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Marielle Heller, Bel Powley and Alexander Skarsgard Discuss Creativity and Gender at ‘Diary of a Teenage Girl’ Screening

Marielle Heller, Bel Powley and Alexander Skarsgard Discuss Creativity and Gender at 'Diary of a Teenage Girl' Screening

On Sunday, July 26, Indiewire and Sony Pictures Classics co-hosted a special advanced screening of Sundance sensation “The Diary of a Teenage Girl” at The Laemmle Music Hall in Beverly Hills. Since its premiere, the film has generated critical acclaim. It recently opened The Film Society of Lincoln Center and MoMA’s annual New Directors/ New Film series. Adapted from Phoebe Gloeckner’s graphic novel of the same name, the story follows Minnie (Bel Powley), who goes through a sexual awakening upon sleeping with her mother’s boyfriend, Monroe (Alexander Skarsgard). 

Following the screening, Anne Thompson moderated a Q&A with writer-director Marielle Heller and stars Bel Powley and Alexander Skarsgard. Check out highlights from the discussion below:

READ MORE: Sundance Review: ‘The Diary of a Teenage Girl’ Unlocks the Secrets of Adolescence

It’s a one-of-a-kind coming of age story.

You’ve never seen anything quite like “The Diary of a Teenage Girl.” Although there are countless coming of age films, “The Diary of a Teenage Girl” stands alone. As Alexander Skarsgard explained, “There are all of these coming-of-age stories from a boy’s point-of-view, where they explore sexuality. Being a teenager is fucking confusing to anyone. I felt like I had never seen that before from a girl’s point of view.”

The film fills a gap in representation. 

The film tackles a subject that is not traditionally discussed in the public sphere. Powley explains, “It is so special because it is opening up a conversation about female sexuality amongst teenage girls, which I don’t think people even talk about in day-to-day life. It is such a taboo subject to discuss young girls or teenage girls feeling horny.”

Both Powley and Heller agree that the film is a form of representation that has been missing for far too long. They revealed that if the film existed when they were younger, life would have been easier. Powley drew form her own past and explained how girls often felt freakish when dealing with change because there were no references or open discussions on such topics. The film is a form of representation for teenage girls, claiming Minnie’s experiences are normal and shouldn’t be judged. Powley’s takeaway message from the film was “everything will be fine. It is not as extreme as you think it is.”  

“Who is Monroe?”

From reading a synopsis of the film, it is clear that Heller is walking on eggshells with the iffy subject matter. After all, the idea of Monroe, a 35-year-old man, sleeping with a teenage girl promises controversy. However, there is more to him than what meets the eye. He is not solely defined by the creepy stereotype associated with his mustache. He is a complex character and there is emotional substance to his relationship with Minnie. They both take turns playing the adult. Understanding the delicacy of the situation and the complications tied to the role, it was the challenge that drew Skarsgard to the film.

“I was very intrigued by the character Monroe because it was a real challenge to try and play him in a way so that it’s not condoning what he does, without conveying him as too much of a villain, and to try and make that relationship interesting, so it’s not just him preying on Minnie for an hour and forty minutes.” After Heller saw Skarsgard’s “gentle depth” in the drama “What Maisie Knew,” she knew he was perfect for the role. His performance is a foundation of the film’s success. 

The film stays true to Minnie’s point of view. 

“Our life rule of thumb, when making this movie, was everything is from Minnie’s perspective. If she didn’t feel bad about something, then we shouldn’t feel bad about something. If she didn’t feel like she was being victimized, then we shouldn’t feel like she is being victimized. I was never trying to have us step out and judge her or judge what was happening to her,” said Heller. 

The setting and era make a difference. 

The story flourishes against its cultural backdrop. The childlike-freedom of the San Francisco counterculture during the seventies suited the film. It gave Heller a route to explore sexual experimentation, recreational drug usage and the inexistent relationship between child and parent. Heller reveals how she and cinematographer, Brandon Trost, captured the film’s realistic look through subtle techniques, saying, “We tried to feel authentic seventies without being costume party seventies.”

The time period prevents the audience from getting hung up on certain elements of the plot, such as Monroe’s age. On the contrary, it allows you to get swept up by Minnie’s story and lost her in mind. Heller pointed out, “I was aware when I was making the movie that the distance of the era helped us. Hopefully, it meant that people weren’t going to come into the movie with a lot of judgment in the way they would if it was just set in the modern time.” 

Minnie is universally relatable. 

Heller discussed reactions to the films she has received thus far. She was surprised, yet delighted to find that Minnie was a universally relatable character. “It’s not just women who are enjoying this movie but all different types of people have been coming up to me and claim that it really meant a lot to them and that they really connected to Minnie. I love that because I’ve always related to male protagonist because that’s whom I’ve had to relate to. Why can’t men relate to a teenage girl and find their humanity in this character?”

Marielle Heller’s open invitation to join the creative process is key. 

Skarsgard had only praise for the director and her debut film. He commended her for having an “open invitation” to join the “creative process.” She wanted the actors to voice their opinions when a scene wasn’t working. “It’s the most amazing feeling when you feel that trust from your director. Oh she wants to play and we are all invited here. Unfortunately that is not always the case. She was excited when something shifts or happens,” he said.

The director’s approach allowed her to capture universal feelings. Heller revealed, “Bel and I constantly checked back in with each other. This is what it felt like, right? Is this what you would have been thinking in that moment? We were checking in with our inner compass.” Watching the film, it is evident that the source of the film’s emotional authenticity and ability to transcend the message is the open creative process. 

The animation was worth nearly losing an arm over.   

Since the film was based on an autobiographical graphic novel, the use of animation truly reflects the narrative. The animator, Sara Gunnarsdóttir, “hand drew every frame.” Heller claimed that Gunnarsdóttir “almost destroyed her arm while working on this film. We had to do physical therapy at one point.” The thousands of drawings may have caused the animator substantial pain, but they proved to be incredible assets to the film. The stunning visuals complement Minnie’s narration, allowing us not only to see her grow in age and maturity, but also to see her evolve as an artist. 

Marielle Heller believes female directors have a bright future. 

When asked about the future of female directors, Heller shared an optimistic response. “I feel like we hit a tipping point and there is no going back now. Hollywood has been shamed to getting on board. Public opinion has really swayed people.” Skarsgard backed her up, revealing that his decision to work with a director is not relevant to gender but dependent only on skill. “I want to work with amazing filmmakers and Marielle is, so…”

READ MORE: New Directors/New Films Opens with Provocative Sundance Hit ‘Diary of a Teenage Girl’

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