‘The Diary of a Teenage Girl’ Doesn’t Judge Its Characters, Played by Bel Powley and Alexander Skarsgård (Q&A)

'The Diary of a Teenage Girl' Doesn't Judge Its Characters, Played by Bel Powley and Alexander Skarsgård (Q&A)
'The Diary of Teenage Girl' Doesn't Judge Its Characters, Played Bel Powley and Alexander Skarsgård (Q&)

How refreshing it is to see female sexuality on liberated display in “The Diary of a Teenage Girl,” Marielle Heller’s warmly made debut, based on the graphic novel by Phoebe Gloeckner.

So why didn’t people go and see it this weekend?

“I’m a fucking woman,” says the titular Minnie, an aspiring teenage artist played by resiliently spunky newcomer Bel Powley, “and this is my life.” It’s 1970s San Francisco, and she is entering into an affair with her mom’s (Kristen Wiig) boyfriend (Alexander Skarsgård), the kind of hunky dope in a leather jacket who messes with your brain (and other body parts). The sex they have isn’t icky, but believable and tender, and I love this movie’s nonjudgmental embrace of sex and drugs and hedonistic behavior as learning experiences.

The film, however, scored disappointingly at the arthouse box office this weekend, via Sony Pictures Classics, and may be too small a picture to connect in the awards season ahead. Consistently strong reviews are not always a true barometer of potential, but look at the film’s Metacritic page: most of the top reviews of 90 or higher were written by women. If anything, the film could get screenplay kudos in the Fall, but the fact that this is a first feature from a new female director could sadly hinder its Academy traction.

READ MORE: Arthouse Audit: ‘Diary of a Teenage Girl’ Gets Modest Response, Animated ‘The Prophet’ Shows Promise

TOH! owner and editor-in-chief Anne Thompson moderated a Q&A last weekend with the director and her cast. They dig deep into the movie, and Powley shares details for one of her many upcoming films, “A Storm in the Stars” from “Wadjda” director Haifaa Al-Mansour. The 23-year-old Brit is getting booked on the heels of “Diary.”

Anne Thompson: What was revelatory about Minnie, the an amazing character created by Phoebe Gloeckner, and why were you obsessed with her for eight years?

Marielle Heller: [Laughs] I think it was one of those things where you don’t realize how much you’re missing something until you come across it — but, when I read Phoebe’s book, I felt like I had been missing an honest representation of what it felt like to be a teenage girl. I just felt so excited to go, “Oh, my God, that’s me!” and to be represented in a way I’d never felt represented before, and it just shows how lacking those roles are that it felt that way to me, but I just fell in love with her. I found her so brave, flawed, funny, and curious.

You created a play — your first incarnation of this — and you played her yourself.

Heller: Yeah, I played Minnie, and I found Bel to be the other half of me, also. But I felt very connected to this character, because I felt I embodied her, and I’ve written her and lived with her so many years. Even though Phoebe wrote her and based her loosely on her life in the book, I feel like Minnie is this character I think about and want to do right by.

Alexander Skarsgård: Did you have a plan for the movie when you did the play in New York? Did that happen, and then you thought, “Oh, I want to explore even more”?

Heller: That happened, and I thought, “I don’t think I’m done with this character and this story.” But, no, when I started out doing it as a play, I just wanted to do that.

Thompson: In a funny way, the movie allowed you to keep her alive.

Heller: I was not ready to let her go.

You came onto the project next, Alexander? What was your reaction to this intimate script?

Skarsgård: I didn’t get the script the traditional way, through my agents. Jack McBrayer, the actor, was my neighbor when I lived out here, and he’s a good friend of Mari’s. He said, “I have this friend who wrote a script? Do you want to read it?” And that’s all he said. He told me, “it’s really good,” and Jack is a very intelligent man with great tastes, so I read it. First of all, like Mari said, it felt like something I hadn’t seen before, and I thought it was a very brave story. There are all these coming-of-age stories from a boy’s point-of-view, where they explore teenage sexuality.

Being a teenager is fucking confusing to anyone, and I just felt like I’d never seen that from a girl’s point-of-view. For a girl, it’s often waiting for Mr. Right and moving to that beautiful house with a white picket fence. I was also intrigued by the character of Monroe, because I felt like that was a real challenge, to try to play him in a way without making too much of a villain, and try to make that relationship interesting — so it’s not just him preying for an hour and 40 minutes.

Bel, how did you discover this project, and how important was it for you to get this part?

