The story of a man and his blow-up doll isn’t the first logline that comes to mind when thinking “Oscar nominee,” but that’s been the real-life experience of screenwriter Nancy Oliver. “It’s been a total trip and surprise and my mind is blown that it all happened,” admits Oliver of her script for Lars and the Real Girl, which scored a nomination for Best Original Screenplay earlier this year. Though it’s her debut as a feature film scribe, Oliver is no stranger to the writing game. In 2005, she became a co-producer and writer on HBO’s “Six Feet Under,” a show created by her longtime friend Alan Ball. Today, Oliver’s busy collaborating with Ball once again, this time on the new HBO series, “True Blood,” and is in the early stages of another film project.
On the occasion of Lars and the Real Girl‘s DVD release, MM caught up with Oliver to discuss her writing process and how “a strange job where I was in touch with a lot of lonely guys and weird Websites” started it all.
Jennifer Wood (MM): How did the idea for the script come about in the first place?
Nancy Oliver (NO): A script is born of many different things, and the actual man-doll connection… I had a strange job where I was in touch with a lot of lonely guys and a lot of weird Websites and found the real doll one, and those faces stayed with me… It really stuck with me, the meaning of what it would be like to need a plastic doll.
MM: Did anyone ever seem surprised that the film was written by a woman? For some reason, the idea of a guy and his sex doll just seems like an inherently male idea.
NO: I think they were surprised before they saw the movie.
MM: Exactly. Because once you read the script or see the movie, I think you get a different take on it.
NO: Then they think it’s going to be some kind of guy-flick kind of thing.
MM: I know that your original script did deal with Lars’ sexuality a little bit, but that it didn’t make it into the final film because of the director and Ryan Gosling’s interpretation. Are you precious about your material or have you learned to sort of let a script go—that at some point it’s not your material anymore?
NO: I think my criteria is, ‘If it works, it’s fine.’ I love to cut—I love to cut my own stuff. As a matter of fact, they pretty much had to hold me back from cutting even more, because I’m like, ‘That doesn’t work… that doesn’t work.’ So I’m not precious in that way. I mean, there are certain elements that naturally I was like, ‘Aw, I wish I could have seen how that played out,’ but often it may not have played out so well.
The sexual element that I was talking about, it’s still a very subtle thing in the movie and wouldn’t have been like a screaming, changing difference. So no, I don’t think I am precious about it in that way. I’ll try to protect what I feel needs to be protected for the good of the movie, but I also realize that other people are often right and I’m lucky to be working with such quality people. So I listen, too.
MM: So you were pretty involved. Were you on the set a lot?
NO: I was. They didn’t particularly want me there and I can totally understand that, but I promised to keep my mouth shut. I never went to film school, so I needed to see it get made. It’s different than television, and so it was a tough experience, but it was a really good experience for me.
MM: So do you have any plans to direct yourself or would you like to stay on the writing side of things?
NO: Well I’m gonna give it a shot. I’ve directed in theater all the way along; I directed before I started writing, actually, or writing seriously. And I think I will get a shot at directing a television episode for the show that I’m working on now, “True Blood.” And we’ll see if I have it or if I don’t. It should be pretty clear by the end whether it’s a fit.
MM: You wrote the script for Lars before you started working on “Six Feet Under.” How did your work on the show help in getting Lars and the Real Girl made? Do you think that that was part of it? I mean, the show really seems to have almost reminded Hollywood that challenging material could be entertaining, in a way, looking at Alan Ball’s work as well. So do you think having that did help you?
NO: I think it gave me a little more cred, you know. The people who really liked the show would be more willing to read the script in spite of the bad pitch line.
MM: What was the pitch line?
NO: Well I didn’t pitch it, but “a guy falls in love with a sex doll, hijinks ensue.” I couldn’t ever bring myself to pitch it, so I just wrote the script and just handed it out. You know, “Six Feet Under” was my first real job, so I was really lucky that it was on a show that good and I think it did help in terms of getting people to read it.
MM: You seem to have mastered the art of uncomfortable comedy, the kind of humor where people aren’t sure where they should be laughing or not. I think certaintly in “Six Feet Under” that was the case, and I think with this film, too. So is it your intention to sort of challenge an audience or to invite an inner dialogue to happen throughout the film where they’re thinking to themselves what they would do if they were faced with the same situation?
NO: Not consciously… I don’t really worry about how people are going to react to it. How can you try to please or challenge 200 million people you don’t even know? So I feel like that’s kind of out of my control and it’s just my job to simply write the story. It was hard enough to get the story out. But I do feel that as a writer, I’m more interested in raising questions and teaching lessons and letting people draw their own conclusions. I’m not particularly into explanation, and I think that’s something we’ve become very used to as moviegoers over the past 30 years. In the 1970s, it was kind of different. It seemed like there was more room for ambiguity and that kind of decision. But we’re really used being told when to laugh and have those expectations clear, so I love disrupting that.
MM: And now you’re at work on “True Blood.” How is writing television different from a feature film?
NO: TV writing is group writing in that you sit down at a table with other people and brainstorm stories as a community so every decision is all about compromising and making the best of the compromises and being able to brainstorm with other people where feature writing is completely different.
MM: Do you prefer one over the other?
NO: No, I like all forms and I like switching forms, so I’m comfortable on television, I’m comfortable on feature writing and with plays as well.
MM: Are you still active in the theater?
NO: Not so much, just because it took me 27 years to get a job in television…
MM: And now you want to stay there.
MM: Do you have any other film projects in the works?
NO: Yeah, I’m writing a movie called Handyman for Warner Bros. I can’t talk about it too much because I don’t want to jinx it because I have a draft due in June, but I would describe it as a “southeastern western,” contemporary southeastern western… I’ve been working on it for about a year and a half, but it’s only in the past few weeks that I’ve kind of moved through a big barrier and I finally have a much better idea of what I’m writing about so I’m hoping that it will move quickly. I’m kind of interested in this new direction that it’s taking, so I hope it doesn’t suck.
MM: The last question: Since our magazine is read by a lot of aspiring and working moviemakers, what’s the one piece of advice you’d give to people who are looking to become screenwriters?
NO: Write what you want to write. I’m sure I’m the worst example of how to get a career, but I found that when I tried to conform and be commercial, you could feel my hatred of it in every line of the script, which made it impossible—and very unpleasant—for people to read. But when I wrote Lars, it was free of any expectations. I didn’t expect it would get made, I wrote it strictly for my own amusement, and that really worked out. So I think it’s not going to be that way with every script, but I would just encourage everybody to just write what you want to write and see what happens.
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