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Dolly Wells on directing Emily Mortimer, bookshops, and Jane Curtin and Melissa McCarthy in Can You Ever Forgive Me?

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Dolly Wells‪ on‬ directing Emily Mortimer, bookshops, and Jane Curtin and Melissa McCarthy in Can You Ever Forgive Me?
Dolly Wells‪ on‬ directing Emily Mortimer, bookshops, and Jane Curtin and Melissa McCarthy in Can You Ever Forgive Me?

The Diary Of A Teenage Girl director Marielle Heller's latest film, Can You Ever Forgive Me?, stars Melissa McCarthy as Lee Israel and is based on Israel's autobiography with a screenplay co-written by Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty (original book for Michael Mayer's Head Over Heels and Tony winner for Avenue Q). In the second half of my conversation at the Whitby with Dolly Wells, who plays Anna, a bookshop owner who befriends Lee, we explore the nature of their relationship.

Dolly points out a detail regarding a stolen coat, how there is "real life in those costumes" by Arjun Bhasin, directing her Doll & Em co-star Emily Mortimer in Good Posture, "real bookshops, real characters selling books", and what's under the bed.

Dolly Wells: "I only moved to New York in 2013, but there's a nostalgia, there's something. There's something about real bookshops, real characters selling books."
Dolly Wells: "I only moved to New York in 2013, but there's a nostalgia, there's something. There's something about real bookshops, real characters selling books." Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

Anne-Katrin Titze: The dinner with Lee and Anna, I feel, is the emotional heart of the story. I think what we see in that scene goes beyond these two characters and is something that most people have experienced one way or another in their lives. That you simply cannot overcome certain things with another person.

Dolly Wells: Totally. It's such a lesson. I've been with the same person for many, many, many, many years. But it's so hard to take yourself out of the equation. Your own part in something. It's so vulnerable and sweet and brave for people to try because it's not your natural instinct. It's so much easier just to protect yourself or think you're protecting yourself or whatever it is you need.

And yeah, you see that in that meal. Anna coming forward, they're both coming forward, and then Lee snaps shut. Because once I think she [Lee] hears about her [Anna's] father and trying to do best by her father - you realize she is almost like a nun. She's given up her whole life to look after her father, you know, a curator of her father's life and wishes. I think that's really hard for Lee.

It's almost like shoplifting. I mean, I'm not encouraging anybody, but shoplifting from an enormous Walmart as opposed to pinching something out of somebody's pocket. I think once she's sitting there with Anna and realising what she's really doing, that is really tough.

AKT: It's an interesting story to put on screen right now, with mainly women around this character Melissa [McCarthy] plays with such force.

DW: It's so specific and delightful and real and beautiful. I find it so moving and wonderful. And exactly, we need these films all the time. We need to be reminded. First of all, to have a woman, a character of 51 who is not beautiful and sexy in sort of tight-fitting dresses and is not hugely successful, is not changing the world.

Dolly Wells on Emily Mortimer, who stars in Isabel Coixet's The Bookshop: "I just directed Emily in a film (Good Posture) where she plays a writer, not a bookshop owner but a reclusive writer."
Dolly Wells on Emily Mortimer, who stars in Isabel Coixet's The Bookshop: "I just directed Emily in a film (Good Posture) where she plays a writer, not a bookshop owner but a reclusive writer."

To have an intimate personal story about a sort of invisible person, it's just awesome. There should be millions of those. Those are really the ones that move me.

AKT: As you say, there should be so many more.

DW: Everybody's story. Anybody you really concentrate on, and you really shine a light on them and give them time, their story is fascinating.

AKT: I like in this film the attention to detail. For example, the fact that Lee is wearing that stolen coat throughout the whole film! I laughed when I realised it all of a sudden.

DW: She is very careful because she doesn't wear it when she goes to see her agent [Marjorie played by Jane Curtin].

AKT: Oh good! I didn't even catch that. [It was at her agent's party where she stole the coat.]

DW: She wears another coat when she goes there. She's clever. I love seeing that in films when you see the clothes repeated which feels like real life. And that's what's so beautiful about these costumes.

A lot of them were vintage and second hand and you can see that they've been lived in. I hate that feeling when you see someone coming on screen and you're like, they have never worn any of those clothes before. There's real life in those costumes, those clothes.

Dolly Wells on Lee Israel (Melissa McCarthy) with Marjorie (Jane Curtin) and a stolen coat: "She is very careful because she doesn't wear it when she goes to see her agent."
Dolly Wells on Lee Israel (Melissa McCarthy) with Marjorie (Jane Curtin) and a stolen coat: "She is very careful because she doesn't wear it when she goes to see her agent."

AKT: You see it in movies often with the extras looking out of place.

DW: Love has to go into every single detail and it really did in this film.

AKT: At the same time it is presenting this world as anything but perfect. There is a lot of romanticising the world of books in the Eighties, Nineties. I think this is not a film that gives you the feeling to sigh and say, oh I wish I were there.

DW: No, but for me there's a tiny bit. I mean I only moved to New York in 2013, but there's a nostalgia, there's something. There's something about real bookshops, real characters selling books. But I know what you mean, it's not a romanticised view. It's like a painful life.

The other thing, it's like the scene when they find the cat shit under the bed. And it's so awful and so embarrassing for Lee that she hasn't realised until she brings somebody else into her apartment what is wrong with that. And that is such a good metaphor.

We've all got cat shit or horse shit under the bed! Really, we have until you bring somebody into your world. And that's what's so difficult about this dinner, once you make yourself vulnerable to somebody else, we have all got all sorts of things that we have to deal with and realise.

Dolly Wells on Melissa McCarthy's Lee Israel and her Anna: "Anna coming forward, they're both coming forward, and then Lee snaps shut."
Dolly Wells on Melissa McCarthy's Lee Israel and her Anna: "Anna coming forward, they're both coming forward, and then Lee snaps shut."

AKT: Jeff Whitty is one of the writers. Did you see Head Over Heels on Broadway?

DW: No. But there is another coincidence about me and Emily. I just directed Emily in a film where she plays a writer, not a bookshop owner, but a reclusive writer.

AKT: What is it called?

DW: It's called Good Posture. And we'll see what happens, but if you're doing an Emily link you can add that one.

AKT: I will do that!

Read what Dolly Wells had to say on her stylist Kemal Harris, Alessandro Nivola and Emily Mortimer, Anna and her relationship to Melissa McCarthy's Lee Israel, costume designer Arjun Bhasin, and the Katharine Hepburn and Fanny Brice letters.

Can You Ever Forgive Me? is in cinemas in the US.

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