Nancy Savoca is the name of a filmmaker you should have learned by name a long time ago if you haven’t already. Catch the sibling rivalry fireworks of her latest film Union Square this Friday, July 13th. It’s just as fierce and tough as Jonathan Demme’s film “Rachel Getting Married,” and has electromagnetic tension between good girl Tammy Blanchard as Jenny, and the party-hard Mira Sorvino as Lucy who invades her penthouse apartment and won’t leave. Jenny is shielding her live-in fiancé Bill (Mike Doyle) from turbulent family secrets. It’s a messy, but acerbically funny bitch-out between the virtuous Madonna, and the toxic tramp she can’t believe she’s still related to. Savoca co-wrote with Mary Tobler; she co-wrote most of her projects, many of them with husband Richard Guay. Click here to read movie review.
Savoca also helmed “24 Hour Woman” (1999), multiple segments in the acclaimed HBO movie “If These Walls Could Talk” (1996), “Household Saints” (1993), “Dogfight” (1991) and my favorite, “True Love” (1989). To ignore the last title would be to close the door on any future great discovery you might make on your own this year – it’s a wedding movie Scorsese or Altman could have made, but without the authentic point-of-view of the tough girl from the block (Annabella Sciorra’s career took-off from it). Savoca and I both agree that the new DVD reissue features a dumbed-down cover jacket.
First off, I think your 1989 film “True Love” is one of the best films I’ve ever seen.
Nancy: Oh my god. What a way to introduce yourself. Keep talking!
My career objective is to make that film as famous and recognizable as I possibly can, even if it takes twenty years as a movie critic.
Nancy: You’re an angel. Thank you.
I’m very familiar with your work. Your latest “Union Square” is probably the closest a film has come to capturing my own sister on-screen.
Nancy: [Laughs] Oh, I want to meet your sister now.
Yes, it’s true, I have a dysfunctional sister. “Rachel Getting Married” was close. But your movie “Union Square” might be a little closer.
Nancy: Oh, I’m very happy to hear… that I’ve done something that is close to you in a way.
I think “Union Square” is a great art house film because it gets personal, and it’s more intimate than what you would get from commercial moviemaking. “Union Square” is a prime example of why we should be going to independent movies. It gets us to empathize with this kind of dysfunctional family scenario.
Nancy: Thinking like that, you’re a great teacher. I hope you reach a lot of people, because that’s a great idea that you have. I think you’re right, I also think that independent film is about coming at ideas from a different direction.
Why did you decide to set the film inside a New York City apartment?
Nancy: Our producer Neda Armian was saying, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if we did a film so small and self-contained we wouldn’t need to ask anybody’s permission to do anything? Let’s just go raise a bunch of money and just do it.’ Armian said, ‘you got my endorsement whatever you choose, you have a writer to work with, and I’ll tell you what: I’ll give you my apartment. Make up a story that takes place in my apartment and we’ll have a film.’
You actually developed a scenario where you raise a lot of dramatic tension. The thrill of the movie is that you can’t wait for Jenny to kick her sister Lucy out of her apartment. Or you wonder if Jenny will be fed up enough to walk out of her own place.
Nancy: Yeah, it’s hard because it’s her own place, EXACTLY! It’s an invasion, really. We were blocking the movements of the actors so we could figure out how people duel with each other in limited space. I actually did a floor plan that I divided up into sections. It’s funny because the movie looks chaotic but really it’s rather defined. When we first feel Lucy there she’s completely off the wall crazy. But as the movie progresses towards the end dinner everyone is lying through their teeth about who they are. Pretending to be so proper and perfect on Thanksgiving Day.
But in the early scenes Jenny, behaving in a way that Lucy’s visit is a violation, fights to keep at arm’s length from her own sister.
Nancy: That’s a little why we had her hiding behind her kitchen counter. They both have their porch. Lucy has her couch, while Jenny takes her place behind the kitchen counter.
What experience of yours were you able to draw from in order to come up with this story idea?
Nancy: What’s interesting is that I teach screenwriting. I tell my students that when you go to make something that’s close to you, do it as an emotional autobiography and not necessarily put in the details twice. You can get stuck in the screenplay because when it’s so personal suddenly you think, ‘Oh no, so and so is going to see it,’ and ‘So and so is going to read this and think that I hate them.’ I learned with “True Love” that [distinct] emotions must be wrapped up in a story that is not detailed. Nobody can come up and say ‘My life resembles this.’ If I put in everything exactly like it works in my personal life I would become a liar. What would happen as a director or a writer is that I would become a liar working to protect myself. I would make others more heroic than they were, and making my own character who represents me really good. It’s part of human nature. But to work from emotional truth, this way I have more speech ultimately.
