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Interview with Nancy Savoca – Co-writer and Director of Union Square

Interview with Nancy Savoca - Co-writer and Director of Union Square

Women and Hollywood: This movie was born out of frustration of not being able to get financing for films, and then you made a movie that needed very little financing.  Talk a little about the guerrilla method you used for this film.

Nancy Savoca: It was a really interesting, completely unplanned, completely spontaneous thing that happened.  Neda Armian who is one of our producers, and Mary Tobler who ended up being my co-writer and I were having coffee near Union Sqaure complaining about how we have these projects that we cna't get made and and how this is a difficult time for everyone in the film business, especially for films if they don't follow certain formulas.  So we were talking about it and Neda said let's do something where we don't have to ask permission from anybody which immediately perked us up because it is such a great rebel thing to say.  The second thing she said — which I wouldn't advise anyone to say — is use my apartment to shoot.  I said you are going to be so sorry you said this because we are going to say yes.

So Mary and I took this thing which started off as a restriction because Neda's apartment is only one room.  It started in my mind in the beginning as a constriction and challenge that I didn't know if we could get over.  I was very concerned about that.  Luckily, Mary Tobler was not.  She was quite a fearless writer and together we constructed this story of two people.  Since we had such a small budget the first thought I had was that there can only be 2 people and from there I thought that maybe one of them does not belong in that room.  There's a little conflict.  The opening with the Lucy character breaking up with her boyfriend on the phone was something I once witnessed on the street and wrote it up because it was so interesting and it reminded me of Anna Magnani in the movie L'Amore who plays a woman who is breaking up with her lover over the phone.  It is one of those movies where you can't take your eyes off of her because there is all this stuff going on and you only know what she says and you know no more than that.  I had that written out the breakup scene and brought it to Mary and she said ok that's our beginning.

WandH: When I was initially watching the movie Mira Sorvino is a crazy basket case and you think oh my gosh what is going to happen here and then there is a shift to when you get emotionally involved with this basket case.  Talk about how you avoided making this character into a caricature.

NS: I had so many fears going into this that one by one had to be chopped away at.  My second biggest concern was that Mary and I felt we could write a good script but we will need the most amazing cast to pull it off or they will be charicatures.  What Mary and I started doing and what Mira Sorvino and Tammy Blanchard took further along in the movie is that we went very deep into the characters so that on the surface if you were walking down the street watching a woman have a breakup with her boyfriend on the phone you could write her off as a basket case and keep walking because you don't want to stay too close to her, that's the surface reaction.  But if that woman is your sister and you are somehow forced into having a relationship with someone like this you, you realize this person is not just a nut car.  There is a lot going on and to me that was the challenge. 

Not everybody is up for the challenge. I think there are people who watch this movie and say you know I don't want to spend five minutes with this person.  And I can appreciate that.  Then this movie is not for them.  There is a challenge to looking at a character that you can easily right off.  And you can also easily right off the Jenny character too — uptight, doesn't have a sense of humor, too natural for her own good, too organic for her own good. 

WaH: How did you get Mira and Tammy to do this?

NS: We were incredibly grateful that they responded to the script.  We thought we had written a pretty good script but when it goes out  there is this test when you see if actors respond.  We were very lucky to get those two because they were our top choices.

WaH: Aside from the fact that you shot in one room and had virtually no money, what were the other challenges?

NS: That was a big one.  Let me talk about that one room again for a moment.  That was our biggest challenge because there was this fear of monotony. But what ended up happening was that our biggest challenge became the best part of the film.  When we started planning the shoot of the movie having designed the story for that room, our AD Glenn Trotiner was laying out the schedule for me and I looked down and noticed that the scenes were going in order.  I said to him can you do it so that it is always going in order and he said I think so.  And in fifteen minutes he did the first week (we only shot 12 days) in complete sequential order which in film never happens.  Shooting this particular movie in sequence enabled us to get the performances you see because these actors were able to build the way the actors on film don't usually get to.  When Lucy she arrives at Jenny's house that's actually day 2.  Day 1 was her nervous breakdown.  In other flm shoots she would have that nervous breakdown the week after.  So it was very good for the actors.  That's how our biggest challenge became the best thing that happened.

