“Columbo’s playing Wiffle ball with me!” Zoe Cassavetes remembers thinking happily, back when she was a little girl in 1970s L.A. There she was, in her parents’ back yard, batting a plastic orb with Peter Falk - the squinty star of the long-running television detective show - who had taken a break from moviemaking to play with the director’s daughter.
That director, of course, was John Cassavetes, the actor-turned-American-indie-auteur of “Faces,” “Husbands,” “A Woman Under the Influence” and “Opening Night.” Many of his groundbreaking, grown-up dramas starred his wife, Gena Rowlands. The unofficial Cassavetes rep troupe also included Falk, Ben Gazzara and Seymour Cassel.
Parker Posey, Melvil Poupaud, Drea de Matteo, Justin Theroux, Peter Bogdanovich, Gena Rowlands
(Magnolia Pictures; US theatrical: 22 Jun 2007 (Limited release); 2007)
And many scenes were shot in the Cassavetes-Rowlands home, with pip-squeak Zoe peeking out from under the dining table, or helping with the chicken sandwiches (“For 80!” her dad would bark) in the kitchen.
“I guess through osmosis I may have learned some things,” says Zoe - about making movies, not chicken sandwiches.
Her beautifully funny and sad first film, “Broken English,” stars Parker Posey as a desperately lonely New Yorker who stumbles into an ill-advised liaison with a Hollywood star (Justin Theroux), endures blind dates set up by her kvetching mom (one Ms. Rowlands), and meets a cute, sensitive French guy (Melvil Poupaud) who may or may not be Monsieur Right.
For Cassavetes, who just turned 37, “Broken English” has been a long time coming. In L.A., in her 20s, she dabbled in TV and digital video with her pal Sofia Coppola. In New York, where she moved 10 years ago, she worked any number of “crazy jobs,” including party planner, and concierge for a trendy boutique hotel. (In “Broken English,” Posey’s character is the guest-services exec for a similar establishment.) She has also directed commercials (Chase Manhattan Bank) and music videos (Duncan Sheik).
But while Cassavetes has been offered scripts to shoot over the years, she’s always balked. Like her father before her, she’s a writer, too. And “Broken English,” with its big glints of autobiography, is a personal work.
Cassavetes, who’s engaged to French musician Sebastien Chenut (his band, Scratch Massive, scored the film), isn’t sure she could have gone and made a fluffy farce, some Hollywood rom-com.
“I mean, half of me thinks that maybe I should have done it, taken those offers,” says Cassavetes, in Philadelphia recently to promote “Broken English.” “But I also have the very distinctive, let’s say, honor of not being able to do those things and get away with it as easily as someone who didn’t have a famous last name.”
And it’s not only a famous last name, she adds, “but the reputation that my father holds ... If I went and made `Beach Nuts 2’ or something, I was going to get it.”
So Cassavetes endured lean times (“Ate out of the quarter jar”) and holed up in her rent-controlled East Village apartment watching DVDs.
Some of those DVDs starred Posey, whom Cassavetes finally met a few years back. Although the actress is known for her wifty indie comic roles, Cassavetes had seen her on stage, and in Rebecca Miller’s “Personal Velocity,” and noted something deeper, more vulnerable in the actress.
There are moments in “Broken English” when Posey, painfully unhappy and alone, quakes with despair. And then she’ll spin around and deliver some piercingly witty observation on dating rituals, or relationships. It’s an amazing performance.
“She’s a lovely person, and I’ve grown so close to her,” Cassavetes says of her leading lady. “And she’s protective of me, and helped me in my nervous moments. When we first started working, I thought: She’s done 50 films and I’ve done one, and I’m supposed to tell her what to do? Arrggh!”
And then there’s Cassavetes’ mother, whose filmography is nothing to sneeze at either.
“Obviously, to get to work with Gena Rowlands - I mean, even if she wasn’t my mother I would be a huge fan of her work. But it’s also nice when you work so hard to be able to share something that special with your mom, and have that kind of connection.
“She can be proud of me, and I can be proud of her.”