Enough Said is Nicole Holofcener’s most commercial work yet, but stays true to the film-maker’s devotion to character. She talks to Wendy Mitchell about working with Julia Louis-Dreyfus and the late James Gandolfini.

Nicole Holofcener writes what she knows: the now-famous guacamole-onion obsession in Enough Said is directly inspired by a quirk of her boyfriend’s ex-wife, she admits with a laugh.

Luckily it has not caused any friction. “He told me about this habit she had. I loved it. She knows it, she’s seen the movie. She laughed,” says Holofcener.

Other details from the film are from her circle of family and friends as well: “My ex-husband could never keep cookies in the house. One of my friends had a lot of mouthwashes,” she adds.

Of course, Holofcener’s films are much more than the sum of these trivial details. Enough Said is about the complications of a middle-aged romance, when a woman (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) discovers her new boyfriend (James Gandolfini) is the ex-husband of her new friend.

“This triangle of going out with someone and then hearing from the ex-wife of that person, that’s what intrigued me,” the writer-director tells Screen over a cup of tea near her home in Venice, California. “My ex-husband began to have a long-term relationship, and of course he would be telling her stories about me, just like she would be telling stories about her ex-husband. Where reality lies was interesting to me. None of the things in the movie are actually true, but the story is close to me.”

She continues: “I want to write about myself and my world. It’s very gratifying to have a sea of middle-aged faces, male and female, saying I got it right. We’re an under-represented group, and we’re starting to be invisible on the street. It’s certainly less sexy than writing about 25-year-olds, but so be it, I’m middle-aged and I’m glad I’m alive!”

Getting a little mainstream

Enough Said is Holofcener’s most commercial work to date. It has now made more than $17.5m at the US box office (her previous biggest hit was Friends With Money at $13.4m). The film came about when Matthew Greenfield and Claudia Lewis at Fox Searchlight asked Holofcener if she had any ideas she wanted to develop with the company.

“The stipulation was that I would make it a little more mainstream, to give it a little more plot or a hook in there somewhere. I was intrigued by the challenge. A little mainstream would never hurt a person,” she says.

But it didn’t mean Holofcener had to change totally what she brought to the table with past critical hits such as Walking And Talking, Lovely & Amazing, Friends With Money and Please Give. “They didn’t want [from me] a Nancy Meyers movie or an Alexander Payne movie, they wanted what I had.”

She says working with Fox Searchlight was “a dream” and that she hopes to work with the company on future projects.

She remembers one piece of good advice from Searchlight: “I left the reveal of the coincidence till much later in the movie, and they asked me to bring it more up front, which seemed like a more commercial way to write this script, to get the plot in sooner, and it worked out fine.”

Once Holofcener has the germ of an idea, “I start writing quite quickly,” she says. “My writing process is kind of messy, I don’t outline, I plough through and rewrite as I go along. Two steps forward, eight steps back. I find it more fun and more productive to write that way.” Holofcener is nominated for best screenplay at the Independent Spirit Awards.

Finding spontaneity

The film sadly marks one of the late Gandolfini’s last screen roles - he died in June - and shows a new side to the actor most famous for playing Tony Soprano. “He was so lovely in person. He was sweet and he had this dry sense of humour. He was really perfect for the part,” says Holofcener.

He has been nominated for SAG and Spirit Awards for best supporting actor.

Gandolfini wanted to make sure he was the right actor for this romantic leading role. Holofcener says: “He wanted to know I could bail if I decided the role wasn’t right for him. He said, ‘You know I’m fat? You know I’m big? You know Julia is really beautiful, you know we’re mismatched?’”

Holofcener didn’t do a huge amount of preparation with the actors. “I don’t generally believe in a lot of workshopping or anything. Also I don’t like to beat a dead horse, there is something to be said for spontaneity.”

She continues: “I’m not a big backstory person. Unless an actor wants me to be. I said to Jim and Julia, ‘Do you want me to tell you your backstories?’ I’d have fun drumming up some stuff that would make sense. But neither of them asked for that. The first time we met, the three of us just sat down and went through the script. We read the scenes, and I said, ‘Tell me if something is dumb or confusing.’ The collaboration started there,” she adds.

Of the former Seinfeld star Louis-Dreyfus, who is Golden Globe nominated, Holofcener says: “I’m so lucky I cast her. You never know how deep an actor is willing to go, and how open. I thought that she was so vulnerable and real, she was just what I needed, she balances the comedy and the tragedy in the same moment. Sometimes I still tear up watching Julia’s face - do you know how many times I’ve seen it? And she can still move me.”

So what’s next? Holofcener has worked on TV shows including Parks And Recreation and Sex And The City in the past, and hopes to do more TV work, including her own pilot for HBO about a group of friends who live around Venice. “It’s about marriage, kids, sex, money, life,” she says.

There is no new feature in the pipeline quite yet. “I’ve only made five films in my whole career, so I don’t churn them out… but I do feel anxious to start writing again.”