The first time I saw Scott Coffey’s Ellie Parker, back in June at the Seattle International Film Festival, I thought it was a “brilliantly observed and achingly funny satire.” In my review, written for the late, unlamented Tablet, I went on to say that the movie had made me laugh, “until my stomach actually hurt.” And something else happened during that first screening, something that ordinarily does not: I reached a point where I helplessly and involuntarily said out loud to the screen, “I love it!”
A second screening, a week and a half later, did not disappoint. I laughed just as much, if a tad less viscerally, and I noticed details that I’d missed before. The experience, if anything, was richer. Soon thereafter, Scott Coffey’s finely developed sense of the absurd was rewarded: Ellie Parker took home a Special Jury Prize from SIFF for Best New American Film.
Coffey wrote, directed, co-stars in, and co-produced the movie with his good friend and amazing leading lady Naomi Watts, who here displays tremendous range. Much of the movie’s pull comes from watching Watts, as Ellie, veer from comedy to drama, hearing her switch imperceptibly from Brooklynese to an Australian accent, and double back again, often within a single scene. As an aspiring actress who goes from audition to audition in LA, Watts creates all sorts of mini-characters within Ellie, and one of the exciting things about this picture is how convincingly Watts plays them all. (In one close-up, with her blood-red lips, and the straw-like texture that the harsh DV lighting lends her pale yellow hair, she even resembles an anime heroine.)
Ellie Parker the feature began as Ellie Parker the short: the movie’s hallucinatory opening sequence on an LA freeway—in which Watts changes her clothes and even her shoes as she weaves from lane to lane—debuted in 2001. Coffey and Watts kept shooting new footage, off and on, over four years. Yet the final result, in its own ragged way, is seamless.
You’ll detect a dash of David Lynch in one nighttime exterior scene, but Coffey, who had previously acted with Watts in Mulholland Drive, is an artist of disparate influences. He has—dare I say it?—a feminist sensibility, but feminist in a way that even (maybe especially) women cannot understand, that is as a form of empathy with the female, a very quiet pro-woman stance, one that cherishes women while, perhaps, taking psychological equality for granted. And what’s more, Coffey combines this, in a few scenes, with a gift for making sophomoric slapstick seem positively post-baccalaureate.
When he and I met last summer, we got to talking about the scene in which Ellie is tramping around inside a Dumpster, in the back alley outside her apartment building, and who should come driving along, and catch her rummaging through the trash, but her psychotherapist. It reminded me of some of Lucille Ball’s legendary escapades, such as stomping in a grape vat, and it isn’t going too far afield to think of Ellie Parker as “a post-modern I Love Lucy,” as we called it that afternoon.
The entire cast is flawless, though I’ll single out two for special mention: Rebecca Rigg as Sam, Ellie’s best friend and also a struggling actor; and, of all people, Chevy Chase as Ellie’s agent Dennis. When Ellie makes a move to tickle Dennis, the gesture says everything about the genuine affection she has for him. As Sam, Rigg is a minor revelation. I think because I’d never seen her before, I couldn’t separate the actress from the character. She inhabits the Sam persona so well, it took another viewing for me to appreciate what Rigg brings to the role, especially when she rehearses in front of Ellie, and what’s exhilarating is how much contempt Sam has for her material, yet how fully she gives herself over to it.
Since those first two encounters in early summer, I’ve seen Ellie Parker for a third time. In the dying days of late October, the movie looks, plays, quite differently.
“Is it because she’s Australian, rather than American,” asked a friend who joined me at this last screening, “that Naomi Watts’s performance is so fearless?” That’s a question I wish I’d thought to ask when her director and I had a conversation at SIFF, which began instead with a look back to the Ellie Parker experience at Sundance.
Scott Coffey: Naomi showed up, kind of, as Naomi Watts, with her CAA entourage, her lawyers, her publicists, with more people around her than it took to make the entire movie. And the hype on the movie was…it was big, there was a sort of buzz and hype that the movie can’t live up to. It’s too delicate and small of a movie, and it’s non-narrative, it doesn’t play into the bourgeois entertainment ideal of feeling good about yourself…
N.P. Thompson: Thank God!
SC: Yeah, but that’s mostly what movies that make sales are about. Because we didn’t have a big bidding freak-out, everyone kind of went, “Ohhhh!” But then at the same time, people at Sundance really loved the movie. Not everyone in LA does…some people there really don’t like Ellie Parker that much. They get all, “Well, there are parts of LA you didn’t put in the movie that are great.” Like what? That would be another story altogether.
NPT: Is it because the film’s satire hits too close to home?
