‘Can You Ever Forgive Me?’ Scribes On The Challenge Of The Writer’s Life & Their Firsthand Encounters With Lee Israel


While Jeff Whitty would write the first four drafts of Can You Ever Forgive Me?, summoning a screenplay from a memoir, he wasn’t anticipating the assignment. A Tony Award winner known at that point for Avenue Q—a raunchy and witty puppet musical, which has had a long run, on and off Broadway—the aptly named Whitty was initially approached by producer Bob Balaban, to write up the hilarious and poignant true story of American author (and accomplished literary forger) Lee Israel. “Bob had read a play of mine called The Hiding Place, where I wrote about my friends in New York who were artists. Some of them had Lee’s voice, that thing of being kind of fussy—not fussy in a bad way, but looking for integrity in everything,” the writer recalls. “So, I was hired, and it was kind of eerie because I knew Julius’ incredibly well, the bar that’s featured in the film. Pretty much all the bar scenes were shot there.”

Reading Israel’s memoir of the same name, detailing the desperation that led her to a life of (minor) crime, Whitty felt he immediately understood Israel and the struggles she endured. “What I totally understood was that horrible feeling of, ‘I have a dollar.’ I struggled for 10 years— really, really struggled—because New York is so expensive. It’s always the thing of, ‘Well, I could get really committed to this day job and be more comfortable. But then I won’t be able to make my dreams come true.’ You do take the door that opens for you, and you’re going to choose the one that brings you some sense of pleasure just to get through it,” he reflects. “My solution was that I was a go-go boy for three years, before Avenue Q. The first month Avenue Q was on Broadway, we didn’t get paid, because it takes a while, and I was go-go dancing, with a show on Broadway. It’s totally different, but it’s the same thing. It’s the hustle—what [Grant’s character] Jack’s up to, also—and there aren’t a lot of stories about that. But I think it’s something that’s really relatable.”

The financial troubles Israel endured were clear, but so was her artistic toil, all in the name of work with meaning, with her highbrow and ambitious works rejected by publishing houses and bookstores, time and time again. “[There’s] the feeling that whatever the industry is assumes that people are stupid. And actually, what I’ve found is I always write up to the audience. I make it play really lightly and cleanly, but you can be brilliant on the page and people will like it. They’re not going to be scared of it,” Whitty shares. “We’ve had brilliant executives [on this film]; I want to make that clear. But executives give you their apprehensions, and it’s like, ‘Just let me do what I do well.’”

“And that sense of, ‘I don’t like that idea,’” he adds. “You know in your heart, as with Lee and the Fanny Brice biography, that it probably would have been killer. But you’re sort of stuck in a world where the values are tacky.”

While Marielle Heller’s comedic drama, starring Melissa McCarthy and Richard E. Grant, marks Whitty’s first produced screenplay, the writer had taken a stab at screenwriting before, and came up against similar obstacles. “I had done a screenplay adapting a piece on This American Life that was about a real life person, and I’d met the woman I was writing about. She was a bounty hunter, and we went to a firing range and had a good time. But then I’d go back into meetings with the executives and they’d say, ‘We think her mother should be dead.’ And I would be like, ‘But her mom is alive. She’ll probably be at the premiere,’” he says, with a laugh. “I didn’t know how to hold my ground, so I kept taking everyone’s notes, and it just got noted to death. I never thought I would leave theater in search of the integrity of the film industry, but with what I went through in theater in the last few years, it’s enough of the New York culture of theater for me.”

It was this experience that taught Whitty several lessons—most importantly, that he should never meet the subjects of his own stories, even given an opportunity to do so. “Because I had a very strong sense of Lee’s voice, I didn’t want to meet her until after I was done, just so I could imagine, and fill in the blanks,” he explains. “It was a world that I knew. My apartment wasn’t in the condition of Lee’s, but I lived in a very similar apartment on 14th Street, and I knew the world of those parties a little bit.”

When Whitty turned in his fourth draft of the script, he had a change of heart. “Word came back that [Israel] liked it, which was such a relief,” the writer admits. “Because if she didn’t like it, I’m sure I would have heard as well.” In LA doing a musical, he made plans to meet with Israel when back in New York—and yet it was through a strange twist of fate, on a bar crawl in New York for his 40th birthday, that Whitty would come to meet the film’s lovable curmudgeon, at the very bar Israel haunts throughout the film. “I was at Julius’ talking to my friend, Heidi Schreck, and I looked in the corner, and was like, ‘Oh my God, that’s her. That’s Lee Israel.’ [My friends] had been putting costumes on me, and bunny ears on my head, and I wove over to her table and said, ‘Lee Israel? I’m Jeff Whitty, I wrote the screenplay of your life,’” he recalls. “And she said, ‘Oh, I was just looking at you over there with those bunny ears on and telling my friend I couldn’t wait for you to leave.’”

