Film Notes

Cassavetes Finds Her Comfort Zone

"Broken English" is the debut feature for writer-director Zoe Cassavetes. (By Mark Finkenstaedt For The Washington Post)
By Michael O'Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 20, 2007

Zoe Cassavetes can't really say what movie-making tips, if any, she might have picked up from her father.

"My dad died when I was 18," says the writer-director of "Broken English" (see review on Page 34) the debut feature from the 37-year-old daughter of legendary filmmaker John Cassavetes. "So all those memories are quite a long time ago. It's more the feeling things."

One of those "feeling things" she does remember is how her father used to buy actress Gena Rowlands, his wife and frequent star, a piece of jewelry every time he made a movie with her. "I'd get to go with him and help pick it out," Cassavetes recalls. She says little gestures like that helped foster her own sense of romanticism, on full view in the new film, albeit with a dash of postmodern open-endedness.

It's also from watching her father work that Cassavetes learned to cultivate what "Broken English" star Parker Posey has referred to as the "familial" and "easy" mood on the set, a one-big-happy-family atmosphere made even more so by the casting of Rowlands as the mother of Posey's character, a 30-something single woman looking for love after a series of romantic disappointments.

But wasn't Cassavetes -- who also has a smattering of credits in front of the camera but says she is "not a good actress" -- the least bit nervous about directing her famous mother?

"You mean Gena?" asks Cassavetes, laughingly recalling that she made a point of never referring to the actress as "Mom" on the set. She says the experience of working with "one of the greatest actresses that ever lived" was "fun," "great" and "amazing." Watching Rowlands work, she says, taught her a lot about acting -- especially in a comedic role that Cassavetes calls something of a departure from the "out-of-control stuff that she usually does."

Cassavetes says the spirit of her father's "pure" and "anti-Hollywood" filmmaking probably rubbed off on her and her older siblings, actors-turned-directors Nick ("Alpha Dog") and Alexandra ("Z Channel: A Magnificent Obsession"), more than she knows. Calling filmmaking a "crazy person's job," the director says that if she's learned anything from growing up in her family, it's that making movies is less a career choice than a calling.

"It's hard enough to make a movie," she says. "So if you're not having fun, and you're not enjoying the people that you're working with, why are you making this thing? Go do something else that is more secure and more stable."

Part of the reason she cast Posey, Cassavetes says -- completely apart from her talent -- was her reputation as someone without ego and, more important, with a willingness to pitch in. "I knew I wanted Parker to be in the movie, but people were like, 'Oh, she's great. She'll change in the van. She puts up the light when it falls down.' "

As inevitable, and as annoying, as the comparisons to her father may be, Cassavetes bristles even more when people mention another name: Sofia Coppola. Not that she has anything against her. The two are fast friends, having co-hosted the short-lived Comedy Central series "Hi Octane" in the 1990s. And Cassavetes regularly gets great career advice from Coppola, who has a few years' head start in the directing biz. (Sample: You have to do all the press on your first film, and the next time you don't have to do as much. "I was like, 'Really? Okay!,' Cassavetes says, letting out a deep sigh of exhaustion.)

Rather, the analogy betrays a lack of imagination -- and perhaps more than a bit of sexism -- on the part of those making it. Sure, both women are the filmmaking progeny of well-known directors (not to mention being actresses with, er, dubious résumés). But other than that, asks Cassavetes, what's the similarity? "I really think that that's just the only example that people can think of. And it's just strange, because she is a friend of mine. There's not a long list," Cassavetes says, adding that no one compares her to, say, Jason Reitman or Jake Kasdan, or other sons of famous filmmakers.

"Everyone's like, 'Your movie reminds me of "Lost in Translation." ' I'm like, 'Because they're both about . . . emotions? And we're both female directors? Name other people.' "

As for the future, Cassavetes plans to spend her summer in Paris working on her next script. That's where her fiance, musician Sebastien Chenut, lives -- in an oddly coincidental parallel to the plot of "Broken English," whose heroine falls for a handsome Frenchman (Melvil Poupaud). After that, the couple, who met almost four years ago when Cassavetes was under consideration to direct one of his music videos, plan a quiet September wedding. And then, no more plans for a while, which is fine with her, and about as far from the Hollywood mind-set as can be.

"Everyone's like, 'What are you doing now? What are you doing now?,' " Cassavetes says. "It's like, 'But I just worked for four years on a movie, and we just put it out!' In Hollywood especially, it makes you feel like if you're not making something right away, you're going to be a loser again."

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