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Marielle Heller on the Road to ‘The Diary of a Teenage Girl’

Marielle Heller on the Road to 'The Diary of a Teenage Girl'

New film director Marielle Heller, 35, trained as an actress and fell in love with Phoebe Gloeckner’s 2002 graphic novel “The Diary of a Teenage Girl” eight years ago. She first turned it into an off-Broadway play and took the lead herself, then penned a film script, which was accepted by the Sundance writer and director workshops, where she honed it with the likes of Nicole Holofcener, Michael Arndt and Scott Frank, and gained the confidence to recognize that writing and acting chops were half the battle when directing your first movie. Heller landed bankable actors Kristen Wiig and Alexander Skarsgard. And she debuted her first feature to rousing acclaim at this January’s Sundance Film Festival, where Sony Pictures Classics acquired multiple rights.

Read: 6 Things to Know About ‘The Diary of a Teenage Girl,’ Part of Sundance’s Women’s New Wave

Gloeckner’s book is all over the movie, which opens with a teenage girl declaring, “I had sex today. Holy shit!” Set in San Francisco in the free-wheeling ’70s, the film’s underage cartoonist heroine Minnie Goetze (22-year-old Brit breakout Bel Powley) exuberantly explores her sexuality as she grows up with her younger sister and 30-something hard-partying single mom, Charlotte (Wiig). The sex is not icky. Even though we know that sex-obsessed 15-year-old Minnie should not be losing her virginity and sleeping with her mom’s hunky goofball boyfriend Monroe (Alexander Skarsgård), we see how the affair happens. Their flirting, fondling and coupling is fun and celebrates the joy of sex, without avoiding the pain that inevitably comes with it. Part of Minnie’s charm is that she doesn’t know what she’s doing–she’s learning as she goes along. Finally, the movie empowers her. Minnie’s no victim. She owns her budding young body and sexuality. 
That’s why “Teenage Girl” will be a hit. While many–especially women–will cheer the film’s unleashed underage sex, many will also feel uncomfortable with it. That’s how a movie generates controversy–and sells tickets. It opens Friday, August 7.

When you found the graphic novel, you were a working actress?

I was really serious about being an actress. I was playing young female characters and not feeling very connected to them. 

This was the most honest depiction of a girl—in contrast —that I ever came across. It felt more exciting. There were no good depictions of female girls in literature or film. I felt this was an important story.

Minnie is having fun.

She was a fun character, inspiring in how honest she was, how curious she was, how full steam ahead she explores what she’s curious about even if there are crazy consequences. I’d never seen female characters as brazen about exploring their sexuality as their male counterparts who were exploring up the wazoo. It felt like she was just an empowering exciting character to get to know, so honest, so smart, so interested in the world, so vulnerable and willing to be flawed. I found her to be one of the best characters I’d ever come across.

Was the novel also set in the 70s? You grew up later. The film feels authentic to the period. 
The graphic novel is set in 1976. I did not grow up in the 70s but in the 80s in the Bay Area, the child of hippies in Berkeley, so I felt connected to the place and the legendary things that had come before me historically that I’d missed. It was important to get that right and give the place and the time the proper treatment in the movie.
Hers is not my story. I did not have that kind of upbringing. I did have a sexual teenagehood, sexual thoughts and feelings. I thought something must be wrong with me because girls like me were not depicted in the media. There’s a fear of teenage girls and sexuality and equality, but no fear of teenage boys and their sexuality. There’s a real double standard, and a sense of danger about teenage girl sexuality. 

How did you come to write the play?

I wanted to play the part. I felt connected, felt she was in my bones. I was connected to the theater, it was my first love, where my career was focused, on interesting ways to tell stories. I had no plans to do it as a film. It wasn’t until I had finished the play and let it die– they end and vanish–that I realized that I wasn’t finished with it and thought of doing it as a film. It was not my original plan.

How did you come to go to the Sundance workshops? 

