Sunday, July 15, 2012

Reunion in "Union Square"

Playing in Theaters

Reunion in "Union Square"

(from 7/12/12)
unionsquaresavocaphoto.jpg Nancy Savoca photo by DP
After she burst onto the scene with two of my personal favorite films of the last twenty-five years, True Love (1989) and Dogfight (1991), I called Nancy Savoca "one of America's most exciting and original directors." She went on to direct the much praised Household Saints and seminal three-part HBO abortion-rights film, If These Walls Could Talk, but Savoca hasn't made enough films for someone so talented. That's why it's an exciting occasion that she has a new indie film that will be released this Friday, at the Angelika in New York City. Although made on a shoestring budget, Union Square has played at prestigious film festivals and received good word-of mouth, including from star Mira Sorvino, who says her character Lucy is the juiciest part of her career. Savoca herself believes some viewers will be too impatient to get past Lucy's early histrionics, but there's no doubt that many people will relate to this film about two estranged sisters--the highstrung Lucy, who is having a meltdown when her married lover won't see her, and the uptight Jenny (dark-haired Tammy Blanchard), who hasn't told her fiance Bill (Mike Doyle) about her turbulent upbringing in the Bronx, her crazy mother (Patti LuPone), and Lucy's eccentricities--who suddenly find themselves thrust together over the Thanksgiving holidays in Manhattan. I recently interviewed the personable Savoca about her much-anticipated movie and her beguiling characters.
Danny Peary: When someone asks you to describe Union Square in one line, what do you say?
Nancy Savoca: When I did True Love, John Sayles advised me that when I did interviews I should make sure to have that one line ready. For True Love I had it, but every time I did an interview I changed it, so I didn't have it at all. We don't really have a tag line for Union Square but in our press notes it says, "the reluctant reunion of two sisters." I think "reluctant reunion" is a good description.
DP: And if people as you why you made Union Square?
NS: It's the same. Every day I have a different reason.
DP: Rachel Getting Married was made several years ago but still is popular, Your Sister's Sister is now in theaters, and Caroline and Jackie just played at the Tribeca Film Festival--that one is also about troubled, secretive sisters who were raised by bad parents and who push each other away but are drawn to each other.
NS (laughing): My movie is part of "the sisters-wave."
DP: Do you have sisters?
NS: I have two sisters but I get along really well with them. They were already teenagers when I was born and they were both married by the time I was seven. So this movie wasn't based on my relationship with them but on a combination of other things. But siblings are interesting to do.
DP: As someone says in the movie, blood is thicker than water.
NS: You stayed till the end to catch that. Not everyone stays that long!
DP: I feel badly if people are walking out of your movie.
NS: I'm only guessing that not everybody sticks to the very end. It's a hard movie.
DP: In my 1993 book Alternate Oscars, in my essay about Lili Taylor deserving a Best Actress Oscar for Dogfight, I wrote that you "proved yourself to be one of America's few directors who makes films about characters, male and female, for whom she has a true affection." In Union Square, Lucy and Jenny aren't 100% likable, but I imagine you have a lot of affection for them.
NS: I always like my characters and want to spend time with them. I end up living with these people, and I guess there's a reason I myself want to take a look at them. Since I was a kid I've lived in a world that is very ambiguous. Morality was ambiguous and people's behavior was ambiguous. I couldn't help but see that there are all kinds of possibilities in the same person. So I get frustrated if people are painted in just one way, simplistically. It's always a challenge to see beyond the first impression. What else is going on? I had a lot of fun with Mary Tobler, my cowriter on this, digging deeper into the characters as the film moves along. In the opening scene, Lucy is on the cellphone in Filene's Basement on Union Square and having a meltdown. I saw a version of that actually happen. I thought it would be interesting to begin with that. Here's a kook on the street, but what if we don't walk away from her but find out what's really going on?
DP: That's like a writing exercise in film school. You see a character who is having a meltdown and is not at all endearing and then you write something that explains how she got to that point and/or what happens later. And you may see the character in a different light.
