Fall 2018

Finding the Heart of a Scene

Nicole Holofcener and editor Robert Frazen arrive at the beats and cadences of her character-driven dramas with a shared understanding of the director's intent.


Director Nicole Holofcener and Editor Robert Frazen. (Photo: Brian Davis)

Over five features, the most recent of which was The Land of Steady Habits, which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in September, writer/director Nicole Holofcener and editor Robert Frazen have been indie film's Martin Scorsese and Thelma Schoonmaker. Namely, longtime collaborators so attuned to each other that much of their communication is nonverbal.

Holofcener and Frazen began working together in 2001 on Lovely and Amazing, the writer/director's second feature, about an L.A. matriarch and her three very different daughters. Like all her films, it is a group portrait, intimate and affectionate, examining the bonds that can restrain or support the development of a member, be it relative or friend.

In 2002, director and editor became a couple and were together for 15 years. To put less stress on their personal lives, Holofcener tried using another editor. It didn't take.

Both are second-generation filmmakers. Holofcener's mother, Carol Joffe, worked as a set designer on Hannah and Her Sisters and The Purple Rose of Cairo, directed by Woody Allen. Her late stepfather, Charles Joffe, is the Oscar-winning producer of Allen's Annie Hall. Frazen's late father, Stanley, was a prolific television editor on such TV classics as The Monkees, My Favorite Martian and Get Smart.

Like her movies, Holofcener is voluble. Like his editing, Frazen is terse. They don't finish each other's sentences. Their dialogue overlaps, like characters in a Robert Altman movie—or a Holofcener film.

DGA: Nicole, you and Robert have collaborated on five features. How did you know he was the right editor for Lovely and Amazing?

Nicole Holofcener: Frankly, he flattered me. His interview felt like a conversation. He talked about Walking and Talking (her debut feature) with such appreciation that I felt he got it—he got it and got me. In choosing an editor I wanted to be in good hands; I wanted someone who would find the best in me.
Robert Frazen: Uncharacteristically, I felt very competent in the interview. I felt I understood the script and the aims of Lovely and Amazing. The audition went fast…
NH: What I look for in an interview is that you communicate well and listen well. It's a tricky process to find the right person.

DGA: How do the two of you approach the editing process?

NH: Sometimes we work on a scene together and we're both choosing moments and takes and we are essentially one voice. Or I'll give him notes on a scene, go away and come back to see what he has done.
RF: I try to import her sensibilities to the cut…
NH: When he's doing his assembly, he often cuts things out and I'm surprised and appropriately insulted. In Please Give, there were a couple of scenes where Oliver Platt went to Amanda Peet's facial [salon] that he cut. I realized that we didn't need them. In Enough Said, there's a scene where Julia Louis-Dreyfus' character, Eva, reads Marianne's [Catherine Keener] poems to her daughter and her friend and they make fun of them. Honestly, I can't remember exactly why he cut it, but in the end I never missed it. In The Land of Steady Habits, there's a scene where Anders (Ben Mendelsohn) is nervous to enter his old house, now that of his ex, on Christmas Eve. Just regular trimming.

DGA: Can you describe your collaborative dynamic in a nutshell?

NH: It's like writing together…I think a lot of directors explain to their editors how a character is feeling. Robert knows the script. He already knows that. With us it's "Make it longer; make it shorter."
RF: I usually know where she wants to go in a scene.

DGA: Robert, is Nicole a stickler for preserving the script as written?

RF: Nicole and I edit dialogue out of every scene. At first we use what she shot and then find it needs tightening. One minute, the scene feels like the perfect length and the next week, it strikes us as endless.
NH: Often he'll try to save a scene and dialogue when I'll want to get rid of it. Sometimes he's right. And he'll sometimes overcut...[Otherwise] Rob absolutely gets the cadence. He's sensitive to the way I have of characters changing subject in midsentence. Speaking for Rob and myself, he is accustomed to the way I write and talk, and also how Catherine (Keener, who has been in four of the five films Frazen has edited for Holofcener) speaks.

(Top) Lovely and Amazing; (Bottom) Friends with Money. (Photos: Photofest)

DGA: Do the two of you break down the script in advance with an eye for the edit, or is it more fluid?

RF: Naturally I read the script. We talk about it only when we need to. It takes a while to find the scene.
NH: Rob comes to the set as a friend, not an editor. Most editors hate the set visit.

DGA: Robert, do you begin an assembly while the film is still in production? Do you comment on the dailies?

RF: I start cutting from day one. Nicole and I don't even talk that much about the movie unless she's concerned about something, or I am.
NH: Even if a scene is working really well, editing can alter so much of the tone, the intent, the POV. We play until we get it right. Editing in itself is a process of not just finding, it's also about fixing. Sometimes a lot of fixing. There are so many times Rob has fixed or saved a scene that I can't count. That's what fine-tuning a scene is about. It's inevitable when cutting a movie that things aren't how you want them to be and we both work on it until it's better.

