Film: Don't mention Annie Hall

Nicole Holofcener could bear being hailed as the next Woody Allen if her hero were dead. As it is, she's worried it might just make him want to vomit. Liese Spencer meets the self-deprecating director of 'Walking and Talking'
She's not balding and she doesn't play the clarinet, but if the American press is to be believed Nicole Holofcener is the new Woody Allen. The first-time director gained her new moniker with the release of the angst-ridden Walking and Talking, a quick-witted romantic comedy about Amelia, a single woman who falls apart when her best friend gets engaged: a kind of Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Female Friendship, But Were Afraid To Ask.

A "self-deprecating Jewish girl", Holofcener sees the Allen comparison as inevitable, but embarrassing. "He's my idol, so it's flattering. But I just picture Woody reading those reviews and wanting to vomit. I wouldn't mind so much if he was dead, but how can you have 'the next Woody Allen' when the old one's still around?" Appalled by how shamelessly other directors "rip off" Allen's films, Holofcener pulled herself up short if she caught herself doing anything "remotely Annie Hall-ish".

It's easy to see, though, what the US critics mean: the film boasts a cast of walking, talking (forever talking) personality disorders who inhabit a landscape of cramped but comfortable apartments, video stores and coffee shops, and pepper their conversations with off-the-peg psychoanalysis. "That language is not Allen's invention," Holofcener protests. "He's just a New Yorker. That's what all New Yorkers are like. It's not his invention. It's a fact." And then the Allen-esque punchline: "Everyone I know is in therapy, or has been, or should be."

A lot of Walking and Talking is about being single in the big city. "When I began the script in 1990, I was turning 30," she says, "and I panicked. My best friend was getting married and I was single and terrified I'd never find a mate." It was the same year that the novelist Douglas Coupland was busy defining late-developers like Holofcener as "Generation X", and studios were cashing in with movies like Reality Bites and Singles. Walking and Talking has superficial similarities to those films. For one thing, it describes a group of twentysomethings who, in Holofcener's own words, "are growing up later, marrying later, maturing a bit too slowly". But her ambitions led her in another direction.

"My film is a lot less slick, a lot more emotional. Those movies were trying to say something about a generation and I'm not. I wanted my characters to look like me and my friends, to wear T-shirts not sexy-girl outfits. I've seen Reality Bites, twice," she says, warming to her subject, "and I can tell you what Winona Ryder was wearing in a number of scenes! I shouldn't be able to do that. It's too fashionable."

This didn't cut much ice with the producers, who took one look at Holofcener's list of hand-picked nobodies, and demanded she replace them with "names" - including Winona Ryder. "I knew the movie wouldn't be as sappy as it sounds, but potential backers kept telling me it was too soft. It took six years to get it made. It's harder to get to make a film as a woman, especially if you want to make a mushy movie like I wanted to. It was like, 'If you're going to do it, then make it a tough movie about tough girls.' I kept being told I needed more edge, whatever that is. I'd be like, 'There's a cancerous cat that falls out of the window. Will that do?'"

That cat was, in fact, two cats - her best friend's and a boyfriend's - which is typical of the way Holofcener put incidents from her own life in the film (could the writers of Reality Bites say the same?). Not that everything was directly autobiographical. The press notes for Walking and Talking claim it was lifted wholesale from the director's own diary, "which is bullshit", she says. "I had a bad review in the Washington Post from some woman who'd obviously read that. She wrote: 'Apparently, Nicole Holofcener took this movie from her dear diaries. Most women have enough sense to burn theirs.'"

There's an aggrieved tone in her voice as she recounts this because, she explains, she tore her hair out ensuring that the film wasn't "sappy". Her main concern was what she calls "the needy lead".

"Because Amelia was based on me, she had the tendency to be whiny. People would read the script and say, 'I want to slap this girl. Who cares? Get a life and leave your friend alone. Go find your own boyfriend.'" With an awareness that Woody Allen, king of the needy leads, might do well to cultivate, she solved the problem by casting in the role Catherine Keener, the sympathetically vulnerable star of Living in Oblivion. And with a nepotistic flourish that Allen might enjoy, apportioned minor roles to her dad (senile father) and her husband (tank-top nerd).

Anyone who's still in any doubt about going to see a mushy female-bonding movie may be pleasantly surprised that Holofcener's hard-won naturalism doesn't exclude a scatological sense of humour. "A lot of my friends read the script and said, 'Nicole, you have way too many bodily fluids here.' But I relish that stuff. I was so pleased with the fart joke when she's trying on the wedding dress. I mean, it's so girly. She looks like a meringue, let her cut one!"n

'Walking and Talking' opens tomorrow. For Steven Poole's review, see page 5