Monday, June 21, 2010

Film Q&A: Nicole Holofcener and Catherine Keener, on collaborating

Catherine Keener and Oliver Platt in‭ ‬Please Give.

By Hap Erstein

There’s Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro.‭ ‬There’s Tim Burton and Johnny Depp.‭ ‬And on the female side,‭ ‬there’s Nicole Holofcener and‭ ‬Catherine Keener:‭ ‬Film directors‭ ‬and the actors with whom they frequently collaborate.

Keener has been in all four of Holofcener’s films‭ ‬--‭ ‬Walking and Talking‭ (‬1996‭)‬,‭ ‬Lovely and Amazing‭ (‬2001‭)‬,‭ ‬Friends with Money‭ (‬2006‭) ‬and her latest,‭ ‬Please Give,‭ ‬which opened over the weekend.‭ ‬In March,‭ ‬during the Miami International Film Festival,‭ ‬the two women sat down with Hap Erstein to talk about the film and their long-running collaboration.

Erstein:‭ ‬How did this collaboration begin for you two‭?

Holofcener:‭ ‬I saw her in a movie and I kind of stalked her,‭ ‬found her agent and gave her my script.‭ ‬She responded to it,‭ ‬we hit it off right away,‭ ‬but it took many years to get the financing.‭ ‬Then when we made the film,‭ ‬we became friends.‭ ‬I never planned to put her in all my movies,‭ ‬but I just couldn’t not.

Erstein:‭ ‬So as you gather material for the next movie,‭ ‬do you now think,‭ “‬How can I make this a Catherine Keener character‭?”

Holofcener:‭ ‬Actually,‭ ‬if it’s a character that‘s somewhat based on me,‭ ‬I generally think of Catherine,‭ ‬because she’s definitely played me,‭ ‬as much as a person can play me in a movie.‭ ‬But I don’t start out that way.‭ ‬I definitely go with thoughts and themes that are important to me and then see who fits.

Erstein:‭ ‬Catherine,‭ ‬when you first read her script for‭ ‬Walking and Talking,‭ ‬you didn’t know her at all,‭ ‬did you‭?

Keener:‭ ‬Nope.‭ ‬But I was drawn to the writing and it made me think:‭ ‬I would love to hang out with this woman.

Erstein:‭ ‬So you certainly did not think this would become a long-term collaboration.

Keener:‭ ‬No,‭ ‬she didn’t have the movie financed or anything.‭ ‬She just said,‭ “‬I want to make this and I want you to be in it if it happens.‭” ‬And it wasn’t until a couple of years later that it happened.‭ ‬And it was quite a struggle to get me,‭ ‬to convince investors to go with me.

Erstein:‭ ‬What makes Catherine an ideal actress for your films‭?

Holofcener:‭ ‬It’s a really hard thing to describe,‭ ‬but,‭ ‬first and foremost,‭ ‬she’s really natural.‭ ‬She doesn’t have a movie voice,‭ ‬or a movie face,‭ ‬nothing’s fake.‭ ‬Of course she has good takes and bad takes like everybody else,‭ ‬but generally she is really natural,‭ ‬no mannerisms.‭ ‬She really listens,‭ ‬to me and to the other actors.‭ ‬She’s very present,‭ ‬she’s got a great sense of timing and humor,‭ ‬which is really imperative,‭ ‬because the material can be so serious and self-involved and self-conscious,‭ ‬but if the actor has a sense of humor,‭ ‬it gives it so much more.

Erstein:‭ ‬Do you think of her as a muse‭?

Holofcener:‭ ‬Yeah,‭ ‬sure,‭ ‬absolutely.‭ ‬I mean when I’m writing something and I hope that she’s going to be playing it,‭ ‬I think it helps make me a better writer,‭ ‬when I think about how she would say it.‭

Keener:‭ ‬And she is a muse for me as well,‭ ‬because when I’m reading‭ (‬a script of hers‭) ‬and I’m working for her,‭ ‬it just takes me to more creative places in my head.

Erstein:‭ ‬Do you feel more proprietary about making a film of Nicole’s,‭ ‬that you are more than just a hired hand in a movie‭?