Do you think Mike Doyle’s Bill character is so nice to the point of him being naïve?
Nancy: I think Bill has his own issues. Like every character in this movie appears on the surface to be one thing, and it turns out to be something else really. Bill has it all-together as well, his issues aren’t huge like Lucy or Jenny’s, but he has a desire to keep things in order and to keep things not messy. How could he be with her for ten years and not know things about his fiancé… the reason is he chooses to ignore negative things easily.
Nancy: Everything is harmonious in Bill’s life. Work goes well. He goes running all the time and challenges himself to break his own record times. The reason why things go well for him because he doesn’t give weight to any of the negatives. He is a positive thinker. The results of being a positive thinker is that sometimes you don’t look at the negatives of your life, and those things catch up with you down the line.
Did Mira comprehend her character immediately when she saw the script?
Nancy: Oh my gosh. Totally. We were so excited when she read the script because she knew exactly who she was. And we were both open to explore a character who was basically bi-polar. She was manic, depressed, all over the place. Both of us talked about how we bring that out in a film. How do we make sure our audience doesn’t walk out the door because they can’t take her anymore? To Mira’s testament she made her very complicated.
I thought it was clever storytelling in the opening scenes to watch Mira’s Lucy buying too much and abandoning it because her character is flighty and shiftless. Is that what you were trying to convey?
Nancy: Mira did a lot of research on bi-polar behavior. Again, this movie is technically not a movie about… it’s not necessarily a textbook case that people could show at a bi-polar learning convention.
Nancy: It was researched and thought-out. I saw a wonderful documentary on this British actor Stephen Fry, he has this great documentary on being bi-polar. It’s funny we wrote the script and researched, but the more we saw elsewhere the more we saw we were right-on. The over-indulgent shopping, that’s part of the manic phase of bi-polar. There are phases doing compulsive shopping, misbehave sexually. Stuff that we know now that therapists label this stuff and see these patterns. Then you get into depression mode of a person where that person does nothing, but to lay in bed.
Do you see Lucy’s destructiveness as a cry for attention?
Nancy: Probably. Whenever we wrote, I always had to see things from her point-of-view. In her mind, it’s probably like, ‘I can’t help what I’m doing.’ Lucy, for better or worse, it’s not going to be hidden. She doesn’t hide, she doesn’t repress.
Would this have been a different movie in your eyes with somebody other than Mira Sorvino?
Nancy: Oh, please! It would have been a catastrophe! It could only be Mira. It could only be Tammy. It could only be Mike Doyle. It could only be Michael Rispoli. And it could only be Patti LuPone. This movie would not work with any cast except the one we have.
Are you implying they were your first choice?
Nancy: Yes. I can’t see it any other way.
According to an internet biography, in February 2011 a retrospective of your work was held in Colombia in South America?
Nancy: Yes, Colombia! There was a beautiful Arch Festival. And we went to Barranquilla and they did a beautiful retrospective of it. Really, really fun. And it’s the land of Shakira. I got to hear stories of her early career.
Nancy: We were there for a week and it was wonderful.
It sounds like a great vacation.
Nancy: Really, really great. There are a lot of good things about being a filmmaker and it kind of cancels out the difficulties. And that is, for me, to travel with the movies. Go to film festivals and meet these people and see these different countries and learn about them. To me, after making the movie that’s the most wonderful part of it.
Perks of promoting the movie are the best part of it, aren’t they?
Nancy: You get to see your movie with another culture, and you realize how they react to it. Can be really interesting how a movie can be seen from a different perspective!
Any last thing you insist on discussing that I haven’t asked you?
Nancy: In this world there are terrific different options to watch films. And I watch them on my computer, on television, OnDemand, DVD, on my MacBook… I just want to remind people to watch a movie in the theater is a very unique experience. I wish theater tickets were cheaper so people would go really often to movies. Especially, “Union Square” in a theater is a unique experience. Because there’s one thing to watch a movie about relationships by yourself, another way is to watch it with someone you know, and then there’s the different to watch it in a roomful of strangers. It’s a pretty exciting thing to watch this movie with strangers. It’s something extra you can’t get at home.
Look for a retrospect review of Nancy Savoca’s True Love masterpiece to be posted this coming Monday, July 16th.