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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Photo: David Livingston/Getty Images. Graphic: Natalie Peeples.

Nicole Holofcener on Ben Mendelsohn, Catherine Keener, and saying “ugh” to superhero films

Photo: David Livingston/Getty Images. Graphic: Natalie Peeples.

Nicole Holofcener first gained attention in 1996 for her powerful comic drama Walking And Talking, a film that also provided one of the first starring roles for her longtime collaborator Catherine Keener. Since then, she’s continued to follow her muse of small, intimate stories about troubled middle- to upper-class white women and the people in their orbits, including Lovely & Amazing, Friends With Money, Please Give, and Enough Said. With her latest, In The Land Of Steady Habits (adapted from the novel of the same name), Holofcener focuses on a man (Ben Mendelsohn) who pulls the ripcord on his career and marriage only to discover the life of an early retirement for a divorcé isn’t as glamorous as he thought. When The A.V. Club caught up with Holofcener, the director was happy to hold court on the darker themes of her work.

The A.V. Club: You’ve adapted books before, but this is the first time you’ve written and directed an adaptation for the screen. Have there been other books and stories through the years that you’ve thought about adapting yourself, or is there something different about this that drew you to it?

Nicole Holofcener: I’ve adapted a couple books but didn’t direct them. Can You Ever Forgive Me? [which stars Melissa McCarthy and comes out in October—ed.]—I adapted that and really loved that book. I get sent books, and I’m always looking for something so that I can avoid writing an original [Laughs.], because it takes me so long, and it’s so much harder. And a book like this one will take me to places that I wouldn’t have gone myself. And that’s what’s nice. This particular book was in my wheelhouse in that it’s about characters and relationships, parenting—all these themes that I’ve covered—but it also had a darkness and a plot that I never would have come up with myself. And I really liked it. So I decided, “Okay, I think I can do this one.”

AVC: In a lot of the reviews and discussions of the film, so much is being made of the fact that you’ve got a film centered around a man for the first time, and even the supporting characters are largely men. But in a recent New Yorker profile, you have a great response where you say, “But Ben is like a woman!”

NH: You know, I meant it. And he did say, thankfully, that that was the best compliment he’d ever received. I just meant it because he’s so emotional and vulnerable and sweet and not macho at all. But I meant it in a nice way. And it’s funny, because he does remind me of Catherine Keener in terms of what I look for in an actor. I feel like he’s kind of a male Catherine Keener.

AVC: He’s so good at leaning into the sadly comical elements of his character, which is something that does feel like it still gets gendered. Like James Gandolfini in Enough Said and Ben in this film, there’s this pitiable vulnerability that we don’t expect as much from men.

NH: It’s so true. And those are the characters that interest me, generally, the ones that are fucked up but have access to their emotions. And both Jim and Ben have very soulful vibes, and that’s also what I like about them.

AVC: Does that mean there’s a sense of a character being relatable that’s important to you? Because that term does often get applied to your work.

NH: I don’t really think about whether a character is relatable. I just think about a character being real. And if a character is real, if we don’t relate to him, we could maybe still identify in some way, or understand him or her. In this particular movie, it was important to me that I cast somebody who is vulnerable and does have emotions readily available because he does such terrible things, such irresponsible things, that he could be [seen as] contemptible. And I’m sure he is for many, many viewers. But ultimately I want us to understand where he was coming from and understand that he is now going to have to live with the shame. And that makes him very human. I mean, everyone’s human, right? Even murderers are humans.

AVC: You say he could be seen as contemptible, and at the same time what kicks it all off is this recognizably human desire to want to be good. He goes into early retirement and quits his job because he feels like he can’t participate in this horribly corrupt system. And that’s something you return to in your work—these people with deep flaws who want to be good. Even if maybe they don’t want it to inconvenience them too much.

NH: [Laughs.] Exactly. They want to be good, but not if… yeah. That was a good question at the start. Now I’m trying to remember what I was going to say. Tell me your first thing again?

AVC: That even though he’s so flawed, everything starts because he’s trying to be better.

NH: He’s a hypocrite. I mean, we all are. And that’s interesting to me, that I can do things and then feel guilty about them, try to do the right thing, but it’s really self-serving. I think that he quits the business because of that, but really it’s because he feels hollow inside. And is that because he was in a greedy job, or was it because he’s bored with himself, or hates himself, or thought it would give him meaning and it doesn’t? People are so complex in that way, and that’s what I wanted this character to express.

AVC: This is always a key moment of human drama, right? Why does this person feel hollow? Or are we always doomed to fail in these efforts to stop feeling hollow in some way?

NH: To some degree, I think so. I think it’s the nature of being alive. I don’t know anybody myself who doesn’t have a hollow, lonely place. Even if they’re happy in their life and fulfilled. I think being alone doesn’t have to be permanent. But we come in alone, and we go out alone. And I think most people grow up with certain expectations of what their life will be like, or what it will be like to be a grownup. And that’s always a shock. It’s never what we expect. It’s really sad.