DGA: In your films, Nicole, often the place where everyone comes together is at the dining-room table or restaurant table. How do you vary such a commonplace scene?

NH: How to approach a scene is always the same. You want to let the moment breathe. And the dinner scenes are always the hardest. Time is always an issue. In The Land of Steady Habits, I had only part of a day to shoot an important dinner scene, doing singles and two-shots, looking to find the moment.

DGA: In The Land of Steady Habits, in the scene inside a boat moored for the winter, Ben Mendelsohn's Anders, a father who has trouble communicating with his own son, talks to Charlie Tahan's Charlie, a teenager roughly his own son's age who has difficulty talking to his own father. They conduct parallel conversations, essentially talking past each other, but the rhythm is conversational. Were the cuts indicated in the script made to focus on whomever was speaking?

NH: We approached the scene as parallel play.
RF: That's a sequence where we found a focus on Anders. He's the anchor.
NH: The scene and the movie are about Anders, but the young boy is headed for so much danger, he's the counterpoint. I like finding humor in tragedy—I like drama, not melodrama—and the editing brings out the humor. Anders says one thing, and then out of nowhere the boy chimes in with, "My mom's got these veiny yoga arms and they make me want to cry."

DGA: So, the editing underscores the sadness of two people not connecting but also the humor in non sequitur?

NH: Finding that balance is important. You can always make a scene better. That's the process. I'll think it's perfect and then Rob makes it better.

(Top) Enough Said; (Bottom) Please Give. (Photos: (Top) Photofest; (Bottom) Everett)

DGA: Let's consider Enough Said, the midlife romance with Julia Louis-Dreyfus and James Gandolfini. They have been on one chaste date when he invites her for Sunday brunch. They sun themselves in the backyard, discussing the shabby condition of their feet.
In a series of wide shots that accelerate into reverse-angle shots, the conversation turns into verbal and physical footsie, midlife foreplay about imperfect bodies and feet that resolves in a first kiss and then a jump-cut to the two in bed. Give me a fine-grain version of how the scene was assembled.

NH: So much of that scene happened because of fixes. At first, he's in a lawn chair on the grass and she's on the stoop. How do we get them next to each other? He offers to get a Band-Aid for her blister and sits on the stoop next to her as she puts it on. Then they kiss. If it's an action scene or a very complicated scene, I might storyboard it out very carefully. But I approached this scene as slow seduction where the action—getting the Band-Aid, which was in the script—brought them closer together.
RF: There was a lot of her talking about her ex, so much so that it distracted from the heart of the scene.
NH: And Jim sitting in that chair in the wide angle looked weird. We didn't want to use too many of those shots.

DGA: Let's talk about the last scene of the movie. (Months after they break up, Dreyfus drives by Gandolfini's house, half-hoping to see him.)

RF: …you were writing that scene as it was being shot.
NH: Often Jim would say a line and then say, "A man wouldn't say that." After the break-up scene (two-thirds through the film, Gandolfini tells Dreyfus that she let his ex-wife poison their relationship, that Dreyfus broke his heart), he turned to me and said that this line made him "look like a bitch."

DGA: Did you ask him to improvise in the last scene?

NH: [Uncharacteristically long pause] I invite input from my actors. But I don't open that door if I don't think it will shut. Julia would always know when it could be better. Jim had some funny improvised lines…
How to pace that last scene was the challenge. Should Jim invite Julia to sit down? How should he forgive her, and at what rate? If he invited her to sit down right away, would he look like a wimp?

DGA: In the end, they break the ice with a joke.

CHENOWETH: He jokes with her, yes. (Early in the film, Dreyfus learns that her client, played by Catherine Keener, is Gandolfini's ex. Keener complains that when she met him he didn't even have a nightstand in his bedroom.) In that last scene he jokes with Julia about finally getting a night table. And she says, "That's good."
In the script, not only is Jim's ex-wife Julia's client, but Julia's best friend, Toni Collette, is Catherine's psychotherapist. There was a scene with Julia walking in to see Toni and Catherine is there. The studio loved it. But I thought there was too much coincidence.
RF: Nicole wanted to pull it out, and she was right. The movie works better without it.

DGA: What have you learned from each other that you've applied to projects with others?

NH: I've learned that Rob is really great with music. In the assembly he knows just where it goes… When Rob creates his cut, it's practically like a finished movie. There's a scene in The Land of Steady Habits where Preston's [Anders' son, played by Thomas Mann] car breaks down and he's in the woods. Rob put up this song "Vitamin C," by Can, and I didn't listen to another song. That's it, first try.
RF: [Long pause] I'm always looking for the heart of the scene; I've learned how to find the scene's heart from her. Nicole does that so well.


Our new series involves a three-way conversation between the interviewer and a director and his or her frequent collaborator—whether it be a cinematographer, composer, editor, costume designer or production designer—about their creative alchemy and the process by which they bring out the best in each other’s artistry.

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