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Nicole Holofcener finds her way through ‘The Land of Steady Habits’

TORONTO, ONT., CA -- SEPTEMBER 09, 2018-- Writer/Director Nicole Holofcener, from the film “The Land
Writer-director Nicole Holofcener, from the film “The Land of Steady Habits,” photographed in the L.A. Times Photo and Video Studio at the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival.
(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

Nicole Holofcener gets this sometimes. Because her movies feel so personal — dealing with the intimate details of friendship and family and the commonplace frustrations of waiting in a line or being existentially overwhelmed while buying towels — many people feel like they know her even when they don’t.

“I am genuinely me,” the filmmaker said recently over sandwiches in Los Angeles. “If someone comes up to me because they think they know me, I hope they know that I will be nice, based on my work. And I am.

“Of course, there’s more private things that only my good, dearest friends and family know. But I don’t have secrets, per se. I think people do get a real sense of who I am … I’m not hiding anything.”

From her 1996 feature debut, “Walking and Talking,” on through “Lovely & Amazing,” “Friends With Money,” “Please Give” and 2013’s “Enough Said,” Holofcener has become one of the foremost chroniclers of contemporary middle-class life. Her previous films have all taken place in either New York City or Los Angeles, both cities where she has lived, and as she has matured over the years, her characters have essentially grown up alongside her.

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“It’s so personal, even if it’s not autobiographical,” she said of her films. “It’s still about me and my life and how I feel about things and what I worry about. Who I’m in love with and what I struggle with. I’d like to say I made it all up, but I didn’t.”

Which is perhaps why Holofcener’s new film, “The Land of Steady Habits,” has landed as such a surprise. Or make that a series of surprises, plural.

The movie, which recently premiered during the Toronto International Film Festival, is now streaming on Netflix. It’s the first feature directed by Holofcener that she’s adapted from a pre-existing work — in this case, Ted Thompson’s 2014 novel — and pitches her finely honed balance between comedy and drama more purposefully toward drama.

And though there have certainly been sizable parts for men in her other movies, most notably James Gandolfini in “Enough Said,” this is also Holofcener’s first film to fully focus on a male lead.

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“Oh, my God. Is he a man? I didn’t realize,” she said in mock disbelief, offhandedly deflating a question about the apparent shift in perspective.

Ben Mendelsohn in the film “The Land of Steady Habits.” Credit: Alison Rosa / Netflix
Ben Mendelsohn in the film “The Land of Steady Habits.”
(Alison Rosa / Netflix / Alison Rosa / Netflix)

“The Land of Steady Habits” tells the story of Anders Harris, a finance executive who left his job and his family in one fell swoop, determined to retire early and start anew. Except he doesn’t move far from the upscale Connecticut enclave where his family lives, and he has no discernible plan for the future.

Anders is played with charmingly understated flair by Ben Mendelsohn, while his out-of-patience wife, Helene, is portrayed by Edie Falco. The supporting cast includes Thomas Mann, Connie Britton, Bill Camp and Elizabeth Marvel.

“I really don’t think there’s anyone that gets the tone of normal living as accurately as Nicole,” Mendelsohn said recently in Toronto. “I can’t think of anyone else that is her equal in terms of being able to take these very everyday kinds of situations that do feel very real and aren’t flashy in any kind of obvious way, and imbuing them with [that] tone which really works.”

I really don’t think there’s anyone that gets the tone of normal living as accurately as Nicole... I can’t think of anyone else that is her equal.
Ben Mendelsohn on Nicole Holofcener

When Holofcener was first sent the book by her agent, it was the tone of it that most struck her as just right. She could immediately imagine herself directing some of the scenes. But when she started to work on the adaptation, she did add and change a few things, including the ending.

“The things I added were definitely focused on the part of Anders that is a man,” she said. “I added the sex scenes in the beginning. That all he has to do is walk into a Bed Bath & Beyond and he can get laid, because I do imagine that’s what it’s like for a confident, handsome man.

