Nicole Holofcener on Complex Characters + Fuckable Days

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Standing before the gate of writer/director Nicole Holofcener’s Venice home it strikes me that the house seems plucked from a Nicole Holofcener movie: a classic L.A. single-story, chic but unstudied, high ceilings, lots of light. A dog bounds out of the front door and Holofcener follows. In fact, Holofcener herself looks exactly like a Nicole Holofcener character: loose hair, casual clothes, a little mussed but elegant.

The dog leaps up, tail wagging, and unleashes an intimidating bark. “He’s going to kill you,” she says, deadpan. “Is that okay?”

It’s a perfect line of dialogue — I could’ve lifted it from one of her scripts — and as I steal a moment to scribble it down, it occurs to me that I might not be the only one taking notes.

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Holofcener’s quasi-autobiographical films draw from life; each of the five features that she has both written and directed achieve a kind of realism not often seen in cinema. Her characters are complex and fully realized, funny and flawed female protagonists whose narratives trace subtle, true-to-life, tragicomic arcs. (“I’m more intrigued and invested in the small changes, because they feel real,” she says.) As an auteur, her work is perhaps most notable for how instantly relatable these characters are, a quality that has not gone unnoticed by critics — or television execs. Since her debut feature, Walking and Talking, smart, character-driven T.V. has kept her busy between feature film projects. “I don’t think it even occurred to me,” she says of working in television. But “the creators of Sex and the City saw Walking and Talking and had me come in and hired me to direct.”

That first feature, which took six years to make, positioned Holofcener as an artist with a distinct voice, but as more women’s stories have made their way into television, her talent for nuanced, female-led comedy has become less of a niche than an asset. (If you are a Lena Dunham fan and have not seen Holofcener’s second film, Lovely and Amazing, in particular, I highly suggest that you look it up.) Since Sex and the City, she has directed episodes of Togetherness, Parks and Recreation, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, and Orange is the New Black, among others. In 2015 she directed Julia Louis-Dreyfus, the lead actress from her most recent feature Enough Said, in the Inside Amy Schumer sketch “Last Fuckable Day.

“I’d direct a sketch on her show if it meant nothing but just had you laughing. But the fact is she does such good, political, and meaningful comedy, which is the best kind.”

It doesn’t surprise me that she admires the depth of Schumer’s comedy. Holofcener’s work as a writer/director often skirts (or pushes past) the boundary of discomfort, residing in that bittersweet, am-I-laughing-or-am-I-crying space where few dare to tread. “Big comedies and big movies tell you how to feel,” she says, which is perhaps why her own features, which favor subtlety and quotidian, believable conflicts, have been relegated to indie cinema. And yet Holofcener’s integrity — her loyalty to her own voice and to what she believes is an honest story — may also be precisely why she’s directing the best shows on television. In other words, shows like Inside Amy Schumer and Togetherness are doing their own version of what Holofcener has always done — and they’re looking to her for literal direction. When I ask how she gets her T.V. gigs, she admits: “Mostly they come to me.”

   “I don’t think it even occurred to me,” she says of working in television. But “the creators of Sex and the City saw Walking and Talking and had me come in and hired me to direct.”

Most recently, Holofcener has directed the pilot and two additional episodes of One Mississippi, a semi-autobiographical dark comedy created by and starring Tig Notaro. She is also writing a new feature script.

“It’s an ensemble,” she says, and then adds, without a hint of irony, “There are a lot of funny women in it.”

I’ll bet.

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