Co.Create

"Enough Said" Director Nicole Holofcener On Creating (Uncomfortably) Realistic Characters

With her latest, Enough Said, starring Julia Louis-Dreyfus and James Gandolfini, in theaters, Nicole Holofcener talks creating characters that hit close to home.

Note: This article is included in our year-end storytelling advice round-up.

There's something comforting about an utterly typical romantic comedy. As the gorgeous workaholic and the noncommittal playboy learn that maybe opposites really do attract, the familiarity of so much warmed-over, pun-laden banter wraps around the viewer like a security blanket made from schmaltz. These movies are easy on the eyes and brain because they're escapist fantasies that Hollywood assumes everybody, mainly women, wishes for themselves—and they also have very little relation to reality.

Nicole Holofcener

For a glimpse at reality, however, or at least a true cinematic simulacrum, one need look no further than the films of Nicole Holofcener. Over the course of four features, the writer/director fine-tuned her signature take on the female-driven comedy with ensemble affairs starring Catherine Keener, wherein people and relationships are rendered with voyeuristic authenticity. Now, with her latest film, Holofcener is doing her part to annihilate the Katherine Heigl paradigm from within by taking a typical romantic comedy premise, but grounding it in reality.

Enough Said stars recent Emmy-winner Julia Louis-Dreyfus as a divorced single mother who meets a new love interest and a new friend at the same party one night, and whose life is soon complicated by both. The late James Gandolfini plays the love interest, in one of his final performances, and Holofcener's go-to, Keener, plays the friend. To go into specifics of their circumstances would be to betray the mechanics of the plot, but the joy and terror in watching this director's work is in observing her characters and their foibles, which seem uncomfortably close to the way that people actually behave. It may not offer the easy comfort of a rom-com, but it does provide the deeper pleasure of knowing others think about some of the same stuff you do, and making that funny.

After a triumphant turn at the Toronto International Film Festival, Enough Said is now in theaters. Nicole Holofcener recently spoke with Co.Create about the film, making characters that audiences recognize as people, and leaving out the bullshit.

Let the Character Reveal Themselves to You

I get to know the character as I'm writing and I change her as I go along, but I absolutely get to know her. I don't mean to sound like I'm channeling God or anything, but it's more like the character reveals herself to me. I either like what she's revealing or I don't. I have the power to edit it, but I just kind of let it flow and see who I'm creating in an unconscious way.

Avoid Show Off-y Dialogue

Sometimes I want to make the characters sound more intelligent than me, and it's a struggle. I don't like people to sound fake or overly literary. It definitely takes me out of a movie when I hear somebody say something clever just for cleverness sake and it seems like the writer showing off.

Respect Your Characters… By Casting Likable Actors

Eva (Julia Louis Dreyfus) does some pretty awful things in the movie, but I feel like we might be able to understand what motivates her and like her at the same time. And that's a matter of casting in my opinion. I really try to cast people who, if they're going to do some rotten things, they'd better be really likable people. If I've cast some kind of cold Norwegian beauty we might have had a harder time relating to her. I guess I inherently respect the characters. I've got to kinda love them.

Avoid Single-Trait Characters

I think so many female leads get labeled as one thing. She's type A, or she's frumpy even though she's really pretty, or she's clumsy, or she's a basket case. That's just so not interesting to me. It's just limited imagination or sexism that causes it to happen.

Collaborate With Your Actors

Catherine Keener and Julia Louis-Dreyfus

If something is gnawing at me and I'm not sure I've made the right decision, I'll bring it up. Somebody really smart like Julia, I want her opinion. She has the same taste as I do, I think, she knew exactly what my fears were. In a Seinfeld episode it would be different. She knew just what I wanted to avoid. And often I would ask James [Gandolfini] or Julia, we would discuss things a lot.

I didn't want to make a silly movie. I didn’t want Eva running around and hiding behind bushes. She actually does hide behind a bush, just one bush. It was kind of unavoidable. We discussed whether she should turn around and face the music, but Julia and I agreed that this character would not know what to do and that she'd just run and hide. The script was pretty tight, but there's always room for improvement.

Include As Little Bullshit As Possible

I don't really plan it out for the characters to have these really raw human experiences, but I think inevitably it ends up that way. In the story I want to tell, the characters end up being probably embarrassed frequently or they're in awkward situations just like in real life. I always have a desire to show people the way they are—from how they dress to how stupid they can be, and how entertaining they can be. It's just human behavior. I'd like to have as little bullshit in there as possible.

[Images courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures]

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1 Comments

  • Christopher Phillips

    Very important advice. It's always great to get the inside look on how characters were developed for a story and the article touches on all the major points.