For years, Netflix and other digital platforms have been bringing top Hollywood talent in with the promise of greater creative control: If you make this movie for us, you can do it your way.
On the latest episode of Recode Media with Peter Kafka, independent film writer/director Nicole Holofcener confirmed that yes, that’s really how it happens. Originally, she was adapting Ted Thompson’s novel “The Land of Steady Habits” into a film that would be released theatrically — just like her other movies, such as “Walking and Talking,” “Lovely & Amazing” and “Enough Said.” But production “came to an impasse” over who would be cast in the movie she had written.
“It’s so competitive right now, you know?” Holofcener said. “Really, I had to offer it to the six A-list stars ... Some of the actors I offered it to are terrific, and would have been terrific in it, but they didn’t want to be. Or the schedule didn’t work, or something.”
After her choice for the role of Anders, Ben Mendelsohn, said he could do the movie, the studio backed out.
“The studio said, ‘Great, good luck, we love Nicole but we can’t do this one,’” Holofcener recalled. “And Netflix said, ‘You can cast whoever you want,’ and I said, ‘Okay, Ben Mendelsohn!’ And everybody else in it, and they were very hands off, very supportive, and it was a great experience.”
She said she hopes her fans do get a chance to see the movie in theaters during its limited theatrical run — which will help it qualify for awards — in part because of the one big downside to releasing a movie digitally: The audience can easily run away.
“[In a theater,] most people don’t walk out, even if they’re disappointed in the movie,” Holofcener said. “You know, it’s too easy to push a button on Netflix.”
Below, we’ve shared a full transcript of Peter’s conversation with Nicole.
Peter Kafka: This is Recode Media with Peter Kafka, that is me, I am part of the Vox Media podcast network. I’m not at Vox Media headquarters in New York City, I’m somewhere in Brooklyn, in the Slate/Panoply empire. Thanks for letting us do this interview here, guys. If you like this show, tell someone else about it.
There, I’m done with the pitch. I want to get right to my interview with Nicole Holofcener, one of my favorite writers and directors.
Nicole Holofcener: Thank you.
The whole reason I do podcasts is ... Well, I theoretically do them so I can talk about tech and media and their collision, but it’s really to talk to people like you. So, yay me, and yay you for showing up.
That’s good. If you have an excuse to meet the people you want to meet, go for it.
And they tell you you shouldn’t meet people you really like, but I don’t think that’s true. We’ll see.
I won’t disappoint you.
We will see how this goes.
Okay, I’ll do my best.
The reason you are talking to me today is you have a new movie out, which you can see as you listen to this right now, you should listen to this and then go watch it, on Netflix. It is called ...
Do we call this a Netflix movie or do we just call it a movie that is streaming on Netflix?
I don’t think I would ever say it’s a Netflix movie, but I would say it will be on Netflix. So, I still call it a ... I made a movie, and you can watch it on Netflix, and Netflix made it.
I used to go to things like the Landmark Theater and Sunshine Cinemas to go watch your stuff, because you are a veteran of the ’90s indie movie scene, and now I get to see your stuff at home. Which ... If you had your druthers, what would you prefer, that I watch something like this ... Would you rather that I watch this movie at home or at a theater?
I’d prefer you watch it on your phone. I mean on your watch.
All right, next up.
On your little iWatch. Of course, in a theater.
Yeah, of course.
... in the dark with an audience, trapped. Yes.
Yeah, but this will do. It looks great on my TV.
Yeah. Oh, good.
No, I’m not feeling bad about it streaming on Netflix. Of course, the preference is the theater, but Netflix was terrific to work with, and for, and more people will see the movie, and I’m not sure I had a real choice with this one because I really wanted to make it my way.
I want to talk about how it came to be. We should first just tell people what it is. The New York Times reviewed it, I saw, called it Cheever-esque, which means it’s about a middle-aged guy having a middle aged life crisis in upstate ... in Connecticut, actually.
In Westport, Connecticut, yeah.
In Westport, Connecticut.
Ben Mendelsohn, great actor, many of you have seen ... maybe don’t know who Ben Mendelsohn is, but he’s one of those guys you go, “Oh yeah, it’s Ben Mendelsohn.” He’s great. Normally, you make movies with Catherine Keener, she’s not in this movie.