WaH: Talk about he journey of the film from last year's Toronto Film Festival to this week's opening almost a year later.

NS: Everything is new to me.  This film has been an education from the time we said we would do it until now.  We are still learning.  I had no expectations.  When we shot the movie I wanted to make this with the best possible people we could attract and we did.  What happened beyond that, I couldn't even focus on.  This is a movie that was done without a safety net. When you are doing that you are like Philippe Petit in Man on a Wire.  You are walking so high on tightrope you can't think about so much else except what you are doing.  If you start thinking about distribution I think you would just go hide under a bed somewhere.  We knew we had a wonderful story, a great cast and everything was a step at a time.  And when Toronto wanted to show our film that was great,  Every step along the way there were these sign posts with encouragement and it has been like that in this year that has followed. 

WaH: Is it liberating in some way not having those kinds of expectations?

NS: Yes.  When I started in the film business I didn't have any expectations and there is something in the work that is really nice.  Once you start making films it is difficult not to worry what people think.  For your first film you come from nowhere and people are like gosh look at this person. Then the second film they say it's not as good as the first one, and it won't be as good as the third one.  Then they start doing comparisons with other people.  On the whole, to live day to day you put it aside but it effects you.  And you need to constantly consciously refocus on the work.  Now after 23 years I feel really comfortable refocusing on the work.

WaH: I read in the press notes that you were savvy about product placement.  Can you talk about the pluses and minuses of that?

NS: I had enough censorship with being in one room that once we were out of that room we wrote a scene where she went power shopping in Filene's Basement.  My producers were like oh no.  My husband Richard Guay who produced my film said we have no budget to pay them.  And I said let's just go talk to them.  We did not pay for a single location on this film because we were so small and self contained that we could go to those places and stay out of the way.

The same thing with the nighclub scene.  For a producer there are red flags everywhere — how am I going to get a club and how am I going to fill it with people?  Turns out a few blocks away from Neda's apartment – we could not travel to any locations- there was a club called Crimson and we asked if we could come when they were having a party.  We crashed a party and shot a scene while people were dancing.

WaH: Did they know?

NS: I don't know.  Nobody acted like they knew and they didn't asks for Mira's autograph.  They were taking cell phone pictures but the way she was dancing anybody would have taken cell phone pictures.

WaH: Can you give any advice from this experience – the not asking for permission piece.

NS: It such an interesting time.  I just wrote this piece for Filmmaker magazine on film waves.   People are saying indie film is dead.  It is not dead there are always waves it just changes because indie film because it is outside the mainstream industry running parallel and it always has to find its way.  When things aren't working on the bigger level then indie film has to jump ahead.  What ends up happening is that thing that everyone fears in the bigger business: the new technology, the internet, piracy, new cameras, what does distribution look like, 35 mm dying etc.  All these things are just an evolution.  The experimental people goes to the lower budget movies because we have to.  And meanwhile I can do this and then work on a TV show and a feature and then I am back here again. 

But this is so interesting because you can really see the terrain.  It's like being on the forefront and watching what happens.  I have a friend who says if you really want to see the forefront you should look a the porn industry because they are really way out there. So we really are just behind the porn industry.

WaH: I read that you are working on an adaptation of Elizabeth McCraken's The Giant's House.  I love that book.

NS: Isn't that an amazing book.  It's a beautiful book.  Neda and Mary are the people that I am working with on  this movie. 

Union Square opens in NY and LA today, July 13.

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Thanks for this. I've been wondering about Nancy Savoca's future projects. I liked her first two films, but absolutely loved Household Saints. It's one of the very best films from the U.S., indie or not, that I've ever seen.

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