Friday, January 27, 2012

Please Go to "Please Give"

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Please Go to "Please Give"


After its final public screening on Wednesday, Please Give, the very pleasing fourth pairing of director/writer Nicole Hofencener (see the interview below) and Indie star Catherine Keener, moves from the Tribeca Film Festival directly into New York theaters on Friday.  This time Keener plays Kate, a New Yorker who has guilt over the homeless and everyone else in need but fails in her attempts to help them. She's married to Alex (Oliver Platt), and they have a teenage daughter Abby (Sarah Steele) who has insecurity problems because of her complexion and weight. Their successful estate-sale antique-furniture business makes it possible for them to purchase the apartment next door so they can break through and expand. However, they must wait till their crotchety, elderly neighbor (The Dick Van Dyke Show's Ann Guilbert, nearly stealing the film ) passes away. She is cared for by her adult granddaughter, the kind Rebecca ( Rebecca Hall), and treated badly by her older granddaughter, the beautiful but mean Mary (Amanda Peet), to whom Alex is attracted. Bad people, good people, greedy people, generous people, all bonded by their flaws, guilt, and vulnerability.  Here's a roundtable I attended with Holofcener, the acclaimed director of Walking and Talking, Lovely & Amazing; and Friends with Money. I note my questions.
Danny Peary: You surely know about this article about your film in last Sunday's New York Times. The woman who wrote it says, "The message of the movie is unmistakable. This is a movie about women with no vanity lighting." Then later in the article she quotes Oliver Platt saying, "This is a film about the mysterious nature of fulfillment." Those two things are completely different. But are either right? I think they're partly right.
NH: I think they're both right. What people say about it is so interesting. Sometimes writers can say what my movie is about so much more eloquently than I can because I'm too close to it. "The mysterious nature of fulfillment?" That sounds great! I'll take it!
DP: But it's taken away right away by the writer.
NH: How?
DP: She adds that he means, "the sense that, if I only had X, happiness would follow."
NH: No, it's not that simple. It's about a lot of things. I don't really think about "women without the vanity lighting." That's just part of the process. I want them to look like us. I don't want them to look like actresses with their hair and makeup done--unless that's appropriate for the character.
DP: The movie is about flaws and how everybody is bonded by flaws, right?
NH: Absolutely, they are. And that they need each other.
DP: The characters who survive end up in a better place but obviously they haven't fixed everything.
NH: No, but I feel that that they've fixed something, even it's in a moment. It's all really about moments.
DP: The moment I like is the two sisters holding each other, which I think defines the movie.
NH: Yeah, yeah, if it can be defined. But I'm curious about why you say that.
DP: Because it's a bad person and good person who are united by their mutual vulnerability.
NH: Again, they need each other. They had the same upbringing and have the same damage and coped with it differently, yet they still love each other.
Q: In your movie Alex and Kate want to knock through their wall and add the next apartment to theirs. Was this type of thing going on in New York an inspiration to you in making this movie?
NH: It's all over the place. Everybody is doing it in the buildings with rent control that turn co-op. My friend did exactly that in the building we shot in. She bought the neighbor's apartment from the owner of the building. There was an old woman living in it and they waited for her to die. When she died, my friend got her big place. She actually befriended the woman, which may be even harder in a way. I think she felt awkward but not guilty because she didn't kill her. I thought the strangeness of the situation was interesting, and that's what made me think of it for this movie.
Q: You seem to work with actresses like Catherine Keener who are low maintenance, but what is the main thing you do to get the best out of an actress?
NH: In this film, the actors were very similar in what they needed. For instance, I didn't have one actor a half hour of solid rehearsal before being able to do a scene. That would really throw a wrench into the works.
Everybody was happy with the amount of rehearsal we did. And I don't do a lot of it. Some actors will think they're doing a bad job if I don't do more than three takes, when it's really that they've done a good job. In a way the most important thing for me to do is make an actor feel secure in that I love what they're doing, even when they're screwing up. It's part of the process and it's okay. They'll feel safe enough to take chances. I really believe that casting is the most important thing. Sometimes an actor feels like they have to really show me how good they are and I have to say, "I cast you for how you act. You just have to say the words the way you would say them, or how this character would say them. You don't have to put on a show." I think that calms an actor. That's important.
Q: A lot of the media have described Catherine Keener as your muse. Is that just a convenient term or an accurate description?
NH: I would never call her my muse or alter ego. But she has certainly played me or parts of me many times. I just see her as a great actress who gets me and the material. And I can get her to be in my movies. Sometimes she does inspire me. I do picture her in my head at times saying things I am writing, and I can imagine how well she'll do it and I think that raises the quality of my work.