Keener:‭ ‬No.‭ ‬I don’t feel any ownership at all.‭ ‬I’m still just her minion.‭ (‬Laughs‭)

Holofcener:‭ ‬She still absolutely looks for my approval.‭ ‬She wants to make sure she’s doing it the way I want her to do it.‭ ‬She could have a lot more freedom than she takes.

Keener:‭ ‬I’m not interested in that,‭ ‬though.‭ ‬I like it this way.‭ ‬I think actors need directors.‭ ‬I know that I do.

Nicole Holofcener.

Erstein:‭ ‬Is Catherine playing a role that represents you in‭ ‬Please Give‭?

Holofcener:‭ ‬That character is definitely the closest to me compared to any of the other characters.‭ ‬I struggle with being a successful person with lots of money compared to everybody else.

Erstein:‭ ‬You don’t feel you deserve it‭?

Holofcener:‭ ‬It’s a struggle.‭ ‬It’s not that simple.‭ ‬Yes,‭ ‬of course I deserve it.‭ ‬If anybody deserves it,‭ ‬why not me,‭ ‬right‭? ‬But the way it works is just so crazy and wrong.‭ ‬There are so many starving hungry people everywhere.‭ ‬I live in L.A.‭ ‬and they’re everywhere.

Keener:‭ ‬We live in expensive houses,‭ ‬but we can look outside and see so many people who are poor,‭ ‬disenfranchised.

Erstein:‭ ‬But you chose to set the film in New York,‭ ‬which is almost one of the characters.‭

Holofcener:‭ ‬I did that because the city was an important part of the story when I first created the characters and the situation.‭ ‬I really couldn’t imagine it anywhere else.‭ ‬I wanted that elevator,‭ ‬I wanted them to have to get in the same elevator,‭ ‬to have their doors right next to each other.

I tried to figure it in my mind in L.A.,‭ ‬because I didn’t want to leave my kids,‭ ‬but it just wouldn’t work.‭ ‬It had to be New York.‭ ‬And I grew up in New York and that’s where this part of me came from.

Erstein:‭ ‬That reinforces a comment I’ve often heard,‭ ‬describing you as a female Woody Allen.

Holofcener:‭ ‬Y’know,‭ ‬I think it’s because I’m a New York Jew.‭ ‬Seriously,‭ ‬I think if I wasn’t those two things,‭ ‬you wouldn’t hear those comparisons.‭ ‬But then,‭ ‬I would be a very different person,‭ ‬and maybe I’d make different movies.‭ ‬I mean,‭ ‬if I were Cybill Shepherd,‭ ‬so many things would be different.

Plus I grew up watching and revering his movies.‭ ‬I remember seeing‭ ‬Manhattan and‭ ‬Annie Hall and‭ ‬Stardust Memories so many times,‭ ‬they have to be an influence,‭ ‬consciously or unconsciously.‭ ‬And having such neurotic,‭ ‬but really sympathetic,‭ ‬deep characters in everyday life.‭ ‬They have such problems in Manhattan,‭ ‬and it’s so absorbing.‭

Erstein:‭ ‬How do you develop a film‭? ‬Do you collect ideas and characters until you have enough‭?

Holofcener:‭ ‬Pretty much.‭ ‬I have an idea,‭ ‬and then I think I have an idea for a couple of characters and if it lasts more than a day,‭ ‬I’ll sort of expand on that the next day and then after a few weeks if it still seems interesting to me,‭ ‬I just start writing.‭

And I don’t really know where it’s going to go when I start writing,‭ ‬but I like to have some idea of maybe the first few pages.

Erstein:‭ ‬The movie opens with shots of women having mammograms.‭ ‬That’s as close as I’ve ever been to seeing the test given.

Holofcener:‭ ‬Well,‭ ‬let me tell you,‭ ‬it’s really a G-rated version of a mammogram.‭ ‬They really flatten the boobs like a pancake.‭ ‬It’s so weird.‭ ‬I really wanted to do that,‭ ‬I wanted to show that it really hurts,‭ ‬but I couldn’t let that happen.‭ ‬In retrospect,‭ ‬I wish I hurt a couple.‭ ‬So you haven’t really seen a mammogram.

Erstein:‭ ‬Were those professional actors‭?

