Read the full transcript from BAFTA Screenwriters’ Lecture Series: Nicole Holofcener
Jeremy Brock: Hi, I’m Jeremy Brock. Welcome to the third of BAFTA’s 2018 International Screenwriters’ Lectures, in conjunction with Lucy Gard and the JJ Charitable Trust. On this winter evening we are enormously honoured to be hosting the internationally renowned writer and director Nicole Holofcener. Nicole’s body of work, from her 1991 short film Angry to 2018’s The Land of Steady Habits spans nearly thirty years of acutely observed, forensically funny examinations of contemporary life, eschewing all the predictable tropes of comedy in favour of a realism that is both startling and poignant; a universality from the specific. Nicole will talk, followed by a Q&A with the writer and journalist Ian Haydn-Smith, after which as we always do we’ll open it up to the floor. So ladies and gentlemen, Nicole Holofcener.
Nicole Holofcener: I’ve never stood behind one of these things before, ever. Hi. Hi everybody. Thanks very much for coming to hear me speak. Yeah I’m a little nervous, I like being behind the camera. But this is a challenge for me and I think it’s going to work out. I want to thank BAFTA for having me here, it’s a really big honour. I was thrilled when I got invited, so thank you so much. I am going to read, so I am going to have some eye contact as well, but I like having this thing here.
The last time I had to stand in front of an audience to tell them why I was special I peed in my pants. I had been proudly sharing the wonders of a cactus that my cousin had given me when I was visiting Philadelphia, and it was going well until I was peeing. The urine burned its way down my white tights and into my shiny black mary janes and onto the floor of my first-grade classroom. Quick on my feet I said to the class, ‘you might be wondering why I have this water around me. You see it was raining a lot in Philadelphia and I stepped in a puddle and now my shoes leak.’ I was pretty confident they believed me until my best friend told me everyone knew it was pee. So I’ve been invited to this prestigious event to tell you how I’m talented and I’m afraid that while I might think it’s going well, a friend of mine will politely let me know that none of you bought it because you all knew it was pee.
OK no more pee talk, I promise. I don’t want to give advice, except the cliché of follow your own voice. Because I don’t really know anything else. I only know what’s worked for me, and I didn’t even know I had a voice until other people told me I did. I’m writing what I want to write about, and if you’re doing the same and not trying to fit into somebody else’s idea of what a good story is, your voice will appear, or at least it should. And it doesn’t have to be autobiographical for it to be your own.
I am going to try to talk about how I’ve taken various stages of my life and turned them into screenplays, because if you’ve seen my movies you know they’re all kind of personal. Because I write about myself I feel exposed a lot of the time. But when it works, when I feel like I have written something that moves people, whether it’s funny or sad, then it’s absolutely worth the exposure. Like standing here right now.
I write about my problems, my friends, my lovers, my fears, and of course my mother.
Sorry mom. She adopted a baby black boy when she was in her fifties, so he grew up in a family of white people, mostly women. I wondered what that was like for him, and it inspired me to write Lovely and Amazing. I turned my brother into a girl for a variety of reasons. He was thrilled. In this scene, Annie—I’m going to show you clips, by the way—she feels lost among her sister’s neurotic problems and walks by herself to McDonalds. Her sister Michelle, played by Catherine Keener, is always annoyed with her, and Annie feels like Michelle doesn’t like her. This is a scene, actually, towards the end of the movie, from Lovely and Amazing. Hit it!
My brother actually really loved the movie but he was unhappy that I made him overweight, which at the time he kind of was. Not anymore.
OK, so I wrote Enough Said because I thought what if my boyfriend’s ex-wife told me what his faults were, or told me about the stuff he did that drove her crazy. Would that be valuable information or would it ruin my own perception and experience of him. Having been married before, I clearly was afraid there would be hidden parts of this new person that were eventually going to hurt me. As I continued to write I gave the characters children who were going away to college and that gave them something to bond over. My own kids hadn’t left for college yet, but I was consumed with not wanting to let them go and not wanting to start this new phase of my life without them.
The empty nest became a large part of the movie kind of inadvertently. I don’t plot things out, so my scripts reveal themselves to me as I go along. So because of this I usually end up with some shitty first drafts, but that’s OK. The first draft is always the most difficult and scary, but rewriting can actually be fun. It’s much easier for me to see what I’m doing once I’ve done it. So here, Eva and Albert have their first date before she knows anything about him.
It’s so touching to watch Jim, it kind of kills me.
So later Albert discovers that Eva has coincidentally become friends with his ex-wife Catherine Keener and has heard an earful, making her judge everything about him, and so it all goes to hell. That’s the next clip.
Is that normal, that everybody claps after a clip?
It’s nice, I’ll take it!
Sometimes writing about personal things can be cathartic, and sometimes not at all. One would think that if I write about my fears I would be able to conquer them, but it doesn’t always work that way. Here’s another scene, I guess the last one from Enough Said about me taking my kids to school, basically.
I cried while I was directing that scene. Actually a few people on the crew did, as well. It was just so emotional watching her performance. And I kind of can’t even watch it now. Like my kids have gone to school but it’s still like I’m wrecked. Did it lessen the drama when I actually took my kids to college, because I’d shot this before? No it did not. Unfortunately movies are movies and life is life.
