Fraudulently Yours: Marielle Heller directs a surprising Melissa McCarthy as forger Lee Israel in 'Can You Ever Forgive Me?'

Movies Features

In Can You Ever Forgive Me?, Melissa McCarthy drops her usual ingratiating comic shtick and transforms herself into the toughest, meanest lesbian who ever prowled and drank her way through the streets of Manhattan. Such a person was Lee Israel (1939-2014), a noted biographer of Tallulah Bankhead and Dorothy Kilgallen, who by the 1980s had fallen on hard times as a result of her abrasive, intractable personality, alcoholism and unsuccessful book pitches—Fanny Brice’s bio, for one—that no one was interested in. Desperate to pay her bills, she not only stole but forged celebrity letters—Noel Coward, Dorothy Parker—from libraries where she had researched her subjects and sold them to autograph dealers, until she was caught in 1993 and made to serve six months under house arrest and five years of federal probation.

Israel poured her experience into a book, Can You Ever Forgive Me?, which, ironically, received critical praise and reinstated her literary name. In a case of no bad deed goes unrewarded, Marielle Heller has directed an adaptation of the book, giving her star a chance to really stretch and its subject more fame in death than she ever had in life.

As a patron of the New York gay bar Julius, I would often see Israel there, throwing drinks back and usually surrounded by a coterie of admiring fellows. One wag there once quipped, “I’ve known her for so long, I remember when she was Lee Palestine!” Having enjoyed her biographies, I once had the temerity to spend time with her when I caught her there alone. She did not suffer fools, but I was buying the drinks and able to palaver about congenial subjects—old movies, good writers—so it turned out to be an overall pleasant experience, although every now and then I detected a sudden dangerous flicker, warning me to change whatever topic that was incurring her displeasure.

Luckily, meeting the lovely, bright and very likeable Heller for breakfast in a beyond-trendy area of modern Brooklyn, rife with designer dogs leashed to designer strollers leashed to jogging hipsters, was an undiluted pleasure.

Marielle Heller: I never knew Lee, but I got to talk to a lot of people who did, and some of them said, “Well, you’ve captured the essence, but she was much harsher. My producer, who was working on the project for many years, knew her earlier, and said she would show up for a work lunch and wouldn’t realize that Lee had gotten there an hour learlier and had already had two martinis that would be on the bill when she paid it.

Film Journal International: I’m pals with Ray Barr, the executor of Lee’s estate and her great friend, and he told me originally this was going to be directed by Nicole Holofcener, with Julianne Moore.

MH: I had nothing to do with that. They were very close to making the movie and then it sort of fell apart through creative differences, I understand. Some time later, Melissa read the script and fell in love with it. And then Anne Carey, with whom I did my debut feature The Diary of Teenage Girl, brought it to me, saying, “Melissa might be interested and this may be getting a new life.” Jeff Whitty [Avenue Q] had written the original draft of the script, and Nicole had rewritten it from his draft. I know Nicole and talked to her, and she gave me her blessing.

It’s such a New York story, and I’ve lived here since 1991. I love New York, and was just drawn to this. Lee felt familiar to me in many ways, and I loved having this woman as a strong character, who is sort of an asshole. If it was a man, people wouldn’t blink, but they don’t want to tell stories about women like her.

But I just found her so funny, so on top of it and saying things you never say. There’s  something so satisfying about that and how smart she was. I kept thinking that if you saw her on the street, you might just pass right by her and never think anything. Funnily enough, there is a therapist I’ve seen for many years on the Upper West Side with an office downstairs and she lives upstairs. I was telling her about the project and she said, "Not Lee Israel?" And I said, “Yes,” and she said, “She lived in this building for many years, until she died... You don’t want to know what I thought about her. She was difficult.” I realized that I’d probably passed her in the hallway while going to therapy for many years.

FJI: She was indeed hard as nails, but if you got her to open up, about a favorite writer or movie, she softened and you’d see another side to her. How did Richard E. Grant come aboard, as Lee’s gay friend and accomplice?

MH: He was just someone I knew that I wanted. His part wasn’t written as a Brit, but that part of his character seemed to fit so well, so I rewrote it a little. I just loved him and I think he’s gonna blow people away: He sparkled and was just a delight. He and Melissa formed a true friendship as we filmed. They were so close, it was so sweet—there were days he wasn’t even filming, and he’d show up and take her for lunch. Exactly what you hope for when you’re directing two actors and need them to have this great friendship chemistry.

Jack is a real character, but he’s not as prominent in the book. We took a little more artistic license, but he was the real person who helped her with her crime. It was so touching to think about these two misfits who have nobody but find each other. They shouldn’t get along, but for some reason it worked. And how sweet and then tragic this bond was. I connected more to their friendship than their crime. I love that these two characters have opposite life philosophies: She’s so negative, and he’s the forever optimist, “It’ll be fine!”

