Director's Cut: Nicole Holofcener ('Enough Said')

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It would probably be fair to say that the film industry needs Nicole Holofcener more than Nicole Holofcener needs the film industry. Her features, lightly profound stories about pedestrian women making sense of their lives and themselves, are refreshingly honest and unflinching, small movies that make an outsized impact on their viewers. Films like "Lovely & Amazing" and "Please Give" have told common stories with an uncommon wit and grace – I'd argue that Holofcener's curiosity and bluntness have influenced an entire generation of American storytellers, and that without the likes of "Walking and Talking" there'd be no "Tiny Furniture".

Of course, Holofcener is hardly a relic, and just because she changed the landscape doesn't mean she's done contributing to it. In fact, at 53 she seems more in tune with the zeitgeist than ever, her latest film a genuine commercial hit that's generating serious awards consideration. In the days before its premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, "Enough Said" was highlighted with an unfortunately morbid curiosity, as the movie co-stars the late James Gandolfini in his penultimate screen performance. And yet this story of a divorced massage therapist (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) who learns that her new boyfriend is a client's ex-husband (Gandolfini) is so warm and winsome that it quickly becomes impossible to think of it in a melancholy light – watching the movie, you don't think of it as one of James Gandolfini's  last performances so much as one of his very best.

His Albert is so lovable and sweetly fragile – it might seem as though the famously gruff actor is playing against type, but I'd sooner say that he's playing towards truth. His relationship with Eva is so delicate and true, the sitcom premise that binds them together only serving to highlight how human they are when compared to the kind of characters that tend to populate stories like these.

In honor of the film's DVD & Blu-ray release, I recently had the chance to chat with Holofcener over the phone.

FILM.COM: Hi, how are you?

NICOLE HOLOFCENER: I’m fine, how are you?

I’m fine, I just watched “Enough Said” for what I think is the fourth time, so...

Oh my god, what’s wrong with you? [laughs]

Well the first question I wanted to ask you only because I couldn’t resist is that if it’s true that you went to Columbia undergrad and then also for grad school, cause that’s the boat I’m in now. 

I went to NYU for a year and a half and I graduated from there, and then years later went to Columbia for graduate school.

Ah, gotcha, they’re spreading lies about you on Wikipedia. 

What a shock. So wait, so you go to Columbia film school?

Yeah, I went as an undergrad, and I’m back there for directing. 

Is it still a fun program?

Well yeah... you know, you get out of it what you put into it, and since I’ve been working full-time I haven’t been able to put all that much into it. But the upside of the working part is that I get to talk to people like you, so it’s not too bad. 

That works.

Yeah. Well, onto the film. Your characters are always refreshingly human, but in this film they’re also overwhelmingly decent, which you don’t see very often. It makes me wonder if people are convinced that human decency is the direct enemy of good drama.

Wait... is good decency... wait, say that again?

Well, you have such decent characters in your films, whereas in a lot of other films characters are inclined to inhumane acts simply because it’s conducive to conflict…

Oh, I understand you now.  I suppose yes, I think that people that think not just good people, but normal real people don’t make for good drama, and they do! So that’s why I like to make real characters who feel like me, or people I know, or people I don’t necessarily want to know but know that I could know. They exist! I think it’s true.

All of your films, this one in particular, are so uncommonly fair to their characters. I know that the movies are very personal for you, so I can’t help but wonder if is Eva a direct proxy for you or if you find yourself spread out across these characters more evenly? 

I can’t pretend that I’m not the closest to the Eva character. I’m definitely the Eva character, but I do tend to spread myself out. There’s a piece of me that’s in Sarah, or the daughter, and my experience in having been that daughter going away to college.  I’m not very much in the male characters I guess, I guess I should do more of that.

That’s really interesting, what you say about not putting yourself in your male characters, because – unless Wikipedia is lying to me, again – you actually have sons, and not daughters. And I think in all of your films, whenever there have been children, they’ve always been daughters. Why do you think that is?

– Do you mean what’s wrong with me?

