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The Write Stuff interview series continues this week with Nancy Oliver. Nancy got her big break writing for one of my all-time favorite television shows -- Six Feet Under. She also wrote the script for the wonderful new film Lars and the Real Girl. The movie is about a young man named Lars (Ryan Gosling), his relationship with a sex doll, and how it affects those around him. Lars is in theaters now.
Cinematical: Take us through how you got your start as a writer.
Nancy Oliver: I have always written, since I was a little girl. I would rather have been a rock star, but that didn't work out. I got serious about it when I was about 21, which was a while ago. I had seen Saturday Night Live, and at the time I was acting in college, but nobody was casting me because I was totally wrong for everything. So seeing SNL, I started thinking I could do that. Alan Ball and I were friends in college so we put on our first show together and it took off from there. We had a theater company for a long time, and wrote and produced all our material.
Cinematical: Was the desire ever to get into another medium or would you have been happy doing that the rest of your life?
NO: I was interested in every kind of writing. I was possessed by theater because I had the means to do it, whereas to get to a camera is a different sort of path. I didn't head specifically for television or film until I had sort of already turned myself into a writer. I wanted to have a certain command of what I did and a certain knowledge of styles, and I just wanted to be able to handle myself technically and in terms of craft before I came to L.A.
Cinematical: And Six Feet Under was your first television gig? How did you get on there?
NO: Yeah, it was my first legit job. I had been writing content for the website for a year, and I had a job reading scripts for Alan. After the first two seasons, they changed up the writing staff, and I came on in the third season. We had worked together for over 20 years, but the job came as a big surprise to me. I didn't expect it and didn't go looking for it. And I was actually going back to Florida at the time, giving up on show business when the Six Feet Under job came through.
Cinematical: Good thing you didn't go back! What was the writing process on that show, was it a traditional writers' room or was it written more like a film?
NO: It was a full-out writers' room, everybody was in on everything. We would break the story, break the season, break down individual episodes. And then you were assigned an episode and you'd go off to write it, and then you'd come back to the room and everyone would go through it line by line. There were three or four passes, and then you were on set with it.
Cinematical: Did you write Lars and the Real Girl after Six Feet Under ended?
NO: I wrote it before I was hired for Six Feet Under, in 2001/2002. I had just written it for myself, for kicks. And then when I actually got an agent a couple of months later, I told them I have this screenplay lying around. And they said "OK, we'll take a look at it." And then it kind of sat around on peoples' desks for a while. Or under peoples' desks for a while. And then I started meeting a couple of producers. I wanted to write a contemporary fairy tale.
Cinematical: At the screening I was in, there was a lot of laughter. And I questioned whether it was a response to the comedy or an uncertainty about how to react to what was going on in the film. Did you intend it as a comedy or were you not even thinking of it in that way?
NO: I was telling a story. And in a good story, you get everything. I never tried to control peoples' responses to the material at all. I think some of the laughter is nervous, and then I think there are some parts of it that are just really funny. We did this with Six Feet Under too. You know how when you go to a funeral, and something happens that's funny? It doesn't bother me when people laugh.
Cinematical: The only real issue I had with the movie -- and I eventually came around to it 100% -- but there was a point about halfway through when I was getting frustrated with the other characters enabling Lars. Was that a concern of yours, that the audience would get angry at the other characters for continuing to fuel his delusion?
NO: When someone has a delusion, it doesn't matter what you say to him. It's not about enabling, because you can scream at somebody and throw things when they have a delusion, and it's not going to change their mind. This is everybody's problem with the movie. There were originally scenes in the movie where you saw people being mean to him (Lars), but there wound up being no time or money to shoot those scenes. But in the end, it's not about the people who are cruel to him. It's not about confronting the audience with that reality. It's about exploring the geography of kindness and compassion. So in a way, that stuff was irrelevant to me. It was a given that people would treat him badly, but that wasn't the point of the story. Can I ask you a question? I'm interested in your response to the whole enabling thing. Did you ever see that movie Russian Ark? The one where it's one shot through the whole entire movie?
Cinematical: I'm familiar with it, but haven't watched it.