NS: In a way this film was an exercise. It was about trying to go beyond our parameters. We started out with our coproducer Neda Armian saying, "Use my apartment to shoot something." We didn't have money or time to do location changes, even with a small crew. We said, "We have only one space to shoot in. What can happen with two characters in a room that won't bore people to tears?" We had the one indoor location and we decided to venture outside a little bit to get some air, but we even did that in the neighborhood, around Union Square. We tried to make it in ten days but went two days over budget.
DP: Did you consider having a low budget a good thing because it challenged you or a bad thing?
NS: It was a very bad thing. It's like someone saying, "Oh, I love being poor." No one wants to go out with a low budget because you know what's going to come. 
DP: But wasn't the guerilla filmmaking aspect exciting?
NS: That was the good thing. The first impression is horror,but then you get kind of excited because for the first time in a while you aren't running around and chasing money, which is a huge early part of every movie. So it was exciting just to say, "We're really going to make this movie." We didn't even have to get well-known actors, although we thought that would be nice. As a matter of fact, we had a conversation about getting theater actors. But my main choices were always Mira Sorvino and Tammy Blanchard.
DP: Having only one indoor location, how could you prevent your film from being "theater" rather and a movie?
NS: It was hard. But I played with the idea of doing a homage to reality TV, which I think is very funny. The beginning of the movie feels like a reality television show. My DP and the other camera operator have worked on reality television. I told them, "Listen, our actors are going to come in and tear up the place and we're going to follow them."
DP: Did you have a few weeks of rehearsal?
NS: No, I wish we did. We had only one week, and that was with everyone, not just the scenes with Mira and Tammy. I would have liked more time alone with them because they were coming from different places. Mike Doyle, who plays Tammy's fiance Bill, said that was the most rehearsal time he ever had. He was thrilled! It was so intense. That week of rehearsal was just getting everyone on the same track. Once we were on set, everyone just took off as if they were horses at the gate.
DP: Once you started shooting, how similar were the various takes you did of scenes?
NS: Depending on the scenes, sometimes they were wildly different. The first day of shooting was Mira in the street. On day two, Mira charges into Jenny's apartment, a surprise visit. That was the first day of shooting them together, Mira and Tammy were trying all kinds of things. Tammy was the receptor and everything Mira did differently would make her react differently. What I loved was that Mira is like the Jenny character, and Tammy is more like Lucy. Tammy is a Jersey girl from Bayonne who is incredibly intuitive and Mira is a supersmart, Cantonese-speaking, East-Asian Studies major from Harvard. They couldn't be more different. Mira, like Jenny, would eat the curry tofu Jenny and Bill make in a flash whereas Tammy would want a burger.
DP: Why did you cast it that way then?
NS: I could see their potential for what they could do with the characters. Sometimes you don't have to be exactly what you're performing and being removed is beneficial as long as there is an understanding of the character.
DP: In the press notes, it is pointed out that Lucy and Jenny are very different, which is true, but as the film progresses we see there are moments when they are the same. I'd think you were going for that.
NS: We didn't articulate everything as we made the film, but certainly that happens in the story and script, and it truly happened on the set. That was very cool. Because we didn't have money or time, I worried about getting the performances that I needed. There was a story but if the performances didn't work and there was no nuance, the story wasn't going to hold up. I was very worried, but then my assistant director showed me a schedule for the shoot and I noticed that the scene numbers were going in chronological order, which rarely happens. We filmed almost all of it chronologically, which was huge. Because we did it chronologically, the change you see in the characters was happening with the actors in their performances. I'm not sure we would have seen the change if we hadn't shot in order. They were always able to understand what happened in the previous scene. On typical shoots, you might film the previous scene the following week and the actors have to pretend they know what took place.
DP: Did you do all of Mira Sorvino's outdoor scenes around Union Square at the same time?
NS: Yes, on day one. At Filene's and the Farmer's Market, it was her alone having a near breakdown. The scene when the sisters go shopping was days later.
DP: In the press notes, Mira Sorvino says she was afraid that Lucy's mood swings and histrionics at the beginning of the film might turn off the audience.
