Nicole Holofcener: ‘Actors over 50 have distorted their faces so badly’

A lot of your films have, I think, been autobiographical. How much of yourself were you able to put into The Last Duel [Holofcener focused on the section from the point of view of Jodie Comer’s Marguerite]? Is the “concept” of your third to debunk the ways in which male narratives distort women’s stories? Did that feel apiece with your previous work? And if this was a big break from the norm for you – in terms of period, location etc – how did that feel? Refreshing or unnerving? bumble1

Yes, my movies are semi-autobiographical, and I can’t say that I’m aware of anything similar in Marguerite to me except that she’s smart and educated and probably much braver than I would be. But she had a really rotten life and didn’t have much to lose until she had her baby. And, yes, that is the point of the movie. It is a bait-and-switch. You think it is one kind of male historical sword fight movie and it becomes a human story about this woman and her assault and the delusion of men – which I cover in my own films, occasionally.

I was initially intimidated by the language, and the fact I don’t know that much about medieval history. But I sort of got the hang of the rhythms and the backward sentences and which words we couldn’t use. Once I was writing about [female] friendships and feelings, she just felt like a regular woman in a really, really bad time.

Your films are so intimate and conversational. How did that focus influence the way you wanted to shape the more vigorous, physical, non-chatty battle scenes in The Last Duel? You worked [on the script] with Matt Damon and Ben Affleck; is it a misconception to think swashbuckling films are inherently macho? laurasnapes

I would say that the swashbuckling in this movie is quite macho. It’s like animals fighting; they’re brutal. I did not mess with that. We’d all look over each other’s work and I might say something about a line, or maybe this battle doesn’t have to be so long. But in terms of the duel, I stayed out of it.

I’d seen many of Ridley [Scott, who directed The Last Duel]’s other movies, but I hadn’t seen Gladiator, because that’s not the kind of movie I watch. And I really liked it! I was really glad I saw it. I would say my favourite duel movie is Love and Death by Woody Allen, where he gets shot and is saying: “I just don’t want to end up a chicken hanging in the window of Tresky’s deli.” But I’m not really a duel girl.

Amazing to have had Scorsese and Woody Allen as teachers! What did they teach you? JillCummings23

Woody Allen was in no way my teacher. I was a production assistant on one of his movies, out there yelling: “Rolling!” and: “Cut!” I sunk the dailies on Hannah and Her Sisters [Holofcener was an apprentice editor on the film]. So that was really interesting, to be able to watch different takes and see what he was going for. It was a unique situation. Woody was going to shoot the whole movie and then edit it, not have an editor work on it while he’s shooting. So me and the assistant editors – my bosses – just alerted him to any problems. And then at night he would come and watch the dailies with some of his cast and certainly with Mia [Farrow] and her children. But I didn’t get the privilege of watching him and Sandy Morris, who was his editor, then cut the film. That was really, really disappointing. I was fired because I think she wanted to pick her own apprentice editor. So it wasn’t him teaching me anything, but his movies certainly have a lot, because I love them.

Martin Scorsese taught me at Columbia for a year when he was mixing The Color of Money. He was so entertaining and so generous. It was really fun. My short film was so not his cup of tea. He had to watch it over and over. I think once he fell asleep, leaning back in his chair. I don’t remember what kind of notes he gave. Good ones, I’m sure. But I can’t remember what I did last week.

Who has been your biggest influence so far?

Woody Allen. Mike Leigh. Scorsese, even though my movies are so different. You watch Raging Bull and just want to make a movie. Truffaut. Buñuel. Harold & Maude and Coming Home and Martin Ritt. All men. But, y’know, what are you going to do?

I absolutely loved the Amy Schumer sketch [Last Fuckable Day, which Holofcener directed]. Do you think Hollywood has changed in its attitudes to women in the five years since it came out, especially after #MeToo? If not, what do you think ought to change immediately? sweetadeline

I think it’s almost getting worse, because anybody over 50 has distorted their own face so badly. I can’t even find a list of actors that haven’t done anything to their faces, because we’re deemed not fuckable. It’s still absolutely prevalent in Hollywood and elsewhere.

You’re so good at mining the small awkward moments in your movies. Do you enjoy them in real life? ArthurTheMightyDog

Oh, no. I hate awkward moments. I have them all the time. Mostly because I’m very unfiltered and I don’t read the room very well. I’ll make some disgusting joke in front of somebody I don’t know. I think I’m hilarious. And I’m not to them. I’ve embarrassed my kids for sure in that respect. I think someone was coming over to the house to do something and my kids said: “Mom, just don’t make a joke.” It’s almost impossible for me not to do that. My impulse is to make other people feel comfortable and in the process I make them uncomfortable.

I’m an idiot, because it’s a compulsion born out of my family dynamics, basically. And I’m trying to become definitely more aware of it and stop people-pleasing. I think it’s better if I just shut up and read the room better. Not everyone has to feel comfortable and not everyone has to think I’m funny.