Q: What do you think Catherine brings to a role in your movies?
NH: She's really subtle, and I really love that. You can read so much in her eyes and her body and it's interesting how her face really changes when she looks sad and frumpy. It's such a huge change to looking beautiful and lit up. There's really no gray area there. She's really intelligent and her kindness shows through. She had to do so little in the movie that I think she was afraid she was boring.
Q: Does Catherine Keener have similarities to Kate?
NH: No. It's all made up.
Q: All the actors seemed to feed off one another. You probably didn't have to do very much with Oliver Platt because he always brings so much character to the screen. Did you just go with it?
NH: His jovial open quality is so great and made Alex accessible and likeable. But he had to be reined in. He could just go off all day. "Let's try this, then I'll say this, then we can do this." That was great, but he listened to me when I said shut up. We hadn't even done a scene yet and he'd come to the set and say, "I have a new idea." And I'd say, "No!" His ideas were always great and a lot of his improv is still in the movie. He made his character better.
Q: Amanda Peete says in the press notes that her character is the closest you've come to writing a villain. I didn't see her as a villain but as someone cold and brutally honest. So do you agree with her statement or is she who she is just to survive?
NH: She is a broader villain in a sense, compared to my other characters. But villains are people, too. She is a villain and human. She's really angry and what she does to Abby by telling her that her dad had come to her for a facial, even if it was a subtle hint, was pretty bad. But she is clearly so damaged and unhappy that we feel bad for her.
Q: Most films don't have realistic portrayals of teenagers. So can you about creating Abby and the mother-daughter relationship of Kate and Abby and say how important it was for you to put some realism in?
NH: I didn't really know what Abby was going to be like. She got the zits early on in the script, and I had terrible zits when I was a teenager and really wanted to be seen for who I was, zits and all. That's where that came from, me relating to her. That experience has definitely informed who I am as a person. Otherwise, I didn't set out to make her realistic as opposed to not realistic. I was writing from my memory and what I imagine people to be and then I cast a good actor and it works.
Q: Rebecca and her new boyfriend go on their first date with their grandmother. Did you have a similar experience?
NH: A double date with my grandmother? No. It's weird, right? When you put a lot of characters together, stuff happens that might not happen in real life. I just that their first date wouldn't be as interesting without grandma.
DP: There is a lot about aging in this film and people being closer to death. Could you have written the same script ten or fifteen years ago?
NH: Probably not. I've always been precocious about that and even as a kid I really understood that I was going to be old one day. Whereas most kids don't. So this script is from my own personal experience and having my granny die and cleaning out her apartment and seeing the items that were left and think about the value they had to her and me. I don't have the answers but all that was so rich for me and that's why I don't think I could have done this if I was younger.
Q: As a director, what has gotten easier or harder for you?
NH: Everything has gotten easier in a way. I have more confidence. When I was writing my first and second scripts and they got made, I wasn't sure if they were any good. I'm never sure but I figured out a way that works for me and don't question myself as much. And on set I am more sure about what I'm doing and can convince others, somehow, that I know what I'm doing.
Q: Are you more in control being the writer as well as the director?
NH: It's great having that control but it's also terrifying. I can't lean on someone else and say, "This scene isn't working, can you rewrite it?" I am the one who has to rewrite it. So it's a blessing and a curse. Mostly it's a blessing. I know what the scene is about and I know how it should sound and if an actor asks me a question I don't have to turn to anybody else. There's a lot on my shoulders and somehow that's how I like it. It creative and invigorating.

Q: People say writing is a great profession but also one of the loneliest. What do you consider the greatest aspects of writing a script?
NH: I don't feel lonely when I'm writing a script. Maybe it's because it's short term and I know I'm going to, hopefully, direct it. But I don't hunker down and hide for days. I work for a few hours a day and that's it. You know I'm in my bed or in a cafe and I'm writing my own silly stories. It seems like the best job in the world.
Q: New York city is a character in your film. When you were writing were you thinking of particular locations?
NH: As a New Yorker, you don't look around you, you're just going to your next destination. I wanted it to feel that way, to be from a New Yorker's point of view. I would have liked to have had more exterior shots or better locations, and driving upstate. But we couldn't afford it. The shoot was too quick. It's funny when people says how great New York looks in the film because we were barely outside. You barely seem the city.
DP: Talk about the title. It seems like a very short title for a film that is about a lot of things.
NH: I had the hardest time thinking of a title and this is the one lasted. I didn't really like the title but I couldn't think of anything better.
DP: How about Please Give Me Something Else?
NH: Please Give Me a Better Title!

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