld: female characters untainted by affected indie quirk and light years away from the poised and pore-less goddesses of mainstream cinema. Portraying women not as archetypes but as alternately endearing and irritating as people you’d know in real life, neither did her exploration of female friendship bear any resemblance to the current insultingly glib crop (i.e., Moonlight and Valentino, Waiting to Exhale).

Her detailed description of the painful but inevitable evolution of a close friendship in the face of an intersecting romantic one gets to the center of inelegant emotions most of us would rather relegate to the back recesses of our minds than bring to consciousness. She would go even further in eloquently confronting messy truths with Lovely and Amazing, incisively targeting those issues stemming from female body image and self-esteem. With her latest, Friends with Money, the writer-director explores yet another pervasive yet untouched theme (the title says it all) through gloriously inhabited and individuated characters. Though her work has generated numerous positive notices (listening closely to the critical kudos, you can often hear the damning of faint praise which puts her up just a couple of notches above the “chick flick”), to my mind, she isn’t sufficiently appreciated: One of the few directors to portray women as live human beings, to allow us insecurities and hang-ups, not to mention greasy hair, sweat pants, and wrinkles, Holofcener is utterly unique within modern American cinema. Now if only we could get her to shorten the interminably long gap between films. . .

Reverse Shot: It’s been about ten years since Walking and Talking, and about five since Lovely and Amazing. Why such a long wait between films?

Nicole Holofcener: It takes me a long time to figure out what I want to do next. It’s not that I’ve been pounding the pavement or trying to get work and can’t. I work directing TV shows and doing rewrite jobs, and I sort of just wait until the right idea comes and then write it. And actually, this time it didn’t take that long to get it off the ground. Directing is hard; I only wanna do it if it’s something I really believe in and love.

RS: You mentioned television shows, and a lot of the ones you’ve directed have been personal favorites, like “Sex and the City” and “Six Feet Under.” How much of an adjustment is it for you to go from being the creative originator of a project to being beholden to somebody else’s vision?

NH: On those particular two shows it was nerve-wracking, but for good reasons. Because I love the shows, too, so much, and I really wanted to do a good job. So I was nervous about, you know, messing up. I felt like if I just stayed out of the way, the show kind of continues on its own.

Coming into a new situation is very uncomfortable at first because the actors get revolving directors all the time, and they know their characters better than I will. And sometimes it feels like being the new girl at school. Sometimes by lunch you’ve made friends, and sometimes by lunch you wanna go home. I can’t rewrite anything; I can’t decide at the last minute to change anything, and I always have to turn around and make sure I can move on. You know, ask the writer, or the producer. But that’s okay. I don’t have to be the boss of everything.

RS: Would you ever consider directing a film that you haven’t written? And conversely, would you ever allow someone else to direct one of your screenplays?

NH: Yeah, sure. There are screenplays that I’ve written that I don’t want to make, so if somebody wants to direct them, they can. For a small fee [laughter]. But I don’t think that’s gonna happen. And I’m open to directing movies that other people wrote, I just haven’t gotten one that was right for me. I can’t say never; I did get a couple that I was in the running for, but somebody else got the job. But it’s very, very rare that I get something that I feel like I couldn’t have written myself. You know, I get a lot of scripts about neurotic women. It’s like, well, I can write neurotic women; I don’t need somebody else to write that script. I usually respond to the ones that are a completely different genre or world from what I know. So I hope it’ll happen someday because obviously I’m not prolific.

RS: Catherine Keener’s presence has become such an integral part of your work. How has your relationship with her evolved over the course of the three films?

NH: Well, the first film, we didn’t know each other and she, for good reason, really didn’t know how the movie would turn out. I think she chose to believe that I knew what I was doing and to trust me, but you never really know. So there’s a lot more caution, I think, on an actor’s part, with a first-time director. I love her performance in the movie and we had a good time making it, but as we’ve made more movies together, the trust has built and now I don’t have to prove anything to her anymore, or she me. And I don’t have to talk as much. I can sometimes just give her a look, and she’ll know what I want. I can be blunt, very direct; I don’t have to worry about eggshells with her when I’m directing, the way I might with an actor that I don’t know.

RS: The relationships you portray—whether familial, friendly, or romantic—feel so intimate and lived in. I’ve read that you don’t rehearse your actors. So how do you cultivate the looseness and trust necessary to obtain the organic performances you get from your cast?