SC: I think, a little bit, yeah.
NPT: You’ve done something that no other filmmaker, none that I know of, has managed to do, which is you got a good performance, a very good one, out of Chevy Chase. How did you do that? This is not the same old Chase. He isn’t using any of the familiar Chevy mannerisms…
NPT: He’s somebody entirely different.
SC: I was thinking of him when I was writing it; I’d seen a picture of him and thought, “What an interesting guy—what happened to him?” I just had an idea it would be fun to work with him. He showed up, and everybody said, “He’s scary—don’t, don’t…just let him do his thing. Don’t direct him.” And that was ridiculous! I won’t work with actors like that. I really worked with him, spent time with him, and Naomi was so ferocious and good that it really made him…there was a lot riding on it for him, I think. He wasn’t doing the best movies ever made, and he’d painted himself into a corner. I really choreographed the long scene he has with Naomi, and made him take his time. We rehearsed a lot. We shot a lot, we really did. I’d let him run—‘do his thing’—and once he was out of that, I’d say, let’s do this now.
NPT: Chevy and Naomi are truly great together. Temperamentally and physically, they seem to complement each other.
SC: There is a lot more to that scene; it originally was twenty minutes, and I cut it way down. But I wish there were more scenes between them.
NPT: It was such a welcome surprise to see Chevy Chase stretching as an actor. As opposed to say Bill Murray, for example, his fellow S.N.L. alum. Murray does the same old Bill Murray persona in film after film, Lost in the Aquatic Translation…
SC: Yeah, yeah, yeah…
NPT: …or whatever it’s called. The same mannerisms…
SC: …uninvolved, blasé…
NPT: Tell me how you shot the freeway scene in Ellie Parker, and about the whole notion of a moving car as a dressing room on wheels.
SC: I sat in the passenger seat next to her, using a small camera. I conceived the movie around that scene—that was the first thing we ever shot. I was an actor for a long time, and I was thinking about what a psychic toll it took on me auditioning for terrible, terrible, bullshit awful television and bad movies…there were a couple of exceptions, but for the most part, I was in crap…and the toll of pretending to be different people all the time, and how LA is a whole city of people like that. I was thinking about all those levels of identity and how it’s even tougher for women in LA. It’s all so beauty and youth-driven, obsessive and narcissistic. Looking at where I was in my own life with that kind of stuff, I thought—what a great metaphor. You drive around in these little hermetic tubes. People are in their own little worlds, shaving and changing, remaking themselves into other people, waxing optimistic about the “sunny future” of the city, and I thought this would be the best way to show it—the Madonna/whore/junkie/Southern belle complex—and who are you at the end of the day.
We shot that—the first eighteen minutes—in two days, and had so much fun we kept experimenting. What’s her boyfriend like? Oh, he’s definitely a musician. What does she tell her shrink? Is that an audition, too? What are the levels of performance that people are going through? So we just kept shooting.
NPT: The audition sequences are quite good, quite funny. I especially love the inserts in the first of the “Delta Breeze” auditions where suddenly Ellie is pictured atop jagged rocks amidst crashing waves, which made me think of Breaking the Waves.
SC: Totally! Emily Watson screaming at the sea—it’s a wonderful scene for a movie heroine. That was our riff on [the method acting cliché] “put yourself in a place” where you do something in your head to imagine the reality of the scene, and those were Ellie’s images of what would help her get through it. Naomi was so game for all that!
NPT: What was her reason for wanting to pick up where the short ended and expand it into a feature? Was it the chance to do comedy, which she’s never really…I guess been allowed to be funny…
NPT: …Huckabees, but she was so misused in that, and Russell doesn’t have a funny bone in his body anyway.
SC: Flirting with Disaster was pretty funny, I thought. Um, primarily that, but she got a lot of work from…she got 21 Grams because of Ellie Parker. González Iñárritu wasn’t interested in her. Then he saw the short and went, “Oh, you can do a lot of different stuff.” And I think also she felt an obligation to me to continue making it, because we’re good friends, and we were working very closely. It was important to me to see it through—I had a lot more to say about the character that wasn’t done. And I think it’s the best she’s ever been in anything.
NPT: I would agree with that.
SC: Ellie is kind of showy, yet subtler than what she usually gets to do, and I think she recognizes and appreciates that. I hope.
NPT: Her freak-out scene is exhilarating, when Chris, the man she’s slept with, played by you, tells her he’s gay. What I love about that scene altogether is how it begins going one place, and ends up somewhere unexpected yet still just perfectly right. There’s a feeling of wanting Chris and Ellie to be there for each other, it may not be a romance…
SC: …but to connect somehow…
NPT: To connect, yeah, but then her outrage and humiliation are just dazzlingly acted.
