Women of Independent Miens
Nicole Holofcener and Mary Harron Prove a Woman's Place Is in the Director's Chair

By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 16, 2006

When they showed their first films at Sundance in 1996, Mary Harron and Nicole Holofcener made two of the most promising debuts of the festival, Harron with "I Shot Andy Warhol," a striking period drama about the artist and his fateful encounter in 1968 with feminist activist Valerie Solanas; and Holofcener with "Walking and Talking," a wry, closely observed comedy about female friendship, starring the then-unknown Catherine Keener and Anne Heche. Ten years later, having successfully avoided the dreaded sophomore slump, both directors will release their third films here on Friday: Harron's "The Notorious Bettie Page," starring Gretchen Mol as the 1950s pinup model, and Holofcener's "Friends With Money," an ensemble comedy-drama starring Keener, Jennifer Aniston, Joan Cusack and Frances McDormand as Los Angeles women of disparate economic stations.

The Washington Post recently invited the two to talk about their careers, and what started out as a Q&A almost immediately became an A&A, as the two directors compared notes about movies, motherhood, aging in Hollywood and their experiences directing prime-time television (although when it came to naming names, they dished off the record). "I don't talk to that many women directors," Holofcener admitted after the conversation ended. "Because there's three of them." Holofcener spoke while at The Post's office in Washington; Harron joined in by conference call from Los Angeles.

Ann Hornaday: Do you think it's gotten better or worse for female directors since 1996?

NH: I can only know what it's like for this female director. If I was a producer or had to produce my own movies, I think I'd have a better idea if the fact that I'm a female is making it harder for me to make movies. But the fact that I can make movies, I don't have much to complain about. I'm sure it's more difficult for women to make movies, especially because in general the kind of movies women want to make aren't necessarily going to be blockbusters. But you know, there are so few women in so many positions of power. I don't know if it's changed since we made our first movies. Do you think it has, Mary?

MH: I think a little bit, actually. Because probably if we were to go back to when we were growing up and there were almost no women directors, obviously it's a big change from then.

NH: Claudia Weill, right? [1978's] "Girlfriends."

MH: Yes, and like whatshername, the Italian woman who did "Seven Beauties" --

NH: Lina Wertmuller --

MH: Yeah, so that's a big change. . . . The kinds of films we make, which are kind of outside the mainstream, they're not starring huge blockbuster stars. They're probably written in a way that is more off the beaten track. When my scripts go around, definitely I feel like people don't always see the potential in them. So each film is a huge push to get made. I thought that after "American Psycho" it would be easier, but it doesn't seem to get easier with each film. That is the one thing that surprises me, that each time it still seems a battle to get something made.

NH: Did "American Psycho" make money?

MH: It made a lot of money on DVD.

NH: Well, that's making money.

MH: But then I got offered a lot of serial killer movies. I was just looking at the reviews of "Basic Instinct 2" and I realized that when that script was circulating around a few years ago, I got sent that script. Which was a crazy girl and a serial killer. Then they decided to make it into an "Instinct" movie, but it wasn't that when it was circulating, I don't think.

NH: I just got offered to rewrite a script about a girl whose mother's getting married and she's jealous. It's just like "Walking and Talking." It's like, oh my God, I've done this. I'm the marriage-freak-out-single-girl writer, even this many years later.

Both of you married filmmakers. Has competition been an issue? How do you resolve those tensions?

MH: You know, my husband [writer-director John Walsh] does romantic comedies and it's hard for him, too. . . . It's also about my stuff maybe being higher-profile. He's very good about it, and he's kind of, he doesn't get insecure, I think it's a test of character for him, definitely [laughs]. We've actually written a TV pilot that we're showing to people now. There are a lot of things you have to work on, you don't want to get into the situation where one person feels they're doing all the work with the kids or that they're carrying everything while you go off and have glamorous movie time.

NH: It's harder to take care of kids than it is to make a movie. Right?

MH: Right.

What about you, Nicole?

NH: Well, I'm separated. We were both struggling filmmakers and I stopped struggling and he continued to struggle. That's certainly not why we're separated, I think plenty of couples -- hopefully your couple, Mary -- can survive that. . . . But I have friends who made movies when I made my first movie, men, who are still struggling to make their next movie. So it's not like men have it easy.

MH: No, that's absolutely true. Really talented people make great first movies. And are still trying to make those kinds of movies. So yeah, I think we probably both feel lucky that we've managed to get to the third. . . . Although Nicole, don't you think that now that the kids are older, now that they're in school, I think, 'Can we shorten this gap now? So the next one doesn't take five years?' I would like that.

NH: I know, me too. I know. As long as I shoot it in town, because I can't go anywhere with them now that they're in school and having lives. I don't want it to be five years. But I don't have any ideas for my next movie. That's what takes me so long.

How did you come up for the idea for "Friends With Money"?

NH: Nothing in particular, except that I was very aware of the disparity of incomes in all my friends and how it made me feel ashamed -- ashamed when I cared, ashamed when I was materialistic, jealous when I didn't have it, guilty when I did -- and that all my friends and family feel the same way and we're all so screwed up about money.

You've each made very different kinds of films, but your films share a quality of upending expectations, especially regarding the way women behave and relate to one another.

MH: Some people have reacted badly to "Bettie Page" and say that it's not deep enough or dark enough, because [they] think when you see a girl doing any kind of sex job and sexual photographs and fetish photographs, then she should end up cut up in a trunk, basically. There should be some horrible fate. Because we have a very punitive attitude to it.