So I have this thing about the truth. I believe that a lot of the time, truth should trump manners. Can we even say that word anymore? Did he actually steal a verb from the English language? It’s like that’s all anyone thinks when you hear that. For instance, if a good friend asks if I can tell he’s balding and I can, I tell him the truth because I’d want the truth and I assume others do, but of course that’s not always the case.
If I’m insecure about something and people keep telling me I’m imagining it, like ‘no, no, you don’t look that way,’ or whatever, and people keep telling me—I don’t feel relieved, I feel placated. Once I got a really shitty haircut, not once but several times, and was so happy when a friend said ‘yeah you got a really shitty haircut.’ It was such a relief. It was like, ‘right?!’ It helped that somehow someone saw what I saw and validated my feelings. It diminished its importance simply by calling it what it is. It was a tragedy, however.
This is from Please Give and this really points to needing someone to see what I see and to be seen.
So in my life, and if you’ve seen my movies I grapple with what it means to be a good person. What to give and how can be tricky and not so obvious. In the beginning of Please Give, Abby asks her mom Kate for an expensive pair of jeans and Kate snaps at her, telling her that there are hundreds of homeless people everywhere and that she’s not going to buy her daughter $200 jeans, which seems reasonable except that Abby continually watches her mother give to everyone else.
But she turns out to be a nice girl. Of course Abby seems spoiled and obnoxious, but she’s crying out for her mother to see her throughout the whole movie. It’s not about money. She believes the jeans will make her feel better and eventually at the end of the movie Kate gets it. She realises that giving can be an intangible thing. I’m talking less than the clips, but that’s OK with me.
On the ‘how to be good’ topic, I like to volunteer and have had many experiences doing it that turned out to be completely unhelpful, and even detrimental. I once, and this is just one of many, I once carried an old, mentally ill woman’s groceries to her apartment and gave her my number in case she ever needed anything. She left threatening messages on my phone machine for weeks, convinced I was trying to kill her.
Once, this was the kicker, once my mom and I went to a mental hospital on Rikers Island to sing Christmas carols to cheer up the patients. I don’t know what we were thinking, honestly. Oh my God it was so sad. It was so sad I ended up in the stairwell sobbing. I wrote this scene to make fun of my own useless and harmful attempts to be good. Hit it.
That’s me. When I got to set that day, I was mad at myself for even writing that scene because I was afraid I was going to end up falling apart just like Kate does. That I would feel so bad and only feel pity for those kids and end up sobbing in the bathroom. It was me directing a scene about my limitations while I still had those limitations. I didn’t fall apart and ended up enjoying myself but it was a very meta-whatever, the epitome of me and my movie blending together.
So I have this thing about truth, but I also have a thing about justice. See if you make movies you can get all this shit out. I should have been a judge, but even better I’m a judgmental person who gets to point out how incredibly screwed up and disappointing people are in my movies.
I’m appalled when someone builds a huge house that looks like Bloomingdales or Harrods next to a tiny one, blocking their light, privacy and views. Don’t they know that even before they move in their neighbours hate them? How could they possibly rationalise their selfishness. This one’s from Friends with Money.
When my kids were young other moms sent their nannies with their kids to play, so they didn’t know where their kids went. This scene from Friends with Money is about me wanting to call people out on their obliviousness. Sometimes when I get caught up in the pleasure of deep moral outrage, I can’t see what’s right in front of me, that the problem is me. Next scene.
I don’t behave like that, I swear. I don’t. well maybe sometimes, and then I’m a fool. I can be tough on characters—oh no wait, I skipped something.
Jane is depressed because she feels she has nothing left to look forward to. She feels old and irrelevant and is pretty angry about it. She wants justice. Not that I can imagine what that feels like. OK, show this scene from Friends with Money.
See if you act like that you look like an idiot. I can be tough on the characters based on the people I know. She’s based on a friend of mine, for sure. But I’m tougher on myself. That doesn’t make it OK to take my friends’ crazy behaviour and use it, but I do it anyway. Carefully though, carefully. Most of them are happy to lend themselves to me, some are not. And in the end I’m writing about my own blind spots, my own immaturity and my own unlikeable qualities.
When I was starting out I made a couple of short films in the ‘80s to help get my career started. I think that this particular movie’s intimacy and specificity helped me get my first movie made. It showed what I would suppose would eventually become my voice. Angry, the movie’s called Angry; Angry is about my mother and her loving criticism of my work. I was struggling at the time and while she was trying to protect me she was painfully honest, and yes I like honesty but not from my mother. I am in the short and so is my grandmother and this short was shot in the middle ages, so it looks like that. Literally it’s… yeah. OK, Angry.
That’s embarrassing to show, so that’s my gift to you. OK, so the character in Please Give that you’ve already seen some of Ann Guilbert playing is based on my granny. I mean I made Ann Guilbert look like—that was my granny up there. And so I just wanted to show you a scene that was reminiscent of my grandma but she wasn’t—well anyway, just watch it.
It’s funny, watching that I feel like it is my shadow. It’s the stuff I’d want to say to my grandma but I wouldn’t. She did talk about her aging body a lot and in complete denial, and it made me sad. And so I get Amanda Peet to scream at her for me.
