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Please Give – Nicole Holofcener interview

Nicole Holofcener

Interview by Rob Carnevale

NICOLE Holofcener talks about directing the indie drama Please Give, its themes of middle class guilt and working with British actress Rebecca Hall.

She also discusses why it’s still hard to get films like hers made in Hollywood and why Woody Allen was an inspiration…

Q. What inspired you to make Please Give and explore its themes of middle class guilt and people attempting to better themselves?
Nicole Holofcener: My own struggle. I thought I could make a sarcastic joke about it. But it’s based on my own struggle with how much to give, how much it’s really helping or not, and how foolish or not I feel. Giving sometimes backfires…

Q. It’s a great scene where Catherine Keener mistakenly gives her food to someone she thinks is homeless?
Nicole Holofcener: Right… and it could happen! People say to me all the time that I threw some money into some guy’s coffee cup [by accident, thinking they were poor]. People do make the same sort of mistake. I’ve made attempts to volunteer that have been calamitous!

Q. In what way?
Nicole Holofcener: I have a boundary problem… I need to know when to give and when to back up. I’ll help someone across the street and then into their homes and they’ll start telling me all their problems… and it turns out they’re insane and want to kill me [laughs]. I’ve got to know when to stop!

Q. What prompts this feeling of guilt do you think? Is it something you regularly discuss?
Nicole Holofcener: I think having a good life prompts it… anybody who has a good life and looks around them sees the enormous disparity that exists in the world between those people who do and those that don’t. I can’t say we walk about our guilt a lot, though. If we do, it probably comes out in the form of self-loathing jokes. But it’s a tough thing to wrap your head around… the have’s and have not’s in the world.

Q. This is your third time working with Catherine Keener. What makes her so special and easy to work with?
Nicole Holofcener: It’s actually our fourth… but she’s got the right face. I never get tired of looking at her and it always surprises me, despite how many hours of film I’ve shot on that face. She’s fantastic. She does comedy and tragedy so equally well. She wears her feeling so on the surface for both. I try to stop myself from casting her but I just keep coming back to her. She’s just so fantastic to work with.

Q. The two of you could be described as the female equivalent of Scorsese and DiCaprio…
Nicole Holofcener: Thanks… I’d rather go for Scorsese and De Niro. I just think he was so much better [laughs].

Q. On your last movie [Friends with Money] you worked with Jennifer Aniston just as she was about to break big as a movie star. On this, you’re working with Rebecca Hall. How did you first hear about Rebecca? What appealed to you about her?
Nicole Holofcener: The casting director on the movie made me aware of her. She told me what to watch Starter For Ten, which I did and thought she was great in. She was just so charming and beautiful. But I felt she could probably look plain if we tried. And when I subsequently met with her, I was so charmed by her vulnerability and sweetness. Those were two qualities that were the most important for that character.

Q. Conversely, you also worked with a veteran actress in the form of Ann Morgan Guilbert. How was she to work with?
Nicole Holofcener: Oh, she is a character. She was really into doing whatever I needed her to do. But she was also very funny and game. She has a great comic timing and I really lucked out in that department. If I had cast someone else who didn’t have that kind of timing, it would have been leaden and one note. But Ann made her really human and really funny without being caricatured or over the top. She feels like a real person.

Q. Was she based on anyone you know?
Nicole Holofcener: Mostly on my grandma. My grandma has said many of the things her character says. But she was much nicer! I made her meaner for dramatic purposes [laughs].

Q. Similarly, Oliver Platt brings his usual charisma to his role as the cheating husband, which ensures that we never totally dislike him. Was that intentional and one of the reasons you cast him?
Nicole Holofcener: I guess I always knew going into the movie that casting that part would be difficult. Oliver just felt likeable. I felt it would be hard to dislike this man. I don’t know why, but I’m sure other directors have felt the same when casting him. Oliver is goofy yet formidable, smart but likeable… I didn’t want the character of Alex to be nasty or demonised. I wanted him to be struggling with his actions.

Q. Coming back to the overall themes of the film concerning guilt, how have people reacted to it in general? Do you find people are grateful to you for putting their feelings on-screen so observantly?
Nicole Holofcener: Yeah, people seem to really relate to it and feel moved by it. It’s been the most positively received of all my movies so far. I don’t know why. I like it just as much as I like my others, but people think this one is the best or the most interesting. I’ll take it, though. I wouldn’t want them to be saying my films are getting worse [laughs].

Q. One talking point is the opening scene, involving the mammograms and various shots of women’s breasts! It’s an eye-opening starting point. How did you cast it? And what made you decide on that?
Nicole Holofcener: I asked the extras casting woman to get me some boobs [laughs]! We just cast extras, but we don’t show their faces and they got a bit more money for being naked. I think we had 10 women in total, but the boobs were just boobs, we weren’t looking for anything in particular. That said, it was pretty awkward and a weird thing to shoot. Some women had a sense of humour about it and we’d laugh, but some were very serious and suspicious… like I might be doing something bad, or maybe they were just uncomfortable.

I thought of the scene while writing scenes with Rebecca [Hall] and wrote it like an opening montage of showing where someone works. If you see a film about a car mechanic, you’d show the place they work and what they do. So, that’s what I set out to do with Rebecca’s character. I thought it probably wouldn’t even make it into film but I ended up liking it.

Q. Have you had any complaints?
Nicole Holofcener: I only heard one person say they were offended by it – and that was a woman!

Q. How hard is it to get a film like this made in the current economic climate?
Nicole Holofcener: It’s a struggle. It’s really, really hard. I’m already nervous for my next one. You have to put more and more movie stars in movies these days. And of course, I would like to have more than $3million to make it. But, again, if that’s what I was offered I wouldn’t turn it down. I guess studios know that. But I’m one of the lucky ones, I guess.

Q. Do you think Kathryn Bigelow’s Oscar success might make it easier? Do you notice any change in attitude towards female filmmakers since that historic win?
Nicole Holofcener: No I don’t. But then male directors also have a hard time getting their movies made… not as hard as women but it’s a tough time for any movie this size. And that particular movie [The Hurt Locker] was so specific. It couldn’t hurt, of course, and I’m really glad for her, but I don’t know how much it will change things, if at all. The film industry is still so sexist.

Q. How much of an influence was Woody Allen on your career? I believe you spent a lot of time on his film sets when you were younger? Do you feel you learned a lot from that experience? And why did you choose directing over acting?
Nicole Holofcener: Well, I tried being in front of the camera as a student and that was terrifying. But the press stuff about me growing up on his [film] sets has been exaggerated. I was an extra as a kid and I was also a PA [production assistant] on one of his movies, so I was lucky to get production experience. But I was nowhere near him. If anything, I learned most from being a huge fan of his and watching movies like Annie Hall and Manhattan over and over again – that influenced the kind of movies that I wanted to make more than anything else.