Though she isn’t nearly as prolific as Woody Allen, Nicole Holofcener’s smart, verbally dexterous slices of New York life have earned her frequent comparisons to him. In fact, the two do have a connection: Holofcener’s stepfather, Charles Joffe, was Allen’s longtime producer, and as an apprentice film editor, she logged some footage from his 1986 classic Hannah And Her Sisters. But beginning with 1996’s Walking And Talking, Holofcener has set herself apart as an expert chronicler of human relationships, with a strong sense of humor and a refreshing resistance to tying up dramatic loose ends. Her subsequent efforts, 2001’s Lovely And Amazing and 2006’s Friends With Money, have confirmed her ability to balance a large ensemble of actors and continued a fruitful relationship with one actress in particular, Catherine Keener, who’s had prominent roles in all four.
In Holofcener’s new Please Give, Keener stars as Kate, a vintage furniture dealer who alleviates her guilt over ripping people off by giving generously where she can, especially to local panhandlers. Rebecca Hall plays Rebecca, a mammogram technician whose aging grandmother lives in the condo next door to Kate, her husband Alex (Oliver Platt), and their teenage daughter. Kate and Alex intend to snap up the old woman’s apartment after she dies and expand their living space, which creates plenty of tension with Rebecca even before Alex starts having an affair with Rebecca’s monstrously vain sister, played by Amanda Peet. Holofcener recently spoke to The A.V. Club about the unsavory aspects of the antiques market and why her films are sometimes misunderstood.
The A.V. Club: It’s not an insult to say that your scripts lack the tidiness of Hollywood films and a lot of independent films, too. Where do you start and how do your screenplays develop?
Nicole Holofcener: I start with a few ideas, like the apartment situation in the case of Please Give. Rebecca’s character was the first. I was inspired by the woman who gives me mammograms. She was a real character. That’s where the opening sequence came from. [The title sequence is a montage of mammogram tests. —ed.] I thought, “This will be a funny opening sequence.” I kind of just start from there and let characters arrive, and if they’re interesting, I’ll let them stay and see how they interact or move the story along.
AVC: And how do the pieces end up fitting together?
NH: They just do. It’s weird. I’m very comfortable with the ensemble. I thought this was just going to be a movie about this girl who gives mammograms. She’s the lead. And then before I know it, she’s got a sister, neighbors, and sometimes parents and friends and then it’s an ensemble. And that’s what I’m comfortable with, I guess.
AVC: Please Give returns to themes of self-image that were also a central part of Lovely And Amazing. Where do those two films depart for you?
NH: They have very similar themes. I know I repeat myself in all my movies, but I just let it go, let it happen. Clearly, I’m not finished with that issue. But they seem to me like completely different movies. They’re definitely coming from me. This movie I don’t feel has a large portion devoted to self-image. People talk about Amanda Peet’s character as being really vain, but that’s just one part of her.
AVC: But wouldn’t you say that Kate’s concern over what she takes from people and what she gives is related to self-image as well? I wasn’t referring just to the way people perceive how they look, but also their image, their soul.
NH: That’s a life-long struggle, I think, for most of us. Who are we? Do we like who we are? Do we know who we are? Do we care? Does anyone care? That’s such a big topic. I could tackle that in many movies. So could other people.
AVC: What brought you to settle on Kate’s line of business?
NH: It was hard getting to that. I didn’t know what [Kate and Alex] should do. I had them do many different things and nothing was working. And when I came upon [vintage furniture dealers]—I don’t know how I did—it just was perfect. I was so excited and so inspired because they get to go into people’s houses, they get to feel guilty about how much they’re spending. And to me, the theme of what has value and what doesn’t, or what we give value, was exemplified perfectly in this profession. And then there’s the customers and the store—It just woke up huge parts of the script.
AVC: Did you have any experience with furniture dealers? Did you engage with them in any way once you came upon this?
NH: I did talk to the owner of one place where I actually bought things, and I asked her questions and she was excited to answer them. I didn’t know how it worked and I really didn’t explain how it worked correctly in the movie, either. It’s a much broader explanation in the movie. But I didn’t have any experience except as a buyer, as a sucker I should say, with that stuff. And it’s funny now when I go into these places, I feel like I have a personal connection to them just because I wrote about them.
AVC: It’s depicted to a degree as ghoulish, this job of going into apartments and plundering people’s stuff. Was this person was defensive in any way about it?
