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Zoe Cassavetes on “Broken English”

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By Aaron Hillis

IFC News

[Photo: Left, Parker Posey in “Broken English”; below, Zoe Cassavetes, Magnolia Pictures, 2007]

It seems inevitable that Zoe Cassavetes would write and direct her own feature, considering her family is a bona fide cinema dynasty. She’s the daughter of legendary indie pioneer John Cassavetes and twice Oscar-nominated actress Gena Rowlands, not to mention the sister to filmmakers Nick (“Alpha Dog”) and Xan (“Z Channel: A Magnificent Obsession”). Even her friends are film royalty, like Sofia Coppola, who was also her co-host on the short-lived 1994 Comedy Central show “Hi-Octane,” a proto-“The Simple Life” reality show in which the two tooled around L.A. interviewing celebs like Martin Scorsese and Johnny Ramone (a note to fans: they’re working on a DVD release).

“Broken English,” which had its premiere at Sundance this year, is certainly a Cassavetes film, but when you discover it’s an edgy sort of rom-com, you’ll realize it’s distinctively Zoe. Parker Posey stars as Nora, a Manhattan hotel liaison to VIP guests who is perpetually unhappy with the dead fish in her dating pool, time and again making stupid choices and sleeping with the wrong guys. Inspired by her friend Audrey’s (Drea de Matteo) seemingly happy marriage and her own griping mother (Rowlands), Posey winds up in Paris in search of the lovely Frenchman named Julien (Melvil Poupaud) who got away.

I sat in the Lower East Side’s swanky Mercer Hotel café for a quick chat with the director that features a guest appearance from Posey, who managed to tease me in the middle of her own interview one booth over.

You say you’re feeling “heebie-jeebied” for the theatrical premiere this week. Haven’t you shown the film to tons of people already?

No, no. I went to the gym, I worked out all the excess energies. I’m not, actually. It’s just one of those surreal days where everything starts, “Oh, okay. Guess we made a movie, guess it’s out there.”

Were you nervous at Sundance?

Yeah, it was terrifying. We finished the movie two days before we got in, [still working on] sound mix, color timing, all that stuff. It was kind of great because I didn’t have time to get nervous before Sundance. I was just putting things in a bag: “Okay, let’s go!” But it’s nerve-wracking, speaking in front of a lot of people, being judged by any crowd for something you worked so hard on. And it was fine. We had a good time, and now I’m used to talking to people. I’m not really the shyest person in the world, either.

Not to say there was any family pressure, but why did it take so long to get a feature made?

Nobody wanted to give me money. [laughs.] It was really hard to get financing.

[Parker Posey interrupts, in a sarcastic deadpan: “Why didn’t anyone want to give you money?”]

This is still the mystery question. But we’re not questioning it now that we’ve made the movie. Yeah, it took about three and a half years. Talking to other people who make low-budget movies, everyone kind of has the same struggle. I know people who [tell me], “It took me ten years to make my movie.” But once we got our money, it went really fast. We started shooting last May, so we finished the movie very quickly.

As an auteur’s daughter, would you be willing to work from somebody else’s script?

I want to write my own stuff, [but] I would never say never. I’m very interested in all the things I learned about making this movie, and putting them in the writing. I think the biggest thing I learned was being able to trust my own instincts — that I wrote the right thing, cast the right people. I’m writing again, and I’m happy with it. It’s kind of a murder mystery, but also about what that mystery does to the relationships and people in the movie. I can’t wait to dig in.

How autobiographical was “Broken English”?

Well, I think partly. I wouldn’t know how to write something that didn’t somehow touch me or issues in my life. I got some issues. [laughs] When I started thinking about the movie, everyone was like, “What are you doing?” Not “What are you doing with your life?” because I had a job and was doing well, but “Where’s your boyfriend?” Or, “Where’s your husband?” Are you kidding? I felt fine about it until people started asking me that, and then it became the snowball effect. Is there something wrong with me? I was talking with my friends about it because we’re all the same age, and they say, “That happens to me all the time.” So, it was kind of a mix of personal stuff with a kind of social commentary.

Was any of Gena’s on-screen bellyaching similar to her actual relationship with you?

No, it’s funny, my mom is kind of the anti-that: “Do what you want. If you’re going to get married, elope. Trust me.” Not that she did, but she’s very cool about that stuff, so when I was writing the part for her, she said “well, make it funny.” She read it and [said], “I don’t know if that’s funny.” I’m like, “It’s gonna be funny… for me, at least.” She definitely would [tell me to] put some eyeshadow on and stuff like that, but only in a helpful way.

