Interview with Rebecca Miller, writer/director of Maggie's Plan
Writer/director Rebecca Miller was in Edinburgh to discuss her latest film Maggie’s Plan.
Since her directorial debut in 1995, Rebecca Miller has built up a quietly impressive CV as both a writer and director. Her latest film, smart dramedy Maggie’s Plan, was one of the many highlights of this year’s Edinburgh International Film Festival, and Miller was on hand to discuss the film, her casting process and Bruce Springsteen…
Maggie’s Plan is based on Karen Rinaldi’s unfinished novel. At which point did you decide to take it on as a film, rather than finish it as a novel?
She sent me some chapters – which were the Maggie chapters – early on, I guess it was three years ago now and I just thought this seems like a great premise for a movie. She sent it to me thinking “I knew this could be a great movie” and she knew I was looking for something to hang a film on and that I was looking for something I could make that had an emphasis on comedy. I don’t dare say an out-and-out comedy, but the stress on comedy.
So how much of it was already there in the novel?
The triangle of John, Georgette and Maggie – and then also Lily – was already there and that idea of what happens when you realise your husband still has feelings for his ex-wife was all there. Georgette’s character is very close in a lot of ways, though she was originally French. Maggie changed a lot and there was no pickle man so that whole subtext was not there, and there were no friends, no Tony and Felicia. Karen really gave me the essential nugget and the characters to start to build the thing.
The film starts off like a conventional romantic comedy for the first fifteen minutes, then the rest of it is more like what happens after a romantic comedy. Was that always the intention?
Yeah, I was interested in sort of inverting the form, if that’s the right word. Taking it and hijacking it, taking you very quickly to the happy ending and then what happens? What happens three years later? Real life begins.
Is the romantic comedy a genre that you’re a fan of?
I’m very much a fan of films like Philadelphia Story, It Happened One Night, generally Preston Sturges movies. Movies where dialogue is quick and the pace is quick, where there’s still great emotion. Like the old Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy movies, where you’re feeling things but there’s still a level of absurdity and farce and fun. There’s a bit of Midsummer Night’s Dream in [the movie], even some Moliere farce, and then there’s Woody Allen movies which are also coming from that route, some of his early films are definitely within that genre. But at the same time, it’s that thing of like subverting it, both taking that form and playing with it formally but also how do we make it the female point of view of that form? It was fun!
A lot of male filmmakers might have been more interested in Ethan Hawke’s character and more sympathetic towards him.
He has moments where he’s sympathetic but one of the things that’s great about his character is you see him through one lens at the beginning, this romantic thing where he’s the pantie melter, he’s misunderstood, bad marriage…and she’s going to scoop him up and save him. Then you see him later when the scales have sort of fallen from your eyes and he’s sort of a schlub, but then you see him from the point of view of his wife and you start to see him from a different point of view! That’s part of the message of the film or what the film’s trying to say – I don’t like the word message – is that people are different with other people. You see how his character changes depending on who he’s with, and that’s part of what it is to find the right person.
One thing that’s noticeable in the film is the number of small character details throughout, like Maggie’s Quaker background for example. Where does that come from, is it based on people you know?
Well her being a Quaker…I had a strong sense that Maggie is so ethically motivated, and that’s one of the eccentric things about her in a way, she’s kind of a femme fatale in a lot of ways but the most ethical femme fatale you could ever meet! She’s dressed in this kind of old fashioned, modest way but at the same time she’s also like a classic homewrecker, like how do you root for that person? So one of the things I thought was that she should have a spiritual background. It was actually me and Greta together who said could she be a Quaker? So separately we went to Quaker meetings and we thought yeah, this is perfect for her.
At what point did Greta come on to the film and how did the rest of the cast come together? Did you change anything to suit the actors you had cast?
Greta came on early. I first asked Julianne – I knew Julianne, I had worked with her before – so she came on and then I had Greta. I met Greta, we got together and she was girl, but then there was a moment when Julianne’s schedule might not have worked but then it all worked out and everything came together. But when I met Greta, I just knew she was the centre of the film, she was that woman. It’s not that she didn’t create a character, because she did, but she has the capacity to play this intelligence but this naiveté at the same time, which is not easy.
Do you typically ear mark people that you want to work with and look for the opportunity to cast them?
