Interview: Nancy Savoca Finds a Home in “Union Square”

With rat-a-tat repertee between dysfunctional siblings serving as the launchpad for a rollicking family comedy, the director of "Dogfight" and "True Love" comes roaring back to the screen after...
Mira Sorvino, Tammy Blanchard and Nancy Savoca on the set of the film Union Square

Whether you’re a personal confidant or a passing acquaintance of Nancy Savoca, you might not want to hold out hope that the writer/director will contact you on a social network.

“I’m terrified of Facebook,” laughs Savoca, who nonetheless found it to be an interesting way to explore contemporary familial relations in her latest film. “As [my co-writer] Mary Tobler wrote this beautiful line that Mira [Sorvino] then delivered so brilliantly [to her onscreen sister], ‘I friended you on Facebook and you ignored me.’ That’s probably the worst thing you can hear someone say these days.”

Unfortunately, it was around the same time Mark Zuckerberg was putting the finishing touches on Facebook that Savoca was finishing up work on her last film “Dirt,” an affecting character study of a Salvadoran maid that flew under the radar. One of the fiercest female directors of the ’90s with the Sundance Grand Jury Prize winner “True Love” and the endearing River Phoenix-Lili Taylor coming-of-age drama “Dogfight,” Savoca built up a reputation of pulling strong performances from her actors in films with no easy answers.

Those abilities are crucial to “Union Square,” Savoca’s new whirling dervish of a comedy, which features Sorvino as Lucy, a tough-talking New Yawker stopped cold by what appears to be a breakup at the start of the film, leading her to retreat to the lower Manhattan flat of her estranged sister (Tammy Blanchard) to mend her heart, but not necessarily fences with her vegan, well-to-do sis. Made possible by cheap high-quality digital cameras and a free apartment to shoot in, the film is rich with revelations, sharp turns from its leads and an old-fashioned sentimental streak that softens the edges.

After “Union Square”’s whirlwind two-week shoot and now on the eve of its release on the coasts, Savoca had a few minutes to spare to talk about her return behind the camera, crashing nightclubs and the unusual mix of influences on her latest film.

How did this film come together?

It actually came together on a bet because our producer Neda Armian, Mary Tobler and I just got together to have a cup of coffee near Union Square where Neda lives and we were just talking about how it just seems that it’s always one step forward, two steps back every time you’re trying to make an independent film. Neda finally said, “Wouldn’t it be great to make a movie where we didn’t have to ask permission from anyone? It would be so self-contained and so small and doable that we’d just figure out a way to do it ourselves.” The more we talked about it, the more we got into it and she was like, “Okay, I’ll tell you what? I’ll give you my apartment. You guys come up with a story, we’ll keep it contained to the apartment and then we’ll figure it out.” What she neglected to tell me was that the apartment is one-room big. That scared me because what do you do in one room that won’t put people to sleep? Luckily, I had Mary Tobler as my writing partner and she was more fearless, so we began the process of thinking of a story that would fit the place.

Obviously, there are physical constraints to having just one room, but how did the space affect the pace and the type of story you wanted to tell?

It’s like working backwards because usually you think of what do we want to talk about or what characters do I want to spend some time with? But this one was like, alright, who’s in this place? Then I realized what would be interesting is if a person came into this place who didn’t belong here. [laughs] Of course, that got a little complicated and the opening of the meltdown in Union Square was actually a little piece that I had written based on something I observed on the street: a woman who was on the phone having a difficult conversation with somebody and I realized probably before she did that that this person was trying to disassociate themselves from her.

That got me to thinking because we lead these very private lives very publicly these days. We talk on our cell phones and I’ve heard people talk divorce, medical test results… I’ve heard people say a lot of things on a cell phone and I’ve stopped myself from doing it too — I hope I have, at least. Between that and you can post your relationship status on Facebook whenever you want, all these things to me are really interesting and I thought that was a cool thing for one character to have and then to come to another character that does not do that.

I’ve also heard you say that another modern phenomenon – reality television – contributed to how you wanted to portray women in the film. How was that an influence?

