Rebecca Miller, the daughter of playwright Arthur Miller and wife of Daniel Day-Lewis, continues to carve out a name for herself. In addition to penning two novels and a collection of short stories, she has now written and directed five feature films, including The Ballad Of Jack And Rose (starring Day-Lewis) and The Private Lives Of Pippa Lee, starring Robin Wright. In Miller’s new comedy, Maggie’s Plan, Greta Gerwig portrays Maggie Hardin, a vibrant and practical thirty-something New Yorker who, without success in finding love, decides that now is the time to have a child on her own. She accepts a sperm donation from a college acquaintance, Guy, a kind but spacy pickle salesman played by Australian actor and Vikings star, Travis Fimmel. But when she meets struggling novelist, John Harding (Ethan Hawke), Maggie falls in love for the first time, and adjusts her plans for motherhood. Complicating matters, John is in a strained marriage with Georgette (Julianne Moore), a brilliant Danish academic. With a Greek chorus of Maggie’s eccentric best friends, Tony and Felicia (Bill Hader and Maya Rudolph), observing wryly from the sidelines, Maggie sets into motion a new plan that catapults her into a nervy love triangle with John and Georgette.
FilmInk spoke to Rebecca Miller at The Berlin Film Festival…
Where did this original idea come from? “Well, Karen Rinaldi is my friend, and she’d written a book, which was as yet unpublished. What I loved about it was that it had a hook, but there wasn’t enough there for me, so I could really build it up and make it my own. I put them in academia, and I invented the pickle guy, and the friends, and built out the plot. It was very freeing, and I was also looking for more of a comedic thing to work on, because I had finished this novel, Jacob’s Folly, which took me five years to write, and I was kind of…tired. I really wanted to shoot something in New York too, so, it was perfect!”
Was it different to shoot someone else’s story? “Yeah, it was! It was really nice, because it was like having this armature, that I could build on. And it wasn’t like taking a classic novel, that has all sorts of expectations around it. This was almost like a taking nugget, and then building on that. I would love to do it again, if I find something.”
Talking about going towards comedy, what were some of your references or inspirations? “I was thinking of Preston Sturges, Howard Hawks, and Woody Allen…or a movie like The Philadelphia Story. I was interested in two things. I was thinking of the movies from the ‘30s and ‘40s that have a very dynamic pace, where the dialogue is quick, and there isn’t this stopping and marinating in scenes…you just move along. I was really interested in that. Woody Allen’s earlier films were important to me, because they are so dialogue driven. He was really the master of those films, and growing up, I was very influenced by them. I was interested in the whole idea of genre, and if I could try and use the genre to talk about where we are right now. What is the female experience? What’s the family experience? What’s a family now? What do we mean to each other? It was almost like trying to write a note to put in a bottle, and give to people in 20 years, and say, ‘This was our confusion, right now!’ I almost called it ‘Confusion’! I did! This is our distinct confusion of this moment.”
Was there more levity making this than on a more serious film The Ballad Of Jack And Rose, for example? “Well, yes, compared to The Ballad Of Jack And Rose, almost anything would be lighter [Laughs] That was a hard film to make, but also a very joyous film to make, but I don’t know if making this was more fun. It’s just as hard to make a comedy. You’re not laughing while you’re making the comedy! [Laughs] But it was a pleasure. There was a lot of pleasure involved with me in this film. It was physically quite hard. It was very, very, very cold, and we were outside a lot, and that was sort of hard. I didn’t mind, but it was tough. And New York filming is hard; we were dealing with a lot of locations, so it wasn’t a ‘cushy’ experience by any means, but it was joyous! I loved it!”
There’s a certain quirkiness about Maggie…how much of that was in your script, and how much did Greta bring to it? “Well, the script was pretty much there, and Greta came along, and they combined to make Maggie. It’s not that we changed what happened, but her little soul shed its light on the part, and she really created a character.”