Over the years people have said to me that I should get out of my own head and life and write about things I don’t know. ‘Why don’t you mix it up? Challenge yourself! Write a thriller,’ and it makes me question myself like I’m not a real writer unless I make everything up. But if it’s so satisfying for me to write the way I do, why should I do it someone else’s way? Yes if I make bigger movies then I have more money and better goodie bags. I love goodie bags, but I’d rather stick to what I’m doing. No one should ever listen to anyone anyway. As William Goldman said, ‘nobody knows anything.’ And it’s absolutely true; there’s no right or wrong way, there’s only your own way.
And it is ironic that as I’m writing this speech I am not writing a new script. I can’t. I’ve been stuck and blocked and I’m afraid I’ll never write another script again. My friends tell me that every time—that I say that every time, but there is a time when it will be that time and how do I know this isn’t it? When I’m writing I feel alive and valuable and grounded and when I don’t, I don’t feel those things very much. It’s hard to believe that something will come but I’m going to trust and hope that it will because making movies makes me feel that life and all of its fucked up beauty is more than the sum of its parts. That’s the end.
Ian Haydn-Smith: Would you like a cushion? I get a cushion. Here we go.
NH: Yeah. Very saggy chair. But very writerly. We’re going to pretend we’re in a little salon.
IHS: I’ve just realised why I had the cushion on this seat. It’s sinking. Over the course of the next forty minutes I’ll disappear.
NH: Yes, I like being upright.
IHS: You’ve talked about your work as a writer-director, this enormous body of work as well that you’ve directed for television. If you don’t mind I’m going to stay mostly with your work as a writer-director, but also your work as a writer. I have total faith and trust that your career is going to continue as a writer-director because I don’t think that anyone who’s written the body of work you have so far will just come to a halt.
NH: Well maybe I’ll just start writing some really bad ones. It happens.
IHS: With the idea of a career continuing, I’m quite curious about the Holofcener extended household, perhaps starting with your sons. When you announce that you’re writing a new script, is there a sense of nervousness in your family of like ‘oh God, what’s mum going to do next?’
NH: No I don’t think so, because I don’t go bananas or become a drunk or do something really horrible that my kids would be upset about. It’s more like ‘I think I have an idea!’ ‘What’s it about?’ ‘I don’t know, I can’t tell you yet.’ So no, they don’t care that much.
IHS: I’ve read a number of interviews where you talk about your upbringing, and you had some quite incredible experiences within the film industry because of your family. There’s one amazing one about Warren Beatty, we’re not going to talk about it here, you have to go off and research that one.
NH: Oh God.
IHS: But it struck me aside of Friends with Money and Jason Isaacs and Catherine Keener’s couple who are writers, you’ve dealt with artists, you’ve dealt with therapist's masses but you haven’t indulged in the Hollywood world. Have you ever been tempted?
NH: To write about Hollywood?
NH: Definitely. But I haven’t come up with a story yet. I had an idea about a famous person’s stand-in or, you know, an assistant to a crazy actress. Which would be really fun for about twenty pages and then I don’t know what’s supposed to happen next that it doesn’t become silly and ridiculous. But it’s, yeah, it’s an interesting, crazy business. I love movies that are about the movie business, I love The Player, Day for Night, which I have not seen in a really long time, but that made me want to make movies that looked really fun.
IHS: It’s interesting that idea of fun because I was saying earlier that one of the great pleasures of being asked to host this event specifically is indulging in your work over the course of the past two weeks. And it’s been an absolutely joy to watch your films.
NH: That’s good.
IHS: It struck me that we shouldn’t have to pigeon hole a writer-director in one single area, but reading a number of interviews and profiles of you, people talk about romantic comedies, which I think is completely incorrect. And then there’s Ariel Levy’s profile of you for the New Yorker which is entitled Human Comedies, and I thought that’s an absolutely spot on description of your work. Because your films are very funny, but I would never think of them as comedies; they’re dramas with humour in them.
IHS: How do you see your work?
NH: I would call it comedy-drama as a shorthand. But the drama in those movies is so important to me. It’s great to get a laugh but if I can move someone to tears I’m really happy.
Or just feel really moved by something. And I don’t know, I can’t help being funny. It’s like I write a sad scene—I don’t mean that in some obnoxious way, but I’ll write a sad scene and then suddenly I’ve made some jokes and sometimes they work and sometimes they don’t but I guess I like to lighten things up. I hate melodrama, I just hate that.
IHS: So we had Taika Waititi speaking about his process earlier today, and he talked about the fact that it’s much harder to write comedy than it is to write straight-hand drama, and I’m curious about your process. You’ve talked about where you draw your ideas from—
IHS: But the actual nuts and bolts of it, your daily process. Are you someone who is regimented, you sit down and you won’t leave the table until you’ve written so much?
NH: It’s sporadic, I mean having raised kids it’s hard. And I will avoid writing in any way possible, the laundry and whatever. Now there’s online shopping, which is really fucked.
Because then you’re in, you’re doing it and it’s right there. And then you get those pop-ups and it’s like ‘oh a sale.’ My ideal thing, and I’ve done it from the start, is to get up early and write for a couple of solid hours. That’s a good day for me, if I can focus—and sometimes I can get many pages written and sometimes I don’t, and sometimes I don’t do the two hours or the three hours. When I’m rewriting something either for a job or myself I can sit there a lot longer and time goes by faster, but writing an original is so kind of depleting, coming up with ideas, that I just have to fall asleep… sometimes with a pen in my hand though!