I was totally influenced by Roberto Rossellini and “Housewives of New Jersey,” equally. [laughs] When I realized how wacky this Lucy character was becoming, as the story progressed and things kept changing and revealing themselves to us, [it was] really interesting because each one of these characters start off as almost like a stereotype and by the end of the movie, they’re not that at all. To me, it’s the antidote to reality TV where they tell you here’s the bitch, the nice one, the suffering one. They’re all these archetypes and people who watch them sort of feel they’re observing real life.

Now, it’s weird because over the years, we realize that this stuff gets scripted. I’m trying to figure out what audiences get from reality TV. I used to think I knew because you figure it’s that they want reality. They don’t want to be lied to. I think audiences at some point decided that fiction lies, then suddenly, it’s like reality TV. In fact, nothing tells the truth. Everything’s an interpretation by the people who make it.

This is actually your first film in almost a decade and if nothing else, the technology of making a film has changed – to the benefit of this film since you used a Canon Mark 5D, a camera small enough to make it possible. Was it any different?

The best thing about it, of course, is portability and what we could get away with and where we could shoot. The department stores that we shot in were not shut down. Normally, when a movie comes in, it’s like please, we’d like to buy out this store or we’re here after hours, but we paid for no locations. When everything is happening, those people in the background are just people in the background. When we did the party scene where [Lucy is in a club] dancing, we just went into the club and they were having a party and people didn’t seem to mind that we crashed it. In that sense, maybe it was a little reality.

That sounds like it was probably stress-inducing, which is the opposite of what I would think, given that you were cooped up for the rest of the shoot in the apartment.

It was kind of great. In the beginning, we thought it was going to be this great challenge and we were really concerned. We had to shoot Mira melting down in Union Square and of course, we had no control in Union Square. Suddenly, we were like a part of the city and day one was the challenge because we shot the movie in sequential order, which hardly ever happens. Mira shot 12 pages in a day — the meltdown and everything was in one day. So when we went into the park after we had gone shopping [for the film’s opening scene in a mall], we were really nervous because what if people recognized her and stopped us from shooting? We had no cover. We didn’t have security. We didn’t have anything.

Our cameras were so small that nobody knew we were shooting and people actually thought she was a woman having a nervous breakdown. There were people asking her if she was okay. There was this one guy that we kept in the movie who walked by, this young kid who said, “Nice outfit” and she told him to shut up. Things were happening around us and we just became a part of it.  We didn’t have to worry. Then we were like wild. We went everywhere. We did whatever. It was actually exhilarating.

Just because this is the first time I’ve gotten the chance to talk to you, what got you interesting in filmmaking in the first place?

That’s such a good question and I always have a different answer. I don’t know if that means that I’m a liar, but it’s funny because I just keep thinking of there were different times when I was very interested in movies and what they do to people. My parents watched movies a lot when I was a kid and [they] came to this country from Argentina, so they didn’t speak English very well. My relatives who were [also] here were from Sicily and they didn’t speak English very well. So whenever we got together at family gatherings and the TV would go on and some movie would come on, if it was a Hollywood film, I’d have to translate. But if it was a film from another country, even [without a] language anyone spoke, people could still sit and get into the story.

That’s kind of what turned me onto filmmaking. As I got older, I realized it was an artform, but it turned me on because it’s incredibly accessible. It wasn’t like you had to go to a museum to appreciate it. It was something that no matter if you had language or you didn’t have the language, you could still understand the story. In that way, it’s like music and both of those art forms, I grew up with them.

Speaking of music, I hear a documentary on the jazz saxophonist Gato Barbieri is next.

We’re hoping to get it done soon, but we’ve been working on this for a while because Gato like every cat because that’s his name – Gato, cat – has had several lives. The more I learn about him, the more fascinating his life becomes. He started working in jazz bands in the ’50s in Argentina during Peron’s dictatorship where they didn’t allow foreign music being played, so he would play tangos in the prime time and then after hours, everybody would switch to jazz. From there, he went to Rome and to Paris right in the ’60s, so it was a very interesting, radical time, then he came to the States in the ’70s and ’80s and was part of the smooth jazz movement that happened here. So he just keeps adapting and he’s just got so many parts of him that people don’t know.

“Union Square” opens on July 13th in New York at the Angelika, Los Angeles at the Laemmle Music Hall, Encino Town Center and the Pasadena Playhouse 7 and Toronto at the Carlton before expanding into limited release. A full listing of theaters can be found here.

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