Bel Powley: So important. I got sent the script by my American agent when I was in London, and it really was the first where I felt like I would die if I wasn’t in this movie. I just related to Minnie on so many levels. It was so special because it was opening up a conversation about sexuality in teenage girls, which people don’t even talk about in day-to-day life. It’s such a taboo subject to discuss young girls, or teenage girls getting horny; we see our virginity as something that’s really precious, and we give it away, and it’s not uncommon to have sex with the wrong people. It makes you feel like you’re a freak or a bit weird if you have those feelings.

I was reading it, and I kind of wished this movie would have come out when I was a teenager, because I would have felt more supported if it had. I really just wanted to be a part of it, and I made a tape for Mari; then I did this really weird thing, where I spoke to the camera and went, “Hi, Mari, I’m Bel, and I really want to be in your movie. These are the reasons I —“

Skårsgard: Did you say you were going to kill yourself if you didn’t get it?

Powley: [Laughs] That’s a bit extreme. I guess Mari and I skyped. I don’t know if you watched it over and over, going, “Who is this weirdo?”

Heller: No, I loved it.

What was it about Alexander —had you seen “What Maisie Knew,” which showed a vulnerable side him?

Powley: And that was the discovery for me. When I saw Alex in it, I was like, “Oh, my gosh, he’s an incredible actor.” I thought you were good and sexy on “True Blood,” but in “Maisie” I just saw this gentle… “Oh, this actor is incredible.” And then I became obsessed with getting him in my movie, and then it wasn’t until I realized he was friends with Jack McBrayer when I went, “This is how I’m going to get to him.”

I grew up in this period and can vouch for the film’s authenticity. Do you think you get away with the candid sexuality because it’s this freewheeling period, where you can explore an almost child-like freedom that people felt?

Powley: I was aware, when we were making the movie, that, in some sense, the distance of the era kind of helped us, because hopefully it meant people weren’t going to just come into the movie the way they would if it was set in modern times. I also think there were a lot of things happening, culturally, in San Francisco during this time, and I was excited to explore the [impact of that culture] on relationships, and this sense of grown ups vs. kids, which existed in that moment. So, yeah, I was aware. There was a nice distance that would allow people to answer the story with less judgement, and get swept up in Minnie’s mind and story and forget about it all.

The thing about Minnie and Monroe’s relationship is that they both feel the same age, on some level. Monroe doesn’t feel 35 at all.

Skarsgård: We had about two weeks in San Francisco three weeks before we started shooting to kind of explore that. That was something we really focused on. Like I mentioned earlier, it was important to give that arc some life and making it interesting. Because he’s so much older and should be responsible, we had to find a way to make it sustainable in the direction of the film. To make it interesting — to find those moments. I think Monroe is really lost and confused, and, in many ways, wants to be a teenager again. There are definitely moments where he is a teenager, and Minnie is not, and is more responsible, and there are moments where he steps up and says, “No, I should be responsible.” And then it falls back into those moments. Also, we played around with their connection as well, trying to figure out how real is it, and which moments can we find that.

So we didn’t rehearse so much, did we? It was talking about the scenes and playing around with them, and, on the day, we felt something’s changed and we discovered new things. It was important to get to the place where we very comfortable with each other, because we started out with the sex scenes in the first couple of days. And Bella had never kissed a guy onscreen before, so it was, “Welcome to Hollywood.” [Audience laughs]

Heller: The very first scene we filmed was the scene in the bar, where you bite his finger, which is a pretty intimate scene to start.

Powley: And then the first week was just in the bedroom.

Skarsgård: But that was great, because that was kind of a pivotal moment — going from that confusion to that kind of discovery. It was also great because Kristen wasn’t there the first week, so when she showed up, we had already shot all our intimate moments.

Powley: We had a secret.

Skarsgård: She shows up and goes, “Hey, guys! How’s it been?” We were like, “Yeah… pretty good.”

Heller: It worked out well.

You just had to jump in. It must have been scary at first.

Powley: Like Alex said, we had two weeks’ rehearsal, where we talked about where our characters were, emotionally. once we knew that, everything else just came naturally, I guess?

Heller: We got them together in New York a few months before we started filming. The three of us sat in a room for a while and worked on a few scenes, talked through a few scenes. I knew this was going to be, like the most important relationship, and that this relationship of us working together was going to be so important. After a few hours of sitting around, we went, “Oh, this is going to be great.”

And then, when we got to San Francisco, we had two weeks of rehearsal, but only a couple of hours a day. I was prepping locations, in full-on prep mode. We’d rehearse the scenes — maybe get on our feet a little bit — but nothing too serious; we were more trying to track our emotional arcs and talk about our scenes, and remember, as we shot out of chronological order, where they were on this emotional roller coaster. And then we hit the ground running, and Bel had to jump into it.

