For 22 years, Nicole Holofcener has been known for making movies about women, treating their relationship hurdles (“Enough Said”), financial woes (“Friends With Money”), personal insecurities (“Lovely & Amazing”) and privileged restlessness (“Please Give”) with grace and wit. Even the television episodes she’s directed (“Sex and the City,” “Enlightened,” “Orange Is the New Black”) have centered largely on female stories that feel at home in the Holofcener wheelhouse.
But not this time. This time, the 58-year-old writer-director shifted her lens to, of all things, a man. “The Land of Steady Habits,” which premiered earlier this week at the Toronto International Film Festival ahead of its Netflix launch on Friday, is about a retiree (Ben Mendelsohn) who divorces his wife (Edie Falco) and finds the next chapter of his life wanting. Adapting Ted Thompson’s novel of the same name, Holofcener departs from her preoccupations but maintains her signature poise.
Holofcener also co-wrote one of the festival’s highlights, “Can You Ever Forgive Me?,” a lovely biopic starring Melissa McCarthy as writer Lee Israel, who took to forging high-profile literary correspondences when strapped for cash in the 1990s. There, too, Holofcener’s stamp looms large, blending whimsy and melancholy to portray quotidian heartache.
In Toronto, I sat down with her to talk about what led to “The Land of Steady Habits,” Holofcener’s first film that doesn’t feature her muse, Catherine Keener. We discussed both movies and the evolution of her career.
“Steady Habits” is a movie about a man, and that’s different for you. Being someone who’s so known for female-centric stories, what made this story about a male midlife crisis attractive and sympathetic to you?
First of all, I would never have written this story. So when I read a book that draws me in and has great characters and good conflict in a world that I don’t really know that much about, that appeals to me. I felt like, oh, I’m never going to make this up, and I love it, so I should do it. And I didn’t really think about it being a male lead. I liked that, just for the experience of working with a man as the lead. But it felt the same. It’s just a person.
The beats of the story exist in the Holofcener wheelhouse, if you will.
Right, which is why I was drawn to it.
It’s interesting, though, because we’re at a moment where people are saying, “Well, we’ve seen the male midlife crisis story a lot.”
Oh, yeah. I’m not stupid. [Laughs] Yeah, I know.
Was there a particular element that you felt elevated it beyond that convention?
Yeah, absolutely. I so hope this is not seen as a male midlife crisis movie. Clearly it’s a white man with these white-privilege problems, but it was the relationships between the people: Ben Mendelsohn’s character and his son [played by Thomas Mann], his relationship with his friend’s young son [played by Charlie Tahan], the drugs, the bad decisions, the tragedy. The drama of it appealed to me, and I think it’s really important people know it’s not a comedy. Don’t expect Julia Louis-Dreyfus comedy, although most of my movies do have drama, and this one does have laughs. But it leans more toward drama.
I hope that it does explore more original and unique themes that belong to these people, that it’s not just a guy trying to decorate his condo. Bad shit happens, and I think that makes the movie richer.
“Enough Said,” in 2013, was a big moment for you. It was your highest-performing movie commercially, the reviews were tremendous, there was awards buzz.
I got the buzz, but it didn’t get the awards.
Right. I spoke to you on the phone not long after the Golden Globe nominations had come out, when it was thought maybe you’d get one. You were very candid with me about being disappointed not to be included.
Well, I guess I had been told that I had a better chance at a Golden Globe [than an Oscar] — or not necessarily me, but Jim [Gandolfini] or Julia [Louis-Dreyfus]. And then nothing, so of course I was disappointed, especially for my actors. And especially for Jim, who was already gone by that time. I didn’t want him to be a sentimental pity win, but it was a beautiful performance.
That was a James Gandolfini we had never seen before. And it was a Julia Louis-Dreyfus we’d never seen before, too, really. In the scope of indie films, it performed well at the box office and won you a lot of a critical attention.
But it didn’t cross over. That’s the thing.
Unfortunately, what does cross over these days?
Oh, I could list things with great bitterness. [Laughs]
OK, fair. But aside from the awards conversation of it all, did you feel like your career shifted? It’s not that you hadn’t been praised for a decade and a half prior to that, but it felt like a bigger moment for you, perhaps.
I didn’t feel like it was that big a difference, no. In fact, because it didn’t cross over and my other films were more quote-unquote indie for some reason, I got more attention as an indie director, like at the Spirit Awards. I think this movie kind of hung somewhere in between, and no, I don’t really feel it changed my career. But I’m glad you think it was a bigger moment than it was for me. I’m not complaining, but nobody’s heard of that movie more than my other movies, I’ve found. Maybe if I say who’s in it, they’ll say, “Oh, yeah! I wanted to see that!” But as long as I can keep making movies that I’m proud of, that’s what makes me happy more than anything.