I’m obviously very hilarious, but it’s kind of like party shame – you have a couple of drinks, or maybe you don’t even, and when you come back from the party you think: did I say something stupid to that person?

Does being a screenwriter change the stakes? No, because I’m telling the pool man a joke. He has no idea who I am. I’m telling the checkout person at Whole Foods a joke. And they’re like: “Who’s that old lady? And who cares what she’s saying.”

Are there things you regret having done and wish you had done differently? Bernie1030

There’s a couple of TV shows I wish I hadn’t directed. You’re like the new kid at school and don’t know anybody; everyone knows each other. And sometimes – only a couple of times – it has been mildly unpleasant, where actors are tired of the rotating directors. Or I think they want my input, my vision, my choices, and it turns out they don’t really, because it’s already a well-oiled machine.

There was one movie that I wish I’d directed: The Weatherman, with Nicolas Cage and Michael Caine. I blew the interview. I was so dumb. I think they said: “We’re really interested in Nicolas Cage and we think he’s interested.” And I was like: “I don’t think he’s right for the part at all.” But he was great!

What’s your passion project? What’s holding it back? Bernie1030

Financing. I wrote a script and it’s taken a really long time to get financing. It’s similar to my other movies: very small plot, character-driven story, and it looks like I’m finally gonna get it made in February. I’m holding my breath.

The film is like a joke pitch: “A female writer finds out her husband doesn’t like the book she wrote.” Run, don’t walk! You can see why financing took a while coming … It’s about so much more, though. The difference between honesty and support and how to love someone. And it’s about a family. So it’s a me movie, for sure.

Hi Nicole, big, big fan here, back to the Walking and Talking days. My question is: from this distance, it looks as if it must have been pretty tough to be a female director on the US indie scene in the mid-90s and 00s. Do you have any horror stories you are prepared to share? Or was it, in fact, incident-free? BenderRodriguez

Certainly not incident-free. I was actually at the right time at the right place to get my first movie made – albeit it took six years. So many different studios were going to make it and then decided not to. I’d lose the actresses I had and then recast more actors. I remember when Walking and Talking finally premiered at Sundance. It was not ready. We went from the lab where the film was still kind of wet and hired a private plane in a snowstorm and didn’t know it was going to be able to get there in time. Todd Solondz was standing on the stage trying to entertain people because they were waiting. It was harrowing and I was terrified and I was on all these Valium on this little plane. I couldn’t believe I was screening a movie at Sundance, so I really, really wanted to make it there alive.

Even having seen all your films multiple times, I was surprised when I showed a few to my girlfriend and she took quite strongly against some of your characters. I thought about it and I think what makes your films feel so real (and apparently your characters divisive) is that, while your characters do go through experiences that shape them, they don’t have those full three-act transformations that are so typical in films. Do you believe people can fundamentally change, or is a portrait of a human being more interesting than a journey anyway? erlendsp

Great question. I think the journey is so much more interesting. I think people can change a little and I hope that in all of my movies the characters change a little. And I think people who like subtlety and realism will like that, too. But there’s generally no big happy endings. With Friends with Money, the studio was so behind me and loved it and it was great. And when I turned in my director’s cut for them to see, they were like: “Where’s the last reel? That’s not an ending!” They wanted me to think about shooting a new scene on a beach with all the friends together.

I very much enjoyed Friends with Money. Was the character that Simon McBurney played really gay or not? WhatALife

I never made up my mind. I guess I believed he was not, because he was in love with his wife and he was just very feminine and gentle and sweet. And that’s what I wanted ultimately to portray. But he sure seemed gay, right? So many straight people do.

More now than before? Oh my God, yes. I mean, those stereotypes are of course just terrible and now those are thrown out the window. Straight guys can wear anything now. It’s very baffling to me, because of my generation.

What is it about Catherine Keener you like so much? JillCummings23

It’s funny, because we’re so different in so many ways. And yet I guess she was the person who represented me in my movies. Not all of the characters, for sure. But some of them. I think she’s just got this lit-up face and she looks like nobody else. She’s gorgeous but interesting-looking and her emotions are right on the surface and she’s got a great sense of humour.

A lot of Can You Ever Forgive Me? takes place in Julius, my favourite New York bar. Have you ever written a scene while under the influence? And do you think that screenwriters tend to be big drinkers? AlexNeedham

I’ve tried writing stoned. [Cannabis is legal in New York and California.] Sometimes it’s good and sometimes it’s bad. Sometimes I just fall asleep. And I’m not a big drinker. But I think it does open up new channels when you are kind of under the influence of something. A small amount: a couple of puffs. One drink.

This article was amended on 15 October 2021. An earlier versiion misspelled [Luis] Buñuel as “Brunel”.

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