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Curled on a sofa in a West End hotel suite, Nicole Holofcener doesn’t appear the sort of person who makes others uncomfortable. A compact woman who looks (and even sounds) a bit like Holly Hunter, the 46-year-old writer-director is gracious and easygoing. But, she warns with a giggle, “I’ve been called a blurter.”
Holofcener is explaining how she came to make a movie with a faintly indiscreet title, Friends With Money. “I’ve said to my friends, ‘What do you make?’ I said to my girlfriend the other day, who is redecorating her apartment, ‘How much was that rug?’ And I could see her tense up. I know that it cost a lot of money, and she was embarrassed to tell me how much she spent on it. I said, ‘I’m not judging you. I just wanted to know if I could get a rug like that.’
“What inspired me to write about money was people’s embarrassment about it,” she adds. “I like to say how things are. And I know there’s a lot of shame and embarrassment about money. What a good topic to write about people! We’re all so fucked up about money. I could write a movie about sex in the same way. We’re all so fucked up about sex. We’re all so fucked up about our parents. We’re all so fucked up about our bodies, which is what my last movie tackled. And I’m the first to say I’m fucked up about all these things, just like everybody else. So it comes from a personal place, and it’s inspiring to me.”
Although she’s also directed episodes of Sex and the City, Six Feet Under, and other TV shows, Holofcener has made only two films since her feature debut, 1996’s Walking and Talking. All three movies stem from personal experience. And all three star Catherine Keener, who seems to embody the director’s viewpoint.
That’s true “to some degree,” Holofcener acknowledges. “In Walking and Talking, absolutely. She played me. A fictionalized version of me, but me. In Lovely and Amazing, she didn’t play a ‘me’ character. And in this one, I’m kind of a combination of all the characters in the movie. But she does really speak to me and inspire me. She’s kind of an alter ego.”
In the new film, Keener plays Christine, a screenwriter who collaborates with her husband. The other three central characters are super-rich housewife Franny (Joan Cusack), disaffected fashion designer Jane (Frances McDormand), and Olivia (Jennifer Aniston), who has recently quit teaching school and become a house cleaner. Each of the women has a significant other who is more significant—or at least more prominent—than the men in previous Holofcener films.
Combined with that fact and Aniston’s presence, the title of Friends With Money would seem to invoke one of TV’s most successful ensemble comedies. “The title came long before Rachel Green was a character in the movie,” the director declares. “And when I did put Jen in the movie, I thought, Oh shit, I wish it didn’t have ‘Friends’ in the title. Because people are gonna ask me that question!” Holofcener doesn’t think that her television work has influenced her film scripts. “The ensemble thing is just what I chose to write about naturally,” she says. “I’m interested in creating a world—a whole bunch of people.”
A little younger and a lot poorer than her peers, Aniston’s Olivia is the odd woman out—so much so that some critics have complained that her relationship with the other women is implausible. “But, you know, I imagine that the broke girl is really educated,” Holofcener responds. “She could even have come from money. I feel like they all are from the same class. She didn’t grow up in a trailer park. That’s not where her problems stem from.”
As for the expanded role of the husbands (played by Simon McBurney, Jason Isaacs, and Greg Germann), the director says, “It’s not on purpose. I’m not thinking, Oh, I gotta get some guys in this movie [and] broaden my audience. I guess if I’m going to write about people’s marriages, you got to put men in it. Right? I wanted to write about relationships.”
Even though it features Holofcener’s most complicated scenario to date, Friends With Money runs about 90 minutes, just like her previous films. “It’s the length I can’t seem to get away from,” she says. “I actually would like a longer film. I think it would make seem more…filmmaker-y. If I had a two-and-half-hour movie—” she shifts into an deep-voiced European accent—”‘I must include all of my footage!’ But I don’t have any more footage to include.”
Then Holofcener blurts: “Did you hate this movie?”
A few reassurances later, the director is explaining how she devised the film’s ending, whose treatment of the sudden attainment of wealth suggests a Victorian novel. “I wasn’t planning it. I don’t plot out. I just go along with it,” she says. “I felt the desire to have a fairy-tale ending. It just felt ironic and perfect. I felt that…people could just get a break. That they don’t always have to work so hard to get a break. Just like the rich couple are the happiest. Why can’t they be the happiest?”
Before moving to Los Angeles, where she’s now anchored by twin 8-year-old boys, Holofcener spent much of her life in New York. She studied film at NYU and Columbia, where, she recalls, she was taught to assemble a script on index cards. “I used to do that,” she says. “It’s a good time-waster. Play with index cards all day. Color-code them. Tomorrow I’m doing my cards! It was just bullshit.”
These days, she simply begins with “some characters that I like. I found a piece of paper recently, of what I started with for this movie. It was fun to find, because I always forget how it evolved. It said, ‘friends with money’—not as a title. ‘They go out to dinner. Who picks up the check? Who orders what? They talk about how they spend their money. And then they get in their cars and they all talk about each other.’ And that was the first note I took about this.”
Though Holofcener’s scripts evolve organically, her movies can’t be filmed that way. It’s just too difficult to assemble all of the actors for an entire shoot—even one that, like Friends With Money’s, lasts only 24 days.
Shooting in sequence “would be ideal,” says the director. “But it’s completely unrealistic. Unless you have a lot of money and actors available for the whole length of the shoot. It’s like, if I have Frances McDormand for two weeks, I’d better hurry up and shoot her stuff.”
Although Friends With Money’s intercutting suggests a tight connection between its seven major characters, there are only a few moments in which they’re all on screen. “Just getting them together for those scenes was so tricky,” Holofcener says. “Frances lives in New York. Joan lives in Chicago. Jen is Jennifer Aniston. Simon McBurney was working on a play in England—literally, he flew five times. It was a scheduling feat.”
Holofcener clearly loves actors, provided they’re the kind who are willing to appear unglamorous onscreen. This movie’s four main actresses were required to use minimal makeup, and McDormand appears in much of the film with dirty hair, a reflection of her character’s deep funk over the selfishness and arrogance of contemporary Americans.
“I’m self-absorbed,” the director concedes. “Things are about me and my world. I don’t try to fight it. I’m in the movie business. I’m friends with actors. So in Lovely and Amazing, making Emily Mortimer an actress with those issues was just ideal. Making Christine and her husband screenwriters—I didn’t really think, Oh, I’m tackling the movie business here. Because I’m not. They could be veterinarians, really. That just came to me, felt right to me.”
But if they were veterinarians, she adds, they wouldn’t have the money to build an obnoxiously large addition to their house, a plot point that expresses both the couple’s self-absorption and one of Holofcener’s pet peeves. “I hate those people,” she says, laughing.
“Those motherfuckers! They build those disgusting houses right up to the sidewalk as if nobody else exists! This is my tirade. If I’ve convinced one of those people to halt production or actually question their motives for blocking somebody else’s beautiful view, then I’ve done my job. I’m Jane, right? I’m that character. ‘Stop building those fucking big houses!’” She guffaws.
A publicist enters the room and ends the interview, but Holofcener has one more thing to say, under her breath: “Fucking big houses,” she whispers. —Mark Jenkins