Girl Talk is a weekly look at women in film — past, present, and future.
Three decades into her Hollywood career, Heather Graham is making some changes. The long-time actress has always mixed things up in her work. Even as a teenager, she always seemed interested in working with a wide array of directors on some very different projects, playing the object of Corey Haim’s affection in the teen comedy “License to Drive” and turning in an Indie Spirit-nominated supporting turn in Gus Van Sant’s “Drugstore Cowboy” in the space of a year. Her best-known roles also reflect that same spirit, and Graham is just as recognizable for her work in the first “Austin Powers” film as she is for her heartbreaking spin in Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Boogie Nights.”
But that still doesn’t mean she was getting all the parts she wanted. “As an actress, sometimes you sit around wishing you got this great role or wishing someone would hire you or waiting for some guy to give you your dream role,” Graham said. “I just thought, ‘I’m going to give my dream role to myself.’“
Instead, she wrote an entire movie: “Half Magic,” which she also directed and stars in, alongside co-stars Angela Kinsey and Stephanie Beatriz. Graham’s filmmaking debut is the kind of female-focused, sex-positive comedy that the genre is sorely lacking. The trio play a group of new friends bonded by their desire to break free of bad relationships (and bad dudes), an aspiration partially aided by a little bit of actual magic.
“I’m going to write something that’s about something that I care about, a story about somebody dealing with growing up having shame and fear around sexuality and getting over it and feeling spiritual about your sexuality and good about your sexuality, to find a way to find humor in the sexism in the movie business,” Graham said of her aims with the script. “I basically wrote the script to find humor in the things in my life that upset me.”
While Graham’s character Honey is initially focused on one goal – literally to have “hot sex” with a nice dude after years of bad boyfriends and worse encounters – the film eventually blossoms into a life-affirming feature about the power of self-love, nice friends, and believing yourself worthy of affection and admiration. “Porky’s” this is not.
That the film is coming out now, deep in the throes of the #MeToo era, is a matter of eerie coincidence. Graham first started writing the script seven years ago, but she struggled to line up financing to make the film. “It took me a really long time to get the financing, because people kept saying, ‘People don’t care about women’s stories,’ or ‘You’re not a big enough star for us to give you this amount of money,'” Graham said.
She didn’t give up, and eventually hooked up with The Bubble Factory, an indie production company that was founded by former NCA president and COO Sid Sheinberg with the express plan to make mid-budget movies (an early deal with Universal Pictures spawned studio features like the 1996 family comedy “Flipper” and the Tim Allen vehicle “For Richer or Poorer”), which gave Graham all the money she needed to see her vision brought to the big screen. The film is being distributed by Momentum Pictures, an indie outfit owned by Entertainment One that previously released the similarly female-friendly “Fun Mom Dinner” and will next open the Nicolas Cage horror comedy “Mom and Dad.”
Despite the seemingly prescient timing of the film’s release, “Half Magic” isn’t getting much in the way of a theatrical push, and will be mostly available to audiences via VOD and digital HD. The recent overwhelming success of female-powered films like “Wonder Woman,” “Girls Trip” and “Lady Bird” have already proven that the market for such films is in place, but “Half Magic” will mainly find its audience away from the big screen. Perhaps that’s a result of the very different era in which it was conceived — one that wasn’t ready for these kind of stories without some kind of tempering.
“When I wrote this I thought, ‘Okay, I want to make this more palatable,’ because I think people, sometimes, get annoyed at women complaining,” Graham said. “I’m like, ‘I want to make this sexy, I want to make it funny. But now that people are really, actually finally listening to women when we talk about some of the terrible things that we’ve been through, I feel like people are ready to take in the subject matter more than ever before. I feel so grateful that the timing is perfect for the movie.”
The story is a delightfully meta one: Honey works in a production office, where she’s constantly subjected to her boss (played by Chris D’Elia) demanding that various projects lean into (mostly unnecessary) erotic additions.
“Most movies are written from a male point of view, so they’re like, ‘You’re a stripper,’ or ‘You’re a prostitute,'” she said. “I feel like I’ve been living in this male-dominated world and people don’t even really realize how sexist it is. They just think, ‘Oh, no we’re being equal.’ But it’s so super sexist.”
Graham is a big proponent of getting more women behind the camera, all the better to tell compelling stories about other women, but she’s also clear that plenty of male directors are capable of crafting female characters worth watching. “I definitely think there’s men that tell better stories about women than other men. Some men are totally uninterested in telling stories about women,” Graham said. “I think if more women are telling stories, then there’s going to be better roles for women of all ages.”
One of Graham’s perpetual favorites is Hal Ashby’s “Harold and Maude” – to her, a prime example of a male director building a film around “an amazing female character.” And an older one to boot. “There’s not enough cool older roles for women in movies,” she said. “I feel like as women of any age, I want to see female characters of all ages. I want to have something to look forward to. I want to be able to watch cool Helen Mirren or Judi Dench or Susan Sarandon doing some cool shit. Why aren’t they making more stuff like that?”
But Graham didn’t just want to make a film that was broadly told from a female perspective; she wanted to make one that focuses that perspective firmly on one touchy area: sex. “What’s the female perspective on sex? How is that different than a man’s perspective on sex? And how do we see sex differently and what do we feel like? How does it make us feel?,” Graham said.
Honey’s journey to “hot sex” is just the start of the film’s sensual bent, as the film features a number of scenes centered on the sexual satisfaction of Graham’s co-stars, including Beatriz’s Candy flirting with BDSM and Kinsey’s Eva getting some unexpected oral pleasure from a new partner. Unlike other sex comedies, the scenes are never raunchy or gratuitous – they’re funny and personal, intimate and emotional. At one point, Honey sees actual fireworks during a particularly gratifying encounter.
Graham didn’t stop there, however, and “Half Magic” also includes a pair of scenes that see her Honey masturbating in an attempt to give herself pleasure of both an erotic and an emotional kind. It’s bold and brave, but it also feels very true to the character’s journey.
“My movie uses masturbation almost as a metaphor for feeling good about yourself,” Graham said. “It’s about self love. I feel like a lot of female movies are about, ‘Oh, I need to be with this certain guy. I need to marry this guy, I need to have kids,’ when really that’s just a surface thing. More important is loving yourself. That’s a deeper journey that everyone goes through, men and women.”
As fun and frisky as the film is – and it is, proving that Graham is already a director to watch – the filmmaker and actress is hopeful that it will also inspire some introspection from its audience.
“I hope it starts conversations and that people think about it,” Graham said. “I think it’s interesting for us to look at the world, to look at sexism and say, ‘Maybe I haven’t even been noticing how sexist this is, but it is really sexist, and maybe we should do something to change this.'”
Momentum Pictures will release “Half Magic” in select theaters, VOD, and Digital HD on Friday, February 23. Check out an exclusive clip from the film below.