She is the younger sibling in the Cassevetes clan, and has finally come up with her debut feature, Broken English, which she also wrote. The films casts Parker Posey as Nora Wilder, a thirty-something Manhattanite who is cynical about love and relationships. Nora plugs away at her job in a posh downtown hotel and can’t help but wonder what it is she has to do to find a relationship as ideal as her friend Audrey’s “perfect marriage.” It doesn’t help that her overbearing mother takes every opportunity to remind Nora that she’s still unattached.
After a series of disastrous first dates, she meets Julien, a seemingly devil-may-care Frenchman with a passion for living. Expecting another disastrous ending, Nora tries to avoid making the same mistakes. She finds herself in Paris looking to break old patterns. Inevitably, Nora has to look inward before she can find a new outlook on life and most importantly, love. Cassevetes talked exclusively to Paul Fischer.
Question: First time feature director. You don’t strike me as being – you’ve obviously been working on this for a while. Why did this take so long for you?
Zoe Cassevetes: It was very hard to find financing for the film. It’s still kind of a mystery to me, you know, I was in my own bubble and I took it very personally but when you think about it, independent films are very hard to make these days. And people just didn’t get what I was trying to do. I think they thought I was making – because I could see that if you read it without me explaining to you what I wanted to do, it seems like a romantic comedy -which I though was a no brainer for people who didn’t get a shit about what the movies were really about, but I didn’t really – I was calling it a ‘romantic comedy’ so I could get finance but I really knew that I wanted to make something a little bit more hardcore, a little bit more emotional and a little bit – not a typical glossy kind of film.
Question: Well you know, Parker said to me that it reminded her of the kinds of independent movies she did when she was starting out. Do you see this as a throwback to a time when independent cinema was so much more character based?
Zoe Cassevetes: Well I like those kind of movies. I like movies that make me feel something. And I’m not a huge like blockbuster fan, you know, I would rather go find the – I’m really like we’ll go the little theatre and see the little movie just because it’s more interesting to me and I like personal stories. So yes, I would hope but you know, there are lots of good movies out there that don’t get distribution and people work so hard and you know, just because my last name is Cassavetes …
Question: Let me ask you about that. Is that a hindrance in some ways to be a Cassevetes?
Zoe Cassevetes: Not to me.
Question: Not you personally, but in terms of getting this film made, did you have to go past the fact that, ‘Here we are, another Cassavetes wanting to get into the movie business’. Was that scepticism in abundance or …
Zoe Cassevetes: I think so. I mean, I think that people expect you to be at a certain level the minute you start because of who you are and where you come from and what your last name is. And in fact this is an experiment for me. It was my first film. I had to learn things and do things and I made a short film, or a couple, that I was really happy with and I was just happy working in that environment and so you kind of block out what everybody else – everyone’s going to say whatever they want to say and everyone’s going to preconceive you as ‘Well you have this and you must have this because of who you are’. Whereas in fact I work my ass off all the time to do what I need to do and make money and live my life. So I think, even now people will watch the movie and be like ‘Well, it’s not as good as her father’, you know. I’m sure.
Question: Why do you think it took you this long, I mean was it always your ambition to follow in your dad’s and your brothers’ footsteps or was it …
Zoe Cassevetes: It think it’s just like, I just never considered not making – I mean it was always something I wanted to do but I also worked production. I was an AD and PA and I had a little TV show with Sophia Coppola in the 90s and so it wasn’t like I was just on doing anything and like one day I was like ‘I think I’m going to make a film’. I think everything that I did made me the character that I am and all my life experience and travelling around the world and doing other things made me be able to be at a point where I could tell the story that I wanted to tell. Because it’s not easy to be like – you know, you could think of a good plot line but to follow it through completely is a whole different story. And I mean I would have made the movie three years ago if someone gave me the money but it wouldn’t have been the same movie as now.
Question: Why is that?
Zoe Cassevetes: Timing is everything. And Parker was available at that moment. And everything kind of fell into place very quickly, you know, in that movie that we decided that we were going to make the movie no matter what. And I just didn’t take no for an answer because almost everyone in the world said no, you know. And now some of those producers that had said no, they went to Sundance and they were like ‘Why didn’t we make that movie?’ and I’m like ‘Because you said no!’ So you got to earn it I guess. And I’m sure the next time I make a movie it might be a little bit easier but I’m always going to try to make the movies I want to make and not conform because now I have a chance, you know, I get a pile of scripts like this and I’m like ‘I wouldn’t make this crap before I made my movie so why would I make it now?’ Or, you know, everybody wants me to make a romantic comedy now but I just made one. So why would I – I want to experiment and do other things and do whatever …
Question: What parallels are there between this character and you?
