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The typical characters of prolific American auteur Nicole Holofcener are relatable not in spite of, but because of their human flaws. Like the loveable Eva (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) of “Enough Said,” they sometimes behave in troubling ways in self-defense. Or they guiltily overcompensate for their privilege, like Kate (Catherine Keener) in “Please Give.” So it’s no surprise that the writer/director, who had previously only written original screenplays for her films, was drawn to adapting Ted Thompson’s 2014 novel The Land of Steady Habits, lead by a protagonist behaving in deeply problematic and downright self-destructive ways.
In Holofcener’s adaptation of “The Land of Steady Habits,” which premiered at the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival on Wednesday, the character in question is Anders Hill (Ben Mendelsohn), a middle-aged man from a wealthy suburb of Westport, Connecticut wrestling with a textbook case of midlife crisis. Having left his wife and lucrative job in finance (despite the fact that he seems too young to retire), Anders wrestles with the consequences of his string of mistakes; his cookie-cutter condo in desperate need of decorative touches being the least of them. As Holofcener navigates Anders’ relationship to his struggling twenty-something son Preston (Thomas Mann), his ex-wife Helene (Edie Falco) and an addict teen he befriends along the way, she empathetically sketches the highs and lows of dysfunctional families marked by miscalculated errors and tragedy.
During a recent phone conversation, Holofcener and I broke down the themes of her latest film and talked about her career at large.
Do you see the flawed qualities of your characters as a through-line in your work?
[They are] truly based on what I'm interested in writing about or the characters that I think would be fun to watch. I base characters on myself and my friends; and you know, we're all messed up to some degree and our flaws are generally entertaining. I guess I like taking regular human frailties and building on that to kind of be more dramatic for a movie. It's certainly not anything I planned or I think about when I'm sitting down to write. It's just what I'm drawn to, I guess. You'd have to ask my therapist.
On that note, do you bring actual events or anecdotes into your movies?
Absolutely! Like in “Walking and Talking,” there's a line, "I'm smelling my sponge and it smells like a hot dog and I can't stop smelling it." People say, "Oh, did she just make that up on the spot?" And I was like, “No, my friend Allison left that on my phone machine once and I just thought it was hilarious so I put it in a movie.” And in “Friends with Money,” I believe I had a conversation with someone who told me they'd never seen their husband’s asshole, and I thought that was crazy and I put that in the movie. She knows who she is, too, which is terrible.
I love that, and yes it is crazy.
I mean, HOW could you not?
[laughs] Everyone's different, right? Everyone has a boundary.
Your stories thus far have been female-led, but “The Land of Steady Habits” is an exception to this—it has a male lead. What was it about this character that encouraged you to make that departure?
Of course, I was conscious of [this departure], but that wasn't what drew me to the project or to this character. I don't know, I felt a lot of affection for him. Shame really interests me and I think that his character in the end especially has to live with a lot of shame. I think he was funny. He has a son. I have two sons. I related to him in that way, the way I worry about my sons of course and how they will be when they grow up. I liked all of those things about the book and I thought it would be fun to adapt, especially because I would never write this story. This is not something I would ever come up with, and that excites me. I don't want to direct a movie that I could've written myself, even though those are the kind I get offered most of the time.
And sure, the story has a male lead, but to me, the female touch was very evident throughout. We could see how his mistakes affected the women around him. And all those awkward sex scenes ... those women really did look like they were bored out of their minds in bed. Many women do know what it means to be in the presence of a guy like that.
Unfortunately I do know what that's like. And that's funny that you say that, because those were not in the book. The character Anders never has sex with anybody else in the book. I made up Barbara, the Connie Britton character. [As for] the bad sex, I felt that he as a character needed fleshing out; we needed to see him behave more [to] visualize the book. And I thought that seeing his relationship to women really amplified the kind of person he is in the shorthand.
Going from urban settings and families to suburbia seems like another departure for you. Did that environment feel different?
I had to make more effort to pay attention to what's realistic and what's not in the movie because I don't really know what these houses look like, or how these people dress, or what the vibe of a party is. They're just subtle differences that the production designer and the costume designer helped me with. I really like being in a different familiar—it was really nice to explore a different tribe other than my own for sure.
And everyone felt so authentic in that believable setting. Though that’s a permanent quality of your films—I always feel like I'm watching real people I either know or might meet someday.
I give [my actors] some freedom and we have some rehearsals [to achieve that]. But mostly, we read the script when I meet them, we'll have a table read and when we get to the set, I'll go in the hair and make-up trailer and talk to them more about what we're shooting that day and when we get on the set we rehearse it. I have a really good casting director and I think I'm good at casting with her. We both know what I like, which is, like you said, people you feel like you know or could be friends with and who have a very naturalistic style.
I think I write that way so they just say it that way. If anything sounds too "writerly" or too smart for the character or the wrong inflection to the character, I'll change it and the actors will also help me make it better all the time; either ad-lib or [make] suggestions. I'm open to those.
To me, Anders’ story was a profound one about aging. You reach a point in your life where you look back and start wondering, “Who am I? Have I made all the right choices? Is this the absolute happiest version of myself?” I'm wondering if you engaged with material from this angle.