With Julianne, we had worked together before so we had a relationship so my mind went to her because, first of all, she’s one of the great actresses of her generation but also she’s very funny but she doesn’t get to do that so often. I love to find something for people where they get to surprise themselves and other people, I always think that’s nice. That’s also how you get great actors to do stuff, if they feel like they haven’t quite done that or they haven’t done it in a long time or quite that way. So yeah, I always have a list of people in my head thinking I wish I could write something for this person.
Who’s on that list at the moment?
I’d love to work with Helena Bonham Carter one day, Emma Thompson someday. But then I’d love to work with people again, Catherine Keener or I’d love to work with Robin Wright again. Loads of people!
Loads of women, specifically…
Loads of women. There are definitely men I’d love to work with as well, Steve Carrell is somebody that I think is fantastic. I have a few guys I’d like to work with but it’s true that the list of women is perhaps a bit longer.
How difficult was it to get this film made, given that it is female driven? It’s generally considered to be harder to get those films made.
It took maybe an extra year, so it was like a year and a half. But it was the easiest I’ve ever made. Partly because it had a hook to it, so perhaps it was easier for people to grasp than some of my other movies, in terms of reading the screenplay and knowing what the movie will be like. It was more like me trying to prove I could direct this kind of tone because people don’t think of me that way! People were wondering how I was going to pull this off but to me it was pretty natural because I always had humour in my movies but it’s proportional.
The film’s tone is quite specific and that’s crucial to it working. How did you capture and sustain that tone?
It’s true and it’s such a good question. Capturing tone and maintaining tone is probably the most important job of the director and part of it is having your lead actor who understands it and you know each other, you’ve worked together enough that you’re locked in. You lock into that and it becomes a magnetic thing. If you have good actors, really good actors, it’s like all the metal filings start to go in the same direction. What I was going for was realistic acting but an absurd premise, like the world as we know it but a little bit heightened. So I just kept my ear out for reality, in a weird way. I wanted it all to be plausible and real and all the emotion to be real. Ninety percent of that is also casting. If you have actors that have a tendency to be that way, then that’s a good start. Julianne, the way she plays that scene in the movie in the snow where she says, “Are we gonna die here?”. That’s hard, to be that emotional but knowing that’s her big moment.
The song Dancing in the Dark comes up twice. Was there any reason you chose that song specifically? It fits really well.
To be honest, I knew I wanted Bruce Springsteen because there’s a moment in the novel, I can’t remember which, but he’s from New Jersey, he always loved Bruce Springsteen and she doesn’t get it. I don’t remember if [Karen] extended it to Georgette loving Springsteen but I thought that would be great but I actually know Bruce Springsteen and Patti (Scialfa, his wife) so I asked if there was any way we could get this song. She said use Dancing in the Dark because everyone knows that one!
It’s about writer’s block, so it fits!
I know, I know! It’s perfect.
Has the film been released in the US? How much of a concern for you is that, do you follow it closely?
Yeah, it’s there now, it’s in its sixth week and it’s doing well, it’s growing. I can’t complain. I try not to get obsessed with it because it’s really out of your hands. Sony have been very collaborative in the sense that they’re transparent and talking to us about what ads they’re buying and all the rest of it. But to a degree a filmmaker will always want more ads and more visibility and all of that but we have to accept that there are limitations. It’s important to a degree because you want to make more work, you want to make other films so you always want some level of success.
Was there ever any temptation to release it via Netflix or other streaming services?
It will come out on all of those later but I’m still very attached to theatrical release. I think there’s something about watching the movie with other human beings, as long as we’re allowed to do it, especially something with humour in it. It’s an experience, the enjoyment of laughing, it’s not quite the same when you’re alone and I think when you’re in a group you can feel it. The bigger the audience, the bigger the experience is when watching the film.
Are you working on anything else at the moment?
I’m working on a screenplay that I’m hoping to finish in the next six months or so. It’s an original screenplay, so I don’t have the benefit of Karen Rinaldi’s novel so I have to kind of slog it out. But I’m really enjoying it, so we’ll see it work, I never really know.
What’s it about?
It’s not in a place where I can really talk about it. It’s a bigger canvas than Maggie’s Plan but it’s not an utterly different tone.
So you must have enjoyed working with that kind of tone?
I did, I really did. To me it’s, I don’t know, a little bit old world/new world. The presence of Georgette is quite important in that sense, with that old European “Ah, life happens” but at the same time the new world thing of like, “Let’s take the bull by the horns and change our lives!”. Maggie’s so American and then you have Georgette and her much more old world sensibility and to me that’s also the tone.
Maggie’s Plan is in UK cinemas this Friday, July 8th and you can read my review here.