Three feature films into her fascinating career, director Marielle Heller has not been solely plying her trade in the indie scene, and she has seen her star-laden movies justifiably nominated for a number of Oscars. So why isn’t her name more familiar to filmgoers? Heller’s movies are classy, original, keenly intelligent, beautifully burnished in style, and casually hip in the best possible way, and they pop from the screen with an obvious author’s voice. One can perhaps safely assume that if Marielle Heller was a male director, she would be far more celebrated for both the success that she has achieved, and also for the inherent excellence of her trio of big screen works.
Marielle Heller was born in Marin, California in 1979 to a chiropractor father and artist and art teacher mother. She was attracted to the arts almost immediately, but actually started her creative journey as an actor, appearing in a wide variety of theatre productions during her schooling. She studied theatre at UCLA and then at The Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London, and was honoured with a Lynn Auerbach Screenwriting Fellowship and The Maryland Film Festival Fellowship. After returning to the US, Heller worked as an actor at The Magic Theatre, The American Conservatory Theater, Berkeley Repertory Theatre, and The La Jolla Playhouse.
Heller also appeared in a number of TV roles, booking parts on Spin City, Single Dads and The All-For Nots, and then on the feature films MacGruber and A Walk Amongst The Tombstones. “My husband really loved me being dead in A Walk Amongst The Tombstones,” Heller laughed to FilmInk in 2015. “He just thought that it was so frigging hilarious. Liam Neeson was searching for my killer.” Heller still mixes acting with her directing career, memorably appearing as Alma Wheatley in the hugely popular Netflix drama The Queen’s Gambit.
It was Phoebe Gloeckner’s 2002 semi-autobiographical work, The Diary Of A Teenage Girl: An Account In Words And Pictures (a mix of both prose and comic book-style passages), that started Marielle Heller on her path to becoming a filmmaker. Set in the freewheeling seventies, the book is constructed as the diary of fifteen-year-old, Minnie Goetze, who writes with startling candour about all of her experiences, but in particular her affair with her mother, Charlotte’s boyfriend, Monroe.
The book struck a major chord with Heller. “I’d been a boy-crazy teenage girl who thought about sex,” she tells FilmInk. “And I felt like something was wrong with me because I had that experience. I never saw that represented in film or books. I related to Minnie so much the moment that I read Phoebe’s book. I just thought, ‘This is me. I’ve never seen me reflected in this way.’ There’s something about our teenage hood – it’s like this major trauma that we’re all coping with for a long time, right into our adulthood. It still resonates, and you continually relive it. I was still rattling away and thinking about my teenage years when I came across this book when I was in my late twenties. I was about to get married. I was certainly very much past this phase of my life, but I was still working out my demons from my teenage years. I’m still obsessed with it. Phoebe’s book just felt like the most honest depiction of what it really felt like emotionally to be a teenage girl…whether you slept with your mother’s boyfriend or not!”
Heller first adapted The Diary Of A Teenage Girl into a play, in which she took the lead role of Minnie Goetze. Developed and co-directed by Rachel Eckerling and Sarah Cameron Sunde, the play was designed as an immersive theatrical experience, with a carpeted, seventies-style sunken living room and pillows for the audience to sit on. The play was critically acclaimed and ran for six weeks, with its success helping convince Phoebe Gloeckner to give the film rights to Heller, who eventually spun the play into her 2015 big screen debut. With superb British actress Bel Powley in the lead role (Heller was of course too old to play the part by the time the film got up), The Diary Of A Teenage Girl was a winningly fresh, funny, candid and bitingly honest first feature from Heller, and marked her as a true talent to watch.
Heller displayed a true facility for both writing in a youthful voice and for working with young actors on The Diary Of A Teenage Girl, which made her choice of follow-up film a wonderful surprise. When original director and screenwriter Nicole Holefcener left the adaptation of Lee Israel’s autobiography Can You Ever Forgive Me? (along with several original cast members including Julianne Moore and Sam Rockwell), Heller stepped in and made the project her own. Beautifully capturing the wonderfully rumpled, wholly arcane world of rare book selling in 1990s New York, the film is the bizarre tale of hilariously abrasive failed author Lee Israel (Melissa McCarthy’s Oscar nominated performance is truly outstanding), who begins an initially successful sideline in literary forgeries when her writing career continues its downward spiral.