NH: I haven’t had the time [to rehearse], and I didn’t fight for the time. I felt like we’d be okay without it. I would always want time to rehearse in locations. That, to me, is really important. But I think that the characters that I write speak in shorthand; there’s not a lot of exposition. So I think that helps the audience to feel like, “Okay, these people know each other already; they’re talking to each other like we talk to each other.” And I think that I’ve cast well. That’s not to say that rehearsals aren’t valuable for so many reasons, but I think that you can get a naturalistic performance and feel like these people are really who they’re playing without doing the scenes over and over again.

RS: The complexity of your female characters is singular and exceptional, I think, within the scope of American cinema. I’m curious to know whether there are any filmmakers you particularly admire for their portrayals of women? And which filmmakers in general you’ve been influenced by?

NH: I loved the portrayals of women in The Heartbreak Kid. It’s directed by Elaine May and written by Neil Simon. Woody Allen. I mean, he had the best female characters in the 70s and 80s. . . I don’t know, can you think of any? It’s so hard to think of female characters. I know I’ll think of them as soon as you leave.

RS: The last one I really loved was in Forty Shades of Blue, Dina Korzun’s character. She’s amazing. She’s playing a trophy wife, but she made her real and someone you could empathize with, instead of just a stock character.

NH: There were great characters in Being John Malkovich. Keener and Cameron Diaz, they were so funny. I don’t know . . .

RS: You could answer the second part of the question . . . in general filmmakers you like?

NH: Well, Woody Allen. And Albert Brooks. Spike Lee, when I saw She’s Gotta Have It. When I saw Stranger than Paradise, and when I saw Sex, Lies, and Videotape, those movies inspired me to wanna do what they were doing, and made me feel like I could, even if I couldn’t do it as well. I felt like it was tangible, and they got me excited about wanting to make movies.

RS: How difficult has it been for you to find financing for your films? And have you ever felt pressure to fit your characters and stories into a more marketable “chick flick” model?

NH: I’ve not felt pressured to fit my stories into any kind of model. And that’s why I have no money [laughs]. It’s getting progressively easier. The first time took six years. It was very difficult. I’d made two shorts, and that helped me to raise the money with a lot of producers doing all the footwork. So that was really frustrating, and a very long time; but it happened. And then, the second time was difficult. I wanted a bigger budget, more than a million this time; people said they loved the movie but wouldn’t know how to market it and they didn’t want to give us any money for it. Pretty quickly we got an offer to shoot it on digital video for a million dollars. At that point, I just wanted to make it, and that was a good decision. Then, once I’d written Friends with Money Sony read it right away, and wanted to finance it and distribute it quickly. So it’s getting easier.

RS: Does it ever bother you when people lump your films into that “chick flick” category simply because you focus on women?

NH: You know, I don’t know; I don’t think they are chick flicks.

RS: I don’t either, which is why I wonder if it bothers you.

NH: You know, it would bother me if I couldn’t get financing because people said, “Oh, this is a chick flick.” But I get to make them, so you can call them whatever you want [laughs]. So if they need to be labeled, that’s okay, as long as I can make them.

RS: Relatively speaking, you had a bigger budget and higher profile cast for Friends with Money. Did you find the experience of making it significantly different that that of making your other two films?

NH: No, it was actually not very different. Because once we upped the budget, the movie went union. And so I didn’t have a lot more money than I ordinarily have, at least not that I was aware of. There were still so many limitations because of the budget. The shoot was shorter than my second movie, so it felt the same in terms of that. There were more trailers because of the cast. And paparazzi was following us around. That generally doesn’t happen to me [laughs]. So no, I would say that the thing that made it different while we were shooting was the photographers, and even that wasn’t all the time because that only happened when we were shooting exteriors, and there weren’t that many. Now it’s different. I’m getting a lot more press, and the publicity is wider. A lot more exposure.

RS: So, silly question, but I wanted to ask you because it’s one of the first things that came to mind when I heard the title of your new film. Did it ever occur to you to take the word “Friends” out of the title, given the association with Jennifer Aniston and the possible positive or negative connotations of that?

NH: Yeah, it did occur to me. I mean, I didn’t write it with her in mind but once she was in it I thought, shoot, I wish it wasn’t called this; but I couldn’t think of anything else. And I’m not very good at titles and that was a good title, so I didn’t really fret over it.

RS: Can you tell me anything about your next project?

NH: I don’t have one. Hence the five years. It’s time to sit down and start working again. It’s either gonna be a rewrite job or an original idea. But I’m not there yet.