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An Interview with Nicole Holofcener

[FILMMAKER]
“I JUST DIDN’T WANT TO BE SAYING THAT RICH PEOPLE CAN’T BE HAPPY, BECAUSE THAT’S SUCH A CLICHÉ. I KIND OF WANTED TO PAINT THEM AS PERFECT. I THOUGHT IT WOULD BE FUNNY—AND CRUEL.”
Socioeconomic status tip-offs:
Reaction to the purchase of a $400 dress
Canopy bed
Marital bliss
Guilt
by Meghan Daum
Illustration by Charles Burns
header-image

An Interview with Nicole Holofcener

[FILMMAKER]
“I JUST DIDN’T WANT TO BE SAYING THAT RICH PEOPLE CAN’T BE HAPPY, BECAUSE THAT’S SUCH A CLICHÉ. I KIND OF WANTED TO PAINT THEM AS PERFECT. I THOUGHT IT WOULD BE FUNNY—AND CRUEL.”
Socioeconomic status tip-offs:
Reaction to the purchase of a $400 dress
Canopy bed
Marital bliss
Guilt
by Meghan Daum
Illustration by Charles Burns

An Interview with Nicole Holofcener

Meghan Daum
12 Snaps

To understand just how Nicole Holofcener’s films burrow straight into the heart of a certain kind of existential malaise, you need only watch a scene from 2001’s Lovely and Amazing. Here, Catherine Keener plays Michelle Marks, a woman whose self-dissatisfaction practically emanates from her pores. Her artistic efforts have lately gone to the crafting of odd-looking miniature chairs made from twigs. During a humiliating attempt to convince an upscale boutique to carry the chairs, Michelle runs into a former high school classmate who is now a doctor.

“A doctor, already?” Michelle says. “It just seems so… soon.”

“We’re thirty-six,” says the other woman.

“Yeah,” says Michelle. “But not thirty-six thirty-six.”

The state of being thirty-six but not thirty-six is prime Holofcener territory. It’s an idea she explores, consciously or not, in just about every frame of every movie she makes. This is true even if her characters are in their twenties, as was the case in 1996’s Walking and Talking, or if they’ve aged into the bona fide, fortysomething bourgeois we meet in her newest film, Friends with Money. The road to being a grown-up—or, more accurately, to feeling like a grown-up—is the main artery in Holofcener’s work, the thoroughfare from which dozens of other issues (body image, race, class, the reticence of men, the emotional insatiability of women) branch off in every direction.

But Holofcener does not make coming-of-age movies, nor does she fall back on pop psychology clichés, no matter how often her characters might benefit from a “What Color Is Your Parachute?” seminar. Instead, Holofcener, the daughter of an artist father and a mother who once worked as a set decorator, and the stepdaughter of Charles Joffe, who produced many Woody Allen films, is a genuine auteur. She writes, she directs, and, like Allen himself, she brings a surprising (and distinctly grown-up) glamour to urban neuroticism.

This interview took place in February over tea and pork chops at Holofcener’s home near Los Angeles.

—Meghan Daum

I. “SHE WOULDN’T BUY HER OWN FUCKING SHAMPOO.”

THE BELIEVER: Your first film, Walking and Talking, which came out in 1996, was about a friendship between two women in their twenties, Amelia (Catherine Keener) and Laura (Anne Heche). You followed that up in 2001 with Lovely and Amazing, which was primarily about women in their thirties. The new film, Friends with Money, deals mainly with a group of fortysomethings. Does this more or less reflect the ages you were when you made the films?

NICOLE HOLOFCENER: Exactly. I think in my own self-involved way I write about what I’m going through. I wrote Walking and Talking when I was in my twenties but I didn’t make it until I was in my thirties. So it was interesting because by the time I was shooting, the content of the movie seemed a little immature to me. I had new issues. And then I wrote Lovely and Amazing when I was in my thirties and directed it when I was in my forties. So there’s a time lag.