Having come off “Enough Said” feeling unchanged, do you think there are more possibilities in the streaming realm?
I think this particular movie will have a better and longer life on Netflix than it will had it been in the theater for any length of time. And this way I don’t have to worry about that, checking the newspaper like, “Is it still there?” I think other movies might fare better with that gamble.
It’s interesting — I guess nothing is black and white. I do make peace with the fact that I make the kind of movies I make. I am stubborn about who I want to cast in the end. It’s all my choice; it really is. I have no reason to complain about anything, but sometimes it is hard. I think, “Oh, I should try to have a bigger audience or make more money.” And then I just don’t go that way. Or it’s not offered to me or I pass on it. Sometimes I think, “OK, I’m going to cast an A-list actor,” and then I just end up not wanting who’s on that list for this particular part. Ultimately, the process of making the movie I like is the most important.
Are you literally handed lists?
Yeah. They don’t say it quite as openly as that. They’ll say, “What about these people?” And then I’ll circle the ones that I think are actually right for the part that I would enjoy working with. Then they say, “But what about those people?” It’s definitely a dance. But with Netflix, it was not a dance. I wanted these people, and they said, “Terrific. Those are great people. Go make your movie.” That doesn’t happen very often, and casting is so important to me.
It’s a director’s most important job.
Absolutely. More than directing. More than anything. Otherwise, it’s just a job of fixing it, not making it.
You wrote an essay in New York magazine a couple of years ago about having once felt like you needed to be so prepared on set or else make things up as evidence of your knowledge so nobody would doubt your skills. Going into this movie, how much different was that mentality for you than it had been even a couple of years ago?
I guess even more so. I don’t pretend to know something I don’t, even more so. I’m more open, probably too much. I’m probably too self-deprecating at times. But I see young directors pretending to know everything, and it’s very off-putting. I don’t see the point. I think people can see through that, too. But in film school, they do make you think you have to know every element of the filmmaking process. I remember studying foot-candles. You’re like, “What’s a foot-candle?”
Yeah, no idea.
It’s all about lighting and the elements. See? There’s this book you’re supposed to study, and so you come out of film school thinking, “Oh, I know my foot-candles.” And I don’t even remember what they are, nor should I have to. My interest is elsewhere. I think full disclosure is so much better — even with actors, too. If I’ve written it from scratch and an actor says to me, “I don’t really know why I’m saying this,” I’ll sort of examine it myself and realize, “I’m not quite sure why you’re saying it either, but somehow it feels right. Let’s try it.” I think they would prefer that than me making up some bullshit answer.
Instead of inventing some psychology on the spot.
Exactly, “Well, your father and your mother … ” It’s like, actually, I don’t know. I just wrote it and it felt right. That comes with age, as they say.
I was going to ask if it was an age thing. How much has the elevated attention that we’re finally giving to women in Hollywood helped or encouraged you, if at all?
I don’t know. I don’t know. I know that when I was trying to prove myself, being a woman made me even more anxious to do that. A crew full of guys? And when I got onto the set of a television show where they don’t know me, I do feel I may have more guard up as a female to prove myself. But I’ve been fortunate enough to be able to make my movies without the Me Too movement. I’ve been around. And I’m really glad that it’s happening and that women are getting more options.
One of my very favorite movies at this festival is “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” How did the Lee Israel story enter your life? Was there ever a scenario in which you were to direct the movie yourself?
Anne Carey, a wonderful producer, gave me the script that Jeff Whitty had written the first draft of. So I did several drafts on it, and I don’t even know — how do I explain this? [Addressing publicist across the room:] Should I just lie?
I just did the script, and Marielle [Heller] directed it beautifully. And that’s how it was meant to be. [Smiles] She’s nodding back there. Yeah. It’s a beautiful movie.
The movie references Nora Ephron, which feel like a Nicole Holofcener addition to the script.
No, that’s in the memoir. I adapted it.
I just mean that you seem like a Nora Ephron fan and would want to make sure that’s in there.
Oh, sure. That’s so funny. Lee Israel used to pretend to be her. She’s a real character. I got to meet Lee and she’s really cool.
Since you didn’t with this movie, you should direct Melissa McCarthy in another movie.
We both agree. Both Melissa and I would love to work together.
You’re also doing a Kathryn Hahn project as well, and I’m shocked the two of you have never worked together.
Kathryn Hahn is such a Nicole Holofcener-type actress. She’s like another Catherine Keener for you. I’m surprised it’s taken this long.
We both feel that way, too. It’s like, are we finally doing this?
Is that weird, to hear that certain actresses feel like Nicole Holofcener actresses?
No, it’s wonderful. Totally.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.