FJI: Your film really captured this almost subterranean urban world of bars like Julius and the collectible world of musty bookshops and shifty dealers.

MH: It was so fun to get to shoot in all these locations around New York. A lot of places are already gone and there were so many places, while we were scouting, that were gonna be shut down while shooting. There was a feeling of capturing this New York that’s going away, and it’s very sad. I don’t think the Argosy bookshop is in danger and there’s that amazing little hole in the wall on the Upper West Side that looks like a cavern, with books all the way to the ceiling. I felt like we were connecting to a New York when it was still an artists’ world.

Everyone at Julius was really positive. The owner is so nice and every time we went in there and scouted, one of the bartenders would tell us stories about Lee—which stool she’d sit on and order her Scotch with water (“And don’t be stingy!”). We felt really touched by the way the Julius crowd embraced us. On the second night we were filming, the bar was shut down, but we heard the whole Julius crowd was around the corner at another bar and were toasting to Lee. Sweet.

FJI: I got such a nice tingle with your very first shot of this place, so special to Lee and generations of gay men, as one of the oldest bars—never mind gay—in the city. It was magical, with that snow falling down. Was that real?

MH: Yes! We filmed two full days at Julius, all day and night. We filmed in the middle of winter. I was really hoping for some weather and we got it—a lot of snow a year and a half ago. A lot of productions shut down on those days and I was like, “We’re gonna shoot!” And it was just gorgeous.

That day at Julius, we had this light, fluffy snow dancing down, so beautiful. My cinematographer Brandon Trost did my first movie and he did such a beautiful job. It was important to capture this interior world of dusty bookshops and bars, which Lee inhabited. This world was very shut in, but we had these moments where we opened it up and got to see New York. But always that feeling of her world, which was inhabited by a lot of specific locations—dust in the air in bookshops which haven’t had their windows open in years.

It was a 28-day shoot, pretty fast. But Melissa is such a pro. [It was] so incredible that we were able to move pretty quickly, hopping all aound New York, all on location, so cool. Everyone says you can’t do it. but we did great.

FJI: The monumentally embittered, angry, difficult character of Lee Israel, the butchest of lesbians, is the greatest possible stretch I can think of for a comedienne like Melissa McCarthy.

MH: We talked a lot in the months leading up to it. We did a reading and did a lot of work, finding the look for the character and the voice. She was very prepared, and also very open to direction, a joy. It was a very different type of part for her. She is one of the best improvisers in the world but didn’t do any of that on this movie. It’s going be really interesting for people to see her like this, because she’s so naturally funny, but also so soulful and emotionally present.

FJI: Do you think she is a happy person? So many comedians are not.

MH: Oh yes, and she is also the busiest person I’ve ever seen—a mom and she and her husband make movies together and she has her own clothing line. A powerhouse.

FJI: The rest of the cast is so good, too.

MH: Dolly Wells [as the bookshop owner Lee sells to and almost romances] is British  and has a show on HBO, “Doll & Em,” with Emily Mortimer, who was her childhood best friend. Bel Powley was in my first movie and knew her, and we became friends and she did a really gorgeous job.  

At one point when we were showing the movie to people, some would say, “Is it clear that they’re asking each other out?” And I was like, “No. It’s not supposed to be! That’s the point—being gay in the early ’90s, you had no idea if you’re reading the signals wrong. That’s the whole point!”

My aunt who lives in Florida is a lesbian, and she reminds me of Lee in certain ways, although she’s a wonderful, lovely, warm, happy person. Very different, but so whip-smart, sarcastic and hilarious, I asked her if she would hang out at Julius, and she said, “No, that was a boy’s place.”

FJI: I was nicely impressed by your music score and the selection of songs on the soundtrack.

MH: It was a really fun world to get into. Friends of Lee told us about songs she loved, a lot of female jazz singers, like Blossom Dearie, whose voice was really soulful. Our composer, Nate Heller [the director’s brother], did a beautiful job of taking that feeling of the music and creating a score that was in that world. It’s tricky, as it’s sort of a known thing that you’re not supposed to do a jazz score because they never work, a big challenge. But I didn’t know this, never having gone to film school. It’s not hardcore jazz, but the instrumentation feels so New York. I tried not to be manipulative and let it suck you into the story, while also wanting the movie to feel it was from a different era—out of time—the way Lee was.

FJI: What’s your next project?

MH: It’s tricky for me, because I’m leaving for Pittsburgh tomorrow for three months to make this movie about Mr. Rogers with Tom Hanks, You Are My Friend.  It’s hard because Can You Ever Forgive Me? is coming out at same time I’m shooting, and will be doing double duty with press on the weekends. I’m tired just thinking about it.

Mr. Rogers was from Pittsburgh and filmed his show there. Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster, who I met when I directed an episde of “Transparent,” had been working on the screenplay for years before I came aboard about a year ago. I contacted Tom Hanks and we put the whole thing together, so it’s off to the races.