SC: I wanted to be careful that she wasn’t victimized, that she was still capable of reacting, “You fucking idiot!” as opposed to “poor me.” I love how the character handles dealing with her rage; her reaction was so intense, it was fun to write and think of acting the scene together. There’s another sequence that we shot that I just adore, but the movie was too long and I ended up cutting it, up above Mulholland Drive at night, and Ellie’s doing Shakespeare, and you get a sense that she’s trained somewhere and she’s coming to LA, and she does the opening of King Henry V and in the middle of it, she says, “Is that the valley?” Because of the lights down there. “Is that the valley?” And Chris says yeah, and she’s like, “I fuckin’ hate it here!”
NPT: Well, your mise-en-scène is pretty far-out. I think it’s after Ellie has been to her shrink for the first time, there’s a wide aerial shot of the city, and then from there the camera goes into a close-up of what resembles an expanse of mud, only it isn’t. It turns out to be blue ice cream inside one of those parlor tubs under the glass. And I thought, now that is an incredible juxtaposition.
SC: I was really high one night and I couldn’t sleep, when that came to me. It was about Ellie’s need to feed herself, to get some kind of pleasure. She’s like a little kid, kind of, with her ice cream, with this little oral fixation. She can be in her body again. I think it operates that way, but it’s also seems like she needs to eat the city and ground herself somehow. My editor was like, “Why? Why?” and I said, “Let’s do it—let’s just make it work.” And he didn’t want to do it. He fucked it up and made it happen too fast, and he did a cut. And I said, no, it has to be a really slow dissolve, right here, right there. And then Ellie ends up rejecting the city—her body literally rejects it. It expunges itself from her, and that was inspired by a great Paul Mazursky movie from the late 70s called An Unmarried Woman.
NPT: Oh, I love that film!
SC: Michael Murphy and Jill Clayburgh are in SoHo walking, and he starts to cry, and she asks, “What’s the matter, honey? What’s wrong?” And he says, “I’m in love with someone else, and I’m leavin’ ya,” and she pukes on the street. I remember seeing that—my mom took me to see it, my mom got a divorce, and my mom was like that woman—and I remember being really flipped out that she threw up on the street. And I was like, “Oh, my God!” That image stayed with me, so Ellie throwing up is my homage to that moment—and I thought blue was a great color for it.
NPT: You know, I’ve got to confess to something, that normally I don’t find vomit humor funny at all, but in Ellie Parker I did. Last year, or whenever it was, when I reviewed John Waters’s A Dirty Shame, I spent most of the time looking down at my note pad instead of looking up at the screen, and when the projectiles start flying, it just isn’t funny.
SC: There’s a really great barf in Cry-Baby…
NPT: I never saw the movie…
SC: …when a little kid is on a wing of a plane, in a circus, and it stops, and he goes, “Buhyyech.” And it’s really great; it’s just kind of gross.
NPT: I’ll take your word for it.
SC: But because it’s blue, and it’s on her face—
NPT: —it’s blue, and there’s the wonderful slide through it in high heels…
SC: It felt so visceral. Anything kind of crunchy and slippery in movies is great, to have some texture, and there’s so much talk before that, so much “me, me, and my, my thing, and me, and I’m trying,” it was good after that to have something be physical.
NPT: The physical humor comes just at the right time; it isn’t too much too soon. But to go back to Jill Clayburgh for a minute, I must have seen An Unmarried Woman…something like, upwards of twenty times.
NPT: It’s just one of those things that’s always—
SC: —remember she sees a therapist, too? There’s that therapist, who’s sort of hippie…
NPT: Yeah! That’s the Russian woman. Or she seemed Russian; I think she’s actually from Baltimore. And she’s saying things like, “Erica, give yourself permission.”
SC: Yeah! “Erica, give yourself permission.” It’s so 70s! And then there’s the wonderful scene where Clayburgh dances around her apartment alone, in her underwear. We did that scene in Ellie Parker—I totally stole it, but I cut it. Now it’s just a moment of Ellie ripping videotape out of cassettes, making streamers of them around the house, and that’s all from An Unmarried Woman.
NPT: Not that I believe anything, necessarily, on the IMDB, but on the trivia page for you, it says that as a teenager, after seeing Bertolucci’s Luna, which Jill Clayburgh also starred in (as an opera singer whose teenage son is addicted to heroin), you were sufficiently inspired to go off to Rome.
SC: Yeah, it’s true…that movie’s unbelievably incredible. I’m sure you’ve seen it?