IHS: Has your writing process changed over time?
NH: Not really, no. In the beginning I tried to follow what I was told in school, you know the thirty pages first act and the wants and the protagonist and all that. Which are valid things but I couldn’t follow like if I plotted it out and put the cards up on the wall, I got bored. And also when I get to write the scene, I wouldn’t regard the cards. I’d be like that’s a boring thing and I’ll just write it anyway, differently. So I don’t do that and I just, like I said, I just come up with an idea and take some notes about characters usually and blend them together with some kind of hopefully a plot or a situation and there I go. And it’s easy to get stuck that way, but I like it.
IHS: Are you someone who has a repository of ideas of scenarios? Because it’s interesting watching all your films together and seeing the way that you map out the narratives, and obviously they are character driven, and utterly credible characters, characters we’d imagine seeing on the street everyday. But there are certain scenarios that I wonder, actually was that something you had from a while back and you bring it out, or are all these scenes specific to the film that you’re writing?
NH: Yeah, that. I don’t have a drawer full of ideas, I really wish that I did. I could make a drawer of bad ideas I’d never end up writing, but no I have to kind of wait for an idea or inspiration, and for example the script that I’m not writing anymore, you know, I did have inspiration I was really excited and I got to thirty and it was really terrific and I just couldn’t get past thirty. It’s easy to get to thirty, right? It’s like, you know, you set everything up and it’s fun and then OK, how do you keep everyone awake? So was that your question, kind of? It’s been the same, yeah.
IHS: But also within that process, you talk about plot and it’s very interesting I think there’s certain genres that people, particularly critics, might take for granted, and say ‘right this is a relationship drama, what do you expect?’ and again looking at your work there’s something quite radical that happens.
IHS: Plot-wise I just feel that you see the plot as being far less important to character, and characters in situations. And so what I find really fascinating watching your films is watching the character arcs of your films. There’s not the grand arc where there is this epiphinal, redemptive moment at the end of a film—
NH: Right. Yeah she buys her kid jeans, that’s like the epitome of—
IHS: I think it feels like the everyday that you’re dealing with. It’s the ordinary, not the extraordinary. But in itself the ordinary becomes extraordinary.
NH: Well like with Friends with Money, that makes me think of that. Like the idea started with the fact that my good friend bought the apartment next door to hers in Manhattan and had to wait for this old woman to die so that they could break through. I’m sure it happens here. And I thought ‘this is crazy,’ and my friend would bring her lasagne and yet it was all under this relationship like ‘are you dead yet?’
‘When can I get in there?’ And she wouldn’t die, it took a really long time and I thought ‘what a crazy idea.’ And then, but that wouldn’t have been enough, so then it was like ‘OK so they’re neighbours and the grandchildren feel like they’re bloodsuckers,’ so that gave me all this great stuff to work with, you know, neighbours who have two very different agendas and yeah.
IHS: But then that in a way taps into what you were saying earlier about trusting people to tell you the truth and be honest with the truth. You’ve given us an example a moment ago of an instance where someone is being truthful but in Friends with Money you’ve got Jason Isaacs character who we’ve seen with the house building and he comments on the size of his wife Catherine Keener’s ass, saying how big it’s got, and it’s very interesting because it seems that you do say ‘OK this is a spectrum.’
IHS: And on this spectrum you can go too far.
NH: Right. That was just, that was just plain mean. You know and their marriage is ending and she says he has horrible breath and they just kind of go at each other. So yeah, there’s truth and then there’s truth. I can probably be too brusque with my friends. She said, she read this speech and I said ‘I want your opinion,’ and she’s like ‘oh God I remember what you said to me.’ She said ‘do I have any cellulite on my thighs,’ and I said ‘yeah, you’ve got a lot of cellulite,’ and she was like stunned and I don’t remember saying that, but she wasn’t mad at me. Because it was kind of like that—she knew she had it, I wasn’t going to say she didn’t have it. I can talk about cellulite, pee, what other disgusting things?
IHS: Oh I’ve got a checklist here we’ll be working through in a moment over the next ten minutes.
NH: OK, good.
IHS: Within that, and this to me crosses all the six films that you’ve made, the idea that audience sympathy that’s not earned is an overrated cinematic virtue. That audience sympathy in so many films is something that’s taken for granted by a filmmaker. And it strikes me that’s not—you’re happy to present characters that might be slightly misanthropic and by the end of the film we don’t necessarily love them but there’s at least an understanding for them. And that’s quite unique, as someone who’s exploring that much of their work.
NH: It’s probably why I have a small career. Seriously I like ambiguous endings. You know, my goal is I want you to like all the characters at the end, I do, even in Land of Steady Habits when Ben Mendelssohn does some rotten things, I want you to still like him because I love these people and they’re highly flawed and they fuck up big time, but I don’t know, I still have compassion for them. I’m trying to think who I don’t have compassion for in my movies. I don’t know.