NS: I didn't have the same concern. Every time we'd come up with a new idea for Lucy, we'd say, "That would be really awful of her, let's run with it. What could make it worse? Okay, let's write that." When I think of independent films, I don't think they're about cheap filmmaking--I'm tired of hearing that definition--but about challenges. People who go to independent films want to actively participate in some way, more than with a big studio film that is supposed to satisfy all their needs and expectations. So the hope is that this movie challenges and engages them in a conversation. In this particular case the conversation might be about how there is the surface image of things and how you find out a little bit more and then a little bit more. You learn a little about Lucy at the beginning--and now do you want to hang on and learn a little more? To be honest, some people don't. Some people will watch the first twenty minutes of this movie and say, "I'm leaving." Lucy wears on you.
DP: And if you saw Lucy coming down an escalator and screaming into the phone, you are unlikely to invite her over for dinner.
NS (laughing): But what happens when that person is your sibling? That's the problem Jenny has. Lucy is her sister. But you're right. If we don't have a connection to someone like Lucy we will avoid this drama because we don't need it and aren't invested in it. From an audience's point of view, this movie is about hanging in there to see what else there is and where that drama comes from. The question becomes: who will want to do that? Who will think hanging around is worth it because the information that comes along may relate to them in some way? Like with any of these characters--who are we? People always take things too literally when they see a film like this. They'll ask me, "Which sister are you?" I'm not either sister. I appreciate both their sides, I understand both their sides. For me, in the end it's less about judging whether what they do is right or wrong--although some people do judge--than about empathizing. Not sympathizing. Is Lucy or anyone else a likable character? I don't care. But I hope you empathize with them. In Hollywood they say we have to sympathize with characters but I don't agree with that. Then you make them bigger and better and heroic and then I personally can't relate to them anymore because I feel they're better than I am.
DP: But would you tell Mira Sorvino and Tammy Blanchard that you didn't really care if people like Lucy and Jenny?
NS: No, no. They were taking care of their characters in the way I was taking care of the movie. I'd always say to them, "Just focus on being honest. If you're honest with that character, you're respecting her. Whether your character is doing something that is right or wrong, you need to justify it." That's what we do when we make mistakes in life, we justify them.
DP: Is it rationalize or justify?
NS: It could be rationalize or it could be justify on an emotional level, like when Lucy yells, "You left me to take care of mom by myself, that's why I'm crazy!" That's an emotional justification.
DP: So you're unconcerned that Lucy and Jenny are not completely likable. Do you agree that nobody is going to fall in love with them?
NS: I don't know if you'll fall in love with them, but you might identify with them. People have come up to me after screenings and said, "My sister did that to me, too, and blah, blah, blah." I'm open to whatever the reaction is. This is a very interactive movie!
DP: I'm not sure if your intentions were different when you made Dogfight, but I do think people fall in love with Lili Taylor.
NS: Shouldn't Lili Taylor be considered one of our greatest actresses? She has a nonverbal quality and does things that have nothing to do with what's on paper. Her performance in Dogfight is unbelievable. But I have mixed feelings about her character. I had issues with her because she's way too innocent and she holds on to that too much. She's only twenty and she can so embrace the world but then at the end when she goes to hug the returning vet, she doesn't push him away but she doesn't quite know what to do with him.
DP: I think the hug is exactly what he needs.
NS: I agree, although the studio didn't. But I think the hug reveals that she's not together at all. Here's this guy who's coming back to fall apart in her arms and if you look at her face you see that she's not together either.
DP: Well, I think that there's a lot of things that she can't say at that moment but she knows the important thing is to just give him her body to hold and make him feel he's come home.
NS: I love that people come away with different points of view!
DP: You spoke about viewers learning more about the characters in Union Square as the movie goes along. Did you learn about the characters you had written?
NS: Absolutely. We prepare and do everything we can but in the end you hope there will be surprises. One of the fun parts of directing is when accidents happen. You hope they don't go how you planned it in a good way.
unionsquaresistersoncouch.jpg Tammy Blanchard (L) and Mira Sorvino
DP: Do you like when at some point your actors get to know their characters more than you do?
NS: I hope for that. It should happen. They're going to get possessed. The movie itself possesses me. I need for that to happen to them for me to do what I need to do. I hand over my characters.
DP: Did that happen on this film?
NS: Oh, my god, yes. It was uncomfortable. Tammy could barely talk because she was having such a hard time during those twelve days of shooting. She was wiped out and almost in tears every night.
