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Nancy Savoca talks about 'Union Square'

Director Nancy Savoca poses for a portrait during

Director Nancy Savoca poses for a portrait during the 36th Toronto International Film Festival. (Sept. 15 2011) Credit: AP

For more than 20 years, Nancy Savoca has been one of America's best independent film directors. Ever since 1989, when she won the grand jury prize at the Sundance Film Festival for "True Love," about an Italian-American wedding, the now 52-year-old Bronx native has worked successfully on the big screen ("Household Saints," "Dogfight," "The 24-Hour Woman"), in television (the HBO series "If These Walls Could Talk") and documentaries ("Reno: Rebel Without A Pause"). Savoca specializes in tales of quirky, offbeat women, and that's the case in her latest film which opened Friday, "Union Square," starring Mira Sorvino and Tammy Blanchard as estranged siblings. She spoke with Newsday.

Your new film sure opens with a bang, with Mira Sorvino freaking out in public while having a cellphone conversation. Where did the idea for that come from?

It was on a commuter train, I heard a woman on a cellphone, and I knew before the woman knew, that the person on the other end was going to break up with her. The idea of being in a public space with our cellphones. From there it just evolved, talking about the difficult people in our lives; it would be challenging to talk about relationships that are difficult, and what that means.

You really seem to have an affinity for portraying difficult women. Where'd that come from?

What's intriguing to me are woman I don't see on-screen, people I see in life, people I know and love. When I put things on-screen, it's things I'm confused about, that I want to explore. For me, the bottom line is it's something I'm passionate about.

You've been around the business long enough to have a feel for how things are going in terms of opportunities for women in film. What's your thinking on this matter?

I think there are more filmmakers, women, in indie films. Hollywood is slower to change because it's a big industry, and economic times make people more conservative. It can sometimes get a little conservative in harder economic times, they don't want to provoke people. And usually safe in Hollywood goes toward men. But now there are films like "Bridesmaids."

You've worked in both New York and L.A. How would you describe the difference between the filmmaking style or mentality in both cities?

Traditionally, the New York style of filmmaking has always been a little rough and ready, we take in what we see on the streets. We're used to capturing that, like street noise, and using the reality around us. When we're in L.A., I'll also try to take in my surroundings and make it a part of it.

You were lucky when you started out, because you managed to work for both John Sayles and Jonathan Demme in various capacities.

Demme and Sayles were mentors. They always have seen my films in rough cuts, and have their notes. The thing I love about both of them, is I admire their films, and I admire them as people. John is a writer, he's very forceful about things, and Jonathan is more like a cheerleader.

You're working on a film about the life of Mary Magdalene, and your 1993 film "Household Saints" featured Lili Taylor as an extremely devout Catholic. Are you very religious yourself?

I'm coming from a spiritual place; I was raised in a very Catholic family, I grew up steeped in these stories and traditions, and as I got older I had a lot of questions. To me, it's exploring where spirituality is looking inside, more than rules that are outside of you.

Any bad advice you've ever been given about the business?

Not really. I think as I've gotten older, I realize there are no mistakes in your life, everything that happens happens so you can learn things. In the long run, I look back and feel that happened so I can learn this. It's about strength and resilience.

Your parents are Sicilian and Argentine/Spanish. Which part of you is most Spanish, and which part is most Sicilian?

[She laughs.] The Latin part of me loves to dance and party, and the Sicilian part never forgets. I try not to hold grudges, but you just remember them.

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