IHS: Staying with The Land of Steady Habits, which is now on Netflix available to watch, you mentioned Ben Mendelssohn. Quite a bit has been written about the fact that this is your first male central protagonist in one of your films, but watching it, it struck me—and we’re going into the realms of Godard-esque and Tarantino-esque here—
NH: Thank you.
IHS: He is a very Holofcenerian character, and so watching it I thought ‘OK well yes this is a male central character, but this is very much in keeping with all the other characters.’
NH: That’s why I was drawn to the book. I adapted it from a novel and yeah I felt like he was really screwed up and makes some reprehensible mistakes, but he’s funny and still charming and learns and is a buffoon, a great big one, and he—it’s much darker than my other movies in terms of what happens. And I totally understand when people say they don’t forgive him or you know, they couldn’t get behind the character because he was so unlikeable, but I get that. And I knew when I was making it that it was like that, but I actually told Ben, I was like ‘you’re my Catherine Keener!’ I felt like I was directing a woman and he was very flattered that I said that, he could take it. You know, he’s really sensitive.
IHS: It’s also really interesting that you follow on from working with James Gandolfini. Both Ben and James in your films are completely cast against type.
IHS: That must have been quite interesting, just playing with their persona.
NH: Yeah it was. People are like ‘can that actor do that? You know I’ve never seen Ben be a nice person, or sort of a nice person.’ But that’s exciting. It’s a risk—actually it’s not a risk. People would say ‘you really took a chance on James Gandolfini,’ and it’s like no, you watch The Sopranos, that guy can do anything. And he’s heart breaking. So yeah, it’s fun.
IHS: And do you enjoy the actual casting process?
NH: I mean yeah! It’s like, did I say that out loud? It’s really stressful. I mean it’s exciting when, you know, I call Ben Mendelssohn and he’s like ‘yeah!’ I can’t believe he said yes, you know. But some actors take forever or I can’t find what I want or, you know, the worst case scenario is that the studio wants me to cast someone else and I don’t want to cast somebody else. I’ll kind of make a compromise like ‘OK I’ll offer it to that big star and that big star but not that big star,’ and then they don’t get back or they’re busy or they want more money and I mean in terms of Netflix it was at Fox Searchlight and I developed it there but we couldn’t agree on a cast. I said ‘I want Ben Mendelssohn,’ they said ‘we can’t do that. He’s a great actor but we can’t do that.’ So Netflix agreed to do it. So it’s like casting is hard. It’s hard because usually I want to cast like Mike Leigh, you know. I want like buck-toothed people and the zits and the whatever, but I can’t.
IHS: In the film you’ve got Edie Falco, who’s wonderful, playing Ben Mendelssohn’s ex-wife. And I wondered if at any point in time you’d had a phone conversation with her sort of akin to Gregory Peck being offered a comedy and going ‘so is Cary Grant not available or something?’ Did you have a conversation with Edie Falco where she was like ‘is Catherine busy, or what’s going on?’
NH: I don’t know if Edie—she probably did. I just, I love Edie, I’ve loved her for years, wanted to work with her and I don’t even know if Catherine was busy but we have an understanding, you know, she’s like ‘you can actually cast someone else.’ And I did and it’s just I sometimes want to work with other people, I do. And I’ll come back to Catherine and Julia I hope.
IHS: Another person in the film The Land of Steady Habits is Connie Britton, and her character highlights something again you can see in all of your work, and it comes back to your writing process that I’m curious about. I could be wrong and I’m perhaps being a little pejorative here, but if The Land of Steady Habits had been made by a male director I get the sense that the female characters would have been bit parts and nothing more. And Connie Britton is this woman that Anders, the main character, meets. She’s only in a couple of scenes, but she is a fully fleshed out character. And I’m just curious in your writing process about the attention that you pay to so many different characters.
NH: Well some male directors are brilliant and some male directors might just shove them under the rug, but I don’t know. I’m pretty aware if I’m writing a character that has no personality. And I struggle, like I’ve got to give this person a personality, they’re just kind of standing there. And sometimes I’ll just cut them out if it’s not working and I cant because they’ve just got to be interesting and whole people, men or women. All my movies I get—not always, but critics will say ‘she gives short shrift to the male characters…’—and then I did The Land of Steady Habits and I got ‘she gives short shrift to the female characters.’ It’s like oh my God, some people have smaller parts, what are you going to do?
IHS: It’s also another element that you can see in all of your work is a really strong sense of place. And this even includes Can You Ever Forgive Me? which opens here early next year, which you wrote not directed, but in the writing you get such an sense of early-1990s New York. And in the case of The Land of Steady Habits we’ve got Massachusetts, and obviously the other films New York and LA. Can you talk about how you incorporate place?
NH: You know it’s not something I think about. It’s like where it takes place and the characters are just in that place. I didn’t write—I adapted Can You Ever Forgive Me? from a memoir, and in the memoir it’s very clear that it was in the ‘90s and it’s this bar and that street and where she lives and so I didn’t have to create that so much. But in The Land of Steady Habits it’s Westport, Connecticut and I don’t know from that—I’m Jewish, you don’t know Westport. I was like the only Jew there. I’m kidding, it’s not that bad, but you know it’s very WASP-y and men wear shorts with little whales on them and stuff.
