The objective for a meeting at the London Hotel in West Hollywood with writer/director Marielle Heller is to talk about her Sundance sensation “Diary of a Teenage Girl.” But there’s another, more important item on the agenda: to discuss the films that had an impact on her, and therefore influenced her feature debut. She admits to being too sensitive for scary movies, including the first movie she saw on the big screen, “The Jungle Book”: “I got so scared by the snake that I started crying and we had to leave the theater.” But the first movie Heller saw was “E.T.,” which was a transformative experience. “I just remember being blown away by ‘E.T.’ and feeling like it changed my whole sense of what was possible in the world.”
“Diary of a Teenage Girl” hits theaters this week, and Heller already has a full dance card of upcoming projects. She’s directing the Ruth Bader Ginsburg film “On the Basis of Sex” with Natalie Portman, and she’s also directed an episode in the second season of the much beloved Amazon series “Transparent,” which she referred to as “babysitting [Jill Soloway’s] baby.” But she says that “Jill was very generous and really wanted for me to come in and actually have a creative say on my episode.” She describes it as “infiltrating their little tribe,” and that “it was a great experience and the cast is so wonderful on that show and so wonderful to work with.”
What follows is a list of the films that Heller noted as inspirational both for her love for cinema and directly on “Diary of a Teenage Girl,” a coming of age story set in the ‘70s about Minnie (Bel Powley), who is learning about herself while exploring her sexuality, independence and creativity. It’s a remarkable work, focusing on the the perspective and feelings of a young woman as she comes into own through a misguided but influential romance with an older man.
Check out the list of films below, including one bonus —one of Heller’s unusual favorites that almost had a direct reference in ‘Diary.’
1. “Hedwig and the Angry Inch”
“One of the movies I know affected me was ‘Hedwig and the Angry Inch.’ I remember feeling like it was such a brave and scary and awesome movie, and it was so ambitious. I felt really connected to it emotionally.”
2. “Harold and Maude”
This classic gender-swapped May-December romance was one of the films that Heller looked at for inspiration on the look and feel of ‘Diary.’ The themes, time period and setting of the film were an important parallel. “It’s set in the Bay Area. I think it’s a little bit earlier, but there was something about the feel of that movie. I just love that movie so much —it feels like such an honest look at what it is to be young,” Heller explained. “It feels like the character of Harold is treated with such respect, and that was also something that I wanted to also accomplish with ‘Diary.’ In terms of the look, that was a helpful one. We really wanted to do what felt like a real version of the ’70s, and not a costume party version.”
3. “The Breakfast Club”
Heller notes that there were a lack of coming of age films from a girl’s perspective while she was growing up. “There really hasn’t been one about about girls that I really connected to, which is why I felt like I wanted to make this movie.” She says that high school sex comedies like “American Pie” excluded a female perspective. “There are a number of movies about teenage boys, [in which] the way the girl is feeling in any of those situations isn’t taken into account. I felt like such an outsider watching those movies.”
The exception to those classic ‘80s and ‘90s movies was anything by John Hughes. “I so related to John Hughes movies,” she says. “‘Sixteen Candles’ and ‘The Breakfast Club‘ had a big influence on me,” —the latter of which was the first R-rated movie Heller saw growing up.
“It was a friend’s daughter who was older than me and her friends, and we all sat around and watched that movie, and I remember feeling like it was so bad that I was watching a Rated R movie,” she laughs. But she recalls how Hughes treated his young protagonists, clearly something she worked toward with Minnie in ‘Diary.’ “I think there used to be more respect toward young people in movies. John Hughes really respects his characters and they’re given their emotional weight. He does so even with kids, but especially with teenagers.”
4. “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”
Coming from the mind of Minnie, “Diary of a Teenage Girl” is told in a way that jumps around according to her cognition and memory. Heller mentions that “I was also really influenced by movies like ‘Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,’ movies that told stories in non-linear ways and did weird practical effects and let things be a little magical and different.”
This influence shows in the animation of Minnie’s drawings that enhance the story —the film is based on Phoebe Gloeckner’s graphic novel and Minnie is an aspiring cartoonist. Minnie “copes with problems in her life is by making art out of them, so it was a huge part of the story from an emotional point of view. It was a crucial part of the story that we added in this artistic element in order to show her talent and in order to get to know her creative mind.” Not only that, but Heller thinks of “the whole film as taking place in Minnie’s mind, and sort of being a big memory all strung together with non-realistic pieces woven in.”
5. “Lovely and Amazing”
Heller names Nicole Holofcener as a role model, and as one of her mentors at the Sundance Labs where she workshopped the ‘Diary’ script. “I love how singular the voice in her films are. it just feels like it is so from her perspective. There’s a simplicity in some ways to them, but that’s actually incredibly brave. She’s not pandering.”
One of her favorites? “I love ‘Lovely and Amazing.’ It was something that I thought about with this film, because the way she treats the female body was something I was conscious of with this film too.”
‘Diary’ has a significant amount of nudity, but Heller stresses that “I wanted most of the nudity in the film to be in non-sexual situations and non-sexual scenes, so we see the most nudity when Minnie’s just examining her body in the mirror. I think that’s a really universal thing, and I really didn’t want to be gratuitous or exploitative with my actress.” Not only that, “but I felt that wasn’t the point of this film. This film was about exploring herself and her body and her sexuality, and so I thought it was a more interesting use of nudity in nonsexual situations.”
Bonus Film: “The Room”
Heller shouts out cult classic “The Room” as the movie she’s watched the most. “It’s become our family tradition. We watch that movie every Christmas and we’ve gone to see many screenings where Tommy Wiseau comes and speaks. It’s a huge inside family joke and we just love it so much.”
“I tried to put a ‘Room’ reference in ‘Diary,’ but I ended up cutting it out in edit, but it was going to be a moment where she walked by a dog and went ‘hi doggie.’ My husband Jorma [Taccone] also has a reference to it in his movie ‘MacGruber’ and we started trying to figure out how we could get a ‘Room’ reference into every movie we ever make,” she said. Here’s hoping we see one in “On the Basis of Sex,” or maybe “Transparent.”
“Diary of a Teenage Girl” is in theaters this Friday, August 7th. Below, you can check out an additional interview with Heller from the New Directors/New Films festival earlier this year.