Rebecca Miller has created a screwball comedy for the rest of us. She smartly tackles modern family planning, the conundrum of destiny and has a Kathleen Hanna cameo in her latest film? In a recent sitdown with the Playlist, she discussed “Maggie’s Plan,” a brilliant blend of the absurd, the cerebral, and, for good measure, a touch of Shakespearian scheming. The film examines the folly of real life through singular, off-beat characters, banter and delicious detail, in which the writer-director gleefully disposes every rom-com trope.
Adapted from an unpublished novel by Miller’s friend Karen Rinaldi, “Maggie’s Plan” finds the title character (Greta Gerwig) imminently ready for motherhood, but sans the perfect mate. Undeterred, she seeks the contribution (read: sperm) of an old college friend, a math-major turned “pickle entrepreneur” (Travis Fimmel). But her plot is soon derailed when Maggie falls for a “ficto-critical anthropologist” and struggling novelist (Ethan Hawke), who happens to already be unhappily married to a “glacial” Danish intellectual, played with hilarious zeal by Julianne Moore.
The film really starts where so many rom-coms and screwball comedies end. Did you look to subvert those tropes from the outset?
I was aware of sort of subverting the idea of what’s a happy ending. If the happy ending happens 15 or 20 minutes into the movie, then real life begins, right? That to me was interesting.
Karen Rinaldi gave me this beautiful constellation of the three main characters and the basic geometry of the film. It was from a book that wasn’t completely done, chapters inside a book. So there was a lot of room to play around for me. The essential hook was so wonderful, because it was very liberating. Getting to that kind of geometry or armature would have otherwise taken a really long time. It’s a different process than creating the whole thing from the beginning. But a lot of the plot and other characters weren’t there yet, so it still gave me a lot of freedom.
When, if at all, during the process, do you consider an audience?
Well, obviously I start with myself. With this particular film, much more than with my other films, it’s not that I was writing for a certain audience. But as I was writing it, I would look at people in the street and think, you’d like this and you would like this. I was aware that there were very different types of people that could relate to this film. I don’t remember having that feeling before. [Laughs] Not that I wanted to make films that people couldn’t relate to. I was always hoping to make the most popular movie. But I was looking at this movie because it piqued my curiosity. I wanted to know more about these characters. Also, there was something about the potential Maggie. The character of Maggie on the page is a bit different than the Maggie we ended up with. But I felt very connected to the Maggie we ended up developing and finding. We had this funny symbiosis between me and Greta where we created this person. It was almost a hybrid of both of us, and also this other person who was neither of us.
In a sense, the film is an ode to New York, but specifically an ode to New York in winter. Did the city and the weather become another character for you?
Yes. The year before we got to shoot, I thought maybe we can do it in the fall, which is that beautiful, syrupy, golden light. But then I thought, what if we shoot in winter? I kept thinking about the way the sun gives off a much cooler light. Mornings in winter have a very different feeling, I remember dropping my kids off at school every day and looking at the light. There’s also something about shooting in the place you spend every day. It’s completely different than shooting in a place that you visit. So absolutely the city and the weather greatly factored in. Also, it was so cold. It was during that polar vortex we had. It was like an endurance test.
Did that help with comedic pacing?
It probably helped. [Laughs] Getting that frothy pace.
Do you scoff when people say “oh, you’re venturing into comedy,” as if you’ve only just realized you’ve had a sense of humor.
Yes. To me, that’s funny, because I was aware that I had a sense of humor previously. [Laughs] But I think my other films leave you with the feeling of having watched something more dramatic, or in the case of “[The Ballad of] Jack and Rose,” very sad [feelings]. But it was actually while screening that movie once that I thought: “My god, there are so many laughs in this. I love hearing people laugh.” And this was thirteen years ago. So I think it’s the love of making people laugh, but also my belief in comedy in a deeper way. I think it’s a very civilizing force. Right now, it’s the people with no sense of humor that are just going to blow us all up. It’s people with sense of humor that save us. So making a comedy is not a trivial or light thing.
You still get into those dark corners. But there’s a little more air left in it.
I thought about this movie as a soufflé a lot. You just had to get it fluffed up, puffed up and then leave it at the right moment. So you need really good ingredients, like the best chocolate. That’s where the casting comes in: your crew, your DP, everybody. But you also need to know instinctively when to stop. When to stop talking as a director, and when to know that the film is done. Generally, it’s about tone. Tone really is the mystery and possibly even verging on mystical element of directing. Like what is tone? It’s like a kind of pitch. It’s like listening. People either have a good sense of pitch in music or they don’t. If you were to finally isolate a talent for directing, that’s what it is. How do you make everybody be in the same film? In a film like this, the tone is kind of special. It’s its own tone. You need actors that have that ear to understand what movie they’re in. The cast were all amazing in that sense.
How have your previous practices of painting, acting and novel writing informed your filmmaking?
I suppose there is a logic to my life, more in retrospect than at the time. I remember even my parents being baffled by my trajectory. Like, “what are you doing?” Or running into painter friends of mine that thought I had sold out when I started acting. Yet I had faith that I wasn’t lost. Other people thought I was lost. I thought maybe I’m just on a search and I need certain things. I guess it was all part of my education really. My education didn’t end when I graduated from college. I am an eternal student. I love research and I’m sort of a structure geek in terms of story. Painting certainly informed filmmaking. Someone said that all art is one, and of course it’s true. It’s just that it takes a really long time to get really good at something. But all art reflects other art. In music and painting, you still have sequences, or you have units of energy in a way that are portions of your canvas. Same thing with writing. Each paragraph is a unit of energy. Similarly with film, it’s all about proportion and sequencing and rhythm. You can use all of the same words for all of the arts. They’re all connected.