What else should we tell people about the plot of the movie? Or should we just let them watch it?
I would say watch it, and it kind of starts a little methodically. Most of my movies sort of do, like, okay, and then by the time it ramps up it really packs a wallop, so don’t give up on it, things happen.
It happens at its own pace. It starts off with Ben Mendelsohn looking at a ... he’s wandering around a Bed, Bath & Beyond, which you made look ...
As we all.
You make it look incredibly intimidating.
It is intimidating! It’s ghastly and fun, it can be both. But it’s about this guy and his problems, and how he wreaks havoc on other people’s lives. Very narcissistic, unhappy man.
I’m going to spoil it a little bit, there is no Marvel tie-in, there is no superhero of any sort, I don’t think? Unless you want to use a metaphor.
No, although he plays a Marvel villain in another movie. But no, it’s about families and parenting, and it’s funny, and it’s very sad, as well.
Yeah, I was reading the New Yorker profile of you from earlier this year, and you described your movies as “sad” ... That this movie is a sad movie. I guess all your movies are sad movies.
Certainly they get sadder as I go along.
“Sad, small story.” There, I just looked it up.
Yeah. I mean, you know, all my movies, starting from “Lovely and Amazing,” have very sad elements, or emotional elements, but in this movie, something really sad happens that’s different than, you know, emotions.
I wonder if we’re not selling this hard enough. It’s a great movie.
I would say you should go see it, you should stream it.
You should stream it.
You should stream it.
And don’t turn it off.
And this is the kind of movie that we’re supposed to say people don’t make anymore, but I think they do make these movies, they just show up in places like Netflix or Amazon now. I mean, before, they never get to a theater.
And it’s, again, the kind of movie that you have been making, I think, your entire career.
So, how come this movie is a Netflix movie and not one that I’m seeing in a theater?
It got very close to being made with a studio, albeit a small studio.
You want to walk me through the story? Is it something you actually created and then sold, or ...
No, yes, no. It’s from a book, by Ted Thompson, that feels Cheever-esque itself, and we took it to a studio and they paid me to write it, and we started to develop it, but couldn’t agree on casting and other things, and we kind of came to an impasse. Because it’s so competitive right now, you know? Really, I had to offer it to the six A-list stars.
“We won’t make this movie unless it stars actors X, Y and Z.”
This one or that one or this one.
And did you say, “This has to be Ben Mendelsohn,” or it has to be these other actors?
Well, I told them I wanted Ben Mendelsohn.
From the start.
From the start.
He’s so great. Good for you.
He’s so great. But, you know, it was going to be a theatrical release, and a very, you know, emotional movie, not a blockbuster. And some of the actors I offered it to are terrific, and would have been terrific in it, but they didn’t want to be. And ... Or the schedule didn’t work, or something, so ...
Which is all sort of standard movie stuff, stuff you’re used to.
Yeah, yeah. And Ben said yes. Well, I then went to Netflix, my producers, a likely story, took it to Netflix, and the studio said, “Great, good luck, we love Nicole but we can’t do this one,” and Netflix said, “You can cast whoever you want,” and I said, “Okay, Ben Mendelsohn! And everybody else” in it, and they were very hands off, very supportive, and it was a great experience.
How long ago did you sort of start working with them? How long ago did the Netflix connection happen?
I guess two years, because I shot it a year and a half ago already.
Okay. At that time I think they’d said we’re going to do movies, but they hadn’t really, I don’t think, pushed into it very far. Did you discuss with them, “Well, I’d like to stream it, but I’d also like to get it into theaters?” Did you have that discussion with them, or did you already know what you were getting with them?
I knew what I was getting, and it is going to have a theatrical release.
Oh, it is?
Yeah, for like a week in a few cities.
So it will qualify for awards, etc.
But they have drawn this line in the sand and said, “We want everyone to see this movie at the same time, and we don’t want to put it in theaters first,” whereas Amazon, I think in part to work with people like you, has said no, you can put it in theaters for a little bit, we’ll let you have that run and then we’ll stream it, and that’s supposedly ...
You tell me, does it matter to you? It does matter to you. You’d rather have it in a theater.