FJI: I’ve been meanng to see that new documentary about Mr. Rogers.

MH: It’s very sweet, prepare to cry. It’s just so touching because you realize that we are so starved for goodness and kindness, and just slowing down. I think the reason Mr. Rogers is so in the zeitgeist right now is because of Trump. We feel so oppressed by this level of anger that’s dictating our country and you see somebody who’s totally the opposite of him, and say “Ohmigod, please, yes!”

I didn’t think I’d ever want to make a movie about men, especially a straight white one. But if I have to, Mr. Rogers is the man who pulled me in. It’s about a journalist who meets Mr. Rogers. He’s a man who’s just becoming a father and he’s grappling with these issues of fatherhood, having issues with his own father, and manhood.    

FJI: You say you never went to film school.

MH: I went to theatre school. It was my big passion from when I was really young, just to act. I did a lot of theatre and when we moved to New York in 2005, I did a lot of off-Broadway theatre, also developing new plays, and a lot of regional work in Shakespeare.

I had a career but was frustrated by the type of roles I was playing and the lack of control. That’s when I started writing, with no goal of becoming a director. I spent eight years on The Diary of a Teenage Girl…. The night before my first day as a director, I was vibrating, so scared. But my first day on set was one of the best days of my life. We filmed this incredibly emotional scene on the beach and it felt so good, with my two main actors. I left that day, crying, couldn’t believe it came to fruition. It was so moving. Yet people who have known me most of my life did not react to me becoming a dirctor with “Whoa, really?” They were more like, “That makes sense.” [laughs]

FJI: Your husband [writer-director Jorma Taccone, who, as a “Saturday Night Live” writer, penned the viral songs “Lazy Sunday” and “Dick in a Box”] is so talented, too.

MH: Thank you. I think that’s part of why I thought I could direct. I was watching him do it and he also didn’t go to film school. We met in theatre school, his father’s a theatre director  [Tony Taccone]. We both come from a different perspective of acting, storytelling and understanding story. I realize my biggest strength as a director is the fact that I love actors, understand how their brains work and what we’re asking of them when they’re doing this very difficult job. It’s a very diferent relationship from other directors I’ve worked with, because I speak their language.

With Melissa, I felt like we shared this bond. She trusted me and was willing to go to places that I think even she was surprised by. When we finished, she turned to me and said, “I feel like I did things I’ve never done before.” We kind of cried and held each other. It’s such a bond you have to make to do thse things; she’s so vulnerable and it’s such a different side to her.

At first, Richard was a little bit afraid of some of the costumes, “Ohmigosh, they’re so flashy!” but then he said, “You know, you’re right! They’re gonna be fabulous. I’m gonna go with it and trust whatever you say.” He really got into it, totally embraced it.

Christian Navarro [as the waiter who is Grant’s shady boy toy] is in the Netflix series “13 Reasons Why”—he was great. It was a great group of people, and Jane Curtin [as a book editor who perpetually rejects Israel’s book proposals] was a delight. I loved working with her. She and Melissa knew each other already. We had such a fun time—talk about a pro: she shows up and nails it.

It was both fun and horrible to do that snooty literary party she throws. It’s so relatable, and, like Lee, I know what it’s like to be at a party and feel an outsider, looking around hating everybody there.

FJI: You have a thriving career, marriage and a kid, Not bad, huh?

MH: I know. I’m such a cliché, in Brooklyn, with a kid. We moved in and got a stroller. We’ve been together so long, almost 20 years. It’s helpful that we make different things.

I’m very lucky—things are going really good. My husband is working on the Tracy Morgan show, “The Last O.G.” He just directed the pilot and has been writing a number of movies, debating what he’s doing next.

We kind of have to switch off—one of us has to stay with the kid. They’re coming to Pittsburgh with me, and he will be writing during the day and taking care of our son. It’s tricky because it’s long hours as you’re trying to parent. My mother-in-law is in town this week and is helping while we try to juggle everything.

FJI: If nothing else, Can You Ever Forgive Me?is a real character-driven boon in this cartoon/Marvel comics movie age.

MH: Fox Searchlight does different types of movies that are character-based and, obviously, having someone like Melissa aboard helped. But I didn’t have to push this boulder uphill—people were already interested in making it. I got to come in and find my own way into it and make it the way I wanted and everybody was very supportive.

The movie actually doesn’t come out until October and it’s weird to have made a movie that’s been finished for months and people haven’t been able to see it. It feels like blue balls: Can we get it out there? I’m ready for people to see it.

FJI: Finally, what do you think made Lee Israel the way she was?

MH: My assumption about her was being that smart and unrecognized, as a gay woman trying to make her way at a time when it was much less accepted, to feel that talented and unseen, makes you pissed. She went out of favor with the times—the world she wanted to inhabit was not in vogue. She was born in the wrong era, probably should have been part of the Algonquin round table. But it was the 1980s-90s in New York, and she felt isolated by her own mind, in so many ways.