Bill Hader and Maya Rudolph are great… “I approached Bill Hader to play Tony, who’s based on a really close friend of mine, and he’s a character that I knew very, very well. Their relationship is basically our relationship. When I called Bill, I started getting all ready to convince him to do the part, and he said, ‘No, no, no, I’m in! You can stop doing that!’ [Laughs] And then I said, ‘If you want, you can improvise!’ He’s so great, but he goes, ‘No, please, don’t make me improvise! I so love a script that’s like a warm blanket that I can put over myself!’ So then I talked about Maya, who was a friend of mine. I’ve known her for a few years, and he loved the idea so much, and then I thought about the two of them. It took me a while. I was trying to figure out. They’re so funny together!”
Julianne Moore is wonderful, as always… “We’re good friends. She wasn’t always in my head, but when I wrote this film, I immediately sent it to her, and she wanted to do it. She loved the idea of playing this woman who took what she wanted to take in life. She’s also a wonderful comedian, and she hasn’t gotten to do that for quite a long time. Once she came on board, we were able to help craft the whole thing. We kind of sewed her part on her…I went through it very carefully, and I also built out certain scenes, so that the part was the right size. Not too small, not too big.”
You mentioned that you wanted to do something in New York… “I lived in Ireland for years, which I loved, but when I came back to New York, and I had such a feeling of love for the city, which I didn’t have as much before I left, because I just took it for granted. Coming back to it, I just wanted to write a little love story to the city. The rhythms of the film were very much the rhythms of the city. New York has a certain way of speaking, and walking, and acting; it’s just…fast! It’s quick, so I wanted to write a film like that. I wouldn’t have done it anywhere else. It felt like so New York to me.”
Did you grow up there? “No, I was born there, and I lived in The Chelsea Hotel, when I was really little, and then I moved to Connecticut, to a very small town. Then we would come to the Chelsea sometimes, until Andy Warhol got shot, and then we left. [Laughs] Then I moved back after college. I lived in Brooklyn. Now we live in New York again.”
Do you have some memories from The Chelsea Hotel? “We had an upstairs neighbour who had enormous snakes, which you would put around your neck if you borrowed his phone for a little while…we had to have the snake around our neck. Then we had a blind couple who lived in the Chelsea, and one day, there was a drive-by shooting, and somebody shot the glass in the hotel doors, and it was everywhere, and they walked on it. They were trying to figure out where all the glass was, with their sticks. That was terrible! And then we had a prostitute ho had her finger shot off down the hall, and then we had Andy Warhol, and that was the last straw! But, it was fun while it lasted. [Laughs]”
Do you distinguish when you have an idea if it’s going to be a novel, or if it’s going to be a film? Or could it change? “I’ve never written a novel or short stories thinking that they were going to be films. With a novel, it’s a different feeling that I have. Also, novels take a different kind of concentration, which I only have at certain times in my life. Like right now, I wouldn’t be able to write a novel.”
The position of women in the film industry has been talked about a lot lately… “The more women and minorities that are employed, and that get the roles, and the more scripts that are written with those experiences at the centre of them, the better the situation will be, and the better the statistics will be. So I can’t help but be hopeful, because we are progressing in some way. I can’t believe that we are not going to ultimately progress. But it’s taking a long time! It is! And I feel very lucky personally. I’ve gotten to do pretty much what I wanted, but some of it has to do with the fact that I’ve generated my own material. Women are at a real advantage if they write their own material. They’re not going to get the scripts sent to them. So if they’re generating the scripts, they’re in much better shape. And also, they can control their schedules, which helps, later in life.”
The film industry is changing a lot… “In some ways, I think it’s actually a good time for independent filmmakers, because there are so many different outlets for material, and so many people want material, and I think it’s really an advantage to have good material, which has always been my thing, I take very good care of making a script solid, before it goes out. And so, when you have some of those, that’s what people want, and there are more ways of getting your stuff done.”
Maggie’s Plan is in cinemas now.