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‘Can You Ever Forgive Me’ Director Marielle Heller on Getting Melissa McCarthy to Go Grumpy

To shoot “Can You Ever Forgive Me?,” a biopic about literary forger and writer Lee Israel, director Marielle Heller and her production team had to re-create New York City in the 1990s on a shoestring budget. A few destinations, such as the Greenwhich Village gay bar Julius or the cavernous Upper West Side food emporium Zabar’s, are vestiges of that period. But in more cases than not, the crew had to avoid CitiBike racks and unearth the few remaining phone booths. It was a race against time.

“We were trying to shoot in bookstores, but they kept shutting down,” says Heller on a recent September afternoon, after debuting her film at the Toronto Film Festival. “We found this great store during pre-production, but it closed before we could shoot in it.”

Can You Ever Forgive Me?” may feel like a throwback in terms of its setting, but it also confirms the arrival of one of the most exciting new voices in film. Heller, a 38-year-old New York-based actor and director, first made a name for herself with 2015’s “The Diary of a Teenage Girl,” a coming-of-age film that dealt with adolescent sexuality. “Can You Ever Forgive Me?,” which Fox Searchlight releases on Oct. 19, is a step forward for her. It boasts career-best performances from McCarthy as Israel and Richard E. Grant as her best friend and co-conspirator.

Heller liked that Israel (the script is based on her 2008 memoir) wasn’t polite, tidy or averse to breaking a few laws in order to pay the rent. A brilliant writer, she was able to channel such legendary wits as Dorothy Parker and Fanny Brice. She proved so convincing — Israel once quipped she was “a better [Noël] Coward than Coward” — that she successfully fooled leading dealers into believing the correspondences that she forged were real. Heller said the key was to not pass judgment on her protagonist. “Lee was flawed and complicated and fascinating,” the director says. “If she were a male character, nobody would bat an eye, but because she’s female, it feels radical.”

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The film itself is radical in an important way. It is directed by a woman, co-written by a woman (Nicole Holofcener) and co-produced by two women (Amy Nauiokas and Anne Carey), to say nothing of the fact that it boasts a female star. That kind of female representation is rare in male-dominated Hollywood. Heller says she’s experienced sexism in her professional life, but she’s also appreciative of the trailblazing directors who came before her. “I’ve faced challenges,” she says. “It was hard to get my first movie made, and I felt that I was pushing a boulder up a hill in a way that my male colleagues didn’t have to. But I also recognize that I’m here because the women before me were fighting the good fight.”

In the film, Israel, once a best-selling biographer of Tallulah Bankhead and Estée Lauder, isn’t just down on her luck and desperate for cash. She’s also a whiskey-swilling, invective-spewing depressive who prefers cats to people. Heller felt Israel’s barbed remarks made her something of a feminist antihero. “It was really cathartic to make a movie about somebody who says everything that’s on her mind,” she says. “It was nice to see a female character who cares more about her intellect than her looks.”

It’s not the kind of role that one usually associates with McCarthy, a woman who hit the A-list with her ebullient, big-hearted turns in “Bridesmaids” and “Identity Thief.” Heller says she knew the actress could dig deep because she’d had a rich experience casting “SNL” vet Kristen Wiig against type in “The Diary of a Teenage Girl.” “Good comedy is rooted in truth and pain, so great comedians tend to be terrific actors,” Heller says.

Heller’s next cinematic subject couldn’t be further removed from the cranky Israel. She’ll be directing Tom Hanks as Fred Rogers in “You Are My Friend,” which, contrary to media reports, is not a biopic about the beloved children’s television host. The film will center on journalist Tom Junod’s interview with Rogers for an Esquire magazine article and the impact the encounter had on his own life. “It’s really a story about fatherhood and becoming a parent,” Heller says. “Mr. Rogers wasn’t just this warm and fuzzy guy. He understood that children’s feelings were just as valid as grown-ups’, and he taught people to see the humanity in one another.”

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