Skarsgård: I have to say: it’s amazing, for someone who’s had this story in her head for eight years, how invited we were into that creative process. I never felt like Mari was like, “This is the way it has to be.” I felt like she wanted us to bring something to the table and play around with stuff. If a scene wasn’t working, Mari would always be the first to say, “Let’s rewrite it.” It’s the most amazing feeling, when you have that trust from your director. “Oh, she wants to play. We’re all invited here.” Unfortunately, that’s not always the case. Even on the day we were shooting, those moments when you’re surprised are great, and it was lovely having planned it. It was actually exciting, when a shift would happen, and we were like, “Fuck, we didn’t expect that to happen, but let’s see where that takes us.” It was really, really great.

That’s where being a writer, director, and actress helps. You were suited for this.

Heller: It felt that way, and when you have incredible actors who you’re working with… who can jump into a deep and challenging creative challenge together, and everybody is really willing to go there. These guys were just so willing to go there. And then we can find something better than the sum of the parts, and that was so exciting. I remember that exact feeling.

Skarsgård: That’s one of my favorite moments when you’re an actor: you have a plan when you go to work in the morning, imagining how it’s going to play out, and then you get back to the hotel and go, “That was different from how I planned it.” Not necessarily better, but…

The question of judgment that could come onto these characters, as the grown-ups are out of their heads and the teenagers behave irresponsibly — I love that the film doesn’t hammer them. How far you were you willing to go with the content?

Powley: I guess they go pretty far, but obviously there’s no message or lesson from this movie, but I feel like, if I watched it when I was a teenager, I’d take from it the mistakes you make when you’re a teenager. Like, the world isn’t going to implode if you sleep with the wrong person or take too many drugs. Everything will be fine, and it’s not as extreme as you think. But coming into Minnie’s situation, I couldn’t really judge from my point-of-view, because that would impair my acting, since Minnie feels she’s doing the right thing.

Heller: And I think our rule of thumb is that everything is from Minnie’s perspective. If she didn’t feel bad about something, we didn’t feel bad about something; if she didn’t feel like she was being victimized, we don’t feel like she’s being victimized. I was never trying to have us step out and judge her or what’s happening to her. I was checking in with how Minnie feels about this experience, which made it simple, because you can check back in with that.

I’m curious about the audience reaction, what you’ve heard.

Heller: I’ve been blown away by our reactions. You make this — a passion project and small movie that came from a pure determination to not take no from anybody — and you think, “Maybe a small group of women might enjoy the movie,” but it’s been wonderful to have all different types of people tell them they enjoyed it and that they related to Minnie. I guess I love that, because I’ve always related to male protagonists, because that’s who I’ve had to relate to, so I feel like, “Why can’t a man also relate to a teenage girl and find their humanity in this girl?” It’s been really encouraging. I know it’s not for everybody, but it’s been for more people than I expected.

And you took it from Sundance to New Directors/New Films.

Heller: Yeah. That was an awesome experience.

Bel, this movie has brought you some wonderful offers. Tell us about some of the stuff you have coming up.

Powley: The next movie I’m doing is called “A Storm in the Stars,” directed by Haifaa Al-Mansour. She directed an amazing movie called “Wadjda,” which is about a Saudi Arabian girl who wants to ride a bike. It’s an amazing kind of feminist movie, and she’s great. This movie is about Mary Shelley and her sister, Claire Claremont, when they ran away from home at 15 and 16, and they went to live with Byron and Percy Bysshe Shelley, and what happened there.

Alexander, you’ve got “Tarzan?”

Skarsgård: After we shot this, I was in London for eight months shooting “Tarzan.” Then I was in Albuquerque with John Michael McDonagh on a movie called “War on Everyone.” We wrapped that about a month ago.

And Marielle, you’re doing the movie about Ruth Bader Ginsburg with Natalie Portman?

Heller: Yeah. [Audience applauds] I’m glad people are excited about Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

Audience member: Thank you so much for making this. Could you talk about your experience in the Sundance Institute?

Heller: I applied with this script when I was in the infancy of it, and Anne Carey, who produced this movie, said, “No one’s going to want to make this movie, so you should go through the Sundance labs. I think it would help.” I had the most incredible support from the Sundance Institute in many different incarnations. I went into any lab they would let me come back for — screenwriting, directing, composing — because they’re an incredible organization.

Powley: Why did she think no one would want to make this movie?

