For our review of Nicole Holofcener's Please Give—and a shorter version of this interview—go here. Want more Holofcener? Read on!
MERCURY: You're one of only a few female directors working in Hollywood. Do you feel any responsibility to portray women a certain way, given your position?
NICOLE HOLOFCENER: No, should I? I don't feel any responsibility to anything except being true to what I want to say. I feel a responsibility to myself, to be honest, and not make myself puke over false, stupid women characters. That's really it: To not get myself to puke at myself.
That's a high bar you've set there.
I know, and I don't puke often.
You've got a knack for writing characters who are very flawed, but are still sympathetic. Is that something you think about, maintaining that balance?
I don't think about whether or not they're sympathetic. I guess I sympathize with them, and if I write from a place of sympathy, and a critical eye, maybe that's why people still sympathize with them. They're a sad bunch, but they don't mean any harm.
That pretty much sums up Catherine Keener's character in the film: all those good intentions that never quite work out.
I definitely felt like she was a buffoon—as I often feel myself. That buffoonish quality is definitely based on me. When I feel like I'm flailing about, trying to be helpful, and am really just being an idiot.
So the movie is to some extent autobiographical, then?
Parts of the characters are autobiographical, but no none of the situations. I never offered a man waiting for a table food, but my friend did. And I have had some calamitous interactions with homeless people.
I once tried to help this woman in New York—I carried her groceries home, she was completely bent in half, she lived in a SRO, and... She didn't seem crazy. She just seemed like she was really poor, and kind of handicapped. So I helped her with her groceries, and went into her apartment. She complained that people were trying to hurt her in the building, and she didn't like the building, so I made a few calls. And then she found out that I made a few calls, and decided that I was trying to kill her. And I had given her my phone number when I took her groceries in case she ever needed anything, and then she started harassing me on the phone. That's the kind of stuff that inspired the movie. Like, I meant well.
I know you borrow from your friends' experiences in writing your movies. Does that ever get you in trouble?
No, but I sometimes have some explaining to do. Or, as Ricky Ricardo would say, "You have some splainin' to do, Lucy!" Um... you know, I would sort of warn someone, or say before they see it, "I've written this with love, I hope you get that." It's funny, in Lovely and Amazing, the mother character—a lot of it is based on my mother, but not all of it. A lot of her friends were aghast, and thought she'd be really offended, but my mom wasn't. She understood where it was coming from, and how I feel about her. It generally goes okay.
You've used Catherine Keener in all of your movies—what qualities keep you coming back to her?
She's so open and emotional, simple, funny, beautiful—I think she's really interesting looking, and that's important to me. You have to not tire of that face, especially if you're going to work with it over and over again. And I don't ever tire of it. It kind of breaks my heart, that face.
Did you write that role for her?
Pretty much. I flirted with the idea of casting someone else in the role, because I guess I was afraid of being perceived as making the same film over and over again—since she's in them, and they already are so similar to one another. I actually offered the role to a couple of different actors who passed, and in the end it just seemed crazy not to give her the part. And I'm so glad I did. I don't care what people say. I mean, people who don't like my movies with her in them aren't going to suddenly like them if she's not in them.
All of your movies are set either in New York or Los Angeles. Can you talk about location in relation to your storytelling?
It's all intuitive, or it's just ingrained. I grew up in New York and then I grew up in LA. The characters are infused with the city they live in, but I'm not really aware of it. It just depends on which city is appropriate. This story couldn't take place in LA, it's just not an LA story—as much as I didn't want to leave LA. I don't know, are there other locations?
I mean, I live here. Once my kids grow up and they've gone off, I'm gonna write locations in places like Tahiti, for God's sake.
Please Give reminded me a bit of Noah Baumbach's new movie, Greenberg. And it seems like you guys often tackle similar material. Do you consider him a peer?
I do think of him as a peer. Our movies seem to come out at the same time, it's funny. Kicking and Screaming, Walking and Talking—I really love Kicking and Screaming. I'm always curious, I went to go see Greenberg. I thought "Oh, our posters look the same, too." But he's a lot more famous now, and I think a lot richer.