BLVR: Where did the title Walking and Talking come from?

NH: I was going out with this guy in New York and we were walking down the street, holding hands. He saw someone he knew and pulled his hand away. And we were sleeping together—it had been a month or something. And when the person passed I said,“What are we doing?” I don’t remember the context but basically I wanted him to say,“We’re dating.” And he wouldn’t say it. And eventually he just said, “What do you mean? We’re walking down the street and we’re talking.” That scene was originally in the script with Amelia and Andrew, where she says, “What are we doing?” and he says, “Walking and talking.” That scene got cut out of the script. We didn’t even shoot it. But then I couldn’t think of a better title. It’s so funny because people think the title is so appropriate. To me it’s completely inappropriate because the scene’s not there.

BLVR: I always thought the title had to do with the friendship between the two women, a “put one foot in front of the other” connotation.

NH: Yeah. I think that’s fine.

BLVR: I find it interesting in your films that the characters tend not to have a lot of back stories. It’s refreshing because it’s such a writing workshop cliché that we have to know what makes characters the way they are. But do you have an idea in your head of where your characters came from? In Walking and Talking I wondered what Amelia’s family situation was, mostly because she had a nice apartment and her family has a lake house even though she’s working a dead-end job and we never see her parents.

NH: I based Amelia so closely on me that there was really no separation. I didn’t come up with a back story for her; she was just me. I didn’t have a lake house, but my parents had money. The apartment that Amelia has in the movie is nicer than it should have been only because we needed room to shoot in. And I tried to make it look smaller than it actually was. If Catherine ever had any questions, I would just tell her about my life. My parents were divorced. We went to Fire Island when I was a kid. And the Laura character was based closely on a friend of mine.

BLVR: I’m curious about where you draw the line between standard neuroses and more serious psychological issues. Many of the characters in Friends with Money seem so palpably screwed-up. When I was watching the movie I wondered how much their behavior was a rational response to their environment and how much was actual pathology. Do you view these characters as simply melancholy or is it something deeper?

NH: I’ve had friends, including myself, who do fuckedup things. And then I’ve had friends who do things that are a little more than fucked-up, to the point that it’s kind of spooky. And that’s what you’re talking about. I think Olivia had crossed that line.

BLVR: Olivia is someone who, at some indeterminate point, just sort of stopped coping. She used to be a schoolteacher, but she got burned out and now she’s working as a maid. She’s obsessed with a married man with whom she had an affair. She has real money problems, so much so that she makes the rounds of cosmetics counters getting free samples of face cream, which she also steals from a client. On top of it, she smokes a lot of pot. Any of these things on their own can mess up a person’s life enough. What made you choose to make her a pothead, too?

NH: It was just the development of the character. The first scene I wrote was that she was cleaning and smoking pot. It was from Anne Lamott. In one of her books she talks about how she used to clean houses for a living. And I can’t remember exactly if she said she used to get really stoned but I think she did. So the image of a really stoned house cleaner came to mind and that’s how that started.

BLVR: How would you diagnose Jane, the Frances McDormand character? She seems deeply depressed. She’s stopped washing her hair and she lashes out at people in some really aberrant, outrageous ways.

NH: I would say she’s having a midlife crisis. Her behavior is aberrant and it’s unacceptable but it’s not crazy tome. She’s having a really bad few months. Yes, she could benefit from antidepressants or therapy. And I had to escalate her problems to make them more dramatic, so that she’d make more of a fool of herself. But my friends and I sound like her all the time. Hopefully not in public, but to each other.

BLVR: But not washing your hair is such a textbook sign of depression, or at least that’s what I’ve heard.

NH: I had this friend who was my roommate for a while. She seemed really normal in every way except that she wouldn’t buy shampoo. She would only use my shampoo. And after a year it’s like, “When are you going to buy your own shampoo?” It was her way of digging in her heels. It was a certain sense of entitlement, or a certain anger. It was so interesting to me why she wouldn’t buy her own fucking shampoo. It was like,“I’m gonna use yours.” It was coming from a place of “You have more money than me, I just know it”—whether I did or I didn’t. Or maybe she felt, “You have a better life than me,” or “You have a better room than me in the apartment.” It was hostile. And she was a really close friend.

