Friday, April 12, 2013

The Auteurs #22: Nicole Holofcener

If there were one group of people that were able to thrive in the world of 1990s American independent cinema, it was women filmmakers as they were able to create films that actually said something about themselves rather than play to the expectations of what Hollywood wanted to say about them. One of these filmmakers who came from that world of 1990s American indie films was Nicole Holofcener as her work in films and television has provided many topics about the struggles for what women want in life whether it’s love, identity, or goals they want to achieve. With four feature films already to her credit and a new one on the way, Holofcener is definitely among one of the leading filmmakers for women who doesn’t fall prey to what Hollywood wants in defining the role of women.

Born in New York City on March 22, 1960, Holofcener was daughter of renowned artist/sculptor Lawrence Holofcener and film set decorator Carol though the parents divorced after Nicole was a year old. At age eight, Holofcener’s mother married film producer Charles H. Joffe who was known for producing the films of Woody Allen. Through her stepfather, Holofcener got her first experience into the world of film production at the sets of being in the films of Woody Allen where she was an extra in a couple of his films and eventually became a production assistant for A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy as well as an apprentice editor for Allen’s longtime editor Susan E. Morse on Hannah & Her Sisters. While attending Columbia University in New York City to study films, she was taught by another famed director in Martin Scorsese where Holofcener would make two shorts during the 1980s where one of them in Angry made its premiere at the 1991 Sundance Film Festival in its short films program.

The short was well-received as Holofcener knew she needed to break out on her own and not rely on her family for help. In the early 1990s, Holofcener worked as a writer for the Canadian teen drama Ready or Not while taking an acting gig for Allison Anders’ 1993 film Mi Vida Loca. It was around this time that Holofcener was developing her own script for a project that would put her in an already thriving indie film scene that were led by women.

Walking and Talking

Holofcener’s first film would revolve on the diverging paths of two longtime childhood friends as one of the women is about to get married while the other deals with life as a single woman. The film would explore not just the desires that women want in life as well as what they want in a man. It also explores the unique friendship between women that didn’t revel into schmaltz or sentimentality that is often common with films that are often tagged as chick-flicks. Instead, Holofcener wanted to create something that felt real as well as something that gave female audiences something that they’re able to relate to.

While the film would largely be a comedy as Holofcener definitely cited Woody Allen as an influence. The film would also be dramatic in some ways as it reveled in some of the tribulations the women would face. Set largely in New York City as well locations in the state of New York, Holofcener knew that she didn’t want to make a film that seemed typical of what audiences already knew of NYC while she also wanted to showcase a world that is quite youthful. Particularly as a few scenes would be set in small theaters and such where it plays to something that is a vibrant culture that was away from the usual landmarks that people had already seen.

The cast would largely consist of actors who were up-and-coming that include Anne Heche as one of the leads in Laura as well as Todd Field as Laura’s fiancee Frank, Liev Schreiber and Kevin Corrigan as two suitors of the other lead character in Amelia. For the role of Amelia, Holofcener chose Catherine Keener who had just been getting notices for her work in two acclaimed indie films by Tom DiCillo. Helping Holofcener to get funding was producer James Schamus who was already known for his association with Taiwanese filmmaker Ang Lee as he also brought in Alisa Lepselter to edit the film as she had been an associate editor for several filmmakers.

With a score provided by British folk-punk artist Billy Bragg, the film would revel into a lot of the anxieties women face in their 30s as it’s time to settle down as such. With Amelia still lost in the single life while envying Laura for getting married, Laura isn’t sure if she wants to get married to Frank as she starts to flirt around with a local theater actor. While Amelia is also dealing with her pet cat who is very ill, she also has to deal with some bad reactions towards a video clerk she briefly went out with after Laura said some things about him. In that same scene, Holofcener creates one of the film’s funniest lines in which Todd Fields asks “do we really have to listen to this vagina music all the way there?” while both Keener and Heche reply “yes”.