Yeah, as long as it’s not streaming at the same time, you know? If it’s VOD, it’s like forget it, no one’s going to leave the house. And in this instance, you know, probably very few people will see it in the theater unless, you know, my fan base runs out to support me, which I hope you do!
Go see it. What do you think about the fact that you’re not going to get numbers at all about this? You’re not going to have any idea who saw it except from people like me who walk up to you and say, “I love your movie.”
Yeah. Well, I will have some idea. Netflix will say, you know, this many people watched it, or ...
They’ll give you actual streaming numbers?
It’s ... I don’t know if they’ll give me numbers, but they’ll talk about the graph, and so I’ll get an idea if people are watching it or not. But it is sort of out of my hands in a way that I like. Like, you know, it’s really horrible to watch your movie, you know, the ads in the paper get smaller and smaller and smaller until they’re not there, and then you look up and it’s not in the theater anymore, and it’s really hard to keep a movie in the theaters for longer than, you know, a minute.
The New York Times, which liked your movie quite a bit — A.O. Scott’s critic’s choice, I was looking at it today.
Thank you so much.
I was looking at ... I was just curious, and I said I wanted to see what they would say about the fact that it’s streaming, you couldn’t see it ... There’s no reference to where you see the movie at all.
In the ... It’s true. Don’t they ... Maybe they put it at the bottom of something.
I looked, and maybe I missed it. I mean, literally the photo credits say Netflix, but it doesn’t say anything about the fact that this is not in a movie theater, that this is streaming, there’s none of that. On the one hand, I think it’s kind of cool, right? They’re just saying this is a movie, it’s the same as any other movie. On the other hand, you might be confused if you went looking for this in Fandango.
People would be wandering around neighborhoods, yeah, all confused.
Be very frustrated. Does this differ in any way from the ... in terms of putting this thing together and actually shooting it and creating it, than “Lovely and Amazing” or any of the movies you made 10, 15, 20 years ago?
I mean, every time I make a movie, there has been a casting ... not a problem, but it’s very much a part of whether or not I can get the movie financed.
The money and the cast are connected.
Yes. So, you know, places will say, “I want your movie, let’s talk about casting,” and, you know, I’m really choosy. I feel like it makes or breaks your movie, and I would prefer not to make the movie with the wrong cast, because it won’t turn out right. And so, that’s always an issue, but I’ve never had to cast someone I didn’t want, you know? Maybe it was someone I wouldn’t have thought of, and in the end I’m very happy they’re in it and was happy to offer them the part. So, sometimes the compromise is fine, and sometimes it’s not, so I don’t go there.
And in this case there’s zero compromise, you just made your movie.
Do you feel like, “Oh, well if they’re going to take those constraints off, maybe there’s things I can do that I’ve never been able to do before, not having any limits gives me options to do X, Y and Z?” Do you try things you wouldn’t have done normally?
I had financial limits. It’s not like, “Oh, I want to work with a technocrane, bring me a ...” No.
Yeah, again, and very low on special effects.
I was ... Catherine Keener is in all your other movies, not this one.
I was expecting her to show up as a clerk at some point, scowling.
Yeah, as a cameo or something?
Yeah. She’s too good for a cameo, and I missed her making this movie, but, you know, she makes other movies with other directors.
I’m allowed, and we knew the day would come. You know, there are so many actors I want to work with, and ... Yeah.
And this is the first movie that has, really, a male lead. It’s a Ben Mendelsohn movie, not a Catherine Keener or a Jennifer Aniston movie. Was that an itch you wanted to scratch, or that’s just, this is a movie that you made?
It’s just, this is the movie I made. I don’t ... Maybe it is a little bit of an itch I wanted to scratch, because I just hate being thrown into this female chick-flick ghetto, and there’s no way anybody could call this movie that.
I did ... One of the reviews ... I think it was the Times review I saw called this “implicitly feminist.”
Yeah, what do you think they meant?
Huh. I don’t know, because the character is such a dick, and the women really seem smarter and kinder? If that’s feminist, I don’t know, it’s just this character, right?
I’m a feminist, why not?
I don’t even know ... Well, I was going to say I don’t know what that means. I think I know what it means. But yeah, I was trying to figure out what that meant in the context of this movie, and I guess it ... Yeah, I guess you come down to it that he’s a dick. It’s a midlife crisis where he, spoiler, doesn’t really learn that much about himself, maybe?