BLVR: Would she admit it?

NH: Never. There was never any other shampoo and I knew she was washing her hair. And clearly I have a thing about shampoo, as we see in Friends with Money. I had some nice shampoo. So I found that psychologically so interesting how a person can function normally in every way and yet have this aberrance—it’s like a skip in the record. It was a sense of entitlement, I think. I put that in Olivia’s character, too, with her stealing someone’s face cream.

II. “WE’RE SO UNCONSCIOUS OF THEDISPARITY OF MONEY BETWEEN US.”

BLVR: You seem to take an essayistic approach to your films in that they seem very much to be about ideas rather than story for story’s sake. Friends with Money is clearly about class issues. Did you set out to make a movie that dealt with that subject, creating the story around it, or were there specific incidents or characters that inspired the theme?

NH: I think in my life I go through the process of essaying. Being curious about class and race and how we all respond to each other. But I think what gets me to sit down and write is the characters. In Friends with Money I wanted to say something about exactly that: friends with money. What is it like when this one has it and this one doesn’t? Does it make them happy? What does jealousy or pettiness or self-entitlement do?

BLVR: You grew up in both New York City and Los Angeles. It’s always seemed to me that the two cities have very different sensibilities around money. On the East Coast, class seems to be tied up in things like education and what you inherit, whether it’s a rentcontrolled apartment or legacy status in the Ivy League or whatever. On the West Coast, things seem newer and,in a strange way, more democratic. Or maybe I mean capitalist. You’re able to buy your way into class on some level. You have such a good ear for the trappings of class anxiety here in L.A., particularly in the liberal social circles of the West Side. In terms of money, are you identifying as an insider or an outsider?

NH: An insider in terms of the fact that all of this came from my own experience. I am not the friend with money compared to some people I know. But compared to other people I know, I have a lot of money. We all have such different ideas about money. Growing up in New York, I started out kind of poor. I went to public school and we didn’t have a lot of money. My mom worked her butt off and then she married someone who had money [movie producer Charles Joffe] when I was eight. And I started to go to private school. But many of the kids I was friends with in the private school were really poor because they were scholarship kids. So they had these beaten-down houses and twenty-five siblings and then they’d come to my house and we had a projection system and I had my own room with a canopy bed. I remember feeling very guilty about it. So those issues started out really early. But as adults, I think we’re so unconscious of the disparity of money between us. We say things that are so crazy, like “Oh, look at this dress I bought. It was so cheap—it was only four hundred dollars!” It’s harmless, essentially. But do you say, “Good for you, you got a bargain” or,“What the fuck, are you nuts? That’s cheap?” It depends on who you’re talking to.

BLVR: I thought it was interesting how, in Friends with Money, the happiest couple with the best marriage [Matt and Franny, played by Greg Germann and Joan Cusack]were also the richest. It’s the reverse of what you usually see in movies.

NH: The characters that they’re loosely based on are real people who I do think have one of the strongest marriages of all my friends. So I thought, “Isn’t that ironic? Maybe having money does help.” I just didn’t want to be saying that rich people can’t be happy, because that’s such a cliché. I kind of wanted to paint themas perfect. I thought it would be funny—and cruel.

III. “MY TYPE ISN’T REALLY MY TYPE.”

BLVR: In both Walking and Talking and Friends with Money, there’s a motif of “the ugly guy,” the guy who we believe is unworthy of the woman but with whom she ends up getting involved. In Walking and Talking, Amelia ends up getting burned by the guy anyway. Is this kind of a template character you like to come back to?

NH: The character himself came from guys I’d dated, where I thought I had the upper hand because I thought I was more attractive. And then I’d still end up being the dumped one.

