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August 20th, 2009 · No Comments

Broken English, 2007, poster Broken English, 2007, DVD

Broken English (2007)
Written by Zoe Cassavetes
Directed by Zoe Cassavetes
Produced by Vox3 Films/ HDNet Films
Running time: 96 minutes

So, What’s This About?
Bachelorette Nora Wilder (Parker Posey) gets dressed and puts in an appearance at the anniversary party of her best friend Audrey (Drea de Matteo), celebrating five years of matrimony to a movie director (Tim Guinee) Nora introduced her to. At the party is Nora’s mother (Gena Rowlands), who gently asks her daughter why she hasn’t found a man for herself. A manager of guest relations at a boutique New York City hotel, Nora goes out for a drink with a VIP guest, a mohawked movie star (Justin Theroux). When that ends badly, Nora allows her mother to set her up with a recently single movie lover (Josh Hamilton), but this date goes awry as well.

At the insistence of a co-worker (Michael Panes), Nora drags herself to a party. Disgusted with herself and heading home, she meets an attentive young Frenchman named Julien (Melvil Poupaud) marking time in America after the actress girlfriend he accompanied overseas dumped him. Julien insists on showing Nora a good time, in spite of her brittle neuroses. After a few days together, he invites her to return to Paris with him. Nora demures, but faced with plenty of free time after quitting her job, she joins Audrey for a jaunt to the Eternal City. While her friend contemplates an affair, Nora discovers she’s lost Julien’s phone number. Rather than give up and go home, she sets out to explore Paris on her own.

Broken English, 2007, Parker Posey

Who Made It?
Zoe Cassavetes is the youngest child of late actor/director John Cassavetes and actress Gena Rowlands. Her siblings are directors Nick Cassavetes (The Notebook) and Alexandra (Xan) Cassavetes, who helmed the 2004 documentary Z Channel: A Magnificent Obsession. Zoe Cassavetes grew up in Los Angeles, where in 1994, she co-created, co-wrote and co-hosted — with Sofia Coppola — a fake news magazine for Comedy Central called Hi Octane. Cassavetes served as assistant director on Coppola’s short film Lick the Star (1998) and then moved to Manhattan, where she went into credit card debt to finance her own short, Men Make Women Crazy Theory (2000).

Cassavetes then wrote the script for a feature film titled Broken English. Parker Posey agreed to star and producer Andrew Fierberg agreed to raise financing, but it would take three and a half years for cameras to roll. Paris based Back Up Films secured part of a budget from Japanese distributor Phantom Films and brought French actors Melvil Poupaud and Bernadette Laffont (replacing Jeanne Moreau) on board. Five weeks before filming was set to begin, Todd Wagner and Mark Cuban agreed to bankroll the rest of Broken English, distributing it via their Magnolia Pictures and on their high-def cable channel HDNet.

Broken English, 2007, Parker Posey, Justin Theroux

How’d They Do It?
When the allure of acting or television hosting lost their appeal, Zoe Cassavetes moved to New York. She took a job as a marketing executive at the Mercer Hotel in SoHo before working on a 20-minute short, Men Make Women Crazy Theory. Cassavetes recalled, “You know, I ate out of the quarter jar for a few months here and there while I was trying to make the movie, but having no money, and being incredibly destitute was the best thing that could ever have happened to me. eBay was huge for me at that moment.” Debuting at the Sundance Film Festival in 2000, the film featured Aleksia Landeau recording a long winded, drunken answering machine message to a guy while soaking in the tub.

Cassavetes moved on to completing a script for a feature film. “When I thought of the idea for Broken English it was at a time when I was totally overwhelmed by people asking me whether I was married or had a boyfriend. I saw that it was happening to a lot of my friends as well. I think it comes at a certain age where society almost insists that you fall in love, get married and have children. However, it seems that we are all more confused about relationships than ever. I wanted to explore these themes about what it is like to be lonely and to be ashamed of that feeling.” She would add, “So I just wanted to make a nice, little portrait about what happens to someone when they get caught up in all of that.”

Broken English, 2007, Parker Posey, Josh Hamilton

In 2002, Andrew Fierberg — producer of Thirteen Conversations About One Thing and Secretary — was approached by Cassavetes to help finance Broken English. He recalled, “We had a number of conversations about the script, did some rewrites and got it off the ground about a year after that. We had several budgets in mind and several scenarios on how we would make the film based on how much money we would raise. We had a full cast and crew and were all geared up and ready to go. And we put a line in the sand. We said that regardless of how much money we can raise, we will make the movie.”

Cassavetes had received a verbal commitment from Parker Posey to star. The filmmaker recalled, “I did have a certain type of person in mind. I mean, I’m a huge fan of Parker’s work and always have been. But I saw Personal Velocity, and she played a role in that movie that was completely against her usual, well, I wouldn’t say ‘type,’ but that more comedic style that she does. I saw this other huge range in her. Then I met her, and we sat and gabbed for three hours. We didn’t even talk about the script. At the end of it I was like, ‘Oh, wait, are you going to do the movie?’ And she was like, ‘Oh, yeah, totally.’ And I thought, ‘If life could only be that easy.’”

