'Can You Ever Forgive Me?' Director On The Real Lee Israel

Nov 3, 2018
Originally published on November 3, 2018 9:46 am
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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

"Can You Ever Forgive Me?" is drawing rave reviews as Melissa McCarthy plays a straight, dramatic role as the real-life writer Lee Israel who had a brief, flourishing career as a forger of letters from famous writers.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "CAN YOU EVER FORGIVE ME?")

MELISSA MCCARTHY: (As Lee Israel) They're literary treasures, one-of-a-kind, carefully written witticisms, OK? They're not just a piece of paper. It's a portal into a better time and a better place where people still actually honored the written word.

RICHARD E. GRANT: (As Jack Hock) OK, I get it.

MCCARTHY: (As Lee Israel) Yeah, do you get it? You better learn how to respect what it is you're selling because it's my writing.

SIMON: The film also stars Richard E. Grant. It's directed by Marielle Heller, who joins us now from New York. Thanks so much for being with us.

MARIELLE HELLER: It's my pleasure, Scott Simon.

SIMON: What made you want to tell this story?

HELLER: I was really intrigued by Lee's story. She was not somebody that I knew a lot about. In fact, I think she's somebody who most people haven't really heard of, but her story is so fascinating. She was a pretty successful biographer in the '70s and '80s. And the movie takes place in 1991 where she's found herself down on her luck. She's fallen out of fashion with literary tastes of the day, and she can't pay her bills. She's one of those people, an artist trying to survive in New York, who kind of goes to extreme measures in order to really make ends meet.

SIMON: And I guess she did - the one thing she knew how to do was write, and she figured out a way to support herself with that.

HELLER: It's true. I think as a biographer, she was so stealth at understanding people's voices, and she almost could channel the voices of very famous writers like Dorothy Parker and Noel Coward. And she was so good at channeling them that even no authenticators could really tell that she was forging them. She really got by for a very long time.

SIMON: Yeah. The letters took real talent, didn't they?

HELLER: They really did. And I think what's neat is that Lee sort of viewed her forgeries as some of her best work. She didn't have a huge amount of remorse about her crimes. In fact, she took a lot of pride in the work that she did. She finds herself over 50 and not very appreciated for what she does. And so these letters became sort of something that she could take a lot of pride in in a funny way. And the more they sold for and the more collectors adored them, the more pride she felt.

SIMON: A lot of attention, obviously, to Melissa McCarthy in a dramatic role. What does a great comedian - you know and actually maybe that's not how she plotted things out to begin with in her career, but what strengths does a great comedian bring to a role like this?

HELLER: Well, I think good comedians are very in touch with the darkness of humanity and human pain and - at least the comedians I love. I should know. I'm married to one. But I think Melissa is a very smart comedian, and she's somebody who's very in touch with what is true about human nature. And she's interested in human behavior. So there was some risk that we knew we were taking because we knew that the public isn't used to seeing her in this type of role. The risk wasn't about whether she could do it. She clearly has the chops. She's an incredible actor, and I'm so excited for people to see her in this role. The risk really was how will people take it when she's not giving them what they're used to seeing from her when she's not playing her greatest hits, so to speak?

SIMON: Yeah. How do you tell the story without making it appear that crime can pay as long as you write a good book about it later?

HELLER: (Laughter) I think the most important thing when telling a story about anybody is to try to do it without judgment. Part of what the way Melissa and I both approached Lee's story was to find her humanity in the ways in which we connected to her. And I think it's hard to say what any of us would do if we were down and out. So we really tried to think about it from that perspective and less about judging her for the unethical things that she definitely did.

SIMON: My stepfather ran the Abraham Lincoln Bookshop in Chicago, and we have a letter that Edna Ferber sent him with her recipe for cheese puffs.

HELLER: Oh, my gosh.

SIMON: Well, I'm very suspicious...

(LAUGHTER)

SIMON: ...After seeing this film. I keep thinking, what did Edna Ferber know about cheese puffs? Why would she write my stepfather about cheese puffs? I never heard my stepfather say, oh, you should've had Edna Ferber's cheese puffs. But we have it in a frame.

HELLER: I want to believe that that's one of Lee's letters. You know, the thing is, a few people kind of asked us, do you think that this will spring up more forgeries, literary forgeries, because they'll see how easy it was for Lee to get away with it? And I think not at all because she only got away with it because she was such a great talent. I mean, very few people can write like Dorothy Parker. She has a line in the movie where she says I'm a better Dorothy Parker than Dorothy Parker. And I think it really speaks to her talent, actually, that she got away with it. In making the movie, I didn't come away thinking, oh, it's so easy to get away with literary forgeries. I thought, wow, how amazing Lee must have been at what she was doing to get away with it.

SIMON: You're making the Mr. Rogers movie now, aren't you...

HELLER: I am.

SIMON: ...With Tom Hanks.

HELLER: Yes.

SIMON: I have to ask you this week - as we know, Fred Rogers lived in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood...

HELLER: Yeah.

SIMON: ...Of Pittsburgh. Any particular resonance on the film set?

HELLER: It's been incredibly painful and resonant with us this week. We actually just wrapped up our filming in Pittsburgh last week, and I've been living very close to the Squirrel Hill area. And we have many dear friends who are part of that community, and I kind of can't wait to get back there just to hug the people who I love in Pittsburgh and to experience what they're going through right now because I think it's kind of hard to be away from them. They're in my heart at every moment of every day right now.

SIMON: Marielle Heller, director of "Can You Ever Forgive Me?," thanks so much for being with us.

HELLER: Thank you for having me. What a real pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.