Heller: She just thought people would be scared of it. So she felt that maybe if I got a stamp of approval, and also she knew a movie going through the labs would become the best version of itself. So I applied and was lucky enough to get into the writers’ lab, and it was kind of like—

Thompson: A fantasy. Michael Arndt and Scott Frank!

Yeah. And Nicole Holofcener. All of these incredible filmmakers who read your script and help you make it how you want to be, and how to direct it. It was just an incredible experience. I can’t say enough about them, but I couldn’t have made this without them — that’s for sure.

Audience member: The movie was beautiful — especially the artwork. How did that come to be?

Heller: The animation is done by this incredible Icelandic artist named Sara Gunnarsdóttir. We based it on Phoebe’s style in the graphic novel to see how Minnie’s creative mind evolves as an artist — so it needed to start in one place and end somewhere else, also. But she hand-drew every frame of animation that’s in the movie. I don’t even know how many thousands of drawings she did for this movie. She almost destroyed her arm working on this film…We had to do physical therapy at one point. She hand-drew every frame… and ran with it, and everything was based on paper. We wanted it to feel real, like the ‘70s comic style, so it needed that real paper feeling.

Audience member: I loved this movie, and it resonated with my experience knowing grown-ups as a teenager. You captured the feeling of a young girl being in love with an older man, and I’m wondering, for the writer and actors: what helped you capture that nuance that’s so specific to this relationship?

Heller: Even though this wasn’t my story, as a teenager, but I was a sexual young woman, I just felt so connected to this character and those universal feelings of what it is to be someone becoming aware of your sexuality. I think the specifics of this story are one thing, but the feelings are universal — when your body’s changing and you wonder if anyone’s going to want to have sex with you. Which, when you look back, is ridiculous. [Audience laughs]

We don’t appreciate it at the time.

Heller: At the time, you think, “Maybe I’ll only get one chance. Maybe only one person will want to have sex with me.” And then, “Is anybody thinking about me? Does anybody love me?” I think Bel and I just constantly checked back in with each other to figure out if this felt real. I felt we would check in with each other to see. I don’t know; I think we were just checking in with our inner compass.

Audience member: With teenagers, grown-ups act differently than with women their own age, and you did that so well.

Skarsgård: Again, that was what initially drew me to the project when I read it, him being so much older and in a position of power and responsibility, I was thinking, “How can you make that interesting?” 

I love the scene where he sees her with the hickey on her neck.

Heller: When we played it in Berlin, that scene got a round of applause. When they saw the hickey, people started clapping, and we went, “Oh, my God!”

Audience member: How did you get the period right? Was there computer work involved?

Heller: We did a little bit of computer paint-outs, but it was mostly cheats. We had an incredible production designer who did everything we could on the budget we had. Definitely we would clear out streets, get certain amounts of a block or two that we cleared out, but a lot of it was just angling — trying not to see that one thing, putting an extra in front of that thing that looks really modern-day, or can we put a trash can in front of that? We did a little bit of paint-outs, but I think, maybe, on three shots in the whole film.

And you do a sepia tone.

Heller: Brandon Trost, who’s our cinematographer and is just incredible, his other work is so different. He shot “The Interview” and “Neighbors,” which I like telling people. He’s an incredible artist, and I think he liked working on something that had such a different feel. But, yeah, we had an incredible palette with all our designers, too. We tried to feel authentic ‘70s without being costume-party ‘70s.

With all the conversations about women directors, as things moving forward, do you believe things will get better, as far as the way women are portrayed?

Heller: I feel it. I mean, I feel like we hit a tipping point and there’s no going back now. Hollywood has been chained into getting on board, and it’s time for women filmmakers.

And the Internet may have had something to do with it.

Heller: Totally. I think the public has really swayed people, and I really do think people have just been chained into having more women directors, which is totally pathetic. I feel that shift happening.

Powley: Definitely. I think it’s sad that it’s happening now, that I’m 23 and I wasn’t born into a world where female directors have an equal amount of good roles for women, but it definitely feels like there’s been a shift. The movie’s I’ve been offered since doing “Diary,” the female roles are more fleshed-out and 3D. That’s important, and I hope it shows.

Heller: Alex, how many women directors have you worked with in your career?

Skarsgård: …one? When I started out in Sweden I worked with quite a few, actually, and Susannah White directed “Generation Kill” for HBO. But this is the first feature in the states I’ve done with one.

Do you want to do more?

Skarsgård: I think one is enough. [Laughs] Well, I want to work with amazing filmmakers, and Mari is an amazing filmmaker.

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