Mm-hmm. I think he’s scarred, literally and figuratively, by the end of the movie, and I think scars change people, you know? He’s scarred, and hopefully that will reflect on his behavior and his self-knowledge, try to be a little better of a person.
When you’re not making movies, you occasionally direct a TV show, some commercials as well?
Is that because you have a love of TV, or you’re paying rent/mortgage?
Well, both. I do have to make a living, and the TV stuff is fun. Commercials, while they can also be fun, and I get to work with new people, that’s primarily a ... you know, a really good money job, and they’re not easy to get.
Do you have to raise your hand and say, “I know that I make feature films that are critically acclaimed and many people love, but I will also make your Smart Water ad?” Or whatever the ad is.
You have to sort of beg for it. You have to write a five-, six-page treatment, with photographs, telling them how you’ll shoot it, and then they ... you know, they chose among many directors who have done the same.
And presumably they don’t want me to be able to identify a Nicole Holofcener ad as a Nicole Holofcener ad.
I have no idea.
But they don’t want a particular thing from you. They want you to make something on a budget that’s this long.
No, I mean, they would choose me because of what I would bring to it, of what ... you know, based on what my movies are like. But, of course, I’m not the boss, you know, and there’s a lot of people telling me how they want it to be. So, it is collaborative. In a good situation, it is.
And is TV sort of a middle ground where generally it’s kind of described often as a writer’s medium?
Yeah. I mean, I am lucky enough to pick TV shows that I really like.
“Orange Is the New Black,” what else?
Yeah. Oh, I started with “Sex and the City” and “Six Feet Under” and “Orange Is the New Black” and “One Mississippi,” I did the pilot, and I’m doing a pilot now called “Mrs. Fletcher” that Tom Perrotta wrote for HBO.
I mean, these are great people, you know? Really good writers. So, I show up on set and I hope to do it justice, basically, because I do pick what I love, and I do respect the people who are making it. It’s not like, you know, a money grab, and I do care.
But just explain to our listeners the difference between directing a movie that you have created versus directing a TV show that someone else has written, and sort of where you’re boxed in and where you’re not in terms of decisions.
Right. I don’t have the last word directing a television show. I will always turn around to “video village,” where the writer and the producers are sitting, or writers, and before I move on I’ll say, “Do you guys have any notes? Are you ready to move on? Are you happy?” And they give a thumbs up, or if someone runs over and whispers in my ear ... When I’m making a movie it’s up — I have to leave it up to me.
So there’s this big boom in streaming, obviously, in Netflix and Amazon with throwing around money, and it’s now Apple and lots of other folks. They seem to want to make serialized stuff, and some movies, you’re benefiting from the movie part of it. Have you thought about, “I could make a series, that would be an interesting thing for me to do, a lot of these characters and ideas would transfer over?”
Yeah. I’ve done some stuff that didn’t end up getting picked up or didn’t come to fruition, I think mostly because there was another show similar to what I was pitching, or ... I had written a lot of it. And, you know, you can only have one female character lead in my age group, and that show had been done, but ... And I’m actually really okay with it, because showrunners, they have no life, and I just don’t like to work that hard.
Because you’re working year-round making 13 or 26 or whatever it is.
Yeah, it’s crazy.
And here you make a movie, start to finish, you know what you’re doing, also you’ve done it a bunch.
Yeah, and it ... you know, it ends. You know, I got five weeks to shoot a movie and life resumes, presumably, but being a showrunner running a show with how many episodes, that goes on forever.
Yeah, plus there’s notes. I mean, and I realize that Netflix, again, is more hands off, but they have more hands on than not.
They do. Yeah, I’m sure with lots of things, especially television shows, because they get the scripts in advance, and ... You know, and I think since “Big Little Lies” and “Ozark” and “The Night Of,” everyone wants to make a limited series.
They’re turning movies into limited series, like, a movie that’s been released, let’s say, “Let’s make it a …”
“Let’s stretch it out.”
That’s weird. But that’s good. I mean, the more mediums the better, and the more ways to release material is great.