And so I had a costume designer and she just did a bunch of research and you know, showed me pictures and was like ‘oh I like that hideous sweater. Oh I like that Brooks Brothers suit,’ you know, every department really helped in that way. And I really wanted the houses to look very different. You know like Edie’s house is warm and the family house with history and his place is cold and sterile and new. But I was also very limited in terms of exteriors because we shot New York for Connecticut; we couldn’t shoot in Connecticut and it was freezing, so we kind of didn’t do that much. But I’m thrilled when people say ‘oh it really feels like Westport, Connecticut.’
IHS: I don’t entirely buy that—
IHS: No because the thing about your writing is that it strikes me that the way that you approach class, which doesn’t exist in America, apparently—
NH: Oh no.
IHS: And economics, and even occasionally when you touch on race and touch on politics, there is such a very specific sense of place that you get in your work.
NH: Well I love that stuff. I mean anything, you know, class and race and anything that’s taboo to talk about like money or race or politics, that’s really fun to write and really fun to direct, I find. And so if that gives it a sense of place, maybe, or fills out their lives in a way, I think I know what you’re saying.
IHS: And have you, have you felt any sort of reaction within your writing process, we saw your short from 1991, so we are moving from a Republican president through to a Democrat president, through to a Republican then a Democrat and what there is now.
NH: A dictator, you mean?
IHS: You said it. I’m just curious about the impact of that as you’re writing, the way the climates have changed.
NH: I think I’m way too self-absorbed to put that in my writing. I mean it’s in our world, it’s in my head, but I’m not writing about that stuff, I’m just not. Other people do very well, but I stick to the human details.
IHS: So with that idea, self-absorption, something that I noticed—there’s one obvious scene between two characters Charlie Tahan and Ben Mendelssohn’s character, the last scene which they have together which we watched, the idea of parallel play, that this is something I see in a lot of scenes in your films, where you have two people talking and they might be hearing but they’re not listening. And it’s something you do so well in your work.
NH: Thank you, thank you. It’s never happened to me before… People are not listening to anybody half the time, I mean most people—not most people but I find it very difficult when I can tell someone is just thinking about what they’re going to say next. I’ve even had interviewers, which you are not one of—you’re terrific—but they’ll be like, they’ll have their pen and their paper and they’ll be like ‘so you know, you write about this male character who is you know, obnoxious,’ and I start to answer and they’re like this. And I’m looking at them like ‘who am I talking to?’ It’s just really uncomfortable, and that’s like the biggest example of that, you know, because most people will just, you know, whatever.
But that scene in particular I did want parallel play in the boat. They need each other in some crazy way and they’re both just so immature and sad and lonely but they’re not really talking to each other and they have absolutely nothing in common, which I think is what makes Ben say, like, ‘we gotta get out of here.’ Yeah, I don’t know.
IHS: One of the things, and particularly in that conversation, one of the things Ben says is this idea that the ordinary, the everyday, that I imagine someone on the street saying something like that. Again Taika Waititi earlier today mentioned that he’s an eavesdropper.
NH: Oh yeah, that’s fun.
IHS: That was going to be my next question. How much of an eavesdropper are you?
NH: I don’t run around with a pad, but I remember some certain things and I will go home and write them. Or if I have a pad or a phone. But that’s the most entertaining thing. And now my thing is like looking over people’s shoulders when they’re on their phone. Like if you go to a movie everybody’s on their phone and you can just like watch the bullshit that everybody’s doing or interesting conversations or they’re flipping through their Instagram, and it’s such a way in to their lives. But yeah, the stuff people say, you just can’t make that shit up.
IHS: Let’s take some questions from the audience if we can raise the lights. And we’ve got some roaming mics so there’s someone down here and then anyone further back? Right, someone right at the back. So we’ll go this one here first and then back row.
Q: Hi Nicole.
Q: How did you get through your writers’ block before and what are you going to do to get through your writers block now that you’ve got it?
NH: Well I guess you’re supposed to just keep writing. And when I was writing the script that I can’t finish, I just kept writing and writing scenes and I would get to page eighty and I would read it and it was bad and I did that a few times and then finally I just said I can’t do this anymore and I gave in to the writers’ block. And I felt immediately relived because I just couldn’t nail it. And I’m sad and I’m scared and I don’t plan on going back to that. I might take pieces, eventually, out of it because I think there’s some good stuff in there. So I don’t know. I can work, thank God, in TV directing other people’s stuff, which I really like. And I’m reading things like books and scripts that I could direct and adapt, but those are mostly money jobs. I enjoy doing them but it’s not the same. So I’m kind of looking around for what might be next. In other words I don’t know how.
IHS: Does the freelance directing help in anyway in freeing you away from your own creative process?
NH: Absolutely. Yeah it’s great and if it’s a show I absolutely love then I’m so excited to be there and also like ultimately, I mean unless I really screw up, it’s not my fault. Because I’m directing somebody else’s material, the writers and producers are right behind me, and so after the end of a scene I’ll turn around and say ‘can I move on are you happy with that?’ and if they say yes it’s not my fault.
And so, and plus I get to meet new people, new actors I want to work with, and directors—I mean other crew members, but it is a relief. That’s why I want to do that now, I want a job so I don’t have to think about this. But writing is the most satisfying thing, or having written is the most satisfying thing. Finishing a script is thrilling.