What's your relationship to feminism?

NH: I haven't had any angry feminists banging at my door. I consider myself a feminist when asked, but I would never really label myself that. I haven't been attacked for showing the girlie or frivolous sides that women have, that I can care about the size of my ass and something else really important, it doesn't mean I'm shallow. And I think that true feminism does embrace all sides of women.

MH: And men care about those things too; they care a lot. I feel that without feminism, I wouldn't be doing this. So I feel very grateful. Without it, God knows what my life would be. I don't make feminist films in the sense that I don't make anything ideological. But I do find that women get my films better. Women and gay men.

NH: Yeah, me too. Women and gay men.

MH: Right?

NH: Yeah!

MH: Maybe because they're less threatened by it, or they see what I'm trying to say better --

NH: -- Relate to it better, yeah.

MH: And I think that's definitely true with "The Notorious Bettie Page." Because I can't even explain why it's coming from a different place, but it is definitely coming from a different place than if a guy would have made the movie. I guess it would have been more about her as sexy-sexy. And it isn't really sexy.

NH: I haven't seen the movie yet, but I imagine that if a man made it, he would be attracted to Gretchen and would try to exploit that.

MH: There's a scene in "American Psycho" that to me that was a real dividing line between male and female, the scene where Bateman [Christian Bale] has sex with two prostitutes. Because when I read that scene in the book, clearly it was written as a parody of a Penthouse fantasy. As written, the girls are really hot and everybody's really into the sex and having this insane sex experience, and of course that's a fantasy -- you know that they're prostitutes and they're not getting into it. It's a job. So my direction to the actors, to the girls, was that this is routine. This is a job you have to do. It's not like you're really excited about this. I think the portrayal of prostitution in Hollywood movies is always so ludicrous. The girls are always dressed in designer clothes and they're always gorgeous and have perfect skin and they're always really getting into it.

NH: Well, most Hollywood sex scenes even without prostitutes are ludicrous, right? It's not the kind of sex I have.

MH: Or anybody. I think maybe women are more into demystifying sex.

NH: I'm definitely into demystifying lots of things -- the way people dress, the way people talk, the way people have sex, how desperately insecure everybody is --

MH: That's what I loved in "Walking and Talking," where Anne Heche's character tells Catherine Keener she was home, having routine sex.

NH: Yeah, even the one she envies is still having routine sex, yeah.

MH: Sex is a very hard thing to be honest about.

It's interesting to see what's happened to Catherine Keener's career since she did "Walking and Talking."

NH: And I take full credit for all of it.

But look at the kinds of roles older actresses have been getting -- Catherine Keener, Patricia Clarkson, Tilda Swinton, Frances McDormand, Diane Lane -- they've all put the lie to the adage that it's hard for actresses over 40.

NH: They're also willing to look 45. I think if they're 45 . . . and they want to keep reading for parts that are 35, they're going to get the facelift and the eye jobs. And then they're going to screw their faces up, and Mary and I aren't really going to want to work with them.

MH: I have to say, in terms of women, that is the single most depressing thing. When I was casting for "Bettie Page," it's set in the 1950s, so even for the extras I sent word out: No face work.

NH: And no boob jobs, right?

MH: And no boob jobs.

NH: And also they can't be muscular, right?

MH: Right, no gym.

One reason you've been able to make the films you've made is that you've had lucrative careers directing television. Is the television business different from the movie business?

NH: I had a really great experience with "Six Feet Under" and a really great experience with "Sex and the City." And good experiences with pilots. I really only had one bad experience on a television show, but I'm just so [bleeping] sensitive that I don't handle it well. I felt like there was no support, nobody was happy, it just was a really bad vibe and I thought, 'Life is too short to do this.' But when it's good, it's great, so I'm just more cautious.

MH: I had a very bad experience [recently] with a director of photography. I had an experience I've never had before; I went home one night and cried in my hotel room. I had asked him to change a lens and he refused.

NH: Oh my God, were the producers there?

MH: No, and I was so humiliated, I actually said, 'Call the producers to the set.' So they made him apologize. But I was treated very badly, and it affected the whole attitude of the crew towards me. There was one point before that lens-change thing where I asked him to move the camera, and he wouldn't move the camera. I said, I want to see the shot from back here. It was a scene with [an actress I'd worked with before] and finally she said, "Move the camera and show her the damn shot."

NH: [gasps] Good for her. Wow. . . . These things matter. If this D.P. was still there I wouldn't work on that show.

MH: No, you wouldn't want to work on that show. And to be honest, not changing a lens, that would not have happened if I was a guy. You would never say no to a male director. It's outrageous. . . . But Nicole and I would be on the streets without television. We are profoundly grateful both to television and the Directors Guild for collecting those wonderful paychecks. In fact, I have a meeting on "Prison Break," which I'm all excited about. . . . [It's filmed in Chicago] so it might be difficult. I may have to make special pleadings. But it's the summer so hopefully the family could come. My kids love hotel swimming pools.

NH: Of course! And the beds and the room service and --

MH: When I did "Big Love," it was in Valencia, and we stayed in the Marriott Courtyard, which is by the highway, and the kids are still talking about it.

NH: "Mommy's rich!"

MH: In the morning there's a buffet breakfast, and they thought it was the most exciting thing. They always say, "When are we going back there?"

NH: To Valencia.

MH: Yeah. By the freeway.

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