On the surface, which is where the Sundance Film Festival often lives, there aren't many writer-directors who have less in common than Nicole Holofcener and David Michod. Yet the surface, as anyone who's slipped on an invisible patch of Park City ice can testify, can be deceptive.
In one corner there is Michod, a man from Australia presenting his first feature, "Animal Kingdom," a brooding, intensely macho crime story laced with bursts of deadly violence. Facing him is Holofcener, an American woman whose funny and poignant fourth feature, "Please Give," focuses on women and whose most violent moment is a facial gone terribly wrong.
But what unites these gifted filmmakers, who've never met and likely don't know each other's work, is the intensity and specificity of their vision. Both are character-driven writer-directors whose immaculate films are not going to be confused with anyone else's because they know precisely what they want and exactly how to achieve it. And, in a more regrettable similarity, both had a hard time getting their current projects off the ground.
This is especially surprising in the case of Holofcener, whose last film was the well-received "Friends With Money" starring Jennifer Aniston. "It's frustrating," the director concedes. "People say, 'We want to make your next one' and then they see the script and they don't get it. I got laughs, I got pretty girls, you wouldn't think it would be that difficult."
Despite all her films having made money, Holofcener feels that because "my movies are generally about women, that is definitely a drawback for financiers. That doesn't make any sense to me. Women do go to the movies and they drag their husbands."
With a cast featuring Catherine Keener, Rebecca Hall, Amanda Peet and Oliver Platt, "Please Give" centers on a Manhattan couple (Keener and Platt) who develop a tentative relationship with an elderly neighbor whose apartment they have bought in anticipation of her death as well as with the woman's granddaughters (Hall and Peet). As with most of Holofcener's films, the initial spark came from life.
"My good friends are women and they are used to me raping their lives," the director says with a smile, mentioning a New York friend who similarly bought and befriended. "Everyone thinks they recognize themselves, but people often think it's them when it's not. My sister is certain every rotten character in my films is based on her and I tell her, 'No, only some of them.' "
Present in every one of Holofcener's four films is Keener, who's done some of her best work for the director. "She gets me and my issues, definitely," Holofcener says. "I never get tired of looking at her face and what it does. Sometimes I think maybe I should move away from her, people will think the new movie is like the other ones, but I turn those voices off. If people are sick of her, so be it. She is the best."
What's finally remarkable about "Please Give" and all of Holofcener's films is their powerful cumulative effect.
"People often say to me, 'I'm watching it and I didn't know I'd be as affected as I am in the end.' My movies take a while to unfold. They're a series of small moments that build incrementally to . . . a bigger small moment."
Though Michod's subject matter is quite different, he shares Holofcener's sureness behind the camera. When she says "because I've written it, there's no question how a scene should go, it's done," he echoes her from his first-timer's perspective by saying, "I did have a very clear idea. During the shoot, because of all the years of this thing in my head, I was able to answer all these questions from the actors and crew, and that was very reassuring."
When Michod talks about "all the years," he is not being hyperbolic: He worked on "Animal Kingdom" for nine of them. "I taught myself to write while writing it," he says. "Every once in a while for a laugh I pick up the first draft. Not one line of dialogue remains."
Michod has always been taken by crime stories, feeling "there's something innately fascinating about people who live dangerously marginal lives where the stakes are so high." When he moved to Melbourne and read a series of true crime books about the city, "I started getting excited about doing a big crime story set there."
"Animal Kingdom" is a fatalistic, operatic tale of what transpires when a 17-year-old (James Frecheville) moves in with his terrifying trio of criminal uncles and their even more unnerving mother and comes to attract the attention of a somber cop, played by the film's biggest name, Guy Pearce. "Initially, I just wrote it, the idea of directing felt like a pipe dream," Michod remembers. "As I kept going, I fell in love with the characters and wrote for particular actors," like Ben Mendelsohn, who plays the frightening Uncle Pope, and Australian icon Jacki Weaver as a scary mother named Smurf. More than that, "as the years passed, I became so emotionally attached I feared giving it to someone else to screw up."
Because his vision for the film was so specific ("dark and violent yet beautiful and poetic at the same time"), Michod found he had trouble getting potential backers to see it. "I realized people were able to read the script in different ways: as a Guy Ritchie movie, a Quentin Tarantino movie, a Michael Mann movie. So I made a short film [2007's award-winning "Crossbow"] that was able to communicate what I wanted it to be. It worked wonders."
Far from regretting the time spent developing "Animal Kingdom," Michod says he's glad "no one offered me the chance" earlier on. He spent many of those years working for a top Australian cinema journal Inside Film. "I loved learning about the craft and the business and I met people it was handy to know," he says. Finally, however, "I got tired of writing about what other people were doing." It's not something he's going to have to worry about again.