There’s a comfort witnessing characters in a Nicole Holofcener film discuss banal, everyday topics—ones largely absent in cinema. In her latest, You Hurt My Feelings, sisters Beth (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) and Sarah (Michaela Watkins) discuss throwing out old underwear: one does, one doesn’t. Sarah’s husband Mark (Succession’s Arian Moayed) obsesses over moisture-wicking socks. And when Sarah and Beth find themselves stuck standing next to actor Josh Pais (playing himself) after a play, Beth asks how he commutes to the theater each night—turns out he Ubers. 

These trademark Holofcener moments are peppered throughout a narrative kicked off when Beth is sent spiraling after she overhears her husband Don (Tobias Menzies) reveal that he doesn’t like her new novel. This news threatens to derail an otherwise loving marriage—a marriage so loving, their son Eliot (Owen Teague) wonders aloud why he often feels like a “third wheel” when with them.

The anxiety at the center of You Hurt My Feelings is familiar to anyone involved in creative endeavors or close to those who are: how do you give or take constructive feedback without things getting messy? Where’s the line between being supportive and realistic? This extends to Beth’s parenting, where her motherly instincts with Eliot leave him confused about where his talents actually lie, now that he’s out of her protective grasp in the real world. 

From her debut, 1996’s Walking and Talking through seven features, Holofcener has yet to make a film over 100 minutes and You Hurt My Feelings runs a zippy 93. She attributes this to her “brutal” nature. “Cut, cut, cut,” she tells me over Zoom, where we also discuss her short stint at art school and who she trusts to give feedback on her scripts, lest she end up in the same situation as Beth. 

The Film Stage: Sometimes, when you have a writer with a very distinct voice, you end up in this situation where every character feels like a version of the writer all talking to each other. Your work is very dialogue-heavy with lots of characters, but they’re firmly their own people––even the minor characters. How do you fill out their lives and make it so it’s not just a bunch of Nicoles conversing?

Nicole Holofcener: You know, I have no idea. I just write the dialogue coming out of that person’s mouth, and I feel that if I know that person well enough, it’ll sound unique and individual. Which often surprises me, because I worry that everybody sounds like me. Because they are all parts of me, even people that aren’t playing me. Most of the people in my life kind of talk the same. We have the same sense of humor or similar rhythms––not everybody––but I think that’s what draws us to each other: our similarities. So whether I’m writing characters that are based on people in my life or just imagining them, we all live in that same world. But I’m very happy to hear that they sound different, because they should. 

You Hurt My Feelings deals specifically with the white lies people in relationships tell each other, which I found as a bit of a contrast with some characters in your other films, who are often the opposite. They can be open and blunt with one another, like Frances McDormand’s character in Friends with Money.

Frances McDormand’s character says exactly what she feels and that’s very much a part of me. I can be very blunt, I’ve been told, and gruff, and I don’t like that about myself. But it was really fun writing a character with those qualities. When I’m creating a character they’re all different. Some would never say certain things. For instance, the Joan Cusack character is Miss Manners and would never be like Fran’s character. That’s what’s fun: putting these people in the room together. It’s the same with the foursome in this movie: how they behave with each other and away from each other. 

I read that you went to school to be a painter and realized, once you were there, that perhaps your mom had inflated your talent. I’m curious how that experience was swirling in your head for this story. And then more broadly, about your experience as a daughter with your mother, and then as a mother with your two kids––how did those two roles influence this story with Owen Teague’s character?

I felt hoodwinked by my mom when she said “you should go to art school,” maybe for drawing or painting or something, because I loved doing it. And I wasn’t bad for a teenager––I wasn’t bad. But when I got to art school I was like “Oh, I’m out of here. I can’t even begin to compete with the talent of these people.” So, with my own sons, I love what they do, they’re really creative, and I try to support them as much as I can. I don’t want to make them think everything they do is genius, because then it will lose its meaning.

That’s what I was exploring in Owen Teague’s character. He couldn’t tell anymore. With the overpraising, I think it has become a trend, but not when I was a kid. I was normally praised and normally criticized, I think. Normal expectations. But if you don’t want your kid to turn out like you or have the same problems as you, you sometimes go too far in the other direction. All of it informs it: how I grew up, and how I parent, and how I am with my mother now––all of it. 

That’s a very human tendency: “Well, this didn’t work, so let’s swing the pendulum way over here.” When there’s always a middle choice.

Yeah. That doesn’t work either. 

Do you show your early drafts to people? That can be a very tricky process. How do you decide who?

I don’t give it until I’ve finished a draft, unless I’m in trouble. A few years ago I started a draft of a script, and I was in the middle of it and I didn’t know where it should go. I gave it to some people, and I didn’t end up finishing it because it didn’t go anywhere. Their feedback was valuable, and I agreed with it. But when I have a first draft, generally that is OK––I got to the end, it’s there. I give it to a few friends––not many––and get as much feedback as I can. I give it to my producers, my agent. I think they’re smart people. And a few close friends. 

Has this been the same group of people over your career?

I guess it’s been the same people. Although, if I’ve given a script to someone and they just decimate it, I’m not going to give it to them again. [Laughs] To give them another one I’d be crazy. Or if they were critical in an unkind way, but that doesn’t happen very often. I have kind people who will give it to me straight but with kindness. 