AVC: Don’t you wish someone had told you when you were younger that once you hit about, oh, your early 20s, your body keeps getting older but you don’t necessarily feel any older mentally?

NH: I remember my grandmother telling me in her 80s, “I feel 40! This is weird.” When I look in the mirror, this is weird. And I actually did always have empathy for old people. I kind of knew this was coming, and yet it doesn’t make it any easier actually. But it’s weird because your childhood is endless, and so you think the rest of your life will feel endless, but it only feels faster as you get older. So anyway, that’s my quote of the day.

AVC: That fundamental gap, between parents and kids, or young and old, comes through often in your films. There’s a scene where Ben’s character is hanging out with a teen and suddenly realizes, “Oh, I’m talking to this teenager. They don’t get it.”

NH: It’s when Charlie [Tahan’s character] says, “Why do grownups have to worry so much?” I remember saying that to my kids. “Stop worrying!” And it’s like, “Oh yeah.” He realizes, “Yeah, they don’t know anything yet. I’d better get you home.”

I think as a parent, I’m always stunned by the mistakes I make. Such ridiculous mistakes. Like, “Why did I say that to my kid?” That’s my kid! I mean you can forget like, “Oh, he’s 21. But he’s a kid and shouldn’t need to know that.” And I actually felt very exposed to more than I wanted to be exposed to as a kid. So I’m generally careful about that, but I just make mistakes left and right because I don’t know what I’m doing. Nobody does. And I like to put that in my movies. Adults don’t know what they’re doing. And that makes them a danger to their kids.

AVC: Your work has grown up with you from the younger women in your early films to now a main character who’s retired, albeit early. But while they’re all still trying to find their place in the world, where the world itself is placing them is clearly now the position of someone older, with more of a reckoning with mortality and age.

NH: It’s literally just narcissism, I assume. The themes that turn me on, make me want to write, are what’s happening to me at the time. So yes, absolutely. I am growing. My characters are growing with me and experiencing what I’m experiencing, at least in general. And hopefully that will get old. I keep waiting for it to get old, and I’ll go back to the beginning or something. Like, people keep telling me, “Write about your childhood or your teenagehood!” And I hope I will, or write about somebody else completely. That would be interesting. That would be a change. But absolutely. I always have written autobiographically and I probably always will.

AVC: Criticism of your films often has this odd class mentality baked in—like, “Oh, another movie about poor rich white people.” But it’s not like Noah Baumbach is getting the same amount of criticism for that. Do you think there’s something to either the gendered nature of your work, or to the specific way that you dig into the embarrassment of upper-class status that invites these class-based criticisms? Because a lot of your characters are so hyper-aware of it, as well.

NH: But doesn’t Noah get shit for that?

AVC: Not as much, or not in the same way, I would argue.

NH: I feel like the people who feel that way are going to feel that way. And the fact that I’m a woman… maybe? I can’t analyze that, really. It’s certainly a sexist business, like many businesses are, and maybe they give me a harder time. Or maybe it’s because my bleeding heart is out there, that they know this is about my own issues with guilt and unhappiness despite the wealth in my life in all areas. I don’t know.

I try not to read those. I think that this particular movie is going to get a lot of that, for sure. Because, right now, you know, every movie deemed important is not written or directed by a Jewish white woman, right? About a rich white man in Westport, Connecticut. But I still like these stories. I still like the people they’re about!

AVC: You’ve said before that even though you enjoy directing for TV, you wouldn’t necessarily want the burden of being a showrunner. When you survey the larger landscape of film and TV, which is largely dominated by genre works these days, whether it’s superheroes or fantasy epics or crime thrillers, how do you see your place in that culture? Do you see Marvel movies and think, “Ugh,” or do you see an ad for one of those and think, “I’d make a Marvel movie!”

NH: I think more “ugh.” I wish I wanted to make a Marvel movie, for obvious reasons. But no, all that action would just put me to sleep because it’s CGI. The small amount of CGI stuff I’ve had to do in my movies is enough. And usually it’s to correct things. I think there’s a real big split, unfortunately, between movies like mine and those, and the middle is actually getting kind of harder. It’s harder to make a movie in the middle. The $15 million movie that stays in a theater for two months is really hard these days. Therefore, we make our movies at places like Netflix, because they’ll do them.

AVC: Yet clearly that doesn’t mean you inherently dislike other genres. I’ve heard you speak about your fondness for big broad comedies, for instance.  

NH: Oh yeah, of course! I like all genres. A good movie’s a good movie. But if it’s, you know, sci-fi, I might be reluctant to see it. And then I see it and I think, “Oh, that was fun.” But I like thrillers. I just don’t like gore. I don’t want to see people’s heads chopped off. I think something like The Hurt Locker, you know, it’s worth it. Or seeing The Deer Hunter, it’s worth it. But there are few and far between.

AVC: So we’re not going to be seeing Nicole Holofcener’s Hostel Part 3 anytime soon?

NH: No, in fact, I’m upset those movies get made. But don’t get me started. I’m a mother. Why put that shit out there? But people love to see it. And, I don’t know, it disturbs me.

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