DP: I would have thought that Mira Sorvino was playing the emotionally-draining sister, so why did Tammy Blanchard react that way?
NS: Because she was receiving so much. It was like she was being struck by a laser.
DP: Was she feeling her character's guilt?
NS: I'm sure there was guilt, but the real reason was that Tammy is a party girl and she said, "Being this uptight kills me." It was hard for her to keep her emotions under wraps because she's not like that at all. She's very emotional, but she was playing someone who is very emotional but keeps a lid on it.
DP: What do you think the relationship between Lucy and Jenny was like when they were teenagers? Was their always friction?
NS: They were probably always beating each other up. It feels like there was friction. There are moments in the Thanksgiving dinner scene where you see there is a connection between them due to their shared experience. Whether you get along with your sibling or not, that shared experience has an impact on you.
DP: They are the only ones in the world raised by that mother. Do you think they used to hug each other?
NS: Lucy goes around hugging people. I think she always wanted to hug Jenny, but I believe that when Jenny was about thirteen she started pushing Lucy away when she tried to hug her. I think she started to build a wall.
DP: Later on we see a home movie that Lucy took of her mother, played by Patti LuPone, before she died and Lucy seems almost stable. But when we first see Lucy not long after she's having a breakdown.
NS: That's her release. She had to keep it together taking care of a mother who was unstable. Lucy stayed connected to her mother and was her caregiver, but Jenny saw the drama and bailed as soon as she could. It always amazes me that there can be siblings who grew up at the same time with the same parents and in the same house and they have a completely different stories about what it was like. And I think we have that here.
DP: In regard to Lucy, did you ever use the term bi-polar?
NS: Yes, often. That was one of the things that was interesting to me when we were writing the script. Usually I do research and then write the script, but on this we wrote the script and then I did research, including watching a beautiful documentary by Stephen Frye about being bi polar [The Secret Life of a Manic Depressive]. And I interviewed psychologists about its symptoms, and I was glad that our script seemed to already have a lot of what they said.
DP: Bi-polar usually manifests itself with extreme mood swings, so maybe Lucy, who seems to lead two lives, is schizophrenic?
NS: I love psychology and minored in it in college, and I love labels, but I think we're unsure about all of them. Today it's called bi-polar but a few years ago it was manic depressive and a few years before that it might have been hysteria. We keep changing the labels because how we analyze it keeps evolving. Having grown up with a lot of people who were eccentric, who don't fit the norm, I don't know what to call it anymore. I do like that bi-polar label because it set me off to do research, but I don't stand by any of those labels.
DP: I think there's a greatness in Lucy. She has a great kid, she took care of her mom.
NS: She's very loyal. She's very loyal to her sister.
DP: Where does her hurt come from?
NS: I think in part from how she was raised. It's so individual to her personality. Jenny hides her hurt, Lucy wears it on her sleeve.
DP: It seems that their mother, who has dementia, gave all the credit not to the daughter who took care of her, Lucy, but to the one who wasn't there, Jenny.
NS: That happens. The prodigal child, the missing child, the one who is away is the one who captures the imagination of the parent.
DP: We get only a glimpse of their mother, in the video, and she didn't seem particularly troubled.
NS: She was suicidal. I didn't want reveal too much information about the mother because I think movies that explain everything simplify things too much. I think why people are how they are is mysterious. Suicidal thoughts run in the family so why is it that Lucy got them and Jenny didn't? That's something I don't pretend to understand. When I look at the mother, I don't know how she got to be the way that she was.
DP: And that's fine with you?
NS: It's fine because I feel that way in my life. I don't understand how people end up with their personalities or flaws or destructive qualities. And maybe we can empathize.
DP: Why does Lucy wait until now to visit Jenny?
NS: It was only a few weeks. Everything happened at Halloween and now it's Thanksgiving, which is only a few weeks later. Jenny doesn't know that her mother died. There was a phone call that she may or may not have received. For me, it's Lucy coming out from under the debris of everything that's happened. Look at her: She's all dolled up and ready to take on life again in a way that's totally absurd.
DP: It seems to me that Jenny secretly wants this disruption to her life that Lucy brings.