Absolutely, I mean I'm in that stage right now. Is this where I want to be living? Are these the things I want to be doing? Is this the view I want to have for the rest of my life? Absolutely at my age and Anders’ age. That's probably also why the book spoke to me. It's a really strange period of time when your kids are grown up and there you are with more than half your life over. It's very sobering and it does take up a lot of time in my brain, unfortunately.
I thought it was really interesting that we meet him at a point where he had already made those life changes he considered necessary. He was already living with the ramifications of his poor choices.
Yeah, in the book, there's so much back-story and I just had to start somewhere. The book starts with a party that he goes to at the beginning of the movie but then of course there are all the stories about how he got to where he is. You can't do that in a movie, you've got to hurry up and say it.
And I like the subtle kind of ambiguity that brought into the story. Initially, I wasn't entirely sure if I was even a little impressed by his courage or if I was irritated by his irresponsibility.
I'm glad. At the party, he tells this guy that life has no meaning and it's just to make money, and yet he's being a dick while he says it. It's like wait, is he a good person or is he a dick, and he's actually both.
I'm always fascinated by stories of parents who struggle with doing the right thing and being a role model versus giving their children the freedom to make their own mistakes. That hard-to-strike balance was at the heart of this film.
I related to that a lot. I'm making mistakes all the time and it's so hard to know if you're fucking your kids up or not. You just have to take it for granted; “I'm going to fuck them up a little, but not too much.” Anything with parenting, the things that we inherit; the relationships we have with our parents and our children are so complex. This story goes in a direction I would never have gone toward. It's kind of more extreme of parents making really bad choices and trying to let his kid be who he is. The kid hates himself because he's just like his dad. He hates himself which is probably the father's fault. Right?
So many kids, obviously young kids, go to rehab these days. That's something I may know a lot about living in Los Angeles. If they're already sober, they’re expected to be adults when they're really immature. They've already lived half a life but they don't know anything.
I really loved Ben Mendelsohn in this role. Were you thinking of him as you were writing?
Not as I was writing. But, it was fun to cast. Netflix said, “Who do you want to play Anders?” I said, “Ben” and they said, “Great.” I've just seen him in a bunch of things. He actually reminds me of Catherine Keener in what I was drawn to. Like Catherine Keener, [he] has the kind of uniqueness [in] everything [he does]. I could just watch their face for hours doing things and never get tired. They make boring dialogue interesting. I wanted somebody that has charisma yet we can also believe how damaged he is. [He is a] great actor.
You can see both vulnerability in Mendelsohn, and a kind of confidence you might mistake for arrogance. Those qualities were perfect for Anders, I thought.
I think so too. And he has a great sense of humor and great timing. I knew that this [role] didn't have to be melodramatic. He could still be liked at times. A lot of the time, there's humor in life.
You brought up Catherine Keener. I did take note that she wasn’t in this movie, only because she's been in all of your movies before this.
Now she hates me. [laughs] I'm kidding. I wish I had a real answer; I just wanted to work with Edie Falco this time or she was busy. We're good friends and she understands that I don't have to cast her in every movie. Maybe because this one isn't based on something I wrote, I was more compelled to work with somebody else. There's no real good reason, it just sort of happened.
I was recently reading a profile of you in the New Yorker—I was surprised to read that sometimes people don't know who you are at parties and such. I’ve wondered why this might be. You’ve so far worked in the independent space mostly—do you think mainstream and independent audiences are too sharply divided in their tastes and consumption these days?
Yeah, I think so. But even if I'm at school and I meet these moms at school and they look like me and they walk like me and they talk like me, they've never heard of me. I'm surprised; in my demographic, it is really separated and it is pretty extreme. Of course, I know a lot of people know who I am in independent film but in the regular world, not so much. It's not so bad. Believe me, [Ariel Levy] said I like to complain about it and I probably do only because I get embarrassed. Someone will ask me what I do and then I tell them, and they either say, "Oh good for you. Is it a web series?" Or they'll say, "Name me your movies," and then I'll list them and they'll [go blank]. I complain only because I'm mortified and embarrassed, that's why.
We’re having all these “streaming” versus “theatrical” conversations in the industry right now. “The Land of Steady Habits” is by Netflix and will be on Netflix. Do you think Netflix and the broad accessibility it brings can maybe help close that divide between mainstream and independent a little bit?
Yeah, it's interesting. I wonder; whoever clicks the box might already be someone who has seen my films. Someone who's never heard of me [and clicks the box], I don't know, might turn it off if it's not their cup of tea. But I assume that many, many more people will be watching this movie than my other movies. So that's great. Whether it will inform the moms at school and keep me from being embarrassed? I have no idea. But it's great. I mean, that's the trade off with Netflix. Of course I'd rather have it be in a movie theater for two months. But that's kind of unrealistic these days. So it's better that it gets seen by more people, I feel.
I also want to ask you about your other new film, “Can You Forgive Me?”, for which you share a writing credit with Jeff Whitty.
We didn't co-write it. It looks like we wrote it together but I've actually never met the other writer. He did the first draft and I did the next draft. I was actually going to direct it but it didn't happen for a variety of reasons. It was my intention to direct my own script but I think Marielle Heller did a great job and I'm very proud of it.
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