In the beginning of Nancy Savoca’s Union Square, Mira Sorvino flits around the park alternatingly crying and screaming into a cell phone. Her character, Lucy, a manic storm of a human, fights with her boyfriend, who she has unexpectedly come to the city to visit. When she is rejected, she finds the second-best option: to show up at the apartment of her estranged sister Jenny, played by Tammy Blanchard. Drama ensues as a sibling rivalry—as well as dark family secrets—rises to the surface. The role is perfect for the Oscar-winning actress, who is able to match her comedic chops with an endearing hopelessness. I saw down with Sorvino earlier this week (along with Blanchard—you can read my interview with her here) to talk about the making of the film, the luxuries and set-backs of working on a low-budget film, and how Union Square is a quintessential New York film.
I associate you as a comedic actress, and this character is really funny and I think you’re really funny in the role. But it also has this added layer of sadness and just insanity that I rarely see, especially on such a small scale. Is that what drew you to the role?
I love the mix of comedic possibilities and the wildly funny lines she has as well the incredible depth and story that was there, and a story that is really versatile. Men can really relate to this story; it’s not a chick flick, even though the two main characters are female. It’s a universal story about family. You can’t live with them, you can’t shoot them; you love them, you have to make it work somehow, and you have to resolve your problems somehow so that you don’t lose what could be the most important people in your life. It’s such a tragic thing when siblings or parents and children don’t talk for years and these old hurts become like petrified wood; they harden and you don’t even remember why the rift happened and then the gulf ever widens. When my character, Lucy, comes in at the beginning, she says to Jenny, “Whatever it was, whatever there is, we’ve got to stop and forget all that.” In one second, she’s ready to forget, and Jenny’s just like, “Oh boy, what just blew into my front door?”
What I think was so great about the film is that it requires the audience to read between the lines of dialogue. That so rarely happens in film these days.
It’s like an unfolding mystery: just when you think you know these girls, new stuff comes out. They’re both lying all the time, either to themselves or to other people. The one who seems to be in the right flips with the other one and flips again. You’ll think you have them pegged, and then it changes again.
It’s something you can watch more than once and find other, smaller details. You’ll see something that foreshadows something later, but you could completely miss it the first time you watch it.
There’s a lot of layers in there. It’s almost like an emotional whodunit: you can watch for clues.
My office is in Union Square, and I walk through that farmers market almost every day. I know how insane it is. Was that really fun to be out there shooting with regular New Yorkers?
Yeah, it was great. The camera was so small and light that people didn’t even know we were making a movie. People would comment on my unfolding Greek tragedy. I was just crying my eyes out, screaming into the phone, and some people were very sympathetic. They’d scream, “Get rid of him! He’s not worth it.” Or they’d wolf-whistle at my outfit, and I’d tell them to, you know, go fuck themselves. But it was great, because it was like a live crowd instead of a staged bunch of zombie-like extras. Then when we had the scene where we were shooting the farmers market, we were literally interacting with all of the real vendors there, then getting their approval later. Shoot first, ask questions later. I have a little argument with the guy at the honey stand where I asked, “Do you have any chia seeds?” And he was like, “No, we sell honey, look at my sign.” “What kind of a popsicle stand is this?” I yelled. These were very prideful, organic sellers in New York. [Laughs]
It’s like a very highbrow Jackass.
We tried really hard to find the real Free Hugs guy, but he wasn’t around that day, so then we had one of the set guys walk around with a sign for Free Hugs.
I’m surprised there’s only one of them out there. Did the vendors respond well when you asked them for permission?
Well, I wasn’t the one asking, so I don’t actually know, but the fact that they’re in the movie means they must have been okay with it.
I guess if anything, it’s free publicity for their organic honey. Have you done other such small-scale shoots before?
I think this was the lowest-budget movie I have ever been on. Even my first film, Amongst Friends…we started with $60,000, ran out of money, spent three weeks raising more money, finished the film, and then put a lot of money into post-production. The budget for this was $90,000; that was it. Also, we made Amongst Friends in 1993, so think about twenty years’ worth of inflation. It’s a miracle that Nancy was able to operate in this way that she do, and I think she liked it because it made it just about the work. It was just about getting the best damn little story caught on camera that you could. It was shot sequentially, in the order of the scenes, and that way Nancy was able to gauge what was happening and modify certain scenes and get rid of them or rewrite them as we went along. She also let me improvise a lot, so it really complemented my character to be able to just go off, and that helped make her into this crazy little tornado. All of this was made possible by going in order, so if something changed the way things went by being unexpected earlier, you could navigate the rest of it based on that, rather than say, “Oh, you can’t do that, because we already shot that scene.” So there was just an organic nature to it. Both to the market and to us.
It’s sort of representative of a new wave of independent film. In the ‘90s, “indie” became its own thing. An indie movie could still be considered as such with a multi-million dollar budget. I interviewed Whit Stillman a few months ago, and he talked about how the mumblecore movement made him realize how to finance a movie in this current climate. As someone who’s worked with ranging budgets and sizes, do you hope that there’s more stuff like this? Do you want to go back and forth?
I have to go back and forth, otherwise I would not be able to afford to drive my kids to school, much less put them in a school that costs any money whatsoever. I had to pay my nanny twice my daily salary to work on this movie. This is a problem for actors. It’s great for filmmakers, and great that really good actors will involve themselves with low-budget films because they want to do good work. But it’s really hard to survive on it, and that’s why you see all these film actors in television now, because they’re still paying high prices. Because acting work is sporadic; you have to be paid more than the average bear per week, because then you might spend thirty weeks off and that money has to stretch out. If you’re getting paid ninety dollars a day, you’re going to have to go back to waiter work. It’s a tough call, but there’s a great deal of freedom when you don’t need that much money. It’s almost like a political candidate; you don’t have so many cooks in the kitchen when you don’t owe much money to anybody or you don’t have to answer to anybody.
The other thing I found interesting was the concept of the Bronx being so separate from Manhattan; it reminded me, as someone who lives in New York, that there’s more to the city than I’m familiar with. And you’re also from the greater New York area, right?
I was born in Manhattan and lived here until I was three. Then a homeless man almost fell on me in a sandbox in Riverside Park—a park that I’ve taken my own kids to, but this was pre-Giuliani, obviously—and my parents decided to move out of the city. So I really grew up in a bucolic suburb called Tenafly in New Jersey.
I was going to comment on how even now, when you quote lines from the movie, you slip into that Greater New York accent.
I did not have an accent as a child. In Tenafly, people don’t really have the Jersey accent. I grew up hearing it, though. I have Brooklyn relatives, I have Jersey City relatives—all these people have stronger regional accents.
This really is a New York movie. I still can’t get over the idea of strangers asking if you were OK in the park. It seems so atypical of a New Yorker to do that.
People were worried. A woman came up to me and asked, “Are you okay?” And that was really nice. The other day my husband was running in Malibu and fell on the beach in the Colony—this little gated community, very chichi—and he cut himself and was bleeding all over his arm. He sprained his ankle and had to crawl up this guy’s beach stairs to get to the street. You’re not supposed to do that. The guy comes out, and m husband’s covered with blood and limping, and he says, “Sorry,” and the guy just looks at him and turns around and go back inside. Like, what? Sometimes I think New Yorkers are more compassionate than other people, but it’s surprising because we feel like we’re hardened and we’re always walking past people when they’re in trouble on the streets and maybe people don’t respond. I think it is rare to see someone completely crying on the streets of New York. Sometimes you’ll see someone with tears in their eyes, but she’s losing it. But maybe it’s just something we all relate to and know how to deal with.