Zoe Cassevetes: Well I think probably more than I’m aware of because I never write for an actress because I’m always afraid that if you do that and someone says ‘no’, well what are you left with? I mean there’s plenty of great actresses and actors in the world but when you write so specifically for someone and then you’re kind of shattered by the ‘no’ answer, then I use myself and I use myself like when I write and I sit and read a scene and I read out the way I want it to be read and make sure that it sounds like it’s a real thing. So yeah, and as a writer I take things from myself, I take things from my friends, I sit on the subway and I listen to someone tell a story and I write it down in my little notebook and I’m constantly kind of making mental notes and real notes. But I think the pain of it had to be a very personal thing for me. That underlying pain that’s in the movie because I felt so – I mean when I wrote the movie – it’s strange because I’m such a different person than when I wrote the movie because you change over the years. And I was on a different path and a different mission. People were asking me like, ‘You should be in love’ and I thought that something was really wrong with me after a while. Like ‘Why can’t I … you know, I’m cute. Surely I can find a boyfriend’ or something but then I stepped back from that and I realised this is something everybody else was putting on me. I wasn’t really putting that on myself and society and parents and this and that and, you know, the ad for the big engagement ring and all that kind of stuff and so I started to find the humour in it but also it was like the destructiveness of what that would do to someone.
Question: Were you as alone as she was?
Zoe Cassevetes: Yeah, for sure. I mean, it’s funny. I look back in my journal when I first started writing that and I was talking about it all the time and I’m like ‘I’m becoming like the joke here’ and now I can look back at it and think how funny or how ironic or whatever that was. But you know, you get lonely in life and of course you want to share your life with someone. I think everybody can relate because everybody wants to be in love and everybody wants to find someone that’s going to make them happy. Not complete them but go on a journey with them.
Question: Did you go to Paris and try and find that?
Zoe Cassevetes: Yeah I mean, well my dad always said ‘Write where you want to be’ so I was like, ‘Well we’re going to Paris’.
Question: Yeah I figured that probably had something to do with it.
Zoe Cassevetes: Yeah I think a guy could have been almost any other culture but American culture. And I really liked the idea that, I mean it was definitely like the guy being French man and her being a little stand off because they have a reputation – a world-wide reputation as being like ‘Yes, when I love you’, you know and you’re like ‘Are you being serious or are you just talking like that or what are you doing?’ And it’s funny I ended up having a French fiancé after I wrote the movie, which is …
Question: Is he still your fiancé?
Zoe Cassevetes: Yeah he still is. Yeah. We’re getting married, yeah. But I mean it’s all about trusting yourself and letting your guard drop in certain ways but also knowing who you are and what you give to it.
Question: Could you imagine anybody else in that role other than Parker?
Zoe Cassevetes: No. I mean, you know, you go through when you try to get your money and they’re like ‘What about Nicole Kidman?’ and I’m like ‘No, it’s not Nicole Kidman’. And they’re like ‘What about this movie star’ and ‘What about this movie star?’ and they’ll always push to towards a huge movie star. But I wanted someone real.
Question: It’s amazing, I mean Parker Posey to me is pretty big.
Zoe Cassevetes: I think so. I’ve always been a huge fan. I’ve seen all her body work, every play she did. It was always like ‘Oh Parker’s in a play. I’m going to see that’. I’m going to like make a trip and go see her do her thing. So that kind of thing doesn’t matter to me. If you’re right for the role you’re right for the role. And I just don’t think that she gets the opportunity to do that kind of – it’s not that she can’t do it, it’s just that people want her to play like, you know, the character. Because she’s good and she’s funny. And not a lot of people are funny, are like great comediennes. And she’s a great comedienne but she also proved that she is a wonderful dramatic actress and has a whole range. When I saw her in Personal Velocity I was like ‘Ooh yeah, she’s amazing. She can do something else totally that nobody else is tapping into’ and so, but she’s also a real human being, you know. She’s a real human person. A nice person, she’s present, she’s got a life outside of her acting even though she works all the time. And the minute I met her we just clicked, you know, there was something that we could relate to each other about and that was really important to me.
Question: What was the most terrifying thing for you about this whole process?
Zoe Cassevetes: Not finding the money to do it. Because I didn’t really have another, I mean I could have done a bunch of other things with my life and probably have been fulfilled in different ways but I really wanted to do this.
Question: What did you reckon about that strange woman who plays Parker’s mother?
Zoe Cassevetes: Oh that chick? Yeah, she’s OK.
Question: I know she’s had very little experience. Were you able to guide her in a way …
Zoe Cassevetes: You know, I tried, but I don’t really know if she was listening. (laughs)
Question: How was that experience. I mean both of you, you and your brother, have directed your mother and it must be very odd.