[laughs] Not at all.  

‘What’s wrong with you? Why do you always have daughters?’

[laughs]

Huh. Well, it’s not really a conscious decision, I just felt like Eva had a daughter. In retrospect, looking at the daughter in “Please Give” and the daughter in this movie, I’m still working out being a daughter more than a mother. In “Enough Said” I’m not so much the daughter, but in “Please Give” I definitely was. So I’m not trying not to write about my sons [laughs], and eventually I will. And in “Lovely and Amazing” for the character of Annie I wanted her to be a daughter because I wanted to write about the legacy that these older sisters were leaving their daughters, these female issues.

That’s interesting.

Or not.

Ha, no, I was definitely struck by that detail, and the character certainly benefits from having a daughter, and the relationship that Eva develops with her daughter’s best friend, played by Tavi Gevinson. The quality of Tavi’s voice makes such a perfect tone with the rest of the movie, and epitomizes your talent for casting as much as your decisions to hire Julia Louise-Dreyfus and James Gandolfini do. 

I literally just liked her audition. I didn’t know who she was. They told me who she was before she came in, but I hadn’t heard about her. And when she came in, I was just delighted by her appearance, her voice, her sweet face... she had a very different quality than a lot of the actors coming in. Which is what I wanted, I wanted that character to be lost and sweet but not pathetic, I didn’t want us to worry about her. And Tavi had those qualities, so I cast her. My casting director is more brilliant than me.

And just to flesh out the cast a little bit, something that I really enjoyed about James Gandolfini’s character is his job, I thought it was so perfect that he has this curatorial position... 

Well, I guess I’ll just come right out with it, but my boyfriend has an encyclopedic knowledge of 1970s television, and it is so entertaining to me that he can just list the lineups, and I wanted Albert to do that as well. So I just gave him that job... and then when I cast Julia and Jim it was so weird because they’re both such television icons. I had to cut out a couple of the lines, because they’re like “television is really important to our culture...” and i was like, I cannot have Tony Soprano telling this to Elaine Benes.

There’s something very protective about his job, which I thought was perfect, that he’s looking out for the legacy of these shows... 

It’s such a middle-aged person’s job. I guess somebody young could do it, but he lived through that era, so he feels inclined to protect it. So that felt right too.

Many of the reviews touched upon the idea that this was a slightly more conventional story than your previous films, that it was more attuned to the rhythms of a traditional romantic-comedy. Was that something you were conscious of during the production, revitalizing a tired genre?

No. If that had been my goal I would have just sat there and done nothing. That’s just too high a bar, it’s too much. I wanted to write something with a bit more of a plot, that had a triangle in the movie, but I wanted to make sure that I kept the characters real and didn’t go too silly or too broad. I just set out to make something that I’d be proud of and like. ...And would make some money.

Well yeah, I was reading somewhere that you were hoping for a crossover hit with this one… now that we’re a bit removed from the release, are you happy with how it performed? 

I think I did manage to cross over, so much more than with my other films. Not just that it made more money, it didn’t make a ton more money than “Friends with Money”, but some. But it crossed over mostly in the eyes of the entertainment industry, it’s gotten on more lists... and I had great reviews, I got invited to Golden Globe parties and things that probably have no meaning in the ultimate quality of my life. I’ve definitely been on the awards circuit more than I ever have been, and doing a lot more of that, so I think this did crossover more.

[Publicist hops on the line to inform me that I have time for one more question]

Okay well I might as well ask something incredibly inane about the guacamole thing, and how I’m praying that that’s not true because if it is I’m screwed. I do that as well.

[shocked] You scoop the onions away from the rest of the guacamole?

Yeah, it’s a texture thing!

Ooooh, honey, you’re not alone. I know of someone who does this, I don’t know them personally... or it didn’t bother me personally... but I’m sure you’re driving someone crazy, I’m sorry. [Laughs]

[laughs] I’m gonna die alone.  Thanks for the film.

"Enough Said" is also for sale on iTunes.