The film premiered at the 1996 Sundance Film Festival where it was a major hit with critics and audiences. Miramax released the film theatrically in the summer of 1996 where it got excellent reviews and decent box office receipts. The film would become a video hit as well as making Entertainment Weekly’s Top 50 Cult Films of All-Time list in an issue in the 2000s. The film’s success allowed Holofcener to not only gain clout but also cite her as one of the new voices for American indie cinema for emerging female filmmakers.

Lovely & Amazing

In the aftermath of the release of Walking and Talking, Holofcener took time away to be with family as well as directing various TV shows to help herself financially. It was during this time that Holfocener was working on her next project that would allow Holofcener to not only explore the roles that women play in the world but also to reveal themselves in a whole new way. Entitled Lovely and Amazing, the film would be a much more provocative feature as it explores the lives of a mother, her two adult daughters, and their adopted adolescent African-American sister. All of which are all trying to find something in themselves as well as questioning their goals in life.

The film would be very different from Holofcener’s previous film in terms of not just its location as Holofcener chose to set the film in California but also in its look. With the emergence of a much looser filmmaking style that was recalling the stripped-down world of Dogme 95, Holofcener chose to go with the new digital filmmaking format as she hired cinematographer Harold Bosmajian to shoot the film. The project would not only be more low-key in its look but also in setting to capture a sense of realism that Holofcener was craving for in a film that would be very complex.

Reuniting with Catherine Keener to play the role of the eldest sister Michelle Marks, Holofcener got a very diverse group of actors to fill out her ensemble. With Keener’s then-husband Dermont Mulroney playing the role of a film star, the cast would also included Jake Gyllenhaal, Clark Gregg, and James LeGros while British actresses Brenda Blethyn and Emily Mortimer would play their respective roles as Michelle’s mother Jane and younger sister Elizabeth. For the role of Michelle and Elizabeth’s adopted sister, Holofcener chose newcomer Raven Goodwin for the part.

The film would be Holofcener’s most complex film in terms of storyline and themes as its four central character in women are all very different as Blethyn’s Jane is a woman eager to look and feel young through plastic surgery as she also tries to flirt with her surgeon. Keener’s Michelle is a struggling artist trying to get her work available as her marriage starts to crumble while she eventually has an affair with her 17-year old photoshop boss, played by Jake Gyllenhaal. Mortimer’s Elizabeth is an actress who is finally climbing yet she’s very insecure about her physicality while has a boyfriend who can care less about her career or her infatuation with dogs. Goodwin’s Annie is an overweight African-American child struggling with her identity as well as who she is.

Holofcener allows these four women to try and find themselves where some of it is comical but also dramatic. One particular scene that is considered one of the most uncomfortable usage of nudity is a scene where Elizabeth reveals herself to Dermont Mulroney’s Kevin McCabe. Elizabeth is standing around naked in front of him asking him what is wrong with her body. It is a very confrontational moment where McCabe is trying to be honest but not in a mean way as he is uncomfortable trying to reveal Elizabeth’s flaws. It’s a moment in film where Holofcener has men confront some of the expectations in what women want but also feel for the men for not wanting to be hurtful as the McCabe character is one of the few men in the film who means well.

The film premiered at the 2001 Telluride Film Festival in late August of that year as well as the Toronto Film Festival weeks later where it got rave reviews. The film got a limited theatrical release in the summer of 2002 where it became a major hit in the art house circuits. The film got some notices in the critical and award circuits despite no major nominations from the Golden Globes nor the Oscars. Yet, the film got six nominations at the Independent Spirit Award including Best Film and Best Director while Emily Mortimer won the Best Supporting Actress prize.

Friends with Money

The clout that Holofcener received for Lovely & Amazing gave her the chance to get more money for any project that she wanted to do as she decided to go for something more light-hearted as well as raise questions about the world of social classes. While it would be an ensemble-based project, it would be led by one character who is going through her difficulties in all sorts of ways such as financially and in a personal level. Even as her friends are all going through some personal issues of their own despite having money.