As someone who is known for their writing, how do you keep the visuals from being the neglected middle child of your film? You’re still making a film, a visual object, so how do you approach that aspect?

I rely a lot on my crew. I storyboard my films sometimes and create the look of the film with the DP. It’s very collaborative. That’s not what I do best. I do other things really well, so I rely a lot on the DP to help me set up shots, figure out where to put the camera. Intuitively, it’s already in my head because I’ve written it. But it’s nice to have someone see it a different way, and explore that different way. Because sometimes what I see in my head is not as interesting as what he or she can come up with. So I know that about myself. 

You know, the stuff they teach you in film school is generally so useless to most people. Like foot-candles. I don’t even remember what foot-candles are, but it’s about lighting. I had to memorize this shit. It’s like taking chemistry when you have no plan to be a chemist. When I got out of film school and was making my first couple of films, I felt on set that I had to know everything: every lens, every light, every filter. I started to just relax and let other talented people help me and let me do what I do best, and let them do what they do best.

I’ve been on student film sets and they’re using all these terms and all the gadgets and it can feel like kids pretending they’re adults on a bigger set. It’s a weird feeling. And I’ve been on bigger sets, real sets, and they’re not nearly as crazy about using all the terms and stuff. 

I know! “French overs” and this and that. Sometimes people talk about stuff and I don’t know what they’re talking about. It’s like, “What is that equipment? I’ve never used that equipment, or could never afford that. Explain it to me.” But that comes with age, too, and with experience. I don’t have to act like I know everything. I don’t think anyone should. Because it’s pretty transparent, like you said, when you’re faking it. 

When you’re writing these interactions with these very fun characters, how do you balance the comedy and the drama, so that not everything has to be a joke? How do you keep it from devolving into a screwball comedy? 

It’s down to good taste. I like to think I have good taste, or my own taste. A screwball comedy is great, if I was to make just that. Intuitively, I write scripts that are both comedy and drama. They go together. Life is a tragic comedy. The situations between people are so enormously entertaining and rich that they can be very funny and also very dramatic. I don’t think about that fine line. I just do it how I want to do it, and it generally turns out well in that way. Certainly there’s moments I regret where I’m trying too hard to be funny, or I wish that wasn’t such a dramatic scene. I watch my films with a very critical eye. But I think I can do comedy-drama in a natural way, and that’s what I like doing. 

When you’re on set, what’s your #1 focus?

Oh, the actors. 

In what way? Are you trying to make them comfortable, making sure they know what’s going on? 

Well, the first thing is making sure we’re all making the same movie. That happens in prep. You read the script and talk about it and take notes and change things. Of course when I’m making a movie, if I don’t have good acting, it doesn’t matter how good it looks, or how good it sounds or what your soundtrack is like. So my focus is always getting the performance that I want. For me, it’s having a very relaxed set where people are free to try things and have laughs. I always have laughs. Especially on this movie, we had a lot of laughs, with Jeannie [Berlin] and Michaela––all of us. Certain actors can just flip a switch and do the drama and laugh in-between, and it’s just as real for them. That’s great. 

You’ve said before that it’s important to be mindful of getting caught up in a great performance if it’s not serving the mood of the scene or the film at large. Here, you have all these funny actors on set––how do you reign them in when it’s clearly very funny but not working for the film or moment at hand? It’s like, you’re killing the mood, right?

Yeah, I know. There was an instance in this movie where Julia said something really, really funny. I mean we were peeing in our pants, the whole crew. “This is brilliant. This is going to be amazing. This was so funny.” It didn’t make it in. Julia and I were just talking about how disappointed we are that it didn’t work. It didn’t work for a variety of reasons, but it didn’t work. Not because it wasn’t funny; it was about the camera placement, timing. So I think I know when it’s a stinker. And I certainly pay attention to audiences when I’m looking for feedback to where they laugh and where they don’t. And if they’re not laughing: “Ohhh. Take it out. Embarrassing.” 

Is that like test screenings?

More like friends and family coming to see an early cut. There have been test screenings of my movies, but they don’t matter as much to me. It’s interesting to read responses and stuff like that, but not as valuable as the people I trust. 

What were we talking about?

Drawing back on the comedy if it’s too much. 

Again, it’s a matter of taste. I just feel like, “Ehh, that’s silly. That’s not realistic. That’s like a hat on a hat. We’re pushing it too far. That person wouldn’t say that even though it’s really funny.”

Is it hard, though, to kill that energy, when everyone’s playing off of each other?

Yeah, it is hard. But I don’t hang onto stuff a lot. I’m pretty brutal. That’s why my films are so short. They start out at an hour and 45 minutes and then it’s like “Ehh, cut, cut, cut.” Doesn’t make it. And that’s sad, and it’s sad for some of the actors who end up getting cut out too. But I can be brutal. I think people should be brutal, and then fight for what they really want to fight for. Which I also do. When people say “Well, this scene doesn’t really have anything to do with the plot. Why is it there?” I have my own reasons, and it might not be evident, but I’m not taking it out. I’m keeping it in. 

You Hurt My Feelings opens in theaters on Friday.

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