NH: No, she wasn’t. I don’t think she was defensive. And I don’t really feel like they’re doing anything wrong. The estate-sale people are worse, the ones who buy everything. That’s kind of what they do in the movie, but not quite. When my grandma died, we had an estate-sale person. They buy everything just to help you and they get such a huge profit. But I called them. Nobody forced me.
AVC: Given the time you spend crafting your screenplays, do you have much flexibility about how they might get altered in the filmmaking process? If, say, an actor wants to do something differently. Is the movie in your head and that’s the movie?
NH: The movie is in my head and that’s the movie. But I’d be crazy to not be flexible. I think because I have the movie in my head, I can be flexible. I know what’s going to work and not work and I know, generally, what I can change and bend and have the movie still work. For instance, Oliver Platt contributed so much to his character. I can’t even remember what [the role] was before he started writing stuff. Well, we would rewrite together. You know the scene where they’re in the restaurant and he sees the guy and he thinks that’s the kid’s grandfather, because he sees himself as so much younger? These small bits of character that Oliver added to show that he was having a crisis of how he looked and his age, which contributed to his affair. That stuff really wasn’t in there. They come up with good things. I think a person would be crazy not to use them.
AVC: There’s a little scene in the movie where Kate and Alex come upon their daughter at the drugstore and just watch her, without her knowing. What inspired that scene? It stands out in a lot of ways, not least because it doesn’t move the story forward. It’s just this little bit of observation.
NH: I don’t really know what it’s doing there, either, except it does show their love for her and their awe that she’s becoming a separate person. They’re not completely checked out. It could have been anywhere in the movie, too. I know when that scene comes up, I wonder, “Hmm. What’s that doing there?” It’s really a part of parenthood, I think, and if I’m going to show this family, why not show a nice moment, too?
AVC: What’s interesting about the scene is that, as a viewer, you’re trained to think, “Oh they’re going to catch her doing something.”
NH: Stealing something.
AVC: Right, shoplifting. Or buying condoms or something like that. And it really isn’t. She’s just out in the wild and that’s the scene.
NH: When I was writing, I did contemplate having her shoplift something in that scene, but just settled on what it is.
AVC: The arbitrary nature of the way this old furniture is valued raises a point about art in general. Do you feel like the value of art is also arbitrarily assigned? Is there a meta-commentary going on there?
NH: I do think these things are arbitrarily assigned. And I say that coming from an uneducated place in terms of, you know… art… curating. But who’s to say what’s valuable and what’s not? I guess I feel like in the end it’s all pretty meaningless ’cause we’re all going to die.
AVC: Huh. Can’t say I expected that answer.
NH: I know that sounds really negative. But it’s a fact. I experienced the cleaning out of someone’s apartment when my grandmother died. It’s not like she had a bunch of valuable stuff all over her house. But it really pointed to the futility of stuff. You can’t take it with you. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t enjoy it while you’re alive. Why not? But it’s all pretty silly. I fall victim to it. I mean, I want nice stuff too. So I guess I’m poking fun at myself as well as other materialistic people.
AVC: The issue of materialism and wealth—who has it, and the difficulties created by how it’s made and spent—carries over from Friends With Money to this movie. What keeps you coming back to that theme?
NH: I think it’s just a really juicy topic. Just like sex. It’s like money, sex, marriage, death, children. They’re huge. You could make 10 movies just on that. And Friends With Money, it’s different issues about money. Now that my kids are in private school, I could have a whole other set of movies about private school and the money there and how that’s spent and what that creates and the vibe of that. It’s just a really interesting thing.
AVC: You’ve worked with Catherine Keener on all your movies. Do you consult with her on her characters? Because she seems more herself in your movies than elsewhere.
NH: She’s actually more myself in these movies than she is herself. And she’s not like this. This is not her. She’s definitely accessing parts of her and she has a huge heart and can relate to everything she’s doing. But she’s really natural and she’s not really playing a “character” or “caricature,” obviously. In some movies, she’s playing [adds extra emphasis] the angry ex-wife or the studio executive. And you can put those roles more in a box. I just think she’s amazing, so I keep going back.
AVC: The look of your films, right down to the actors’ makeup—or lack thereof—is extremely unvarnished. Have you met with resistance from actors or directors of photography about that?
NH: No, I haven’t met with any resistance. I don’t think I’ve ever had an actor say they want more crap on their face. Well, a little bit. My idea of no makeup is really no makeup. I mean, they can be wearing makeup. I don’t care what they’re wearing as long as it looks like they’re not wearing makeup. But an actress will suddenly appear with some lipstick on. And that’s makeup. Keener’s character wears makeup. Her character would wear makeup. I try to stay true to whoever that person is. I hate that kind of thing where you’re waking up in the morning with makeup on in a movie. I just think it pulls you out of the movie.