BLVR: In Friends with Money that character is Marty, who’s played by Bob Stephenson. He hires Olivia as his cleaning lady and he’s unemployed, overweight, and an incredible slob on every level. He’s the epitome of an unappealing guy. He even bargains down her price. Were you worried that Marty was too ugly? How did you calibrate his appeal as the character developed?

NH: I knew that if he was really handsome we’d know they’d hook up. I had someone in my mind who he was loosely based on and when Bob walked in I thought, “Oh, you look like him.” But it was also an energy. I wanted his sexiness to come out of his eyes and his kindness and the way he looked at her. I liked that he had a teddy-bear quality to him. And I wanted it to be a thing where she’d ultimately think, “Whatever I’ve been doing to find a man hasn’t worked. If I can move away from my type maybe I can actually get somewhere. Maybe my type isn’t really my type.”

BLVR: You tend to play a lot with the theme of people wondering if they should go against their “type” when it comes to finding love. In the mainstream media, there’s a lot of self-help rhetoric around the idea that we’re drawn in an unhealthy way to people who negatively reflect people we grew up with. We’re comfortable around these people even if they’re toxic on some level, and that’s what makes them our type. I suspect that’s part of what was going on in Walking and Talking with the relationship between Andrew and Amelia. Do you buy that logic?

NH: I do buy it. But there’s also something true about not having met the right one yet. I, for instance, was always drawn to people who rejected me because I felt rejected by my father. That may be simple and clichéd and certainly it wasn’t that black-and-white because my father loved me. But I’m in a really good relationship now. I don’t think I would have been able to have it ten years ago. I don’t think I would have liked this guy ten years ago.

BLVR: Do you think there’s something going on in theculture that has changed the way men and women relate to each other romantically?

NH: I am so out of the dating loop, thank god, that I can’t play anthropologist or sociologist about that. But there’s definitely an issue about money in terms of men and women. So many more women are making more money than their husbands. Or if they’re not, they will be soon, and their husbands are afraid of that. Maybe they don’t say it, but they are. That’s an interesting phenomenon. I think that emasculates a lot of men and makes them feel paralyzed and makes women feel guilty and afraid to reach their full potential. I think men are certainly more lost in terms of how to behave.

BLVR: Why do you think women are making more money?

NH: I think women in relationships are more willing to accept a man who doesn’t make money. There are a lot of men who are aspiring to something. They haven’t made their money yet. And meanwhile the women are making more.

IV. “MY MOM IS REALLY SMARTBUT SOMETIMES SHE DOESN’TKNOW WHEN TO STOPTALKING ABOUT MY WORK.”

BLVR: Let’s talk about Lovely and Amazing. The film centers around two adult sisters, Elizabeth (Emily Mortimer) and Michelle (Catherine Keener), and their mother (Brenda Blethyn). The mother, who has a young adopted daughter who’s black (Raven Goodwin), undergoes a tummy tuck and liposuction and surfers some complications. Both sisters have various personal and professional problems, but the issue of weight and appearance comes up again and again. What made you want to do a film about body issues?

NH: The first thing that inspired me was the family relationship. In real life, my mom adopted a black child. He’s now sixteen. My mom is obsessed with her weight and my sister and I are obsessed with our weight—not in any unusual way, just in the normal L.A. woman way. And here was this boy who was starting to grow up to look like he was going to be chubby. He’s listening to us talk about calories and this and that and I thought about how that looked to him, how sick it must have looked. We kept trying to shut up when he was around but we just couldn’t. Then my mom became obsessed with controlling his diet. I think she couldn’t imagine a fate worse than him being fat.

BLVR: How did your mother feel about the movie?

NH: She felt really good about it. I think my mom understood her own issues and saw herself in the character. And she could see that I was making fun of myself.She ultimately saw the love the characters feel for their mother and felt the love that I feel for her. So she came away with that. She was so proud and moved by it. It’s funny because a lot of her friends said “Oh, how could you take that from your daughter? That was so hurtful. ”She was surprised by that response. Especially because she didn’t have a tummy tuck. Her friends assumed that I was giving away her secret. But I made that up!