NO: The first 20 minutes of that movie, I was so tense because there weren't any cuts. And I was either going to walk out of the movie or I was going to stay. And I kind of feel that's the same kind of tension that develops in Lars, when you see people not being mean to him. Is that how you experienced it?
Cinematical: I was never eying the door or checking my watch. To me, it just seems that somebody would have sat Lars down and told him his relationship with the doll was ridiculous. When I started to change was when Lars was having breakfast, and his brother made a cutting remark, and Lars totally disregarded it. That was when I started saying "OK, no matter what anybody says, it's not going to be an issue for him." Was the issue of Lars becoming a man the theme you were going for? That definitely seems to be Lars' arc.
NO: That's written in right from the top, as far as I'm concerned. It becomes articulated in the middle of the movie. My whole thing was that what makes Lars break and go delusional is this convergence of pressures. He's 26, he hasn't been able to make contact, he hasn't been able to break through, his sister-in-law is pregnant, he has a desire to be normal to be grow up and be a man. All of those elements come together to break him, and how to be a man is part of that -- how does he move on from where he is? He's stunted, and he knows it. And to me, it seemed like the question that he had to ask his older brother. It's a big question. There's no guidance. Who do you ask? Who prepares you? If you don't have a good father, how do you know?
Cinematical: At any point in the writing process did you consider exploring the sexual relationship between Lars and the doll?
NO: In the original script, and it's not that I have any differences with the movie that was made, my intention was to make that another of the pressures that was on Lars -- his sexuality. With Ryan's interpretation and the director's interpretation, that whole line was kind of cut out of the movie, which is fine. It made it a different movie.There was one scene in my original script where you saw Lars beginning to touch her and sort of get a sense of her femaleness while he was giving her a bath, but that didn't sit with Ryan's interpretation, and so that left the movie.
Cinematical: Yeah, Lars seemed almost asexual to me in the film.
NO: Yeah, that was a choice that Ryan made with the director. It wasn't how I envisioned the character. That's what happens, they take it in their own direction. Ryan had very specific things that he wanted to play. You see little hints of sexuality in the bowling scene, but in Ryan's interpretation, Lars wasn't at that point yet. In my mind, in the script he kind of was, but anyway...
Cinematical: You have to be happy with the final product, though.
NO: I'm very happy with the way it came out.This happens all the time when a script gets produced. That's just part of the process, things fall away. I'm not trying to indicate displeasure with the final product at all, it was just different in the script. I was on set for the whole thing, so I kind of knew what they were getting. It wasn't a surprise to me. There's a lot of twitching and cringing when you finally see it, but a lot of that is just my own writing.
Cinematical: What inspired this script?
NO: A script is born from so many different things. The specific real doll thing -- I had a weird job that brought me in contact with a lot of young guys and a lot of weird websites. And I saw that website, and the dolls' faces are kind of haunting and creepy. At the same time, I can completely understand how it could happen and why people have them. So that stayed with me for a while. I wanted to make a fairy tale and give it that twist. It's an old story, and you just try to package in as many universal themes as will fit.
Cinematical: I understood the sex doll thing too. I think a lot of people would say "Oh these people are sick perverts." I would never purchase one, but knowing how hard it is to approach the opposite sex, especially if you are shy and introverted -- I understand. It didn't freak me out is what I'm saying.
NO: Exactly. Is it so different from a pet? Some people get really creeped out, but people have all different ways to act out, and it's not always sexual. At least he connects with something.
Cinematical: Did you purchase a real doll? Get any hands-on experience for the script?
NO: Oh no, they're like $6500 bucks. They used four different ones in the movie. There are different heads and bodies that you fit together. I wasn't involved in the actual choosing of the doll.
Cinematical: The casting, if you will?
NO: The casting, yeah!
Cinematical: And what's next?
NO: I'm back in television again, a vampire series for HBO (True Blood). The Alan Ball show. That's fun. It comes from a series of books, that whole genre of vampire fiction. It's about Louisiana vampires, and the vampires are mainstreaming at this point. And it's sex, blood, fangs, violence, fun. The production design is awesome. We just started shooting the episodes. Depending on the writers' strike, they're aiming to air that in the summer. I am working on a new feature script for Warner Brothers. I can tell you it's going to be a "southeastern western," and completely different from Lars.