In films like Lovely and Amazing and Please Give, writer-director Nicole Holofcener’s characters talk and talk, taking the temperature of the relationships that both provide them emotional support and serve as yardsticks to measure their personal growth or stagnation. Holofcener’s sly observational humor helps make her dialogue feel like conversations with an old friend—honest, engagingly gossipy, and studded with thought-provoking insights—and ensures that, while bad things may happen to her flawed but well-meaning protagonists, her films never slide into mawkishness.
Her latest, The Land of Steady Habits, is in many ways a typical Holofcener film. Anders (Ben Mendelsohn) is a middle-aged family man who finds himself living alone, trying to construct a new life and mend a frayed relationship with his adult son (Thomas Mann) after leaving his wife (Edie Falco) and retiring from his lifelong career. The film is also a departure for the director: the first of her six features that isn’t based on an original Holofcener script (she adapted the screenplay from Ted Thompson’s novel), the first not to center on female characters, and the first that doesn’t feature Catherine Keener, Holofcener’s fictional alter ego ever since Walking and Talking.
I spoke with Holofcener this week about escaping the “chick flick” ghetto, what Mendelsohn has in common with Keener, and her plea for older actors.
I get the feeling this platinum age of TV has been good for you, since you’ve been tapped to direct a lot of excellent shows, including One Mississippi and Enlightened. Is that your main bread and butter?
Residuals are really great. [laughs] I can say that I’ve been getting paid more money for my films, which is great. But because I make them so infrequently, I can make a good living directing TV shows that I love—and it’s been fun. It’s not just a job, as it helps me learn. I’m always learning, meeting new people.
Have you ever thought about doing a TV series of your own?
I tried. I was paid to develop a show and to write a few scripts. But it didn’t get made, I believe because there was another show about to be on the air that was pretty similar and was very good. And you know what? I’m a little relieved, because I see what showrunners go through and it’s not pretty. I don’t know if I want to work that hard every minute of the day.
I’m wondering if making films is getting easier or harder for you. On the one hand, smart indie relationship films with complicated characters and no guns or chase scenes or big character arcs are getting harder to make. On the other hand, you’re really good at making them and you’ve been doing it for a long time, which should make it easier to get your scripts greenlit.
It’s all about the cast. I believe my screenplays are appreciated. It’s whether I’ll be willing to cast who the studio wants me to cast. Sometimes that works out for both of us, but sometimes it doesn’t. And that’s where Netflix comes in, because they let me cast anyone I wanted. It’s getting harder to make movies that are going to play in movie theaters for more than 10 seconds. Movie theaters are going away, which is sad. As long as I can keep making movies, I’m not going to complain about it. I think. [laughs] I mean, so many things are changing that a person of my age is appalled at, right? This is one of them, that we’re watching movies on television. And that’s what I do too, 99% of the time, so I’m already there. But I hope to continue to make movies that will be theatrically released, if I can.
You’re good at finding humor in relationships, but your films are all dramas with a lot of comedy shot through them rather than the other way around. Have you ever thought about leading with the humor and making a comedy?
I’m glad you said that, because people will refer to my films as comedies, and I’m like, “Really? I thought that was really sad.” I would love to make a comedy. I love big, broad comedies if they’re really well done. I just don’t know if I can write one. Maybe with a partner I could be inspired to write something like that. I’ve been sent few written by others, but I didn’t love them enough. Or I didn’t see their potential, and then they’re on screen and I’m kicking myself.
So you do get asked to direct films written by other people? You haven’t done that yet, have you?
Well, this is the first time.
You didn’t write this one?
I adapted from a book.
True, but you wrote the screenplay.
But it’s a different experience, adapting from a book for sure, somebody else’s story and their hard work. The writer really trusted me and gave me complete freedom, so I had a conflict-free experience, which was nice. And it’s nice not doing the heavy lifting, making everything up.
Did you go through Catherine Keener withdrawal in making it without her?
[chuckles] A little bit. It was weird. You know, it’s funny because Ben Mendelsohn reminds me a lot of Catherine, in his spirit and in the way he works. The way he trusted me was lovely. They’ll both do anything I say. [laughs] They just chose to trust me from the get-go, and that’s a nice feeling. If I don’t know the answer to something, that’s okay, because they trust that I won’t make a fool of them. I can relax. And their spirit is lighthearted. They can play such dark characters, but they don’t go there between takes.
You mean they don’t stay in character?
Yeah, right. They’re people I would like to hang out with. I mean, most of the people in my movies are people I would like to hang out with, but that’s definitely true of them.
I’m a huge Ben Mendelsohn fan, but I haven’t ever seen him play a family man who’s just bumbling his way through life like the rest of us. That reminds me of what you did for James Gandolfini in Enough Said. Are you the patron saint of soulful male actors who have been typecast as bad guys?
[laughs] That’s me. Taking the murderers and turning them into pussies, if I can say that. You know why that happens? It’s because I like casting actors that haven’t done exactly what I’m asking them to do. It’s so much more interesting to find someone who hasn’t done this yet.
It must feel like a real opportunity for them too, right? I imagine Ben Mendelsohn was happy to play such a different kind of character.
Yeah, and Gandolfini, I don’t know if he [Gandolfini] was happy to play a romantic lead. [laughs] He was scared. But he definitely wanted to do it. He wanted to try something new, and he did beautifully.
This is the first time your main character has been a man. Was that part of what attracted you to the story, or was it more that you were interested in other things about the story and just didn’t much care whether the main characters were male or female?
The latter. I just loved the story, and it happened to have a male lead. But I did feel like getting out of the “chick flick” ghetto. I hate that expression, and I don’t make chick flicks. So I was happy to go a little more masculine this time.
Even the main secondary characters were men—Anders’s son and Charlie, another young man he’s close to. I think in all your other movies there are girlfriends or daughters in the secondary roles.
Mm-hmm. Yeah, I was surrounded by a lot of guys. I am at home as well, so I’m used to it. Just my pets are female.
One thing that came through really strongly in this film is how easily the things we count on in life can just fall away. Is that one of the things that drew you to this story?
The parenting stuff really attracted me, and the lost feeling, which I feel sometimes. And Anders’s loneliness really touched me. Everybody’s loneliness touched me. And I guess the conflict challenged me.
Speaking of everyone being lonely, the dialogue in the last scene between Anders and Charlie feels like parallel play. They’re each talking about important stuff, but you’re not sure if either one is listening to the other.
Yes, in fact, I used that expression when we were working on the scene.
What, parallel play?
Yes. They were both in their own worlds, yet somehow they connected in their misery or loneliness. But they’re not really connected at all.
The film also shows how frustrating and scary it is to have an adult child who can’t find his place in the world and is abusing drugs. It was poignant when Charlie says to Anders: “You guys seem to feel like you gotta worry all the time. Like if you don’t worry you’re bad parents or something.” All that worrying may not be helping Charlie, but how can his parents not worry?
Yeah. That line—which was in the book—reminded Anders that he’s talking to a kid. Only a kid would say that. It kind of shakes Anders out of his reverie.
Your films are always about people who are at the same stage of life you’re at when you make them, dealing with things similar to things you’ve gone through. What’s next? Being a grandparent?
Oh God. [laughs] Actually, the thing I’m writing does have to do with a mother and her grandchild who’s about to be born, so I guess so. So self-absorbed! Incredible. [laughs] Then maybe I’ll go full circle and start writing about young people again. I hope so. There’s so many good actors out there, and I want to work with young people as well as older people.
Though there are also a lot of great older actors who need to be casted.
That’s true. As long as they don’t change their faces. That’s getting to be a smaller group, unfortunately. Don’t change your face, actors!