BLVR: Has she always been comfortable with yourwriting about her?

NH: She’s always been really cool about me exposing her. However, we have had a problem with her reading my work because I’ve felt she was too critical.

BLVR: You mean artistically?

NH: Yes.I made a short film about it. It was called Angry. It’s about breaking up with my mother. I play the main character, who’s written this novel that the mother just can’t stop saying mean things about. My mom is really smart but sometimes she doesn’t know when to stop talking about my work. It’s like, “I got it! I got it!” But overall she’s very supportive. It’s just tricky because I want her approval so much more than I want someone else’s approval. She almost can’t win.

V. “I HAD TO ASK MYSELF, ‘AM I DOING SOMETHING PORNOGRAPHIC?’”

BLVR: Michelle, the Catherine Keener character in Lovely and Amazing, is so mean and horrible in the film.

NH: OK. I have a sister but she’s not like that. Let meput that down on paper. My sister—and she’ll be the first to admit it—did have more sibling rivalry problems when my mom adopted my brother than I did. She had some unfinished issues with my mother. But as far as the Michelle character, I made up pretty much everything for drama’s sake.

BLVR: There was a lot of discussion about the scene in Lovely and Amazing where Emily Mortimer, who plays an actress, has a one-night stand with Dermot Mulroney, who plays a movie star. Before she goes home she asks him if she can stand naked in front of him and have him tell her everything that’s wrong with her. She’s recently been turned down for a role because she’s “not sexy enough” and dumped by her boyfriend because she constantly voices her insecurities. She’s especially preoccupied with having flabby arms. That must have been a very tricky scene to write and direct, not to mention cast for. What were you looking for in an actress to do that scene? Were you looking for a certain body type?

NH: I felt like she could have any body.The point was not what her body looks like but how she feels about her body. Granted, if she was Gisele [the Victoria’s Secret model] the scene would be discredited. But at the same time I felt like Emily did have a perfect body. The character is sick in the head to think that she has flabby arms or whatever. Emily was my first choice for the role. Given how thin she is we rewrote the scene for her body. We talked about what we could say.And she said, “Well, I’ve got bony knees and I’ve got this and I’ve got that.” She certainly didn’t have flabby arms and we talked about whether to change it. But we talked ourselves into keeping it. It was a matter of the character’s brain. I remember coming out of the theater after watching the movie and hearing a bunch of women behind me saying, “That was insane, she had a perfect body!” It’s like,“Well, yeah, that was the point.”

BLVR: What, in your mind, is that scene essentially about?

NH: The scene was about a girl who needed to hear the facts. The idea was that hearing his “facts” would be somewhat liberating for her. I felt like there were so many elements going on at the same time. In part, it was like we [the audience] were him in bed judging her. So I had to ask myself, “Am I doing something pornographic? Am I laying her out there to be titillating to people?” I wondered,“My god, what am I doing to this actress and to this character?”

BLVR: Did you just dream up that scenario? Of him critiquing her in bed?

NH: Yeah. I never did it myself, though.

BLVR: Have you heard of people watching the movie and then doing that?

NH: Yeah. But girlfriends or people in couples. Not one-night stands.

BLVR: The character, this movie star named Kevin McCabe, delivers his “facts” in a way that retains the audience’s sympathy, which is pretty tough to pull off. He’s reluctant at first and then he’s so matter-of-fact in his critique that it sounds about as nonjudgmental as a set of judgments can be, if that makes any sense. But the idea of “his facts” reminds me of the moment in Walking and Talking where Amelia asks Andrew why he broke up with her and he says, “Because you made me too important.” On the one hand, that sounds like an excuse. But on the other hand it’s his “fact.” Which are we supposed to believe?