Reflecting back on this accidental encounter, Whitty can’t help but laugh—and this wasn’t his only meeting with the writer. “We got burgers at Julius’ a couple weeks later, and complained about New York’s decline, and whatever it’s become. [The film] was originally going to be done with Julianne Moore, and I wrote her an email and said, ‘Not bad, huh?’ This was I think before Melissa—she hadn’t quite hit hit yet—and [the email] came back returned,” he says. “I looked online, and [Israel] had passed away.”

“It makes me so sad because she was great, she really was. Not for everybody, probably—you had to have a thick skin,” he concedes. “But as I see it, the kind of humor when they banter, Lee and Jack—it’s an extension of trust, in a way, that you’re not going to take it wrong. It’s also kind of a gay sensibility that is coming out in the mainstream, too.”

At the time when Moore was attached to play Israel, revered writer/director Nicole Holofcener was set to direct, though she eventually would participate in the project as a co-writer, beginning with Whitty’s drafts, and doing her own, before Heller entered production. While writers can be competitive with one another, or desire command over their own works to some extent, Whitty isn’t an artist of this sort. “I’m a firm believer in collaboration, because it broadens the market if it’s more than one voice, and I just loved everything Nicole brought,” he remarks. “It felt very true, and copacetic with my vision of it, so I was really pleased. I couldn’t believe, when I saw the movie, how much I liked it.”

When producer Anne Carey first approached Holofcener, she’d never heard of Israel, but was quickly swept up in “a great character, and a unique story.” “It was something that I knew I would never come up with by myself. Obviously, she’s a real person,” she notes. “It was so different from the kinds of things that I had already written, but that appealed to me, as well. It was funny and sad, and I like those things.” Like Whitty, Holofcener knew New York, growing up on the Upper West Side, which could only benefit a New York-set project. While Can You Ever Forgive Me? stands apart from the writer’s earlier works, at least one through line is apparent to her, connecting them all. “I guess there is a through line in writing about complex, interesting, flawed women, that are very real,” she shares, “and very human to me.” Reading Israel’s memoir, Holofcener responded strongly to her personality, which read so clearly on the page, a woman that was “angry, and articulate, and funny, and lonely and brave.”

Also like Whitty, Holofcener understands the fear and the struggles writers go through, though as a writer/director, her experience is somewhat different. “I related to that because after every script I write, I’m worried there won’t be another, or I won’t be allowed to make another film. I think that’s a normal fear for most creative people. I understood the humiliation she goes through, just as a kind of lost human being. Getting her used books rejected at the Strand, and being treated so badly,” Holofcener reflects. “I might not have had that exact experience, but I think everybody knows what that kind of experience feels like, and it endeared me to her even more. You’d have to not be very sensitive to not have felt these things in your life.”

In Can You Ever Forgive Me?, Israel and fellow con Jack Hock are presented as they were—as gay indivuals—with very little fanfare or emphasis on that fact, which was important to both writers, for different reasons. For Holofcener, it was simply about following the memoir. “There was nothing about these characters being gay except that Lee’s hung up on her old girlfriend, and so that’s played out. Just things that Jack does make it very clear that he’s homosexual,” she says. “We didn’t have to talk about it. Those scenes just unfolded naturally.”

For Whitty, there was a bigger point to make, in writing the characters this way; in fact, he’d been “dying” to do something like that. Besides “letting the audience do the math,” considered good form in screenwriting in general, Whitty wrote with intent, cognizant of the ways in which gay people are represented on screen. Anecdotally, he recalls a “huge tangle” he got into with The Tonight Show’s Jay Leno, circa 2009 or 2010, regarding Brokeback Mountain jokes he’d made on air. An admirer of Ang Lee’s 2005 film, about two cowboys struggling with their sexual identities, and the furtive relationship they share, Whitty thought the pic was “beautiful and brave,” whereas Leno approached it, “doing the oldest, ‘70s gay jokes.” “I wrote him this letter and sort of read him to filth for it and said, ‘I love a good gay joke, but I love a good gay joke.’ I sent it to three friends, one of whom was Larry Kramer, the gay activist, who sent it to his entire, starry address book—and two days later, I was on CNN talking to Soledad O’Brien,” he remembers. “I ended up talking to him on the phone, but it’s baby steps. I’m glad I said it, and I wasn’t being a comedy nanny so much as just saying, ‘Gay people are a lot more than guys who disco in leather.’ Because that’s what he was giving us.”