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“If it was a woman’s midlife crisis, I don’t even know if I would believe that. I guess that’s kind of like in one of those lady movies, like the ‘Book Club’ — ‘Oh, my God, I’m a sexual person, I’ve been wasting all this time.’ It’s nice to do a male thing and think about all of that white male privilege, expecting everything’s going to turn out well, leaving your wife, thinking you could probably get someone better. It’s not a very uncommon cliché.”

TORONTO, ONT., CA -- SEPTEMBER 09, 2018-- Actor Thomas Mann, writer/director Nicole Holofcener, and
Writer-director Nicole Holofcener is flanked by two of the actors in “The Land of Steady Habits” — Thomas Mann, left, and Ben Mendelsohn.
(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

Mendelsohn’s tender performance as an unthinking jerk undergoing a subtle evolution may catch unawares anyone who knows the Australian-born actor only from his bad-guy parts in movies such “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” or “Ready Player One” or the tortured soul in TV’s “Bloodline,” for which he won an Emmy.

“If I was blushing when I met him, that’s a good sign that he can play a romantic lead,” Holofcener said. “And he’s really sensitive for someone who exudes somewhat dangerous vibes.”

Mendelsohn had actually tried and failed to get a role in Holofcener’s “Friends With Money” during a period before his career had taken off. As a longtime fan, he was particularly excited to finally work with the filmmaker. And although it was never something they dwelled on while working on the movie, Mendelsohn was aware that the character of Anders was something different coming from Holofcener.

“It was all the more reason to get on board, really. I didn’t know if I’d get the chance again,” Mendelsohn said. “There was no way I was going to pass on doing a significant role in one of Nicole’s films.”

It’s nice to do a male thing and think about all of that white male privilege, expecting everything’s going to turn out well.
Nicole Holofcener on adapting “The Land of Steady Habits”

Holofcener’s films have often worked a teeter-totter balance between observational comedy and a deeper emotional resonance, but “Steady Habits” tips more toward drama than any of her previous work. That has given her some concern that audiences be prepared for the shift in tone and feel and the added heft of the tragic circumstances that befall some of the characters.

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“All my movies have some sad [stuff] in them. They get dramatic,” she said. “But it was very different directing a drama. I didn’t have the usual cues that it’s working. You don’t have Julia Louis-Dreyfus and James Gandolfini in a scene and the crew is cracking up.

“You’re shooting one of the scenes from this movie and nobody is cracking up and, you know, they look like they want to kill themselves. I can’t tell how it’s going except for my own guts and how the actors are feeling. So that was very different. But I directed it the same way. I don’t like melodrama or corny stuff, and I hope it’s evident in this movie.”

Five female filmmakers with new projects being released by Netflix came together recently for a group conversation. Haifaa al-Mansour, Susanne Bier, Sara Colangelo, Nicole Holofcener and Tamara Jenkins revealed their personal journeys as filmmakers

Five female directors, many stories: A conversation on filmmaking, Netflix and more »

Beyond the release of “Steady Habits,” Holofcener is also a credited writer on the upcoming “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” adapted from the memoir by Lee Israel, directed by Marielle Heller and starring Melissa McCarthy. Fox Searchlight will release the film in October; the picture has already generated Oscar buzz off a festival run including screenings in Telluride, Colo., and Toronto. Holofcener was originally set to direct the movie herself, but creative differences with actress Julianne Moore led both to leave the project.

She is positive if diplomatically reserved about Heller’s version, saying: “She made the movie her own. I think it turned out well.”

Between features, Holofcener has long supported herself by directing television, including episodes of “Sex and the City,” “Enlightened,” “Orange Is the New Black” and the “Last … Day” sketch for “Inside Amy Schumer.” She recently directed the pilot for “Mrs. Fletcher,” starring Kathryn Hahn and based on the novel by “The Leftovers” author Tom Perrotta, which received a series order from HBO.

But it’s unclear whether audiences will have to wait as long as the five-year span between “Enough Said” and “The Land of Steady Habits” for the next Holofcener feature.

“I wish I was making more movies, but I’m not prolific, I don’t have a lot of ideas in the drawer,” she said, adding that she is working on another script of her own, albeit slowly. “That’s sort of how it goes. People say, ‘What do you do between movies?’ I have no idea. It just goes by really quickly. I live my life.”

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Mark.Olsen@latimes.com

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