After Jessie Nelson made the heartwarming 2001 drama “I Am Sam,” starring an Oscar-nominated Sean Penn as a developmentally disabled father, she decided to put family ahead of her directing career.
“My daughter Molly was 6 when I directed ‘I Am Sam,’ ” Nelson, 60, said at the Pacific Palisades house she shares with her husband, director Bryan Gordon. “I realized I didn’t want to miss her childhood, and directing is an all-encompassing thing. I began to pass on things.”
But she didn’t totally leave Hollywood behind. She wrote and produced the 2007 comedy “Because I Said So” and produced 2007’s “Fred Claus,” 2012’s “Hope Springs” and this year’s “Danny Collins.” She also wrote the book for the upcoming Broadway musical version of Adrienne Shelly’s 2007 indie hit comedy “Waitress.”
When Molly graduated from high school, Nelson thought it was a natural time to begin directing again.
“I went from being on every list to ‘Who is Jessie?’ ‘What has Jessie being doing all of this time?’” the soft-spoken director said. “I had faith. The movies I directed I generated myself. They were not assignments that were given to me.”
The same is true with her multigenerational holiday film that opened Friday, “Love the Coopers.”
A friend of Nelson’s, screenwriter Steven Rogers, wrote the film on speculation and brought it to her to help develop.
“As we sculpted it together,” she said, “I really thought I really love this and would love to direct it.”
Because she had taken a hiatus to be with her family, a movie about family had a special meaning, she said.
“Steven, when he first wrote it, said, ‘I just want to bring a little joy into the world.’ I thought that is such a wonderful intention,” Nelson said. “It is such a difficult time in the world and often filmmaking can be cynical right now — anti-emotional in a way.”
Their children also have issues. Daughter Eleanor (Olivia Wilde) can’t seem to find love, so she asks a handsome young Army soldier (Jake Lacy) she meets at the airport to pretend to be her boyfriend. Son Hank (Ed Helms) is out of work, newly single and coping with three children. Keaton’s character’s bitter sister (Marisa Tomei) is arrested while shoplifting a present. And the family patriarch (Alan Arkin) finds himself closer to a young diner waitress (Amanda Seyfried) than his own daughters.
Wrapping up the bow of dysfunction are Aunt Fishy (June Squibb), a spitfire who suffers from dementia, and the beloved family dog Rags (Bolt), who never met a piece of food he didn’t eat.
From left, Jake Lacy and Olivia Wilde in the movie “Love the Coopers.”(Suzanne Tenner / CBS Films)
From left, John Goodman, June Squibb and Diane Keaton in “Love the Coopers.”(Suzanne Tenner / CBS Films)
Marisa Tomei in “Love the Coopers.”(Suzanne Tenner / CBS Films)
Diane Keaton and John Goodman in “Love the Coopers.”(Suzanne Tenner / CBS Films)
Clockwise from left: Amanda Seyfried, Jake Lacy, Olivia Wilde, John Goodman, Ed Helms, Alan Arkin, Diane Keaton, Alex Borstein (back to camera), Blake Baumgartner and Maxwell Simkins in “Love the Coopers.”(Suzanne Tenner / CBS Films)
Alan Arkin and Amanda Seyfried in “Love the Coopers.”(Suzanne Tenner / CBS Films)
Amanda Seyfried, left, and director Jessie Nelson on the set of “Love the Coopers.”(Suzanne Tenner / CBS Films)
“You scratch any family and they are dealing with loss or unemployment or a kid in a challenging relationship,” Nelson said. “No family has it all worked out.” The script tries hard to represent the real kinds of conflicts families have, she said, without having someone be right and someone be wrong.
One of the most complicated sequences in “Love the Coopers” was the Christmas dinner scene when emotions and issues come to a head. Fourteen cast members worked through four days — and 45 identical Christmas dinners — to finish the scene.
“Each time we had to reload the plates,” Nelson said of the many takes. “The first day the actors had so much energy and the scenes were moving along. The second day I thought, where is the energy? They were all on a carbohydrate high!” (Nelson noted that Keaton loved the crispy onions on the green beans, and “the dog loved everything.”)
“She is very sure of herself and very honest,” Squibb said of her director. “She sticks to what she says. There is no fooling around.”
One reason Nelson has a strong rapport with actors might be because she began as an actress.
“I really didn’t like my actor’s life,” Nelson said. “I didn’t enjoy spending the day auditioning or waiting to be hired. I didn’t like having the creative power outside of my own control.”
Though she found her creative life in writing, Nelson felt like she needed to teach herself how to direct. In 1991 she wrote and directed the short film “To the Moon, Alice,” starring Chris Cooper.
“That was like a real film school for me,” she said.
Three years later, she made her feature debut with the comedy-drama “Corrina, Corrina,” starring Whoopi Goldberg and Ray Liotta.
Around the time of the release of “Corrina, Corrina,” Nelson was befriended by writer-director Nora Ephron, who told Nelson not to get discouraged and never to give up.
Nelson offers the same advice to the female writers and directors she’s taught at the Sundance Screenwriters Lab the last five years.
“I encourage them more than anything not to get in the paradigm of waiting to be asked to the dance, waiting for somebody to give you a piece of material and offer you a chance to direct,” Nelson said. “Develop your own material. Once you have that piece of material, just do not give up until it’s made.”