The opening salvo of “Please Give,” Nicole Holofcener’s latest indie dramady, confronts the viewer with a montage of female breasts – small, large, flabby, old – that, in one darkly ironic stroke, subverts an entire history of how women’s bodies have been portrayed in art.
Not that this was Holofcener’s intention. “If the first scene is set in a mammogram office, I just thought let’s start with some boobs,” says the 40-year-old filmmaker, who over the last 15 years, and four features, has combined such breezy rom-com-ish humor with the sharply observed and acerbic undertones of peak Woody Allen. As critic Laura Sinagra once noted in the Village Voice, Holofcener’s “chick-flick levity is so so deceptive. Zipped inside that Pilates-wear hoodie lurks a crafty aesthete.”
Indeed, when pressed, Holofcener’s provocative streak comes out. “I don’t think it’s my job to go out there and break rules, but I do enjoy it,” she says.
“I thought this was going to be a hilarious and jarring opening that nobody sees and that nobody dares put on screen,” she continues. “At first, I was worried it might not work if it’s too silly and if it sets up an expectation that isn’t paid off, but it has that weird darker element to it.”
That “weird darker” tone evokes another memorable moment from Holofcener’s oeuvre: In a scene of excruciating unease from 2001’s “Lovely & Amazing,” a pretty actress (played by Emily Mortimer) strips naked for her boyfriend (Dermot Mulroney) and asks for a full body critique.
For Holofcener, the sequence was similarly multi-layered. “I am trying to demystify women and their bodies and how they feel about them. And it’s not supposed to be sexy, but she’s sexy. And I know this shot of Emily Mortimer is going to be on the Internet and people are going to be jacking off to it, but I just said, fuck it, I’m going to do it. It’s both. I could have shot around the nudity,” she explains, “but the point is: This is it; look at it. It would have been cheating if I avoided it. I wanted the audience to feel what Dermot Mulroney was feeling sitting right there.”
Like “Please Give’s” mammogram office, which provides the film’s central meet-cute and the place where one character discovers she has breast cancer, the scene illustrates Holofcener’s use of simultaneous conflicting moods: the comic and the melancholic, the ironic and the uncomfortable. Furthermore, in “Please Give,” she skillfully interweaves notions of charity with pity, materialism with contentment and sex with death.
That the opening mammogram sequence is scored with The Roches’ “No Shoes” (“I had no shoes and I complained/until I met a man who had no feet”) further underlines the film’s many levels. “All of the themes of the movie, which I hadn’t articulated yet to myself, were all in that song,” she explains. “You think you have it bad, but then you find someone else who has it worse.”
“Please Give” focuses on Kate (Holofcener regular Catherine Keener), a shrewd, bourgie vintage furniture dealer, and her neighbor Rebecca (Rebecca Hall), a sweet-natured radiology technician who lives next door with her 91-year-old grandmother. And as with Holofcener’s previous films, each of the characters exists as a set of human quirks and neuroses, which are tested through narrative vignettes–the most potent example comes in Keener’s Kate; plagued with rich person’s guilt, she gives money to homeless people and volunteers for the needy.
In one of the film’s strongest scenes–and the one most difficult for Holofcener to shoot–Keener spends time at a school for kids with Down Syndrome. But rather than aiding the children, Kate ends up paralyzed by pity. According to Holofcener, the scene was directly inspired by her own experiences. “I went to sing Christmas Carols to the mentally insane in a hospital and I ended up in the stairwell sobbing,” she says.
The scene not only forced Keener’s character to confront the hypocrisies of her philanthropy, but Holofcener’s own issues during filming. “I had to show the kids respect, and film them with the dignity they deserved, and yet, I pity them, I feel bad for them, I feel sorry for them and I think what if my child was like them. It was a very intense day.” And like the best sequences in Holofcener’s films, you’re not sure whether to laugh or cry.
The ending of “Please Give” is similarly thorny, rife with possibilities and multiple interpretations. And as with most of her decisions, Holofcener says it was not calculated or meant to provoke, but simply, “It felt completely organic,” she says. “I didn’t think about what it meant, or what I was saying about parenting; it just seemed like the right ending.”
It’s the kind of ambiguous conclusion that would never fly in Hollywood. For all of Holofcener’s conventional rom-com-like trappings, she’s often subverting the rules and leaving audiences challenged. She recalls after screening the first cut of “Friends with Money” for distributor Sony Pictures Classics, the executives said, “Where’s the last reel?” “They eventually came around,” she says, “but initially, they were stunned.”
That is the “luxury,” as she calls it, of working outside the system. “I’d rather have $3 million and my ending than $10 million and not my ending,” says Holofcener, who admits she has rejected Hollywood’s entreaties. (“I didn’t like the scripts enough, or they weren’t quite right for me. Not my taste.”)
Still, she acknowledges that “Please Give’s” $3 million budget–half what “Friends with Money” cost–“was disappointing.” To shave costs, and because it seemed aesthetically right, the production shot on Super-16mm film and then blew it up to 35mm–a decision that Holofcener now regrets.
“When the DP suggested [Super-16] widescreen, it was like, yeah, because so much of the film is about the store and the apartments and the furniture, and it was a very room-heavy movie, not a close-up-heavy movie,” she says. “But then it was just too grainy. I wouldn’t recommend blowing up Super 16mm to 35.”
Such technical problems may pale in comparison to the challenges facing indie directors these days. But Holofcener says she tries to stay clear of the larger industry-wide shifts. “I send [producer] Anthony Bregman my script and he calls me back and tells me who I need to tap dance for. It’s not been easy,” she continues. “Nothing’s been handed to me.”
For instance, Sony Classics, distributor of both “Friends with Money” and “Please Give,” didn’t automatically jump on board the projects. “They said, ‘Show us the next one and maybe,'” says Holofcener. In fact, “Please Give” was originally financed by a different company, but they backed out during the production’s first week of prep. “So it’s still scary,” she says.
Bregman, who has produced Holofcener’s last three movies, says it’s never been easy. “We’ve always had to cut our budgets and cast up and really fish for the right backer,” he explains. “Both ‘Walking and Talking’ and ‘Lovely & Amazing’ took years and years to finance — with budgets of only $1M. With ‘Friends With Money,’ we had one of the biggest stars in the world on board [Jennifer Aniston], and just two financiers wanted to get involved.”
“But the good news,” continues Bregman, “is Nicole was able to establish herself as a serious filmmaker –with a discernible fan base of critics, actors, distributors, and filmgoers — before the specialized business collapsed. She got in right under the wire,” he admits. “I think it would have been much, much harder if Nicole were just starting to build a body of work in this environment.”
During the years in between getting feature projects off the ground, Holofcener has been busy directing cable TV, long a home for indie stalwarts (most recently, an episode of HBO’s “Bored to Death”) and polishing scripts (an adaptation of a French film for Focus Features). Currently, she’s writing a script based on Laura Lippman’s woman-centered murder mystery “Every Secret Thing,” Holofcener’s first genre piece, to direct for Frances McDormand.
“I’d like to do something else,” she says of her newest endeavor. “Hopefully, eventually I can come back to what I do,” she adds. “But whatever is the most fun and gratifying is what I’m after.”