Have you thought about playing around with sort of the form factor? Like, you know, this thing doesn’t need to be 90-ish minutes to two hours. We could tell this in 28 minutes, or 54 minutes. Have you played around with that idea, or are you comfortable with things that are this long and have this many acts?
I’m comfortable with the 120-page screenplay. It’s usually a little bit less, but I’m so used to writing that that it ... strangely, if I didn’t have page numbers, I would still end up somewhere around there. It’s very intuitive.
I’ve made short films, and they’re fun, but my ideas, I think, stretch out a little bit longer than that. But I wouldn’t ... I would be challenged to make more short films, or weird lengths.
If someone knows your work, they go, “Oh, she makes movies starring Catherine Keener and they feature complicated, or difficult, or pick your adjective, female characters,” and these are always the things they say about you, and you just talked about not wanting to be in the female ghetto. I guess the way of flipping that around is how come ... Why do you think, in 2018, there are so few people who do the kind of movies you make with strong, interesting, complicated female leads? You’d think with all the money we’re throwing around there would be enough room for more of the stuff that you do.
Well, I think there are a lot of them. I mean, I just came from Toronto Film Festival and there was a room full of them, they’re just from all over the country, they don’t have stars, and no one’s ever going to see their beautiful movies. So, there are ... They are out there in America, in the Hollywood system. I have no idea. It’s a sexist business, it’s every business is generally sexist and racist, right?
Yeah, I think so, as a white guy. But you’d think at some point you go, “All right, well, that’s fine.” Periodically someone says, “Oh, turns out if you make a movie for African-Americans it will do very well, because it’s an underserved audience.” They keep having that revelation periodically, every couple of years. And you would think, again, especially when you have data people like Netflix who supposedly know what everyone wants and can see what everyone wants, they think, “Oh, well there’s a demand for more of this stuff.”
Well, Netflix is, I think, hiring a lot more female directors. I think there is a movement that’s realizing we can make money for them, and also we’ve shamed them enough so that they’re doing the right thing. And that’s okay as long as the tail can wag the dog and then eventually, you know what I mean?
Then they’ll start hiring us because we’re talented.
Speaking of shame, we’re about a year, I think, since the first wave of Harvey Weinstein’s stories broke.
And then all the other stories that came after that. Any sense in how Hollywood and the media world has changed in terms of how you do your work, how you sense that other people are doing the work that you do?
Not personally at all.
Why do you think that is?
Because I don’t work every day in these situations or, you know, the people I work with are wonderful and don’t harass me or assault me in any way. Everybody talks about it. If you flirt with someone, it’s like, “Uh-uh-uh.” But because we all know each other and love each other, we’re being ... we’re kind of joking within ourselves.
Do you think that’s a permanent ... well, you’re saying you haven’t seen a change first-hand so you’re hearing about it. Do you think the reaction to Weinstein and all subsequent stories are now sort of ... that’s now baked into the culture? Or do you think we’re in a temporary phase and maybe people will backslide?
Probably both. I think people make comebacks. People you would never expect. I mean, people get elected as president that you would never expect, so even after we knew everything ...
Saw the tape, heard the tape.
Yeah. I think it’s a combination, I hope it changes for good. I think men are running for the hills who might be slightly guilty. People should have better behavior, so I hope it sticks.
Yeah, we are recording this a couple of days after Les Moonves was finally forced out. I think people are just starting to ... it’s just starting to sink in, how outrageous some of that behavior was, again, for decades.
Mm-hmm. Plus, we don’t say anything. It’s incredible.
No, you’re not saying anything, but he ... there’s Weinstein, who’d been whispered/rumors/talked about forever. Les Moonves was not immediately on those lists. He wasn’t someone who everyone winked and nudged at. And it makes you wonder how much more of that is there. I’m sure you have your own list.
It’s a short list. It’s a very short list, but I have a little list. Nothing traumatic at all. But it’s caused me some stress, I would say, but that’s all.
So let’s say you’re starting off, and you are Nicole, that you’re starting off making movies in 2018. How is your life different than when you were trying to break into the business?
Well, I think that ’90s indie scene really helped me. And I think being a woman eventually helped me, because I was more of an anomaly. And it’s like, “Oh, let’s give this girl a chance,” you know, personal stories, and she’ll do it for a million dollars.