Producer Anne Carey went to see the play and was familiar with the book. When I was envisioning it as a film I went to her, and she said, “Apply to the Sundance labs, because it will be a difficult movie to make. It will help.” I basically wrote a draft of the script and submitted it and was lucky to get into the writers and directors lab. It was hugely helpful. It gave me confidence and made me feel like I knew what I was doing. I did not go to film school. I was compelled by this story, compelled to make this movie. 

How much did the labs help you?

I couldn’t name everything. I wrote 20 drafts of the script after the labs, which were incredible: I was helped by Nicole Holofcener, Michael Arndt, and Scott Frank, among others helping me to figure out how to turn it into a film. The script grew hugely while I was there. And then I gained the confidence to direct—I was nervous about the technical side, the things didn’t know. But the things I did know were the story and how to work with actors, which were crucial elements. I had more tools in my tool belt than I thought I did.

Did you start off the play with “I had sex today. Holy shit!”
Nope. It was only the beginning of the movie. The book and the play start differently. I wanted to find a way to tell the audience right away what the film was about without pulling punches, give everyone some exultation and joy: “This story you may have heard about a 15-year-old girl having sex with a 35-year-old man is going to be more fun than you might think. It will feel more like having sex as a teenager is a good thing.”

Did you use the tape recorder as the narrative spine in the play? 
Yes, I came up with the tape recorder device in the play. I needed something connected to the part of this character that makes little projects out of everything, like how I was as a kid. I’d come up with new ways to build a diorama, or turn my room into a science experiment. Everything was a little art project. I had to figure how to tell the story in a more visually interesting way, rather than using a typewriter—which worked with the book. For a film or play she had to be speaking out loud. I used to make little recordings, so the tape recorder made sense.

How did you proceed to get the movie made? 

Then I directed a two-minute teaser via a grant I got through Sundance and the Maryland Film Festival. With that money I shot in San Francisco to give a taste of what the film would feel and look like. I gave that to Kristin Wiig—my husband [Jorma Taccone] worked with her on Saturday Night Live and we’re friends. “Macgruber” is my husband’s movie that he directed and she was  in—I only had one line. She was the first one on. She loved the teaser and the script and was excited by the challenge of the role. From there I went to Alexander to get the ball rolling. 
Did you see Skarsgard in “What Maisie Knew”?

That’s the film that made me realize he could do this part. It was important to me to find somebody who could toe the line with the character and find the humanity and humor and haplessness of this man, so that we could enter into this relationship without judgement. I don’t think a black and white relationship is interesting on-screen. I was exploring a grey zone where he’s not a predator and she’s not a victim, but something in between. I liked watching them oscillate between the extremes of their personalities.

How did you find Bel Powley?
Bel Powley did a video audition through UTA—she submitted a tape that was incredible. I didn’t realize she was British until she recorded a personal message at the end about how much the script meant to her. She was doing an American accent, she’s just amazing in it. It felt it was too weird to just cast her so I got her and Alexander together for some scenes in NY—it became clear she was perfect.
There’s a marvelous moment when Monroe glimpses the hickey on her neck that he did not put there.
That’s one of my favorites. She has sex with a boy from school. You see the typical high school kid jackrabbiting away; she’s far beyond him sexually, and uses that as a ploy to get Monroe’s attention. When it screened in Berlin, it was a great funny moment when she comes in with that hickey. It got a standing ovation, people clapping for an applause break. Monroe’s so easily manipulated.

Both the boyfriend and the mom are fairly irresponsible. 
The three main characters are all emotionally 15, they’re all searching and getting to know themselves. But Monroe and Charlotte are pretty stuck, while Minnie makes more progress.
What are you doing next besides raising your baby? You must be fielding a lot of interest since Sundance. 

I’m raising my baby and also reading a lot of material and will write my next project. And I’m going to be directing “Transparent,” thrilled for that. I adore it. I am super-excited to flex my directing muscles. I have a lot of irons in the fire. 

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