As I walked into the Four Seasons Hotel to interview Zoe Cassavetes, the writer/director of the Romantic Comedy with a dramatic twist, Broken English, I shamefully knew very little about her. It wasn’t until after our interview that I discovered her mother is actress Gena Rowlands, her father is the actor/director John Cassavetes and her brother is The Notebook and Alpha Dog director, Nick Cassavetes. At the time, all I knew was that I was meeting the woman who created an incredibly hip, raw, and honest film that stands out from the rest.
Being that Hollywood filmmaking is a male-dominated industry, I knew Cassavetes had to have a fierce spirit to lift her film off the ground. While her family tree may get her an acting audition here and there, Cassavetes was on her own when it came to running the entire production of Broken English. From creating the story on paper to transferring it to the big screen, Cassavetes was faced with a huge challenge.
Broken English centers on Nora (played by Parker Posey), a mid-thirties woman bored to tears with her hotel managing position and tearful over still being single, who becomes slowly and steadily more numb. As her friends continue to marry the “likes” of their lives, the pressure is on for Nora to find her Mr. Alright.
Unlike a woman’s twenties when it is cool to be fabulously single, once the 2 becomes a 3, singlehood turns into a handicap that everyone sympathetically stares at, avoids, or aggressively tries to fix before it’s too late!
Feelings of loneliness mixed with fear over being forever single are Nora’s biggest hurdles to overcome and with a hint of desperation that is perfectly balanced with a slightly sarcastic sense of humor, Cassavetes created one hell of a main character – a woman you embrace with open arms, flaws and all.
Waiting in a hotel room with the other journalists and film critics, I silently listened to the chatter around me. Finally, it was my time to meet Cassavetes. Her publicists fetched me and together, we exited the “journalist’s den” and walked down the hall to the talented writer/director’s hotel room. Standing outside the door, a cute, petite, barefoot woman in jeans and a blouse warmly smiled at us. Cassavetes looked like a sweet young girl and immediately, I liked her. By her demeanor, I fully understood why the plot and characters in Broken English spoke my truth. It’s rare to connect to characters and storylines on screen nowadays. Somehow, movies have drifted far, far away from us. However, Cassavetes’ Broken English is different.
After a warm introduction, Cassavetes brought me onto her balcony where I excitedly went on and on about how much I loved the movie.
“Thanks!” said Cassavetes.
She sat comfortably on her chair and lit a cigarette. This was a confident yet incredibly humble woman who knew who she was so much so that she made me and most likely all the other journalists she spoke to feel OK in their own skin, too. Cassavetes’ self- acceptance is probably how she wrote and then directed a realistic film based on those hauntingly annoying imperfections.
“I wanted to show this portrait of what happens to you if you lose confidence and you kind of lose your path and what you can do to get it back,” explained Cassavetes.
Broken English begins in a hotel where Nora’s repetitive job looks a little bit brighter when a “bad boy” actor shows up to find that his usual “room” has already been taken. With no idea how to remedy the situation, the front desk girl calls her manager. Coming to the rescue, Nora finds new accommodations for her famous client and in return, he finds his way into her heart/pants.
“She’s so lonely and so desperate and completely freaked out about it,” said Cassavetes.
Playing a character like Nora takes one incredibly talented actress. Rather than wearing her emotions on her sleeve, Nora hides them deep inside her. With her eye set on Parker Posey, Cassavetes’ agent arranged an introduction.
“We [Cassavetes and Posey] sat and had tea and talked for three hours about nothing that had to do with the movie,” recalled Cassavetes. “And then we got up and I’m like, ‘but… do you want to be in my movie?’”
“She’s like, ‘Oh, yeah, Honey, totally. I’m so in it.’”
“Oh, my Goodddddddd!” said Cassavetes, reenacting her relief.
In Broken English, after Nora’s magical, life-saving night of romance with the actor, she meets up with her family and when the “boyfriend interrogation” begins, Nora blocks them with the news that she’s dating someone new. The families’ approval is short-lived, however, after Nora discovers that her new boyfriend has a long-time girlfriend that he failed to mention. As a result, Nora hits the dating scene with a vengeance but to no avail.
“Those guys she dates,” stated Cassavetes, “she wasn’t ready to be with any of those guys. You have to be ready to accept who you are and who you are going to be before you can find the right person. Otherwise, you find yourself in a situation where there’s that tension people have about finding someone and the tension doesn’t allow you to be yourself.
“You try to please someone into liking you and you change your personality and there’s just something false about it. Eventually, you’re like, ‘when am I going to change my personality back to what it really is?’” said Cassavetes.
Cassavetes was always fond of the arts. She enthusiastically talks about the artist community and how it makes her feel like she belongs somewhere. Initially, she gave acting a try but said, “I was just not comfortable doing that.”
Writing was a passion of Cassavetes since childhood. And after quitting her job as a hotel manager, Cassavetes thought, “I want to make a movie!” With fifty pages of a story she’d written long ago, Cassavetes said she decided to start with that.
“It was about two girls who went to Paris,” said Cassavetes. “I don’t think I used one moment of it. Still, it was a start.”
“I like to write about what I’m obsessed with at the moment. I started thinking about it and at that moment, everyone kept asking me things like, ‘where is your boyfriend?’… ‘where is your boyfriend?’… ‘where is your boyfriend?’ I was like, ‘I don’t have one.’”