And the ’90s indie scene was, people were making movies for small amounts of money, but we realized these things can be very popular and become insanely profitable because they cost so little, and there’s a lot of interest in them.
Yeah, like after “Sex, Lies and Videotape,” I think everything changed. And that gave me more confidence to plow ahead. Because those were the kind of movies I was going to make. I wanted to make screwed up people and their problems, and funny stuff, sad stuff. So now, because you can make a movie by yourself, and still with a lot less money and to a much smaller camera and a smaller crew.
Steven Soderbergh told me he’d be making movies on his iPhone, no doubt.
He would be?
Yeah, yeah, I probably would be, too. And that’s great, people can do that. You have to have a certain energy and aggressive personality to say, “I’m just going to do this anyway, fuck it,” you know? I have always relied on really good producers, Anthony Bregman, Stefanie Azpiazu and Ted Hope, and Carrie. Really loyal, really talented producers that helped me.
And not just for the logistical, financial part of it, but they do what for you creatively?
Oh my God, they’re like, “Nic, write whatever you want, can’t wait to read it. This is fantastic. Here’s some notes, don’t listen to them. Don’t worry, we’re going to get this made.” And they protect me and fight for me.
Interesting. What’s the next project going to be? Well, you’ve got the HBO thing coming out. Are you directing an episode, or are you going to be ...
So that’s a one-off.
And then more, I’m an executive producer on it, so I have the option to direct more. But they’re just writing the scripts now.
And this is probably not something you spend the time thinking about, but any sense of how HBO might be changing now that they’re owned by the phone company?
No, I have absolutely no idea.
No, they’re not discussing it, you don’t care, you want to make a show.
Yeah. I assume they bought HBO because they want to continue making quality, beautiful things.
Yeah, they keep saying, “We want to do that. But we also want to make a lot more of them,” and that’s making everyone a tiny bit nervous.
Yeah, well that’s like Netflix. It has an enormous amount of movies to release.
Right, and up until now, the HBO critique of Netflix was, “Well, you guys make so much stuff that it gets lost. And if you come to HBO we’ll shine your precious jewel.”
Yeah, I don’t think that’s, I don’t think they’re thinking that way anymore.
No, now they said, “Well, we said that, but that was because we didn’t have any money.”
Did they really?
That’s what Richard Plepler said, yeah. But now it turns out we want to make a lot more stuff. There’s no reason they can’t, right?
I have no idea.
You don’t care.
I don’t know anything about that.
Do you get a sense that all of this money that’s flowing in to Hollywood right now from the likes of Netflix and Apple and the phone company, that this is a temporary thing, and that you ought to take advantage of it now while you can? Or you’re going to make stuff on your own schedule whenever you can?
Oh, well I can only work on my own schedule. I can’t write something faster than it should be written, you know? I don’t have a situation that’s broken, and so I feel like I don’t have to worry about fixing it. And I think the streaming stuff is only going to get more immense and theaters are going to close, and we’re all going to cry. You know, virtual reality.
No, I don’t want to see that. I will say, though, that something like “The Land of Steady Habits” is something I’m very glad I saw. I may not have made it to the theater, get a babysitter, blah, blah, blah. And I think it plays great on my Costco TV that I bought.
But how big is your TV, like that?
I don’t want to brag, but it’s 55 ... I mean, the main thing is, if I see it in the theater I don’t go to stop the movie and answer the phone, right? That I give you a full 90 minutes, whereas ...
And chances are you won’t walk out. Most people don’t walk out, even if they’re disappointed in the movie. You know, it’s too easy to push a button on Netflix.
Yeah, or just you hear someone else in the house wants your attention, right?
And I talked to Bo Burnham who made “Eighth Grade,” and I saw that in a screening room. And that is a really tiny movie about a girl, and she’s in eighth grade, and she’s going to be in ninth grade, and that’s the entirety if the story. But it’s intense, and it’s got this super loud soundtrack. And he said, “Yeah, we really want you to see in this theater, in part because the audio is like ...”
I can’t wait to see this movie. I have not had a chance to see it.
It’s pretty intense, and actually there’s some common threads between your movie and his movie, I think.
Mm-hmm. There are.
I’ll let you judge.
Yeah, all right. I will let you go.
Thank you for your time.
This article originally appeared on Recode.net.