NPT: Yes, when I was very young.
SC: It’s a masterpiece. It’s amazing.
NPT: It’s one of those films I can’t believe has never been on video.
SC: I saw it again recently, and I’ve met Matthew Barry by chance. He’s a casting director now. He cast Rush Hour 1 & 2, and I read for some terrible Brett Ratner movie when I was an actor, and he was casting it. I was just like, “You’re the kid from Luna! Oh, my God!”
NPT: Do you remember what it was specifically about the film that got to you?
SC: I really, really related to the kid, to how un-parented he was. How much wildness was in him, and that freaked me out. The beauty of the movie was—I’d never seen a movie ever that beautiful before. I’d never seen anything that was…that spectacularly beautiful. How fluid…and the size of the rooms, and the camera gliding along, and the light in Rome, the sense of architecture and the spaces that they were in. I just was really freaked out by how poetic the movie was. It’s flawed, and I knew that then, too, but the flaws are… unbelievably inspiring, perfect in a way. All Bertolucci’s movies are kind of like that…organic and sensual. I don’t know what it was—the movie probably changed me more than any other movie. I had relatives in Rome, and I had the opportunity to go and stay here; I went for the summer and never left—I was there for four years. And I got to meet Bertolucci.
NPT: How old were you when you went to Rome?
SC: I was sixteen.
NPT: A couple of times you’ve made reference to being an actor in the past tense. Does that mean you won’t be in a movie, unless you’re also involved on the production end?
SC: Yeah, yeah. I mean, I’m in David Lynch’s new movie, but he’s a friend and I would do anything…just to hang out with him is so great. So I’m in his new movie…
NPT: Which is?
SC: Inland Empire. And I have a very small part in it. But no, I have no more desire to do that at all.
NPT: No more auditions…
NPT: …in hotel rooms filled with empty vodka bottles, such as you depict in your own film? One of the things you appear to ask in Ellie Parker is “for what?”
SC: Yeah, for what?
NPT: I sensed that Ellie probably felt that way after so many auditions. Yet you make it funny.
SC: Yeah, it’s funny, but it’s also kind of horrible—for what? Naomi has a really tough time with that. She’s pushing me very hard to change the ending of the movie, to end it in the hallway before Ellie goes into the last audition. Naomi wants me to end the movie with a freeze-frame as she enters the room.
NPT: Why does she want you to do that?
SC: She feels like it’s too sad and too depressing, and we need some sort of cathartic victory, the character needs to walk away with her integrity and have some sense of “closure.” And there is none. And there isn’t one for her now even. She’s enormously successful, but I wouldn’t want that kind of life. The movie operates on an unintentional level now where you’re watching Naomi Watts, and it loses some of that Nathanael West quality to it. You know she’s been nominated for an Oscar, stars in King Kong, and made twelve million bucks. She’s gonna be fine. There’s a safety net: “Oh, we all know that she’s Naomi Watts, and she lives happily ever after,” but… does she? She still has to live in LA, she still has to work with these horrible people and worry about what they think, and all that. I don’t think that’s so…I wouldn’t want to have that life. She’s having a great time—sometimes, I hope. But for what, yeah, I don’t know.
NPT: Scott, I have one more question. These are some… unexpected dedicatees whose names appear on the movie’s end credits. How do Joan Didion and Diane Keaton figure into this film?
SC: My mom, who is in Ellie Parker and plays the writer Leslie Towne in the beginning, at the first audition…she had The White Album on her bookshelf when I was growing up. I was a huge Beatles fan, so I picked it up when I was 15 thinking it was about the Beatles, and I read the book and it blew me away. Then I read Play It As It Lays and ahhhhhhh, it was so scary! So I was a bit inspired to do an LA movie about a woman kind of drifting around like that. The movie of the book is really good, and a mess and weird, too. When I was filming Ellie, I thought of Joan Didion a lot.
Diane is my absolute favorite of all time. I dream of working with her. If I could just think of or find something to adapt for her. Did you ever see Shoot the Moon?
NPT: Oh, yeah, sure, quite a few times…not with the same frequency that I watched An Unmarried Woman, but Shoot the Moon is another seminal film for me. It’s one of Keaton’s best roles, maybe her best, after Manhattan.
SC: Well, you know the scene when Diane’s in the bathtub smoking pot, and she’s singing the Beatles’ song, “If I Fell”? I totally used that in Ellie Parker with Naomi smoking pot in her bubble bath…but I would never tell that to anybody but you, because no one else has seen Shoot the Moon.
Conversation recorded June 2005
Originally published November 2005