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Keeping it real – Nicole Holofcener

Writer and director Nicole Holofcener’s frank take on storytelling, romantic comedies, saying goodbye to James Gandolfini and her acclaimed new film, Enough Said.

Author Erin Brady

Nicole Holofcener with Enough Said stars James Gandolfini and Julia Louis-Dreyfus

Nicole Holofcener with Enough Said stars James Gandolfini and Julia Louis-Dreyfus

In a Hollywood obsessed with CGI, explosions, pubescent vampires and overblown budgets, what sets writer and director Nicole Holofcener apart is the likeliness of her stories. Enough Said, her latest film, follows a middle-aged divorcee (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) who starts going out with a new man (James Gandolfini, in one of his final performances) at the same time she befriends his ex-girlfriend (Catherine Keener), unbeknownst to either. It’s a simple equation that in Holofcener’s hands produces hilarious and startlingly realistic results, the latter of which have become her directorial signature. Enough Said and her previous projects, including Friends with Money and Please Give, meditate on quirky characters who are trying to figure out how to live and who to love and what to want—the kinds of characters that resemble, well, us.

Enough Said explores the question of, if you could talk to your significant other’s exes, would you? Where did you get the idea from?
Well, clearly I thought about it. My ex has a girlfriend and my boyfriend has an ex and I’m an ex. I just thought it was interesting how many versions of ourselves there are. It depends on who’s looking and who’s in the relationship with you. Those thoughts inspired the idea.

Would you want to talk to your boyfriend’s ex?
I have thought about it, but no I would not. I know what my boyfriend’s ex would say about him, probably.

How would you describe your filmmaking style?
Character is everything. What the scene is about tells me how to shoot it, how to write it. That’s my first and foremost interest, though—character. I wouldn’t call myself a stylized director. I want the audience to feel like they’re seeing their friends or seeing people they know, or at least people who are believable. I like a natural style. I don’t want people to walk away and go, “Wow, there were some really cool camera moves in there.” I just want people to react emotionally.  

There are so many great details in your movies, and in Enough Said in particular. For instance, James Gandolfini’s character won’t eat the bits of onion in his guacamole…
This is what I build plot on!

Where do those sorts of observations come from? Do you keep them in a notebook?
They are from real life. I do make things up sometimes. The guacamole thing came right from my boyfriend’s ex-wife. My boyfriend told me about it once, and I thought, “That’s such a funny habit.” I don’t carry a notebook around, though. Some of these things just pop into my head.

Has your boyfriend seen the film?
He edited it.

Is it complicated when you borrow stuff from the lives of your partner or your friends?
It is complicated. I didn’t tell him until he read the finished script. He didn’t care. He cracked up. He gives me a lot of freedom, which I’m very grateful for, and kind of says, “Go ahead and make fun of me or us,” because he respects my work. Not everybody feels the same way. I have a couple of friends who have said, “Please don’t ever write about me.” And I don’t, at least consciously. It’s unfortunate, but if I want to have friends and a life then I have to be careful.

Do you have any advice for aspiring screenwriters or directors?
Write what you know. I write from my own personal experience, and that’s the material that I tend to like the most. Trust your own voice and don’t try to write what you think will sell, because it probably won’t.

When you were casting Enough Said, were you hesitant to choose two actors who had played massively popular TV characters in the past? Tony Soprano and Elaine Benes on a date…
Yeah, it didn’t stop me, but I was constantly anxious that the audience wouldn’t be able to forget their television characters. I knew that they could drop those characters and be in this movie fully, but I was afraid of the audience. For the most part, I feel like everyone does forget and gets involved in the characters right away.  

You’ve directed for TV as well. Is your approach to that different than your approach to film?
I would say it’s the same. The characters are so fully developed when I direct a television show that there’s really very little for me to do. Sometimes I wonder what I’m doing there. I mean, the actors like to be directed generally, so I will guide them. I’m always watching for options, changing the tone, changing the speed, things like that.

How much of an actor’s performance do you think comes from the director?
I would say that 50 percent is casting the correct person and just letting them play the part that you’ve written. The other 50 percent is editing. You can create a performance in the editing room and I have to say, I have done that. … I’ll just stop there. [Laughs]

It sounds like editors are the unsung heroes…
Definitely! They can make a great performance even greater. But, I would say that casting the right person is important. When the performance is bad, I’ve cast wrong, and that’s my fault.

Speaking of actors, James Gandolfini passed away just before Enough Said was released. Has his death cast a shadow over the movie?
Yeah, it’s a very sad element. He’s very missed and very much not here. It would be a completely different experience. I still can’t believe he’s gone, frankly. It’s just terribly sad, that’s all it is.  

Some critics have called Enough Said your most mainstream movie to date.
I’m not surprised. I did set out to make more of a mainstream movie, while still having it be from my own voice and be a personal story for me. The studio, Searchlight, wanted to make a movie with me, but they did say, “Could you make it a little more popular?” [Laughs] I thought, “Okay, I have nothing against being popular.” So, I thought I would come up with more of a plot or more of a hook, but keep it very grounded in reality. I’m just really happy that I pulled it off. I didn’t want to make something shallow or silly. I wanted to make something meaningful.

Enough Said has been characterized as a romantic comedy, but if you watch the film, it’s really not a typical romance.
It’s not like 300 Dresses or whatever. You know, boy meets girl, boy screws up, girl cries—yeah. Those are so phony usually, and irritating, but they make so much money!

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