Broken English, 2007, Parker Posey, Drea de Matteo

Financing Broken English would take three and a half years. Cassavetes admitted, “It’s so hard to get the money for a movie. It’s so much harder to get $1 million than it is to get $100 million. I still don’t know why. But then once we got the money it went very fast. We had five weeks of pre-production. We shot for 20 days. We didn’t have the money, or most of it, when we started pre-production. We just kind of decided that we were going to make the movie no matter what. Everyone knew what we were going to do, how fast it was going to be or how fast things were going to change, and I’d heard all these great things about Parker, that she would do that, which was really a big deal.”

Andrew Fierberg recalled, “We took the project to HDNet about five weeks before we planned to start shooting, and we told them that if they wanted to come on board, we’d be happy to work with them. They said yes. We were already in preproduction as we were signing papers, and the deal took us to a budget level that made us feel more comfortable.” According to Fierberg, the budget for Broken English fell under the $2 million ceiling HDNet has set to finance their pictures. “It was more than $800,000 but less than $2 million.” Shooting would commence May 2006 in New York for two weeks before moving to Paris.

Broken English, 2007, Melvil Poupaud, Parker Posey

Facing a mandate from HDNet that the film shoot digitally, the producers reached an arrangement with Thomson Grass Valley, manufacturers of the Viper FilmStream. Director of photography John Pirozzi recalled, “One thing I really like about Viper compared to other HD cameras — like the VariCam and the F900 — is its highlights. The real benefit you have with no compression is that the camera holds highlights in a much more impressive way. You have so much detail. The giveaway with HD and video in general is always in the highlights. Testing the Viper against the other compressed cameras, you can see it. It’s very clear that it really stands up to highlights.”

Cassavetes drew on Cleo From 5 to 7 — directed by Agnes Varda in 1962 — for inspiration. “Strangely, it had kind of the perfect mood for what I wanted. I mean, the character in that movie is a little more self-centered than Parker Posey’s character, Nora, is in mine. But I liked that the film started out with the tarot-card reading, and there was something about the way the movie was shot. I was also really into watching Eric Rohmer and Woody Allen movies, because I felt like my movie was really talky.” Broken English was screened for competition at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2007 before taking film fests in Philadelphia, Newport Beach, San Francisco, Seattle and Las Vegas by storm.

Broken English, 2007, Parker Posey, Melvil Poupaud

Critics would be divided over how good Broken English was. Matt Zoller Seitz, The New York Times: “A well-acted, smartly directed film that’s depressing because it could have amounted to so much more. It departs from the studio-financed romantic-comedy template in just one, unfortunately fatal respect: it makes a point of pride out of rejecting cliché, then swoons into its embrace.” Carina Chocano, The Los Angeles Times: “A simple, empathetic script and calm, assured directing display a level of emotional honesty and character development that’s confoundingly rare these days, especially when it comes to female characters.” Lisa Schwarzbaum at Entertainment Weekly really liked it. Andrew O’Hehir at Salon not so much.

Opening June 2007 in the United States, Broken English never expanded beyond 41 theaters, but totaled $956,919 domestically and added $987,281 internationally. Cassavetes shrugged off the suggestion that she’d taken her time — at the ripe old age of 36 — to follow in the footsteps of her filmmaking family. “Right before I started shooting, I realized my dad was exactly the same age I was when he made Faces [sic] in 1959. So that made me feel good. And my brother Nick said, ‘Don’t worry — I made my first film at that age, too.’ It took me a little bit longer to do what I wanted, but you have more to say the older you get.”

Broken English, 2007, Parker Posey, Drea de Matteo

Should I Care?

Broken English begins with a delicate montage of its heroine Nora Wilder trying to decide what to wear on an evening out. She’s alone in her apartment and as she empties her closet or opens her medicine cabinet, I got the distinct feeling I was peeping into someone’s private space. That type of intimacy is fused throughout the film, which in its contemplative but understated way (it’s rated PG-13) tells the story of two New Yorkers spending a few days in Paris. This textured palette may turn off those expecting either John Cassavetes or Sex and the City, but it does announce the arrival of an exciting new filmmaker.

Zoe Cassavetes cans the cuteness, enabling the profusely witty Parker Posey to fashion an unusually strong dramatic performance. Melvil Poupaud, Drea de Matteo, Justin Theroux, Josh Hamilton, Gena Rowlands, Peter Bogdanovich and Bernadette Lafont round out a terrific cast, while Paris duo Scratch Massive composed the off-beat electronic soundtrack. What I really liked was how the film, without needling America or its male population, suggests that a change of scenery can affect both your outlook and the people you attract for the better. Cassavetes guides us through New York and Paris with the knack of someone who seems to have explored these great cities while single.

Broken English, 2007, Parker Posey

Where’d You Get All of This?
“The Digital Pieces of Broken English By Peter Caranicas. Videography, 2 May 2007

“Women With Indie Influence”
By Brantley Bardin. New York Daily News, 17 June 2007

“Interview: Zoe Cassavetes On Broken English
By Ian Spelling. Latino Review, 21 June 2007

“Zoe Cassavetes on Broken English
By Aaron Hillis. IFC, 25 June 2007

Broken English – Production Notes

“The Family Business”
By Sandy MacDonald. The Boston Globe, 1 July 2007

“Zoe Cassavetes”
By Wes Anderson. Interview, July 2007

“Zoe Cassavetes & Parker Posey Interview, Broken English
By Sheila Roberts. MoviesOnline

Tags: Ambiguous ending · Bathtub scene · Drunk scene · Mother/daughter relationship · Museums and galleries · Road trip · Unconventional romance

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