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Nicole Holofcener on Ben Affleck, Reese Witherspoon, WGA Deal Mess

Nicole Holofcener on Ben Affleck, Reese Witherspoon, WGA Deal Mess

Nicole Holofcener (Walking and Talking, Friends With Money) on Wednesday entertained attendees of a Czech film festival, discussing, in a Q&A, her collaborations with such stars as Ben Affleck and Matt Damon as well as losing out on directing Reese Witherspoon in Legally Blonde.

Holofcener has been busy in the Czech spa town of Karlovy Vary in recent days. The 58th edition of the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival (KVIFF) is honoring her with a career retrospective, screening three of her movies. They are Please Give, Enough Said and You Hurt My Feelings

During a KVIFF Talk at the Hotel Thermal, the fest headquarters, on Wednesday, she said she felt honored by the fest’s invitation and decision to screen three of her films. “I’m not even dead yet,” she quipped.

Asked how much box office success means to her given she is known for her indie film work, Holofcener offered: “It means a lot to me. It means people are seeing my films. I’ve never lost money. So that’s, I think, why I’m able to keep going. And some movies have made a fair amount of money. But I never know why or which ones do and which ones don’t.”

She also addressed the broader state of the indie film sector. “Right now, it’s really hard to get movies seen,” the filmmaker said. “And then when they end up on streaming platforms, there are too many little pictures. You don’t know what you’re going to watch or why. So, even though You Hurt My Feelings (starring Julia Louis-Dreyfus) was in theaters for a really long time, it didn’t make any money, which I don’t understand. Maybe someone’s getting rich. But that’s really disappointing. Of course, I want to make money from what I love doing the most,” even though that is not her top priority.

Her TV work helps her with making a living. “Really, I make money from directing television and doing writing jobs, like adapting books or rewriting something,” Holofcener explained. “Three weeks of writing on a Marvel movie paid more money than making three films. It’s obscene!”

How was rewriting a Marvel tentpole for her? “Fun because I get hired to make female characters better. Because men don’t understand women or whatever,” she said. “So on Black Widow, I worked on Scarlett Johansson’s character and Florence Pugh’s character, just making them more human, giving them a little more depth. And it’s not hard, especially when they’re written just like cardboard characters.”

There are also other benefits of such jobs, she noted. “I meet all these new people and get to see these crazy sets, like on The Last Duel when I wrote Jodie Comer’s part. I never would have had the experience of watching battles in France in real castles. And I might not want to direct a movie like that, but to witness that was a wonderful experience and really cool.”

So what was it like to work with Ben Affleck and Matt Damon? “I knew Ben before because we were mutual fans. He had written me a letter, and I visited him on set,” Holofcener shared. “He’s one of the smartest, funniest people I’ve ever known. He might have love troubles but he’s really one of the smartest and funniest people, and I respect him enormously. I didn’t know Matt, except my son dated his daughter in high school. And I was jealous. ‘You know Matt Damon, and I don’t?’ They are just great guys. And they were so generous toward me. They acted like they revered me so I was very comfortable. And I wrote that part for her. In the end, we all collaborated on everything because it had to be a cohesive script. It was very collaborative and really a great experience.”

Holofcener also drew laughs when she recalled missing out on a collaboration with another big star. “I was sent scripts that I regret not taking,” she said. “After Walking and Talking, I met with Reese Witherspoon, and she said, ‘Do you want to direct this movie? I’m doing Legally Blonde.’ When I read it, I thought, ‘This is so silly, and didn’t know where to begin.’ So I passed. And you know what? It turned out to be a really great movie. And I think [Robert Luketic] did a great job. I probably would have done a less great job. I would have made it less broad, less funny, more real.”

Questioned about her directing experience, Holofcener suggested that it was sometimes harder for men to take her guidance as a director. “I think that men often have a hard time trusting me, because they’re generally not the leads,” she offered. “And I think that men have a hard time not being the lead – or not being likable on screen. I’ve had actors say, ‘Oh, can I just be a little nicer or not do this,’ and I’m like [no]. And then they see the movie and they get it. They’re like, ‘You were so right. I was trying to make my character into something else. And you were right.’ So they eventually apologize. But it’s never been a lot. It’s always been manageable. The sets that I have are funny and we’re joking, kidding around and not taking things too seriously – except the words on the page.”

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Later on in the conversation, the topic of the film industry in the streaming age came up again. Holofcener suggested that many of the movies streaming “we should be seeing … in theaters.” And she recalled: “Independent movies when I was coming up in the ’90s were really exciting and open, and studios were willing to take chances on me — weirdos. I was at Sundance with Todd Solondz and Quentin Tarantino. Everyone was starting out at the same time, and now, I think, everybody’s running scared. And there are generally six actors that will get you the financing you want.”

In the streaming age, she has also seen cinemas close down. “So many theaters in New York where my movies used to play are gone. And that’s just really sad for me and sad for new filmmakers coming up. It’s really different right now. But I survived the strike. I had a writing job, and I got paid the day before the strike, and I was okay. A lot of people were really in bad shape.”

How about other challenges for writers and filmmakers and the role of the recent new WGA labor deal with studios? “I don’t think they’re hiring robots to write scripts yet,” Holofcener said. “I think they will. It will happen. But a lot of people were having smaller writers rooms. [Yet] somebody like Mike White, who wrote all episodes of The White Lotus, you know, … is forced to have a writers room. He has to pay writers to work on his. So they’re just sitting there.”

She concluded: “From what I understand in terms of the deals that we made, it’s good for writers to have more jobs, but at the same time, some of it doesn’t make sense. So it’s a mess. A lot of television writers that I know are struggling, really struggling to make enough money and to get work.”

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