Q: I was interested to hear and to read about earlier—
NH: Where are you?
Q: At the back! Your early experiences working on Woody Allen sets, on Hannah and her Sisters as an assistant editor, I was just wondering how maybe you saw that as influencing you—if at all—because both of you have a very like personal cinema, and autobiographical in some ways.
NH: My relationship with Woody Allen is completely overblown in so many publications. Like he was not my mentor, he was not a close friend, you know, and when I worked on Hannah and her Sisters I was an apprentice editor, I just sunk the dailies, which us old people will know what that means. You know, and I interacted with him and he was a family friend-ish, but I think that I was inspired by him just like everybody else. It’s not because I knew him, I just love his movies. Especially the early, older ones, sorry Woody! But they’re still unbelievably hilarious and beautiful those older ones.
You know many older directors like Mike Leigh and Albert Brooks and a lot of filmmakers who wrote really personal stuff, you could feel it was personal, all that inspired me. And you know, I think seeing Sex, Lies and Videotape when I was in school really blew me away because that felt like, I don’t know if any of that stuff happened to Steven Soderbergh, it probably did, but it was so normal and regular and slow and quiet and felt so real, that those kind of movies inspired me too.
IHS: Someone here and then we’ll go to the front and then over this side.
Q: Hi Nicole.
NH: Where are you, where are you?
Q: Just here.
NH: Oh sorry, hi.
Q: Hello. I was wondering what your views are on the changing landscape of films in terms of Netflix and Amazon Prime, because it strikes me that your kind of films and these sort of more grown-up comedy dramas or even romantic comedies, that I feel like that if, say one’s a screenwriter coming through now, this seems to be the home for these kind of movies. And I just wondered what your thoughts were on that sort of—in a way that’s presumably exciting that there’s a bigger landscape, but does it mean that you know these sort of movies won’t be seen in cinemas so much and does it bother you where your films are seen, for example?
NH: Well, I’d much prefer to have my movies in a movie theatre. I knew that The Land of Steady Habits was going to be a tough one, you know, unless George Clooney was in it. And even then, based on the material… But I wanted it to be screened in a theatre. And then when Netflix said I could cast anyone I wanted I didn’t care about the theatre anymore, I was like ‘that’s the point, I want to make a movie I’m proud of.’ And so I got to do that. Now that I’ve done that it is a very strange experience. It’s sort of like I made a movie and then it blew away. Like I don’t know where it is and I don’t see people watching it. And, you know, they have a very different model of press and long-lead advertising. Like nobody knew this movie existed a week and a half before it was released. They’re like ‘you made a new movie?’ Like yeah, there’s no trailer, there’s no this or that like months in advance nothing. They blast it all at once like two weeks before it’s released, and then it goes away.
So again, I might go that route again because it let me make a movie I’m proud of. So I think the landscape, it’s good and bad. You know obviously anybody can make a movie now, it’s not so elitist and hard to break into, but you know, I’m like an old lady. It’s like the iPhones and nobody’s looking at each other, and the movie theatres are going away. Yeah.
Q: Hiya. You mentioned that you don’t know what’s going to happen when you write your first draft.
Q: How much do you need to know before you’re ready to plunge in, and is the process of writing your first draft something you just blast in a couple of weeks, or something you anguish over for many, many months.
NH: That one.
I wish I could be one of those,’ Oh we banged it out in two weeks,’ it’s like I hate you. Who are you? I start writing when I get bored taking notes. Like I’ll make up a bunch of characters and a few scenes and I get an idea of maybe what the end might be like, and then I just start writing, and I get completely lost, generally after a while. And that’s when rewriting and rewriting and rewriting helps.
IHS: And do you go back to the beginning of what you’ve written and keep changing? So in a way you’re doing a new draft?
NH: Yeah, I don’t know how people count drafts. I think sometimes—I’ll do that to a point and then eventually it does feel like a first draft still, and then eventually when I go ‘Oh this is about that,’ then I can rewrite it. But I do go over it, it’s impossible not to see what you did yesterday.
IHS: Let’s go here then there.
Q: Nicole, thank you very much for an enlightening chat. I like your honesty today, I think it’s great.
NH: Thank you.
Q: My question is about the actual—about two things, putting your package together for your films, and using an actress’ bankability to get your film made, because obviously there are some actresses, say like the Emma Stones and the Jennifer Lawrences who are the names that can open a movie, but you’re using Catherine Keener. What’s the general feeling if you’re trying to get your film made—can you rely on the bankability of a name like that and would they consider one of your scripts?
NH: I think certain actors would definitely consider my scripts. I mean I get so impatient and frustrated if somebody is taking too long to read the script. I feel like I’ll find someone who wants to read it right away. And I offered a part to Kate Winslet, I don’t even remember which movie it was, and I love her and I really wanted her to do it and it was taking forever—a couple of months was going by, and I told my agent let’s just pull it back, let’s tell her we’re moving on and then I ran into her and she was like ‘I was about to read your movie and you took it away from me.’ So I don’t have patience. But sure, I love Emma Stone, I love a lot of famous people and I would love to work with them. They’re busy and I do have some of those famous people who say ‘I want to be in one of your movies.’ I mean Melissa McCarthy and I have wanted to work together for a very long time, but I’m not—I guess I’m not a sell out. I don’t want to put somebody in a movie just because they’re famous, they have to be really right for it. Does that answer your question? OK.