With Catherine Keener taking on a supporting role as one of the three women who are financially stable along with Joan Cusack and Frances McDormand. The lead role of Olivia would be given to an actress who has a big name but isn’t known for her talents as an actress as Holofcener took the big risk in casting Jennifer Aniston in the lead role. With Greg Germann, Scott Caan, Simon McBurney, Jason Isaacs, and Ty Burrell playing the roles of men, Holofcener decided to set the film in California like she did with her previous film but with a more polished look as well as a bigger budget in the form of $6.5 million.

With this film, Holofcener wanted to explore the life of a woman who is trying to find herself as she cleans houses to make a living while is having a harder time trying to find love. In giving the role to Aniston, it would allow Holofcener the chance to display Aniston’s comedic and dramatic talents without playing to the conventions of Hollywood. What Holofcener would do is prove that there is more to Jennifer Aniston than some of the Hollywood films she’s been in where Aniston is allowed to play someone who endures the humility of not having money or a stable life as well as making bad decisions.

Though the film is focused on Aniston’s characters, there are the other female characters who want to help her out yet they have their own problems as Catherine Keener’s Christine who is a screenwriter as she is going with her own marital issues as well as remodeling their house. Joan Cusack’s Franny isn’t as developed as the other three as she’s a trust-fund lady who wants to help Olivia but doesn’t understand why Olivia wouldn’t take her money. The character that stands out the most is Frances McDormand’s Jane who starts to become erratic as it relates to menopause as well as the suspicion that her husband could be gay. It all plays to Holofcener’s exploration of women trying to define themselves in a world that is often turbulent where it’s not about money but also realizing who they are and how they try to help each other.

The film was released in April of 2006 which is an unusual time to release an indie-based film yet the film managed to do well financially grossing $18 million despite a limited release while garnering excellent reviews. The film would also make an additional $29 million in DVD rentals/sales giving Holofcener more clout. Frances McDormand would win an Independent Spirit Award for Best Supporting Actress as the film would help continue Holofcener’s winning streak.

Please Give

After exploring the world of finances and generosity with Friends with Money, Holofcener wanted to continue to explore the theme with the latter for her fourth feature film as she decided to return to New York City. Yet, it would revolve around two different sets of people in the form of a couple and their neighbor in sisters as it plays to the world of generosity, life, and looking for something to fill their lives. Even as they’re feuding to see who will get the apartment that sisters’ grandmother is living in as she is feeling very ill.

With Catherine Keener on board to play the lead in Kate as well as editor Robert Frazen who had just worked with Holofcener for Friends with Money. Holofcener would get a cast that would include Oliver Platt, Amanda Peet, Thomas Ian Nicholas, Ann Guilbert, Sarah Steele, Rebecca Hall to fill out the ensemble. With Keener and Platt playing vintage furniture sales while Peet and Hall play sisters who are taking care of their 91-year old grandmother. It would be a film that would explore the desires of people as well as those who want to give to the world. Notably as Keener’s Kate and Hall’s Rebecca character are those who are good where the latter is always there to help out her grandmother.

Holofcener also wanted to show some of the downside of generosity where Kate’s attempt to help people would often backfire or be misunderstood as she has a hard time trying to do good while dealing with her own teenage daughter. Even as she is becoming anxious over the fact that the furniture she sells is being sold again by a competitor while one key scene in volunteering for the disabled reveal the helplessness that Kate has come to realize. There also moments where Holofcener reveals some selfishness in the form of Peet’s character in Mary who is a cosmetologist and wants to help out Kate’s daughter with her own growing pains. Yet, she is also someone who is eager to have things that people could have which often has her neglecting her grandmother.