“And then it’s like a snowball,” continued Cassavetes. “They’d ask, ‘well, why don’t you have one?’”
“Then I tried to get one and the more I tried to get one, the more horrible it got. It was just a very unrelaxed thing. When I talked to my girlfriends about this, they were like, ‘yeah, why does that happen?’”
Stated Cassavetes, “I started thinking about society and how we pretend we live in such a free, ‘I can do anything I want’ world. I can have a sperm donor and baby by myself. Or, I can have a career and no children or never get married or whatever it is… But, the truth is, it’s not like that.
“Everybody has this traditional way of thinking. They think you have to be married at a certain age or something is wrong. For men, it’s not the same. A man can be the world’s sexiest guy at 45 year’s old and never get married and no one ever questions it, you know.”
As for Nora, after striking out in love time and time again, she becomes sick of the whole scene, and gives up on hunting for boyfriends but can’t shake the underlying sadness that follows her around. One night, she stops by her friend’s pad for a party. Tired, cranky and numb, she tries to do an in-and-out operation until Julian (played by Melvil Poupaud), appears and convinces her to stay. Although the last thing Nora needs is a playboy from France with great pick-up lines coming onto her…what the hell… she goes in for his kill, anyway. And from there, her fears of being alone shift to the fear of getting close to someone.
On her second night out with the Frenchman, an unforeseen anxiety attack comes at the worst time ever imaginable for Nora. While she’s trying to be “normal” and “together,” a sudden trigger totally blows her hopes of “acting normal” right out the window.
“You know when you meet somebody and you want to do the right thing and it’s just like… I think I’m having a heart attack right now,” stated Cassavetes in between our laughter. “That’s what happened to Nora.”
As Nora rushes to her apartment, Julian follows but he looks freaked. The more he asks what he can do, the more we feel for Nora, who has completely lost control. No, she’s not yelling, crying and throwing things… she’s sweating profusely while searching in her medicine cabinet for a pill to stop the inappropriately-timed anxiety attack. Literally feeling her pain, memories of your most embarrassing dating moments will come flooding in, mark my words.
Once again, Cassavetes found a way to create the perfect balance in this scene. While Nora’s meltdown instigated feelings of sadness, Julian’s confused, freaked out, demeanor added a splash of humor to their awkward drama.
When she first began creating the character, Julian, Cassavetes wanted him to be someone “direct” and “different from American.” And of course, with a foreign male character that gets our girl’s heart to go pitter-patter, awakening Nora from her numbed out state, a major development in Cassavetes’ plot follows.
Although they’ve only just met, when Nora’s new foreign man has to leave and go back to France, she is grief stricken. As he tries to say goodbye, she clenches her fists around his shirt but says nothing. She only sobs. He made her happy and in Nora’s mind, when he leaves, so does her happiness.
After Julian’s departure, life becomes intolerable and minus the numbing ingredient that the Frenchman snatched away, change is forced upon her. Impulsively quitting her job, Nora doesn’t know what to do next. That is… until her best friend, played by Drea de Matteo (The Sopranos), convinces her heartsick gal pal to risk it all and go find Julian in France.
Stated Cassavetes, “Drea and I left messages for a while but when we finally spoke, she’s like, “‘I feel like I’ve fucking known you for twenty years. She was perfect!”
After shooting for 15 days in New York, Cassavetes’ story took the cast and crew to France for five more days where Nora and her friend search for this ex-hotel manager’s soul mate. When the girls arrive on unfamiliar grounds, things go awry, nothing works out as planned and as a result, Nora discovers the identity of her true soul mate. And guess what? It’s not Julian.
“This movie is about a woman having a relationship with herself,” said Cassavetes. “She has to figure out who she is and what she wants instead of trying to rely on someone else.
“The reason I made Nora have that job [hotel manager] wasn’t because I worked in a hotel and I thought it would be easy. It’s because she’s constantly serving other people and she’s not dealing with what’s going on in her life. She’s not taking inventory and stopping for a minute to take care of herself.
“People asked me, ‘how did she get in that predicament?’ She got there because sometimes you just don’t pay attention to your life on that level.”
With a character-driven film about raw emotions, love, singlehood, and women’s issues along with Cassavetes’ refusal to jazz up her story with Hollywood’s favorite clichés, props, special effects and surreal plotlines, getting Broken English made was no picnic.
“There’s a lot of not so fun, confidence deflating stuff that goes on when making a movie,” explained Cassavetes. “Broken English was hard to finance. No one wanted to make my movie.”
“They just couldn’t get it,” she continued. ” “They’d say… so it’s a Romantic Comedy’ and I’m like, ‘no, it’s not just that.’ And I’m thinking that telling them that they’d be like, ‘cool,’ but in fact, they’re like ‘ugggh.’
Cassavetes wouldn’t take no for an answer but she says, “the amount of no’s I heard was astounding.”
“I spent two to seven days of the week crying in the fetal position,” said Cassavetes. “I was like, ‘I’m such a loserrrrrrrrrr.’”
“But then you get up and it’s like, the pick yourself up, dust yourself off and start over again in style because what’s the other choice? Not make it? That wasn’t an option.”
In the end, Broken English was financed and production wrapped when Nora’s newfound “inner fabulousness” granted her the strength to kick fear’s ass. Therefore, when the unexpected presented itself, she fearlessly shifted directions once again and let destiny take her for a ride.