As the Melissa McCarthy-starring movie lands three Oscar nominations, Heller explains how she turned a literary heist into moving cinema
“Everybody had a little story about Lee Israel, and it felt like we were in a place that was haunted by her ghost,” director Marielle Heller explains about the New York gay bar Julius’s, in which she filmed part of Can You Ever Forgive Me? The queer buddy movie, starring Melissa McCarthy, tells the story of Lee, an author whose forgeries of letters by famous writers sparked a literary scandal (and an FBI investigation) in the early 1990s. In the film – which has just been nominated for Best Actress, Best Actor, and Best Screenplay Oscars – Julius’s is where Lee first encounters her partner in crime, Jack Hock, who in real life helped her with her scam. They got away with it for a few years; Lee apparently wrote over 400 letters.
“We felt like we had huge support from Julius’s, and it’s where Lee really drank,” says Heller. “At the time, she was one of the only women who drank there, and when we scouted there the bartenders remembered her. It’s now a much more co-ed gay bar, but at the time the communities were so separate. They had to shut the bar down for two days while we filmed there, and we found out that all the regulars from Julius’s were down the street in another bar drinking and toasting to Lee. That just made us so happy.”
Heller took on the project after production troubles meant that Julianne Moore would no longer be appearing in the lead role, and Nicole Holofcener left as director. Melissa McCarthy was now on board to play Lee, Richard E. Grant for Jack, and Heller jumped at the chance to turn the film into her own vision. “I’m not the type of person who can be a director for hire, I have to find my own way into it,” she says. “The biggest thing I connected to was Lee and Jack’s relationship; for various reasons, (they) find themselves totally alone and connect to each other. I found their odd coupling to be very touching. That became the emotional anchor for the movie. I expanded the Jack and Lee scenes and I laid more emphasis on their friendship.”
The film locates its humour in darkness, and Heller toys with Jack and Lee’s dynamic as they support and snipe at one another. She hits a charming sweet spot that captures their mischievous spirit and crankiness, while also conveying the sense of loneliness that can be felt in a bustling metropolis.
“On the first day of filming, we shot the scene where they’re at a phone booth, prank calling the owner of a bookstore,” says Heller. (In her memoir, Israel writes about the numerous prank phone calls she made to entertain herself, and which even led to Nora Ephron’s lawyer sending a cease and desist order because she impersonated her so much.) “I think they both inherently understood who these characters were, found a lot of fun in them and they bonded over that.” Their performances are part of what makes the film such a hoot to watch. They’re characters who are properly fleshed out, and embrace their cunning scheme with an irresistible relish and endearing vulnerability.
“I thought, let’s show the pain and strife that goes along with being a writer, and how your sense of self gets intrinsically linked with your work” – Marielle Heller
It’s also a film with a firm grasp of time and place. “New York in the winter can be particularly lonesome, so part of what I wanted to reflect in the overall atmosphere of the movie was the feeling of being this person moving through the literary world of New York, unseen and largely ignored.”
The film nails not only Lee’s voice, but the literary world of the early 90s in New York, and Heller puts much of that down to the fact of who she collaborated with, saying, “There was a lot of mutual admiration for this woman’s wit, who she was, and why we thought it was important to tell her story. Lee’s story would not have been told without Anne Carey. She optioned (Lee’s memoir) and she knew Lee. Anne understood this world inside and out and has a real affection for Lee. Lee was as excited as Lee got about there being a movie about her life, and gave Anne clothing from her closet, pictures, and everything really.”
Working with Carey, and other producers such as David Yarnell who personally knew Lee, added to the authenticity of the film. As they relayed stories about the cantankerous author to Heller and she carried out her own research, the thing that stuck with her most was Lee’s tone. Heller elaborates, “She could be eviscerating somebody, but in a way that was so funny it never made me feel bad. Her voice is so incredibly honest and in so many ways in the letters she wrote, it felt like she was able to tap into parts of herself that she was never able to tap into before. I thought, let’s show the pain and strife that goes along with being a writer, and how your sense of self gets intrinsically linked with your work.” Can You Ever Forgive Me? may have suffered difficulties in its initial production, but with the dream team of Heller, McCarthy and Grant, it finally found its own biting voice – one that retains all the viciously funny intellect of its subject.