One aspect of the film that shows Holofcener’s sense of discomfort is the way she explores aging such as the film’s opening credits features images of women displaying their breasts during their examinations. It’s a moment that recalls some of the aspects of Lovely & Amazing while doing it in a more humorous manner. Even as it plays into the world of death as Ann Guilbert’s character does eventually die where there is an element of guilt but also some surprises as well.

The film premiered at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival as well as playing out of competition a month later at the Berlin Film Festival. After a limited theatrical release in April of that year, the film did well critically and financially though it didn’t match the numbers of Holofcener’s previous film. Still, it helped establish Holofcener as one of the leading voices in American indie cinema.

Enough Said

Holofcener’s fifth feature film will be a comedy in the form about a divorce woman who falls for her new friend’s ex-husband. With Catherine Keener once again teaming up with Holofcener for the film, the cast would include Toni Collette, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, and James Gandolfini. Set in Los Angeles, the film is slated for a 2013 release as it will explore some of the attributes of love and friendship as well as not wanting to do the wrong thing as it’s likely to showcase Holofcener’s range in comedy.

Additional Projects

One of the drawbacks of being an independent filmmaker is securing funding for projects as it’s even more difficult for women who don’t work in the Hollywood system. Fortunately, Holofcener is one of those filmmakers who is able to use her clout to work on projects for television that can not just help her financially but also take the chance to work between film projects. Her work in shows such as Sex & the City, Six Feet Under, Parks and Recreation, and Enlightened doesn’t just showcase her talents as a comedy director but also to help bring voice to shows led by women. Sex & the City is a key example as the episodes she directed involves such themes as threesomes and sexual dysfunctions that allow women to be engaged by the struggles these women have.

Another female centric-show Holofcener took part in is WB’s Gilmore Girls in the episode Secret and Loans in which Lorelai Gilmore and her daughter Rory struggle with termites in their house as Lorelai is trying to find a way to help herself financially without the help of her mother whom she has a testy relationship with. It’s one of the most memorable episodes of that second season that includes a subplot in which Rory’s best friend Lane is trying to find herself as she takes a brief stint as a cheerleader.

Holofcener has been a key figure for cable shows from HBO like Sex & the City, Six Feet Under, Bored to Death, and the recently-cancelled Enlightened. The last of which was widely acclaimed as Holofcener directed two episodes that explores a woman’s attempt to rebuild herself after a professional and personal collapse that features some of the best work from its lead in Laura Dern.

Through her work in television and films, Nicole Holofcener is definitely one of the most unique voices as far as women filmmakers are concerned. While she may not be the visual artists like Sofia Coppola, Lynne Ramsay, and Andrea Arnold nor as confrontational as Kathryn Bigelow. Holofcener does share their traits in creating women characters that don’t play into certain molds that Hollywood wants while giving voices to women in their 30s and over as they’re often ignored by the mainstream. Her contributions to cinema cannot be overlooked for what she has given to audiences which makes Nicole Holofcener one of the key figures in American cinema.

© thevoid99 2013


Alex Withrow said...

Really great piece here. I’m a huge fan of Holofcener’s work. Really hard to pick a favorite, but I think Emily Mortimer’s stunning work in Lovely & Amazing helps make that my favorite Holofcener film.

But Friends with Money, Please Give, and her solid TV work – all good shit. Great auteurs piece!

Chris said...

Epic career examination! I second Alex, Lovely & Amazing is my favorite too. That uncomfortable scene you mention stayed with me. Glad that film got Spirit Award recognition.

Didn't know Holofcener had made those short films, I'd like to watch those. Was also unaware of the Woody Allen connections. I don't usually watch TV-shows, because I prefer movies, but Enlightened is a show I may want to see at some point.

thevoid99 said...

@Alex-Thank you. I really enjoy her work and how she directs actors and give them great dialogue. I think Lovely and Amazing should be given more exposure as it's a film people should see.

@Chris-I hope you can find some episodes of Enlightened online as the show was unfortunately cancelled by HBO.