Nancy and the Real Thing

By staff April 1, 2008

For Nancy Oliver, who won an Oscar nomination this year for her debut screenplay, Lars and the Real Girl, Sarasota was a long stop on the journey to Hollywood fame.

In fact, Oliver lived and worked in Sarasota for nearly 20 years in the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s, performing a wide variety of jobs, from temping to occasionally writing for this magazine. But her most crucial experience here came during the years she spent writing with longtime friend Alan Ball (who’s got an Oscar of his own tucked away on a shelf now, for his American Beauty) for a local theater company they called General Nonsense.

“Sarasota was absolutely a learning experience for me,” recalls the now 50-ish Oliver. “We started out with music revues and sketch comedy; that’s how you really learned to write a scene. Not that the shows were all great, but it was a training ground. We learned a method of writing we still use today.”

By “we” Oliver refers to Ball, whom she met at Florida State University when both were attending grad school there. “Neither of us ever took a writing class,” she says. “I got my M.F.A. in acting and directing. I had my heart set on the acting conservatory in Sarasota, actually, but I ended up going to Tallahassee. I was always into both acting and writing, but I gradually came to realize I’m not really the actress type. At FSU Alan and I said, ‘Let’s do a show together,’ and we got hooked.”

Oliver came to Sarasota in the summer of 1977 to be assistant director on a show. She soon talked Ball and fellow General Nonsense member Greg Bergeron into moving here as well. “We all had day jobs,” she says, “so we could do the shows at night. Alan could write music, so that was a direction we could take.” The General Nonsense run of productions was relatively brief, but many longtime theatergoers in Sarasota still remember the sense of spirited fun that pervaded them.

By 1985, Ball had moved to New York City, where he continued to write plays. In 1994 he headed to Los Angeles, where he wrote for sitcoms starring Cybill Shepherd and Brett Butler before hitting the big time with the feature film American Beauty and his HBO drama Six Feet Under. According to Oliver, “Alan wanted me to go out to California, and when the company I worked for, a computer game business called Black Dragon, moved to L.A. in 1997, that gave me a job out there.” Besides, she jokes, “I had to leave Sarasota; I’d already worked every job in that town.”

But when the game company folded a year later, Oliver says, “I thought I had really screwed up. I was scared. I had no idea how Hollywood worked, and there was no way to break in”—especially for a woman in her 40s in a town filled with young and hungry would-be writers. “Alan pretty much supported me for four years; I read scripts for him,” she says. “It took me five years to learn how to write a screenplay; I had to learn how to do it visually.

“In the meantime I was writing content for the Six Feet Under Web site,” she says. “And when they were changing the writing staff on Six Feet Under in the third season [in 2003], Alan asked me if I wanted to join. At that time my head was so much in Florida [where her parents still lived], I was literally packing to come back, so I asked him for a couple of days to think about it. Then I said to myself, ‘Are you crazy? This is what you’ve been waiting for.’”

The Six Feet Under job was an extreme challenge. “I had never written by committee before,” Oliver explains. “And in the writers’ room, there were things to consider I had never considered before, like rank, title, seniority. It was like a paramilitary organization. I was very naïve, and I thought it would be more freewheeling. But my ideas got shot down all the time. There was sort of a hazing thing going on, I think. I would go home every day and cry; it was just so rough.”

But over three seasons on the staff, which included credits as a co-producer, Oliver says, “I learned a lot, like how to go on a huge soundstage with an episode you’ve written, with 150 people there, and you’re just thrown into it and have to learn the basics, like ‘Where’s the monitor?’”

Meanwhile, the idea for Lars and the Real Girl had been simmering in her brain for several years. The storyline, about a shy, reclusive young man who buys a life-size doll over the Internet to be his girlfriend, and the subsequent reactions of his family and neighbors in his small town, had no one inspiration, Oliver says.

“A script is born of so many things,” she explains. “You could say that in the course of one of my many weird jobs, I came across the Real Doll Web site and that just sort of haunted me.” She finally wrote the script in a nine-month period back in 2002, but nothing happened with it until after her job at Six Feet Under began, when her agent asked if she had any scripts to shop around.

By 2005, Lars and the Real Girl was ranked No. 3 on the 2005 edition of The Black List, a compilation of the Top 90 most-liked—but unproduced—scripts in Hollywood. And negotiations began on selling the script, eventually to be directed by Craig Gillespie.

Unlike most screenwriters, who are usually shunted to the sidelines once filming begins, Oliver had the rare opportunity to see her dream child come to life, shooting with Ryan Gosling, Emily Mortimer and Patricia Clarkson in and around Toronto, Canada. “I thought, if I’m going to write for the movies, I need to see how they’re made,” she says. “And I promised to keep my mouth shut” during the intense 32-day shoot.

The results outpaced her imagining. “It was a crapshoot going in, but the film ended up being beautifully cast,” she says. “And I was so glad it ended up playing in the multiplexes, not just art houses. That mattered to me.” The night of the film’s screening at the Toronto Film Festival, she says “was really something,” as she watched her story unfold sitting next to old buddy Ball.

At the time of this interview, Oliver was enjoying some time off to rest and recharge (thanks to the then-unsettled writers’ strike) and was still a little dazed by the media attention she’d been receiving. After her Oscar nomination was announced, she had to give 17 interviews in three hours. She says that made her appreciate what it takes for stars to keep their cool on the red carpet amid popping flashbulbs.

As a writer, “You train yourself to be invisible, and then suddenly you’re supposed to talk,” she says. “One of the reasons you’re a writer is so you don’t have to talk.”

But she does have future writing projects lined up, including working (with Ball) on True Blood, a supernatural vampire drama for HBO, and on a movie for Warner Brothers. She’s also reading a lot, with an eye for adapting something for the screen. And she’s finally enjoying life in L.A. with her little Yorkie, Mabel, after a struggle to adjust and succeed.

“I have a good life now, but it took a long time,” she says. “I’m always going to be a Florida person.”

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