NH: Both. I think we’re supposed to wonder, “Why can’t this guy handle someone making him important?” He is important to her. But at the same time, she made him way too important. I know when I was single I made the guys I was going out with way too important. My identity hung on them. If they called, if they liked me, if they thought I was pretty, if they laughed at my jokes. And if they rejected me, that meant I was rejectable.

BLVR: But many women have made a study of bending over backwards to appear cool and indifferent.

NH: Oh yeah, but guys can smell it a mile away. You can pretend. But if you’re not that kind of girl you’re just not that kind of girl. Eventually I fell in love with the kind of person who likes the kind of girl I am. So I didn’t have to try to be the other kind.

BLVR: But who’s not that kind of girl?

NH: Girls who are afraid of intimacy. And the men just fall all over them. Otherwise they can see that look in your eyes of, “Are we dating yet?” They know you’re waiting to get to that point. They can feel it. And it’s insane to pretend that you’re not. You’re in your thirties, you want to fall in love, you want to have a family, whatever. How can you pretend it’s not important? That’s where you’re fucked!

BLVR: But that goes back to the scene with Dermot and Emily. Those are his facts. But does that mean those are the facts?

NH: No. But right at that moment those are the facts.And I think she realizes, “OK, I can live with these facts and go on and have a happy life. ”They’ll change some other time. The facts change with every person. I used to look at pictures of myself and comment on my big nose, always saying, “If only I didn’t have a big nose!”I was never the type to have a nose job and I’m glad I didn’t, but my nose plagued me. At one point, my husband, when we were married, finally looked at this picture I was berating and said,“Yes, you have a big nose,and you’re really beautiful and I love you.” It was a gift to hear all those things in one sentence. I can be pretty and have a big nose. And it really helped me live with it and accept it. And that’s what that scene was derived from. I know everyone watching that scene has their own experience about what’s happening to her. But for me that’s what it was about.

VI. “BEAUTIFUL WOMEN ARE LEARNING HOW TO ACT BETTER.”

BLVR: Do you think ideals of feminine beauty have changed over the last few decades? It seems that there’s a more uniform look now. As opposed to a Meryl Streep or even a Debra Winger, everyone now looks like they stepped out of In Style magazine. The “unconventional beauty” seems like a thing of the past.

NH: I think beautiful women—at least women who are beautiful in the traditional way—are learning how to act better. So you have someone who looks like Uma Thurman and she can act.

BLVR: When Lovely and Amazing came out I remember hearing an interview with Catherine Keener where she talked about how she once didn’t get cast in something because the studio executives said she wasn’t sexy enough. That happens to Elizabeth in that film. Had you talked about that with Catherine?

NH: We’re good friends. I don’t remember talking about that with her specifically. But I think so many times an actress feels like getting cast depends upon whether the person producing the movie wants to have sex with her. Or if the studio heads think you’re attractive. I think Catherine’s gorgeous, drop-dead. But she’s also chosen a certain kind of career for herself. She’s turned down material that would have made her more of an ingénue.

BLVR: Do you consider yourself a feminist?

NH: I would think that inadvertently I am. I have no shame in saying I am. But I wouldn’t label myself that way.I think because I’m female and I speak from a very female point of view—mine—that it makes me a feminist.

BLVR: Some people are convinced there are major lesbian undertones in Walking and Talking, maybe because an intense friendship between two women is at the center of it and the men—regardless of how wrapped up in them the women are—are fairly peripheral. I’m thinking particularly of the lake scene toward the end where they take turns floating in the water. It’s the day before Laura’s wedding—it’s like she and Amelia are enjoying this intense and even sad moment of closeness.

NH: When I was writing the script in film school, this militant lesbian teacher was like,“You know this movie is about lesbians!” But it was never about that. It was about my friendship with my best friend. And we’re not gay. The scene in the lake evolved while we were shooting. There’d been another scene toward the end when Laura and Amelia were just talking. And when we were about to shoot the scene we said, “You know, these girls have talked too much. We’ve got to find a way to show how much they adore each other.” And it seemed like something my friends and I would do. We would give each other turns floating.

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