AVC: And what about the overall look of the movie?
NH: I try something different with each movie. The budgets have been so low and the schedule so brief, though. I’m not making an excuse, but I can’t say I have a lot of time to focus on visuals. If I can get a dolly shot every day, that’s a miracle. I want the look of the movie to be secondary. I really want people to be engaged in the story and the characters and not think about a style or think about me or think about the D.P. and what a great job he’s doing. I never feel like that should be there.
AVC: You’ve done a lot of work in television, too. When you direct for television, you’re presumably penned in by the need for continuity between your episodes and the rest of the show. In what areas can a director make a difference in TV?
NH: I have no idea. In fact, I don’t even know why they hire different directors for TV shows. It’s like a weird thing they do. I’m glad they do it. I try not to make a difference. I try to not wreck it. [Laughs.] These are really good shows. I just want it to be invisible with the rest of them. People say, “I loved your episode.” And I think, “Well that’s just the writing. They loved the script of that episode.” And directing actors that already know their characters better than I do is tricky. But they generally want direction. I try to do a variety of takes. I try to keep it in the tone of the rest of the series. I don’t know. Maybe I should be trying to make a bigger difference in my episodes, but I don’t.
AVC: Please Give is being distributed by Sony Classics, but in general, the studio-backed indie model seems to be evaporating. Does that concern you?
NH: Definitely. I don’t know where my next movie is going to get financed or if it will. I think every filmmaker is probably worried about that, unless their movie made a fortune. My movies make a profit, but obviously not a fortune. So yeah, it’s scary.
AVC: At this point, you’ve established yourself fairly well, but your films don’t necessarily have easy hooks to them. Is it tough every time?
NH: It is. I hear a lot of, “We want to make a movie with you.” Then “No, we don’t want to make this one. We want to make that other movie with you.” I don’t really get that and it’s very frustrating. It angers me. Because my movies are my movies. I think my scripts also aren’t very good examples of what my movies are going to be, unfortunately. They’re not as descriptive as some scripts are. It’s frustrating. They’ve all made money. You would think at this point I could have an easier time.
AVC: What do you get told?
NH: “We don’t know how to market this.” “This is too dark,” with Please Give. And I said, “Too dark? There’s a laugh here, a laugh here, a laugh here.” “Oh, those are funny scenes?” “Yeah, those are funny scenes. You couldn’t tell? “No, we couldn’t tell.” And yes, it is dark. But so what? Intelligent audiences want a combination of both things. I hear, “It’s too soft.” “Doesn’t have a hook.” That’s the same as the marketing problem. Or that it’s an ensemble. There isn’t a role for one major star. “Can you get a major star in a small part?” What else do I hear? That’s about it. I’m sure they say plenty of things that I don’t hear like, “This is a shitty script” or “I don’t like it.” But the other things are the excuses I hear.
AVC: How do see the indie world in general having changed from when you first started doing this?
NH: It seemed like there were so many options before. If they don’t want to make it, well okay, there’s a hundred other places we can try. I’m not a producer and I don’t even know the places my producer goes to, thankfully. But I think there are far fewer options now to releasing a movie theatrically or to getting the financing.
AVC: The thing that’s odd, though, is that there was supposed to be this promise that in the digital age it would be completely the opposite. Everybody was going to make a movie.
NH: Well, anybody can make one.
AVC: But at a certain budget level it becomes a different story.
NH: I would still encourage somebody, if they wanted to make a movie, to just go take a movie camera. That’s clearly been shown to work. It’s just how do you get it seen?
AVC: What’s next for you?
NH: I’m not really sure. I might direct a couple of episodes for HBO of different shows they’ve got that aren’t on the air yet. One for Showtime maybe. I adapted a book called Every Secret Thing. I’m rewriting that and hopefully that could be my next movie.
AVC: That’s a thriller isn’t it?
NH: Yeah, it’s really dark and gross and sad.
AVC: Are you prepared to direct a movie like that? That would seem to require a lot of…
AVC: Not planning. But things you haven’t done necessarily.
NH: It’s the same thing. It’s just directing really well-written characters going through what they’re going through in an honest and interesting way. Visually, it’ll be a big challenge and I’m looking forward to that. And it’s not funny. But that’s okay. I can be not funny. [Laughs.]