Nicole Holofcener has learned a few things about Hollywood over the years.
That attending the Oscars is more fun as a guest than a nominee. That when someone just says “congratulations” after a film, they didn’t like it and don’t want to tell you. That getting to work with your idols is one of the best perks of the job. And that your problems don’t go away once you put them on screen. But, even so, it can be ridiculous fun to watch great actors play out your plights.
Since her debut, “Walking and Talking,” Holofcener has time and time again gone back to Catherine Keener, a forever friend and muse to help bring her thoughts to the screen. Then just over a decade ago, Julia Louis-Dreyfus entered her orbit. Like everyone, she knew her as Elaine — almost obsessively so, she said. But when they sat down for dinner, she quickly realized Louis-Dreyfus was nothing like her “Seinfeld” character. Instead, she was more like her.
“She was nice,” Holofcener said. “We talked about the script. We talked about our kids going away to college. We both teared up. I felt like, ‘Wow, I’d be lucky to have this woman play a version of me.’”
The film was “Enough Said,” in which Louis-Dreyfus plays a woman who inadvertently befriends the ex-wife (Keener) of the man she’s dating ( James Gandolfini ). As soon as it was over, they longed to do it again — though 10 years was a little longer than they'd hoped.
For their new film, “You Hurt My Feelings” (in theaters May 26), Holofcener landed on an even stickier scenario: An author overhears her husband saying that he doesn’t like her latest book, sending her into a spiral of doubt about her talent and her relationship.
“I found it to be an utterly captivating notion because it’s like an infidelity, but it’s not an infidelity,” Louis-Dreyfus said. “I was considering how devastating it would be, as an artist myself, if my spouse had been absolutely and totally lying to me about his reaction to whatever I was doing. I would be mortified.”
It’s something Holofcener thinks a lot about in her own relationships. Some years ago, she actually had the experience of dating a man who was crazy about her but didn’t seem to like or get her movies.
“I tried really hard to have that not matter,” she said. “But in the end, it really mattered.”
After watching “Please Give,” her 2010 film about a couple who fill their pricey furniture store with bargain estate sale findings, she remembered the first thing he said was that the old woman was really cranky. She was floored that that was the takeaway.
“My movies are so personal to me,” she said. “I couldn’t understand how someone could get me or get my sense of humor or my values or what’s important to me and not enjoy my films. I still don’t have an answer to that.”
In “You Hurt My Feelings,” Beth (Louis-Dreyfus) is a moderately successful author living in New York City with her husband Don ( Tobias Menzies ), a therapist whose confidence has also been shaken at work, with some memory gaps and unsatisfied patients (Amber Tamblyn and David Cross play a very unhappily married couple). Beth and Don also worry about their son (Owen Teague) who, in their eyes, is floundering in his career and personal life.
Louis-Dreyfus was able to draw on her own 35-year marriage to help paint a believable picture of this couple, who like to share food — even ice cream cones — much to the horror of their son.
“We both felt very strongly that we really wanted to depict a couple who have been married for a long time but were still in love in a believable way, you know? Not saccharine and lovey-dovey,” Louis-Dreyfus said. “They’re very bonded to one another.”
The film contains acute observations about family, marriage, gift-giving, artistic neuroses, mid-life crises and parenting adult children. It’s funny and poignant and sometimes gnawingly uncomfortable and has an enviable cast of great actors, including Michaela Watkins as Beth’s sister and Arian Moayed as her husband.
The budget was small, the shoot was quick (22 days) and the circumstances were sometimes challenging. Holofcener tested positive for COVID-19 and spent several of their precious few shooting days directing remotely from an iPad.
Filming in Manhattan with famous people can be its own headache too. Louis-Dreyfus remembered one difficult scene in which her character has just overheard her husband’s confession and has to walk out of a sporting goods store looking nauseated and dry heaving on the city sidewalk. Across the street, there were paparazzi taking pictures.
“It made me feel very self-conscious,” Louis-Dreyfus said. “Why would I want pictures of myself vomiting on the street?”
But they got through it and on the whole it was a lovely experience. Holofcener even said it’s the most fun she’s ever had on a film.
“Maybe it’s getting older,” she said. “I’m calmer. A little more confident.”
She loved when Louis-Dreyfus would ad-lib and innovate in scenes. One of the biggest laughs in the film is one of those impromptu additions (without spoiling, it involves a conversation about Botox).
"She gets the tone. She always surprises me," Holofcener said. “And her face just kills me."
And both were delighted to get the chance to work with Jeannie Berlin, who plays Beth’s mom. It was a particular coup for Holofcener who cites Elaine May's “The Heartbreak Kid” as the movie that made her want to make movies. She even got to meet May, Berlin's mother, at a screening.
May has seen, and loved, the film. And she's not alone. After it premiered at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year to fantastic reviews and audience reactions, A24 decided to give the film a nationwide launch. This is both exciting and a source of anxiety for Holofcener, used to smaller openings.
Since her first film put her on the map in 1996, Holofcener has always done supplemental work, writing scripts or directing episodes of television, from “Gilmore Girls” to her most recent gig doing two episodes of “Lucky Hank” with Bob Odenkirk. But they’re not just paychecks — she would do it more if that were the reason.
“Since I don’t have scripts that I want to make very often, it’s a great way to keep going and meet new actors,” she said. “I’m pretty picky. After ‘Walking and Talking,’ I got offered things. But if I didn’t like them that much, I just didn’t do them. I guess it’s always about quality of life more than money.”
Holofcener grew up with a significant connection to the business: Her stepfather, Charles H. Joffe, was a talent manager and producer of most of Woody Allen’s films, including “Annie Hall” and “Hannah and Her Sisters.” Her mother occasionally worked as a set decorator too. And while it was true that Joffe paid for Holofcencer’s schooling and helped get her PA work on some of Allen’s films, she also thinks that people tend to give too much significance to that part of her biography.
She’s even read articles that claim she was mentored by Allen or Martin Scorsese, who was her teacher in film school for all of three months. This is a source of embarrassment for her because, first, she’s pretty certain Scorsese has no recollection of this and, second, she remembers him falling asleep during one of her shorts.
“I don’t think he cared for my work,” she laughed.
Besides, in the past three decades of making films, she has carved out her own space that is uniquely and perfectly hers.
As Louis-Dreyfus put it: “Nicole has her finger on the pulse of human connection and the complicated nature of that connection. And as a result, she tells extraordinary stories.”