Even today, Whitty is wary of representation, noting a seemingly limited range of gay characters that have been deemed acceptable to portray on screen. With Can You Ever Forgive Me?, Whitty simply pursued his passion for a kind of gay character we don’t often see, which seemed to fit the story, that being the “gay rascal.” “I did a play where two of the lead characters were guys from Boys in the Band, this groundbreaking gay play from the ‘60s that ran Off-Broadway. It was a massive hit that was funny as hell, but then they did a movie of it with the original cast that’s deadly because there’s no audience response,” he observes. “It needs that back and forth, so they just seemed really horribly b*tchy to each other. But on stage, you can sense, as with Lee and Jack, that they’re busting each other’s chops.”

“I loved the idea of writing gay rascals, because I was starting to get a little annoyed. It’s like, ‘The gay representation is great, it’s wonderful. But why are we always either doing drag or helping straight people?’ It’s very limiting,” he says. “Now, let’s get to the really fun ones. The ones you want to sit next to at the party.”

Certainly, Israel and Hock were that in spades, and while Israel’s voice couldn’t have come through clearer in her memoir (adapted to film dialogue by both Whitty and Holofcener), Hock was a tougher character to crack—even for Grant—given that there was so little detail about the real individual to be found. Per Holofcener, Hock was “a combination of [Israel’s] different friends,” which she understood when she, too, met with Israel face to face, over lunch. “But I made stuff up, and as Mari got close to the casting and cast Richard, I believe she made some stuff up, as well, kind of tailored to his acting,” she says. “So, it was a collaboration of fact and fiction.”

Can You Ever Forgive Me?

When Whitty took his first shot at writing Jack, he was “thinking a little bit more like [New] Jersey. Not typical Jersey, [but] there’s a certain sort of directness.” While the character was originally written to be American, as the man or men who represented him were in real life, Hock of course wound up British, likely due to Grant’s unique charms. “I was just so taken by his performance,” Whitty reveals. “He was just a riot.”

For Whitty, the boozing, wheeling-dealing Jack is the clearest embodiment of himself to be found in the final film. “He’s really smart. He’s f*cked up, but he admits it,” Whitty comments. “He’s like a lot of my friends, and there’s a lot of me in there, too.”

Of Can You Ever Forgive Me?’s many accomplishments, one is the deft tonal balance it manages to strike, between pathos that draws the audience into its characters, and bawdy black humor that crackles, a more purely dramatic embodiment of the kind of work for which McCarthy has become known. At least for her part, Holofcener can’t take credit for the way the film feels. “When I write, I don’t think about tone. I think that if it does succeed, I’ve done it intuitively and with having had practice,” the writer states. “Basically, I feel like tone is a person’s taste, and I’ve been able to, I think, blend drama and humor fairly well in my own material. But it’s not because I try. It’s just who I am, or how I write. I don’t think too much about it, and the tone of the memoir was very clear.”

For both writers, the embrace of Heller’s film and the process of crafting it on the page was undoubtedly meaningful. Holofcener tested out new waters, and Whitty did, too, seeing this joint experiment succeed. Starting out on the project way back in 2011, Whitty saw the film go through at least two iterations with different stars, and many stops and starts. “It’s the kind of thing as an artist, where you plant your garden, and there are these empty patches and you’re like, ‘Damn.’ This has been so great because it just suddenly went, ‘Boom,’” he says. “The movie would get nibbles and bites [over the years], but I honestly don’t think it was quite the right time. Something about the movie now feels refreshing, in this age of superheroes and CGI. It’s kind of hitting a sweet spot.”

With Best Adapted Screenplay nominations from BAFTA and the Critics’ Choice Awards, an Independent Spirit Award nom for Best Screenplay and various other kudos, Holofcener and Whitty are looking to make the final cut in the Oscars’ own category on January 22.

This article was printed from https://deadline.com/2019/01/can-you-ever-forgive-me-nicole-holofcener-jeff-whitty-screenwriting-interview-1202520982/