Holofcener:‭ ‬Those were actual,‭ ‬real boobs.‭ ‬They were extras,‭ ‬and they got paid as extras.‭ ‬I signed a thing that said their heads would not show in the same shot as their boobs.‭ ‬Like we might have used them again later that day on the street.‭ ‬The call for those extras asked for all shapes and sizes,‭ ‬mostly‭ ‬50‭ ‬and over.

Erstein:‭ ‬What ties all the characters in‭ ‬Please Give together‭?

Holofcener:‭ ‬I think that Catherine’s character and Amanda‭ (‬Peet’s‭) ‬and Rebecca‭ (‬Hall’s‭) ‬character have a similar theme,‭ ‬that they all want to be good and what that means for each of them is different.‭ ‬Because‭ (‬Amanda and Rebecca‭) ‬had a mother who abandoned them by killing herself‭ ‬--‭ ‬I think children feel that that’s their fault that there’s something wrong with them‭ ‬--‭ ‬and Catherine’s quandary is more contemporary,‭ ‬it’s more in her life right now,‭ ‬not necessarily a childhood wound.‭ ‬But the fact that they are going to be the people they want to be,‭ ‬sort of let off the hook.

Erstein:‭ ‬On behalf of pudgy men everywhere,‭ ‬I’m so glad that Oliver Platt‭ (‬Keener’s husband‭) ‬has an affair with Amanda Peet.‭ ‬But what is her motive‭?

Holofcener:‭ ‬I think that Amanda Peet’s character instantly envies Catherine’s character and looks up to her.‭ ‬Catherine has whatever Amanda does not have.‭ ‬Husband,‭ ‬children,‭ ‬money.‭ ‬Amanda doesn’t feel beautiful,‭ ‬although she is very beautiful.‭ ‬And I think having Catherine’s husband hit on her is the ultimate compliment.‭ ‬She’s desperate and lonely and insecure.

Erstein:‭ ‬Why do so many of your characters have self-image and assurance issues‭?

Holofcener:‭ ‬Characters that don’t have them are probably not very interesting.‭ ‬I mean,‭ ‬everybody has self-esteem issues in some areas,‭ ‬don’t they‭?

Erstein:‭ ‬Talk about the involvement of Sony Classics Pictures.

Holofcener:‭ ‬They financed the movie.‭ ‬They also financed‭ ‬Friends with Money.‭ ‬They didn’t even come to the set.‭ ‬I say,‭ “‬Aren’t you guys interested‭?” ‬They said,‭ “‬We trust you.‭ ‬It’s all right.‭” ‬And they don’t tell me what to cut or anything.‭ ‬It’s amazing.

The movie only costs‭ ‬$3‭ ‬million,‭ ‬and it’s not my first film.‭ ‬My last film made them some money,‭ ‬although they were very hands off on the last one,‭ ‬too.‭ ‬I think once they decide to trust you,‭ ‬they just trust.‭ ‬And it wasn’t a great deal of money.‭ ‬I’m very,‭ ‬very lucky.‭ ‬I think I’m in a very rare situation.

I wish I could have shown more of the city.‭ ‬With more money and time,‭ ‬I would have more exteriors.‭ ‬I would have seen that the art department had a lot more money and time.‭ ‬To go really nuts on the furniture store.‭ ‬Or the apartment.‭ ‬But everybody was limited.‭ ‬But in the end,‭ ‬I don’t think it really mattered.‭

Erstein:‭ ‬Do you think of‭ ‬Please Give as a departure for you‭?

Holofcener:‭ ‬No,‭ ‬a departure for me would be a movie without a joke.‭ ‬Or a thriller.‭ ‬A highly stylized movie,‭ ‬something like that.

Erstein:‭ ‬Is it getting any easier to get your films financed and distributed‭?
Holofcener:‭ ‬No.‭ ‬But it’s still difficult.‭ ‬A lot of studios tell me they want to make my next movie,‭ ‬but when they see the script,‭ ‬they say,‭ “‬Maybe not this one.‭ ‬We mean the next next one.‭ ‬The one that‘s going to make a lot of money.‭ ‬The one that I can really see on the page better than this one.‭”

You know,‭ ‬they want me to make a thriller.‭

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