February 5, 2023


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Nicole Holfsener: The Sundance Q&A

7 min read

It’s only fitting that the Sundance Film Festival will mark the personal return of one of its most famous directors — Nicole Holfsener, the indie stalwart whose debut film “Walking and Talking” put her on the map with its 1996 festival premiere.

This Sunday, he’ll debut “You Hurt My Feelings,” a second collaboration with Julia Louis-Dreyfus (cover star. diversity Sundance Problem). Like Holfsenner’s other intimate portraits of love and neurosis, the film sees Louis-Dreyfus as a mediocre writer struggling to get his new novel off the ground. She lives in co-dependent bliss with her therapist husband (Tobias Menzies) until she luckily hears him complain that she hates her job, despite years of encouragement and praise. Chaos ensues throughout the Manhattan apartment and restaurant where their lives run.

It’s exactly the kind of short but loaded relationship drama that has sent top actors to Holfsener’s doorstep for decades, a list that includes Catherine Keener and Jennifer Aniston. Ahead of his big “Heart My Feelings” premiere, Holfsener sat down to discuss the state of independent film, his strange experience directing while sick with COVID-19 and the tragic death of actor Anne Heche (who starred in “Walking and Talking”). .

What is your process from initial concept to script to shooting?

I’ve been trying to write this for years and have failed. No beginning and no end. Then, about a year ago, I quickly wrote it and then rewrote it 100 times. Then, a little more on set.

Do you write on the fly while you’re directing?

On set, it’s more collaborative. Some nights ago, I’ll decide I don’t like a line. Often, an actor will have a suggestion or a joke that I want to keep. I had really funny people in this movie, and they all had funny ideas. In general, I don’t like to change too much. I have absolutely no time in my schedule for real improvement. We had 22 days for it and during that time I had covid. I had to manage on my laptop.

From your laptop?

from my apartment

How does that go?

In the end it was a blessing, because without it we would have to close [workaround]. But talk about wanting to pull your hair out. It was a game of telephone. I’ll say something to the first assistant director, like, “Tell Julia I want her to try to make the line quieter.” Then, the first AD will say to the second AD, “Tell him to shut up.” And then as it approached Julia, the direction was, “Whisper!” That is the best way I can describe it.


Wait, my glasses are very dirty. I was talking to Sarah Silverman once, and she looked at me and said, “What do you clean your glasses with? Hmm?” I was fit.

You should work with Sarah.

We tried. We tried to write a script together once and it was ‘meh’. But I love him.

Back to “You hurt my feelings”, is this premise rooted in your own life?

I was reading a diary the other day, and I saw some notes I had written. One margin reads, “Can anyone love you if he doesn’t love your work?” It didn’t happen to me, but the smaller version has it. I once dated a guy who didn’t really get my movies. He was a nice person, but I don’t think it will work out in the end. As long as my loved ones like most of my work, I’m fine. Because my movies are very personal. If you don’t like my movie, how can you like me? My characters are filled with my humor, my arrogance, my self-pity.

One of the most interesting characters to me in this film is Wayne Teague, who plays Julia and Tobias’ son. I found his parents’ blind faith in his future to be a very Gen Z attitude. He feels suffocated by it, like he doesn’t want anyone to assume he’ll be great.

Wait, do I have food in my teeth?

Not at all. But do you think it’s a Gen Z thing?

I think so. I think we praise and encourage and lie to our kids in this generation more than others. Parents used to be more strict and withholding and blunt, like, “You can’t be an artist. Go be a doctor.”

When you and Julia did “Enough Said”, it really changed how people saw Julia and her talent. do you agree

You know, all her sitcoms were great and I’m sure she wanted to play every single one. After “Seinfeld,” though, people probably saw him a certain way as a comedian. I often feel that many good actors are typecast. I just worked with Mirile Enos from “The Killing.” He was in all these murder dramas where he always had a gun. But I directed her on a Bob Odenkirk show and she turned out to be very light and wonderful. I think it was a real pleasure for him.

How do you feel about the state of independent filmmaking at the moment?

It gets harder and harder. This is my seventh picture, and I’ve got 22 days. Even with big stars. It’s not getting easier. Business conditions are dire. It’s star-driven, franchise-driven, and there aren’t enough movies that are personal and unique. The new voice has nothing to say. I looked at this year’s Sundance schedule and there are a lot of people’s movies that I’ve never heard of. That’s really cool. Mine might be the most commercial here and it’s still indie and low budget.

Is there anything to be optimistic about?

Yes, I can still get a movie made. This makes me hopeful that I will make the next one. I have a small fanbase, thankfully, and actors who want to work with me. I also think the amount of different storytelling out there is encouraging.

What is the worst feedback you have received about your work?

“Walking and Talking,” my first movie. It was playing at Lincoln Center Plaza in New York and I went to the first showing. It was noon, and there were about ten people in the theater. Later I was in the bathroom and I overheard two older women discussing it. “It’s very unprofessional,” said one. It was kind of perfect.

There was also a review of that movie that could apply to all my movies, though I’ve never been given it again, which said, “It looks like he took notes from his diary and filmed them.” It was a negative thing.

“Walking and Talking,” was your first film with frequent muse Catherine Keener, and also starred Annie Hecht. How do you know about his death?

It was really sad, especially because I heard his car. The accident happened about five blocks from my house. I remember thinking, “Who is that, burning rubber?” And then helicopters filled the sky. I was shocked, but not surprised, and then really sad. He had a lot of problems, and I could tell early. It was just horrible, I still can’t believe she’s gone. We had a lot of fun in tech, he was great to work with.

I have a strange request. All the characters I love in film and TV stay in my head and I wonder how their lives have progressed since the last time I saw them. Do you play “Where Are They Now?” With some of your old movies?

If I can do it, I will. Once I make a movie, the characters are usually gone. But, shoot.

Frances McDormand from Friends with Money. When we last saw her, she was perimenopausal and losing it. Did she ever get over it and is she still with her gay husband?

She is definitely still with her gay husband. Her clothing line has all gone online, so there are no more stores. He puts some younger guys in charge because he can’t deal. But I think he’s right.

It makes me happy. Also Jennifer Aniston’s character from “Friends With Money”. Maid who discovers a schlubby secret millionaire. What distance do they go?

I think they are still together, and a really good match. I think he goes back to teaching because he doesn’t need to make a lot of money anymore because he’s so rich. But she likes kids, so she wants to go back to teaching — just not for spoiled rich kids.

Emily Mortimer in “Beautiful and Amazing”. Nervous actress who, in the end, is harmed by one of the many dogs she tries to save.

Good question. I think he quit acting, and he got this cut on his face. He became a writer, I think. Probably wrote some short screenplays successfully.

I can see his mother, Brenda Blethyn, in the movie, pressuring him to get cosmetic surgery on the scar.

I think he does a bit, but you can still see it.

Also from that movie, was Catherine Keener arrested for sleeping with an underage Jake Gyllenhaal?

What does mother press charge mean? I think he is humiliated enough for that. And as for her art, I imagine she’s still making small crafts and selling them on Etsy Etsy didn’t exist back then. Also, she dates, but has no serious boyfriend.

“Land of Fixed Habits.” Do you think Ben Mendelssohn has finally retired?

Yeah, but I think he’s definitely unstable. He and Connie Britton’s character don’t get along. He’s sobered up and now hates himself enough to disappear into retirement.

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