Q: Hi. I was wondering what is it you enjoy the most about the writing process, and what is it that you dread the most, that you feel you’re struggling with the most?
NH: Well I don’t know, when I’m reading something I’ve written and I’m laughing, or I think I’m clever, this was good! And having finished it is the most satisfying. But if I’m having a good day, I mean it’s just so terrible how much it affects my self-esteem, and my worldview. It’s like if I wrote a good day I feel really good and if I’m struggling—and it’s always a struggle, though. I guess discipline. I feel bad when I’m not disciplined. I find myself pushing it off. And that makes me feel bad, so why don’t I do it every day? I don’t know. It’s a conundrum.
Q: Hi Nicole. So you mentioned that a lot of your characters are based on your real experiences and you draw on your relationship with others, is there ever a fear of the backlash that comes with that if someone watches your work and takes offense in the way they feel they’ve been portrayed, and how do you deal with that?
NH: Well it hasn’t happened very often. I did show one of my scripts to the character that’s being portrayed and she read the script and said ‘no this is great I’m fine with it,’ and then when she saw the movie, oh my God. I really hurt her feelings. It wasn’t a flattering portrait of her and I felt really bad, I did. Other times, I try not to. I did have one friend who didn’t want to see the movie because he knew he was kind of in it. And I don’t think he would have minded it, but he was kind of anxious about it. I mean I would love to just write so honestly about my family and the craziness and all of it, but I can’t do that. It’s not worth it.
IHS: Until they’re gone.
NH: Until they’re dead.
IHS: I think we’ve got time for a couple more questions. We’ve got someone at the back.
Q: Hi there. I have a question about when you’re writing a script and then you turn up on set. When you’re directing a scene do you find there’s a difference between what you’ve written and what you find in the moment, or how do you approach that?
NH: Well of course we picture it in our head when we’re writing and then you get to the location and it’s all wrong, you know. Everything is different; the way the actor will say it is different, and usually for the better because I’ve cast people I really want. Sometimes it’s exactly as I’ve pictured and I’m thrilled, but I’m open to changing things while we’re shooting and if someone says something terrific or funny I’ll take it. I generally try to keep it to what I’ve imagined, and I don’t know it’s so weird—I don’t remember what I thought that scene was going to look like when I wrote it and then it becomes something else, and when you’re editing it, it becomes something else again. But it’s cool being able to direct your own writing, I mean I can change it, I can do whatever I want to it.
IHS: And we touched very briefly on adaptation, but is that more of a challenge for you. Because I know with Land of Steady Habits the focus is more on the central character as his life is falling apart rather than giving lots of backstory. The character that Connie Britton plays is non-existent in Ted Thompson’s novel.
NH: You read it?
IHS: No, I read an interview in which you said that.
I forgive you.
IHS: I look slightly cheaper than I did thirty seconds ago!
But yeah, I’m just curious about the sense of license, the sense of freedom you have. I mean obviously then the extra element, if you’re not actually then directing.
NH: Right. Well I take license, I don’t think any novelist should care. I mean unless they—I don’t know, don’t trust me at all—Ted Thompson was so thrilled that his book was being turned into a movie, it was his first novel, and he was already a fan of mine and he was such a pleasure. He was like ‘do whatever you want, go for it,’ and I showed him drafts and he corrected me in certain areas or made suggestions and that was good. But adapting is easier because it’s there already. I haven’t had to adapt like a big fat thing and whittle it down. Most of the stuff I’ve adapted is pretty manageable. And picking and choosing, I would just like set the book up in one of those recipe stands and be like this is a good scene, that’s a good scene and do it based on what I like and what I’d like to write and what’s important. But it’s easier, for sure, to do that.
And Can You Ever Forgive Me? was really fun to adapt her memoir, it’s a really funny memoir. It was kind of a challenge to figure out how to get—well you guys haven’t seen it yet, but how to get a writer on screen to be interesting while she’s writing and all these other voices that she’s writing. I don’t know what I’m saying—what am I saying?
IHS: If any of you haven’t actually seen all of Nicole’s films that she’s written and directed, all of them except her first Walking and Talking are available to see in the UK. Hopefully that will become available again because I think it’s a lovely debut.
NH: Thank you. You can’t get it anywhere.
IHS: No, it’s very odd. But I mentioned a number of times now The Land of Steady Habits. That is now available to watch on Netflix and I strongly recommend that you watch it, it’s a really beautiful piece of filmmaking. Can You Ever Forgive Me? opens on the first of February in the UK, you get the chance to see it then. And yes it’s by a different director, but I don’t think Melissa McCarthy and Richard E. Grant would be half as good if it wasn’t for such a superb screenplay to that film.
Just a quick aside on Richard E. Grant, and I think it’s one of the best performances he’s given in his career, he is going to be giving a Life in Pictures here at BAFTA next Sunday afternoon at three pm, so do come along to that.
Thank you very much to the JJ Charitable Trust and BAFTA for organising this event, but most of all can you please join me in thanking Nicole Holofcener.
NH: Thank you. Thank you that was great.