how to make a movie

Nicole Holofcener on the Difference Between Directing Movies and TV

Photo: NBC and Fox Searchlight Pictures

Some directors just do movies. Some just television. But there are a rare few, like Nicole Holofcener, who jump back and forth between the two worlds. In addition to her five feature films — including her latest, Enough Said, starring Julia Louis-Dreyfus and James Gandolfini — Holofcener has helmed episodes of Sex and the City, Gilmore Girls, Bored to Death, Enlightened, and Parks and Recreation (including last week’s episode about Eagleton going bankrupt). She thinks it’s “good practice” to do television in between films, because she makes her own movies so infrequently. “I forget,” she tells Vulture. “I think, I don’t know how to direct anymore! And then I get on a TV set and go, Oh, yeah, I remember. This is in me. I know how to do this.” But, as she explains, the two jobs can be very different.

Movies: Director Is king. TV: Writers rule.

“Ultimately, [on my own set], if I feel I’ve gotten a good take and the scene is done, I say, ‘Cut!’ and we move on,” she said. “But if I’m doing a television show, I turn to the writer probably about 5,000 times a day to say, ‘Did we get it? Are you happy? Do you want me to try anything else?’”

Usually the writer is the series showrunner and also an executive producer, and that’s whom Holofcener needs to please. “I will never know the show as well as the writer or the creator,” Holofcener said. And sometimes, that means she makes mistakes that the showrunners have to correct. “Thank God the writers would say, ‘You know what? They never do that,’” she said. “Or, ‘We did that in season two.’ And then I turn bright red and continue on my way.”

Movies: It’s your domain. TV: What’s your name again?

“For me, the biggest difference always has been and always will be how comfortable I can feel on a set,” said Holofcener. When she’s shooting a television episode, she feels like a guest: Sometimes it makes her feel like the substitute teacher (“You’re supposed to act like the boss, but you’re not really the boss”) and other times like “the new kid at school.” If she finds herself on a set “where the vibe is not fun” because the actors and crew are “sick of the new directors coming in and telling them how to behave,” she feels uneasy and wonders, “What am I doing here?” she said. “These people know what they’re doing. But they need a director, and I have a job to do.”

Once, when she was working on an episode of Gilmore Girls, Holofcener got the feeling that the crew had worked with a lot of guest directors and “didn’t need to hear from anyone new.” To make matters worse, she also had surprise guests on set: George Lucas and his daughter, who was a fan of the show. “I was like, ‘Oh, great. A huge director coming to watch me direct,’” she recalled. Lucas stood behind the monitor as she directed a scene and started questioning her about how she set up the shot. Not in a curious or friendly way, but like, “‘Why would you do it that way?’” she said. “It was mortifying!” Holofcener felt even worse that he questioned her in front of a twenty-person crew she didn’t know, and that a People magazine reporter was also on set to report the whole incident. Had it been Holofcener’s film set, “I don’t think he would have done that. And the crew would have had my back.”

Most of the time, though, “If I’m on a set like Parks and Rec, it’s fun and collaborative and everybody’s laughing, and I think, I want to do this more often.”

Movies: Let’s move on! TV: Hold on, let’s talk about that …

“There are so many meetings on a television show. You’re meeting to death,” Holofcener said. “There are three prop meetings to say, ‘Do you like this photo album?’” she explained. “And then there’s 30 photo albums on the table. And then we narrow it down, and the writer picks three, and then I’m asked to pick one, and then it has to be shown to the writer. When I’m making a movie, there’s no time for those kind of meetings about that many options.” Instead, she said, she would be told of a selection available for a prop — say, dining-room furniture — and then she picks one. “That’s it,” she said. “On a film, there are just too many decisions that have to be made too quickly. But even if the television meetings veer toward excess, they’re valuable, because “fewer mistakes happen. Communication is so clear, because you’ve beaten a subject to death.”

Movies: You are your characters. TV: Remind me which two characters are in love again?

As the writer and director of her films, it is Holofcener’s job to track each character’s arc. She knows the material better than any other person. But on a television set, she’s often in the dark. “On Sex and the City, I would ask Sarah Jessica Parker, ‘What happened with that, so I can understand this?’ I’m never in the loop as much as they are. ‘You got back together? How did you get back together? And how does that impact and influence the scene we’re about to shoot?’”

“By my first episode of Parks and Rec, I’d watched several episodes, but not every single one,” she recalled. “And my episode required Ron Swanson to eat a very large steak. So during the concept meeting, I said to the creator, ‘Would Nick Offerman be willing to eat such an enormous steak over and over again?’” And everyone looked at me like, ‘Have you ever seen this show?’” Turned out, not only did the character live for eating steak, but so did the actor. “So my ignorance showed,” she laughed. “I feel like I should know every little detail, but I don’t even know if they cared that I asked that question. Maybe they laughed about it all night long. I don’t know!”

TV: Money is no object. Movies: Money is a big, rare object.

Depending on the show and the budget, the size and scale of a television shoot (Enlightened, for example) can be similar to one of Holofcener’s films. But occasionally, a show can get massive, as Sex and the City did in its later seasons. “Talking about the equipment was shocking,” Holofcener said. “‘We can have a crane here, and we can have a crane here, and we can have a technocrane here.’ And none of these things could I have on my movies. I still couldn’t.”

Sometimes, Holofcener is envious of the pre-built stages that television shows can afford. During her last guest-directing spot on Parks and Rec, the show built the Eagleton conference room to use for two scenes in one episode, and then tore it down afterwards. “It’s like, I wanted to take it home!” she laughed. “But they’re on a stage and that’s a lot cheaper than going on location.”

But on film sets, Holofcener struggles to get a place that looks just right for her scenes. She agonized over the locations and the look of the main character’s store in 2010’s Please Give, ” because that’s what these people did,” and she tried her best to get luxurious-looking places for 2006’s Friends With Money. “A movie about rich people, and we couldn’t afford to have rich-looking places!” she laughed. “And if we did, we had to be out of there so fast, you could barely see it! So I should just write about poor people in small rooms. I don’t know what I was thinking!”

Nicole Holofcener on Directing TV vs. Movies