Things I’ve Learned as a Moviemaker: Nicole Holofcener

If one common denominator of Nicole Holofcener’s films is her fumbling protagonists’ neurotic tendencies, her approach to moviemaking is a rejection of those characters’ hopeless self-absorption.

Fittingly, Holofcener grew up on the sets of Woody Allen’s films, working in various capacities—first as an extra, later as an apprentice editor. Her 1996 feature debut as a writer-director, Walking and Talking, introduced her trademark wit and realism devoid of contrived melodrama. It also formed the basis of her longstanding working relationship with Catherine Keener, with whom she would go on to collaborate with on four other projects. 

Based on Ted Thompson’s novel of the same name, Holofcener’s latest (sans Keener), The Land of Steady Habits, follows Anders Hill (Ben Mendelsohn), a man who, without notice, elects to retire from his cushy trading job and leave his wife and their beautiful home. Arguably her first feature with a male protagonist (a bit of a moot point, as her films are largely ensemble pieces), Holofcener breathes new life into the classic mid-life crisis tale with her sensitive portrait of the emptiness of privileged life. Like all of her previous works, The Land of Steady Habits radiates empathy for her characters most of all when they’re fucking up. 

So you don’t have to fuck up, Holofcener has shared 15 of her moviemaking secrets, extolling the virtues of a selfless relationship with your cast and crew, and other key ingredients to running a smooth show.

Nicole Holofcener works with her DP Alar Kivilo on the set of The Land of Steady Habits. Photo Courtesy of Alison Rosa.

As told to Caleb Hammond.

1. When the crew is just standing there watching you rehearse or direct, they may look like they’re judging your abilities. In actuality, they’re thinking about their own jobs. 

 2. Welcome the unit still photographers and let them know they belong. They’re the bastard cousins on film sets and often feel out of place. They have to be where you don’t want them to be, but if you want nice pics, be nice and let them be there.

 3. Give department heads permission to tell you while the camera is rolling if something is screwed up. It’s not helpful for someone to tell you after a very long take that the cup was in the wrong hand, or the hair didn’t match, or an extra walked through the shot.

4. Let your actors know that if you’re not giving them direction, it doesn’t mean they’re doing badly and you’ve given up on them. It just means they’re doing great… or that you’ve run out of ideas.

5. Watch out for getting caught up in a performance if it’s not serving the story in the right way. For instance, watching an actor sob may be impressive, but only if the character is supposed to be sobbing. Same goes with funny.

6. I love a handheld monitor. It lets you see the actors’ faces and the image at the same time and allows you to stay the hell away from video village. You can also give direction without having to navigate the path to get to them, or yell across the room. No one should ever yell directions from a great distance, unless they’ve worked with that person a lot and are comfortable shouting shit to each other.

7. Learn to admit freely when you don’t know something. Better they think you’re stupid than make a bad decision.

8. Everyone is more nervous and insecure than you think.

9. Good actors are giving you a gift, and the crew is there to help your story come to life, so be nice and be grateful. Be flexible and collaborative. Treat everyone with respect and kindness.

10. Hire actors and crews based on their talent and experience, but also their personal references. I’ll track down directors and ask what someone is like to work with. I want to work with nice, fun people. Life is short, and it’s only a movie.

11. Wear layers.

12. Pace yourself with the candy.

13. Have a lot of different sneakers so your feet don’t hurt.

14. Wear a fanny pack if you lose everything like me. MM

This article appears in MovieMaker’Summer 2018 issueThe Land of Steady Habits opens September 14, 2018, courtesy of Neftlix. Featured image photograph courtesy of Alison Rosa.

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