NS: It's like a bank robber who wants to be caught and goes around telling everybody what he did. There's a lot of pressure on her hiding her past and she's going to do things to trip herself up. She invites chaos to come into her life so she can come clean. She does open that door and let Lucy in. She could have pretended to not be home. Then we'd have no movie.
unionsquaresistersontown.jpg Blanchard and Sorvino
DP: There is no reason to send Lucy away. Lucy had never done anything terrible to her.
NS: But Lucy tells Bill all this stuff that makes it clear that Jenny hasn't been honest with him. Lucy is very intuitive and knows she's opening up a door that Jenny wanted closed.
DP: When you wrote the script, did you laugh when you not only had Lucy manipulate Jenny into letting her stay the night but also invite her equally loud friend, played by Daphne Rubin-Vega, over to her sister's apartment?
NS: Oh, yeah. Mary said, "You know what? She's got to start inviting people over."
DP: What does Lucy get from Jenny?
NS: That's the sibling relationship. Jenny is the only person who can understand what she has been through. Her relationship with Jenny helps her figure out what happened that brought her to this point.
DP: How beneficial is it to Jenny that Lucy does come back into her life?
NS: It's like Lucy detonating a bomb and there goes the life Jenny built. You can look at it as beneficial or the opposite.
DP: Well, what comes out is that Jenny's husband Bill is a good guy. To him, it doesn't matter what is revealed about Jenny's past.
NS: Well, I have mixed feelings about that. I think we see that he didn't push to find out more about Jenny. I know that this happens in relationships and if someone is reluctant to talk about something, you don't push them. Jenny and Bill agreed that not talking too much about where she came from is okay.
DP: There seems to be something strange about his family, too.
NS: It's interesting that you say that. All I know is that they seem to be very much in touch with each other and are very connected as a tribe, while Lucy and Jenny's tribe is splintered.
DP: For us male viewers, Bill is us watching these sisters.
NS: These two crazy chicks.
DP: It shows his character in that he's not turned off by them.
NS: Which I really appreciate. Maybe he came from a big family with sisters and realizes that if sisters are emotional with each other it is healthier than if they aren't. He doesn't run away from it, he kind of rolls with it. If he'd reacted differently it would have complicated things; in this way, the conflict is only between the sisters.
unionsquaretammymike.jpg Tammy Blanchard and Mike Doyle
DP: Why did you give Bill his profession, working with organic foods?
NS: That was because Mary had worked on some web sites that did that. But I really love it because it goes with the whole idea of Jenny [changing her life]. It's great when you have a turkey made out of red pepper and hummus--that was a recipe I found online. I googled it. I sometimes laugh about it, but I'll eat organic food. The L.A. Weekly once had this great headline that was something like: YOU-- NO MATTER HOW MUCH YOU EXERCISE, NO MATTER HOW MUCH ORGANIC FOOD YOU EAT, NO MATTER HOW WELL YOU TAKE CARE OF YOUR HEALTH--ARE GOING TO DIE. So it can be fear-based. The movie isn't about Bill, but I think he's very controlled. He likes things that are very safe and healthy; it's all good and measured, all the things that life is not. That's where the organic food thing comes in--it's hopeful! If you eat all organic, will you live longer? I love it when Mike Doyle's character and Michael Rispoli's character talk about raw food over dinner. That's my favorite conversation. I adore Michael; only he could have played Nick.
DP: Nick turns up out of nowhere.
NS (laughing): I know!
DP: Before then we think the only male Lucy is interested in is the married Jay. What if there were no Jay? Would the film be different?
NS: I think Jay is just a part of where Lucy is at the moment, part of her meltdown and how life isn't how it was. Growing up, Lucy was probably a popular girl in her neighborhood. She was not able to mature because she stayed there and took care of her mother. Now she's no longer in the caregiver role and she's gone out to have relationships, which is a problem because she already has one. So there's something very adolescent about her now.
DP: Well, she's self-destructive.
NS: Yes...
DP: And the hope is that she can replace her mother and replace Jay and develop positive relationships with the people who are there for her.
NS: I hope that, too. As with the endings of True Love and Dogfight, you can hope that things go well with the characters. For me, all these characters are at the brink of something else. They've finished something and now there's something else because for me everything is always in movement.