Zoe Cassevetes: It wasn’t odd at all. In fact it was great on many different levels. Like, it was great for me, you know, she’s my mother. So I got to do something that she could be proud of and she could be a part of that experience which was like a very, you know, good feeling for me.
Question: Was she surprised at how good this movie was? I mean given that you hadn’t done it before. I mean did she sort of say ‘You know, that was really great. I wasn’t expecting you to …’
Zoe Cassevetes: I think she was – I don’t know if she didn’t believe that I could do it. I think she knows who I am and that I’m a sensitive person and that I’m kind of very direct in the stuff I do so I think she was really pleased that it came out the way it did. Because you never know, you could have the best cast in the world and a great script and the movie turns out like crap or the opposite or a mix of both. But she was proud of me on a mother/daughter basis but it was also, you know she is so respected people are kind of like ‘Ooh, Gena Rowlands is on the set’. And so when she came on set everyone was a little twitter and I was just like – and my brother always used to say ‘Gena, can you come over here and do this’ and I said ‘You don’t call her Mom?’ and he said ‘You can’t call her Mom on the set. You’ve got to call her Gena. It’s just not going to work. People just get the wrong idea.’ So I’m like ‘Gena. Come over here’ and it is and it’s more of like, you know I called my brother after and I’m like ‘I so get why you call her Gena’, you know. And it was really when I was editing or looking at the footage afterward that I was like really astounded by the personal experience of having her say the words that I wrote and she’s such a phenomenal force and when I was writing, I said ‘I’m writing you a part in my movie’ and she said ‘It better be funny’ and I’m like ‘Oh don’t worry. You’re going to be funny’ and she’d read it and she was like ‘I don’t know if this is really funny’ and I’m like ‘When you say it, it’s going to be funny. Trust me. You don’t usually play these kind of parts and this is a really good, fun part for you’. So we had a really good time.
Question: How much confidence do you now have as a writer?
Zoe Cassevetes: I have a whole new life, you know. I did something really hard and it was like I’ve been on this journey for four years now. And it’s funny because each time you accomplish something you get the money, you shoot, you edit, you put the music in, then people watch it and now we’re here doing this and people take me seriously now. I’m a director now, you know. And before I’m like ‘I’m a loser and nobody wants to give me some money and …’
Question: You don’t have a boyfriend …
Zoe Cassevetes: You know, but that wasn’t even it. It was much more – I didn’t know – I wouldn’t say it’s ambition but I do want to work and I love working and it makes me a very happy person.
Question: It seems to me though that these parallels that might have existed between you and this character have come full circle because at the end of movie …..
Zoe Cassevetes: She’s going to be OK.
Question: Yeah. She’ll find happiness and she’ll get through it all. As you did.
Zoe Cassevetes: Yeah I’m really proud of myself. And not to be like, I’m not conceited about it or anything, but when I look back on it I’m like ‘I just did a huge thing’. And you don’t do it alone. It’s not that. It’s just being accepted in the community of actors and artists and all these people is such a nice – it’s where I feel like I’ve finally like found the place I want to be.
Question: Are you writing at the moment or are you taking a break?
Zoe Cassevetes: Oh no. I’m a workaholic now. I’ve been a little busy doing this stuff and, you know, it takes a minute to figure out but I was just in Berlin and I was in the back of a car and driving somewhere and I was like ‘I got it’. And it’s kind of a very complex story and much better than this story but it’s a drama but it’s always going to be about relationships and how they shift and what happens, you know, that part of it too. But I’m thinking Greek Islands this time. (laughs)
Question: Yeah. Well you’ll get yourself to every major part of the world now.
Zoe Cassevetes: Yeah it’ll be interesting to make a movie in Europe. And everyone’s like – at Sundance it was like ‘Well are you going to do next?’ and I’m like ‘I just finished this thing’, you know. And I wasn’t even finished at that point. Hollywood has a great way of making you feel like your career’s in the crapper before your movie even comes out.
Question: But you’ve got agents, I mean are you getting scripts sent to you?
Zoe Cassevetes: Yes, definitely.
Question: And most of it is pretty awful?
Zoe Cassevetes: It’s not good I have to say. It’s surprisingly mediocre and – I mean there’s some that I guess if I was interested in rewriting and working it could be OK but they keep just sending me romantic comedies and I just made one. They’re like ‘You’re a woman and you’re funny and you’re a funny writer and so here’s your fifty scripts’. And I’ll read them just out of curiosity and I’m like ‘Oh, I gotta write my own stuff’. Because it’s like, you know, where I am. It’s like a marker where I am in my life every time I write a new story.