Have you seen Nicole Holofcener’s movie ENOUGH SAID? I watched it the other night and had a revelation. I’ve loved all her films—WALKING AND TALKING, LOVELY AND AMAZING, PLEASE GIVE, FRIENDS WITH MONEY—but I realized the reason I love her movies so much is that they focus on ordinary women, living regular lives, and deal with common emotional transitions in a way that feels HUGE.
There are so few filmmakers who make these small, character driven movies, that each one seems like a precious gem to me. And Holofcener’s gift is for taking unspectactular females and turning them into heroes by allowing them to overcome the workaday obstacles that keep them from happiness.
No sword fights between these women and the Galvatronian Army. But yes, they do have to apologize and admit they screwed up. No epic battles where these heroines must defeat the mutilating serial killer. But perhaps they ask someone to help them carry their massage table up a set of steep stairs? Nobody’s fingernails turn into knives as they shout, “I’m Wolverine!” But they do have to let go of the bad boyfriend who is ashamed to be seen with them in public, and in private, makes them dress up like a French maid.
Whether you’re writing a screenplay, book or memoir, here are the reasons why watching Holofcener’s movies will make you a better writer.
1. She’s an expert at setting up the ordinary world of her main character. In ENOUGH SAID, we see Eva, Julia Louis-Dreyfus’s character, a massage therapist, forced to massage people with bad breath, who talk too much, and who refuse to help her carry her heavy massage table. She’s divorced, has little contact with her ex, and the daughter she’s extremely close to is leaving for college. She’s freaking out.
2. Holofcener’s stories are grounded in worlds that feel specific and authentic. ENOUGH SAID takes place in Santa Monica, California, in the year 2013. Settings include The Promenade, a popular shopping area, and west side neighborhoods where the not-so-glamorous denizens of “Hollywood” live. This is a place where people give gifts of fresh chervil, and age phobic forty-something moms buy the same clingy dresses as their teenaged daughters.
3. Her characters are messed up in a way that feels real. Eva falls for James Gandolfini’s character Albert, who’s overweight and not a prime specimen. He makes her laugh, and they have great sex. However, when she meets his ex wife Marianne (gorgeous, successful poet) and Marianne speaks badly about him, Eva starts to act disparagingly towards Albert. She’s insecure and instead of trusting her instincts, allows these complaints to taint her relationship.
4. Holofcener’s tiny stories build to their climaxes in a way that feels just as powerful as any blockbuster. There are no guns, explosions or car chases (well, Eva does do a lame stalker-y drive-by of Albert’s house after he breaks up with her,) but her protagonists have to face their flaws in a big way and change. Eva does this by telling Albert the truth and apologizing.
5. Her scenes have strong beginnings, middles, ends, and move the story forward. Watch this beautiful scene where Eva and Albert have their first kiss.
6. Each character has an emotional arc that is fully realized through action. Eva lets herself be treated badly at the beginning of the story by her clients, and at the end, stands up for herself. She also allows herself to be influenced by the opinions of others, but then learns to listen to her heart.
7. Holofcener understands The Hero’s Journey as experienced by us all, every day, in our real lives, on the planet earth, right now. Her films are a great example of mythological storytelling taking place completely “in this moment.” For example, in the Hero’s Journey phase of “Tests, Allies and Enemies” we get to experience a test (fear about having middle aged sex,) allies (a miserable best buddy who gives Eva advice, but probably shouldn’t,) and a strong enemy (the successful pretentious poetess who wears gorgeous vintage kimonos, has no friends, and thinks she’s better than everyone else.)
8. Her themes are simple, clean, and universally human. Separation, growing up, letting go. Watch the scene at the end of ENOUGH SAID, where Eva says goodbye to her daughter at the airport (as I’m about to do with my son– choke, sniff…) and try not to sob.
Finally, Holofcener is a warrior, out there making movies in her own way. I’m sure that every production is its own hero’s journey, with labyrinths, monsters, dragons and dark financing caves. But she’s doing it, seizing the sword and making films that help us process our lives.
Take Action! Watch one of Holofcener’s films. Observe how she sets up the ordinary world of the main character. See how she creates a situation that brings conflict and comedy. Notice how real and specific her world building is. Watch the economy and beauty of small scenes that always move the story forward. Note how slight the transformations of her characters are, and yet how gigantic they feel.
Even if you are writing a big genre story, there are lessons here. Your story needs to be about real people.
Learn how to do it from the master.
Here is a list of Holofcener’s movies. Check them out.
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