DP: I believe your films deal with conflict in different ways than other films. There's not simply the good against the bad. What do you see as conflict that you want to put into your movies.
NS: That's interesting. I see conflict everywhere even in a good situation.
DP: This movie is a situation.
NS: Right. In situations, I think everything is in constant motion and doesn't stay still long enough to be good or bad. It just keeps moving on to something else. Moment by moment, there are new conflicts. In that it is mimicking life. You can't say this to a studio, which is why I can't pitch a film to save my life. I was watching Minnie and Moskovitz again, and that's New York in the seventies when garbage literally flew in your face when you walked down the street. And John Cassavetes was very interested in watching these humans behave with each other. Human behavior interests me and my films begin with behavior. Who do we want to watch behave next? It is satisfying to work with all this complicated stuff that touches us in different ways and to put it up on the screen so we can all look at it.
DP: Talk about your soundtrack, which I like.
NS: We have fun music. Lisa Lisa is Lucy's ringtone, very '80s retro disco. We have the Italian version of Edie Gorme's "Blame It on the Bosa Nova." Like Connie Francis would sing the "Greatest Jewish Hits," Edie Gorme and others would do different versions of songs and I grew up with that because of my family of immigrants. Edie also has a Spanish version. I think the song fits. It's so random why people are who they are, so you may as well blame it on the bosa nova.
DP: You end with one of the great songs ever, Warren Zevon's "Keep Me in Your Heart for a While," sung by Madeleine Peyroux.
NS: It's a beautiful song and Madeleine Peyroux is amazing. I was a big fan of hers and thought her voice was what we needed to hear at the end. We sent her an email and asked her to sing the end song. At the time we didn't know what song it would be so I gave her a CD of songs that I thought might work and she picked it. Before we had a song, we were showing the film and it was very upsetting to people. We had them on a roller coaster and we needed to get them off it with the right song. I was so grateful when Madeline said yes and recorded it. It helps to sit through the song at the end. I got chastised for the ending to True Love because there is no resolution. I was told it wasn't fair for me to do that to an audience. The man who told me this said that afterward he and wife spent an entire weekend talking about it. And I said, "If you spent an entire weekend talking about it, it's not a terrible thing." As I said, it's interactive: where my story ends is where you can begin your own story. You can use the movie as a tool; I use certain movies as tools and they are very helpful psychologically.
DP: With True Love, we watch the whole movie wanting and expecting the engaged Italian couple from the Bronx, played by Annabella Sciorra and Ron Eldard, to come together because we like their characters.
NS: But look at the end of The Graduate.
DP: I don't think anyone will have a problem with where Union Square ends. But were you tempted to keep writing past the what is now the end?
NS: Directors are seen as generals leading the army and I probably am like that on some level but as a storyteller I feel my job is to keep my ear to the ground to understand what my movie needs. On Union Square, we shot a scene in the park with the two sisters on a bench, and even as we shot it I told Mira and Tammy that I didn't know if it was going to work. The movie itself wouldn't allow me to use it. I couldn't do it. The muse dictates and it's got to be what it wants to be.
DP: Was this a happy shoot?
NS: Yes, as troubled as things were, it was exhilarating, kind of guerilla and rambunctious. It was wild.
DP: Did you feel twenty again and starting out?
NS: Yes! Very much so.
DP: And did you say, "I can't believe we did this!"?
NS (laughing): Every day!
DP: And did you say that you could never do it again?
NS: I have three kids and every time I went into labor I'd say I couldn't do it again. It's like that! I'd like to say that I couldn't do it again, but I can't.
DP: Do you have films in your head that will require bigger budgets?
NS: Yes. I have bigger palette stuff. But Union Square wouldn't have worked bigger. It is what it needed to be.
DP: Isn't it strange that a movie that's set in November is coming out in the summer?
NS: That's what I say! I'm worried! It's Thanksgiving in New York and people are wearing coats. I asked if it's a good idea. But it's the way the business works--you take theaters when you can get them. They made me feel better by saying Frozen River and Winter's Bone came out in the summer. I think it's weird, but I hope the audience can forgive us. Maybe there is no one season for family conflicts.

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