Absolutely authentic and original at every turn, Can You Ever Forgive Me? showcases a director completely and utterly in control of her art. Every single moment feels real, while the performances are truly extraordinary, with Richard E. Grant also scoring an Oscar nomination for his scene stealing turn as Jack Hock, Lee’s flamboyant friend and unlikely accomplice. A truly rare creation (is this the only buddy movie about a lesbian and a gay man set in the bizarre world of rare book selling?), Can You Ever Forgive Me? remains wholly underrated despite its three well-deserved Oscar nominations, and Heller’s gifts for storytelling and empathy infuse every frame. “I’m not the type of person who can be a director for hire; I have to find my own way into it,” Heller told Dazed of coming into an already existing project. “The biggest thing I connected to was Lee and Jack’s relationship; for various reasons, they find themselves totally alone and connect to each other. I found their odd coupling to be very touching. That became the emotional anchor for the movie. I expanded the Jack and Lee scenes and I laid more emphasis on their friendship.”
While Can You Ever Forgive Me? lurked wonderfully in the darker corners of popular culture, Heller’s next film dealt with a true American icon. Deeply moving and daringly unsentimental, A Beautiful Day In The Neighbourhood is based in fact, and details the complex life changes wrought on troubled, cynical, somewhat tortured journalist Lloyd Vogel (the excellent Matthew Rhys) when he is assigned to conduct an interview with beloved children’s entertainer Fred Rogers (a masterful Tom Hanks, who scored a well-deserved Oscar nomination) for Esquire Magazine. Refusing to believe that Mr. Rogers’ earnest, down-home brand of decency and kindness could possibly be authentic, Vogel is forced to reassess his entire existence when Rogers proves to be wholly sincere. Rogers even becomes a personal moral guide for the fractured Vogel, and the film plays out as a beautiful plea for kindness in an ugly world.
Perhaps still holding onto some of the scathing, savage cynicism that drove much of Can You Ever Forgive Me?, Heller ingeniously avoids sentimentality at every turn with A Beautiful Day In The Neighbourhood, and instead creates a gorgeous film rich with genuine sentiment instead. “Mr. Rogers would not make a good protagonist of a narrative film,” Heller told Indiewire upon the release of the film, which many incorrectly labelled a biopic. “He’s without conflict, and he’s too far along on his journey toward enlightenment to be a good protagonist. Our protagonists have to be struggling with demons in a certain way. You want to make movies about extraordinary people, but those extraordinary people have to have a huge journey. Everything that I’ve learned and known about Mr. Rogers is, he was himself, and he always was. He was a pretty wonderful person, always.”
Last helming Amazon Prime’s 2020 filmed live Broadway cast production of Heidi Schreck’s play What The Constitution Means To Me, Marielle Heller appears to have a couple of projects in development, but that’s not nearly enough for us. When FilmInk spoke with the director back in 2015, she felt a growing groundswell of support for female filmmakers. “I do feel like I’m right in the middle of the tipping point culture, where people have shifted, and Hollywood has finally been shamed into recognising that they have a problem,” Heller said. “We are at the beginning of the recovery. Hopefully, people will have to start hiring more women directors; it’s pathetic that it’s taken a public outcry for the industry to start to catch up. Female directors are responding in one of two ways. Either there are the women who are saying, ‘I’m not really gonna talk about it. I’m just gonna do my work and be a good director. I’ll keep moving forward, and eventually, I’ll let the world catch up.’ Then there are those who talk about it all the time, and who want to connect with other female filmmakers. They want to say, ‘Let’s do this shit. Let’s rally together. Let’s support each other. This is ridiculous. Let’s take down the patriarchy, which is the Hollywood system. Let’s start now. Let’s talk about it constantly.’ I’m definitely in that camp. It’s time. Let’s get women’s stories out there. Let’s get more women behind the camera.”
Gifted and highly original, Marielle Heller has made three fantastic films that any director would be jealous of, and we’d like to see many, many more…
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