How hypersensitive were you to working with “Mom” on-set?

Strangely, not at all. We shot the movie in 20 days, so there wasn’t really time to panic. You know, panic takes a lot of time and energy out of you. She lives in L.A., and so we talked on the phone a lot about it before we started, and she’s just so intuitive and has so much experience — it was nice to be able to trust someone that deeply. It’s funny because everyone was like, “It’s Gena Rowlands on the set. She’s on the set!” So everyone else is a-twitter, and I was like, “Gena.” She was so respectful of me, and it was so nice to have Gena Rowlands in the movie, but it was also nice to share that experience with my mom. I talked to my brother a lot, and he said “You gotta call her Gena. It’s not going to go down well if you call her Mom.”

Most of the guys in the film are, as you called them, “shits.” Is this from your own dating woes?

It was a conscious choice, but not so much in that way. You know how they say the people you date are reflections of where you are at the moment? So, even if it seems that I’m sticking the knife to the guys, I think it’s more a reflection of where Nora is and what she’s attracting to herself, as opposed to her unbelievable bad luck meeting all these jerks. Because if any of those guys had turned around at that moment in her life and said “Yeah, be my girlfriend,” she wouldn’t have been able to handle it.

It’s funny, I’m marrying a French guy, but I met him after I wrote my movie, which is weird and kind of great. My dad always said, “Write where you want to be.” I guess I wanted to go to Paris. I think it’s a magical place where you can go out and do things by yourself and feel fulfilled. You can go to the movies by yourself, or a museum, or just walk around and absorb. The city is your friend, where New York can be a harsh place if you’re alone. It was really important for Nora to be by herself.

Not that their similarities stretch past this, but I was thinking “Broken English” could also have been titled “Lost in Translation.” Do you think your friendship with Sofia carries over to a kinship between your films, especially since they’re both loosely autobiographical?

On certain levels, because of the obvious. We both have father directors, and we both grew up in film families. It’s funny because I think I was writing my movie while Sofia was writing “Lost in Translation.” As women, we’re probably very in tune with what’s going on [with ourselves] emotionally, and I think that interests both of us. I don’t think it’s limited to female directors, or that male directors don’t care about emotion, but women feel with their gut. [Sofia’s] so into detail and the look of things, and she’s so talented at what she does. It’s nice to have a friend so close to you that does what you do, so you can kind of gripe about it or say, “Can you read my script for the 80th time right now?”

Are there any male filmmakers today who know anything about women?

Pedro Almodóvar really seems to understand women, but [they’re otherwise] very few and far between. The thing is, people don’t make movies about women anymore. They make movies about men where women get to be the sidekick, or the girlfriend, the wife, the token kind of part. So, it’s always great, even like “La Vie en Rose,” just to see a movie that’s purely about a woman and what happens around her life. I grew up watching all those movies in the 1930s and 40s, Bette Davis and Carole Lombard. There are strong women who are doing these great things, and it seemed very interesting to have that complexity in life.

What was your first job in New York?

I actually worked here [at the Mercer Hotel]. That was the autobiographical part. [laughs] I really wanted to move to New York, but you can’t move here without a job, because it’s really expensive. When the hotel opened, I came and worked for a couple of years, and had a great time. I learned that I could do something else with my life and make my own money, and be financially secure. While I did that I made my short, [2000’s “Men Make Women Crazy Theory”], and I knew that I was going to move on at a certain point. You know, I ate out of the quarter jar for a few months here and there while I was trying to make the movie, but having no money, and being incredibly destitute was the best thing that could ever have happened to me. eBay was huge for me at that moment. We come from [a well-known] family, but that doesn’t necessarily mean there’s a giant inheritance behind my back. I work hard and support myself.

Is that a misconception you think you’re being judged for?

I think people think I have it easier than I probably [do]. I’m not complaining about my life, every moment of it has been fantastic and I’m so lucky. But when people think you come from celebrity, even though my parents were like the anti-celebrities of all time, you must have some sort of money tree in your backyard. I’m happy to be 36 and making my first film. I know myself really well, and I don’t feel trapped by what this [or that] person thinks about me. I have my own life, you know?

“Broken English” is now playing in select theaters (official site).

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