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Maria Maggenti on “Puccini for Beginners”

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By Aaron Hillis

IFC News

[Photo: Elizabeth Reaser and Gretchen Mol in “Puccini for Beginners,” Strand Releasing, 2007]

Writer-director Maria Maggenti’s 1995 lesbian rom-com “The Incredibly True Adventure of Two Girls in Love” was a GLAAD Media Award winner and a staple in the blossoming New Queer Cinema movement. But following the film’s success, Maggenti disappeared from the director’s chair for the next dozen years, and it has taken her the last seven just to finish her follow-up feature. Premiering at last year’s Sundance and just now seeing a theatrical release, Maggenti’s gender-bent sex comedy “Puccini for Beginners” focuses on an erudite love triangle set in a romanticized Manhattan that owes a bit to Woody Allen. The film unfolds in screwball set-ups, focusing on a neurotic writer named Allegra (Elizabeth Reaser), who, after pushing away her girlfriend (Julianne Nicholson), falls for both a Columbia professor (Justin Kirk) and his glassblowing ex (Gretchen Mol). It’s the kind of bisexual wackiness that plays best in Salt Lake City, or as so Maggenti explains in her chat with me:

Allow me to play the broken record; what took so long for your second film?

God, I wish I were on my fourth film already. It certainly wasn’t because I don’t like doing it; I love doing it! But I had to make a living, and nobody was offering me directing jobs, so I got caught up in being a screenwriter for quite a long time. My first project after “Two Girls” was a Dreamworks script called “The Love Letter,” which took three years. Then I kind of created a universe for myself, which wasn’t script doctoring, but y’know, rewrites and stuff? That paid the bills, but the whole time, I was trying to make this movie. It was very hard to get financing, like walking over glass, which largely has to do with cast, because names come and go. I got a job on the TV show “Without a Trace” in 2002, moved to Los Angeles, and became a television writer for 3 years, with health insurance and a regular paycheck. But I realized I’d never make another movie if I didn’t do it soon.

[“Tadpole” director] Gary Winick, who I knew from around the time of “Two Girls,” had started the company InDigEnt. He said, “Why don’t you bring your film here?” and I kept saying there’s no way, it’s too big, and I can’t do it for that little amount of money. But they basically promised complete creative freedom, including who I was going to cast. So I sold everything in Los Angeles, including what was in my silverware drawer, and moved back to Manhattan. We shot the film in 18 days in September 2005, cut it in nine-and-a-half weeks, then premiered at Sundance that January. After seven years of struggle, it all happened very quickly.

One of the struggles you faced was scoring your lead actress. Why was it so hard to find someone who was — in your words — funny, bold, and “fuckable”?

Yes! Well, I think some of that was self-selecting. Actresses are not encouraged to be intellectual, and that’s a good thing, because what makes an actor so wonderful is that they don’t come from their heads, but their bodies and emotions. But I kept telling my casting director that I needed somebody who could say “pulchitrude” and make it sound real. Elizabeth came in a week-and-a-half before we started shooting, and at first, I didn’t notice her at all. The second time she came in, she did a chemistry read with Gretchen, already on the project, and it was evident that it was the right combination. She’s a beautifully trained actress, a very funny and warm individual, and she really seemed to get it.

I’d like to think of myself as a progressive-minded critic, but I often feel that most LGBT cinema isn’t strong enough to reach beyond its niche audiences. Obviously, there are plenty of exceptions, but what’s your assessment?

Yeah, I have to be honest, I feel the same way. I think I’m in an interesting position because “Two Girls” was, at the kind of… I won’t say the zenith, but it was part of this notion of a niche audience, and I know that because of how the film was marketed. At the same time, many believe that the film had “crossover potential.”

Meaning marketing execs decide whether straight people will like it, too?

That’s exactly what it means. The films exist in a larger context as the culture has become more stratified in the last 10 years. Between what I call the “cultural haves” and the “cultural have-nots,” this kind of material falls into a kind of subculture, unfortunately. I use the same assessment for all works; is the material good, is it funny, is it challenging? Yet I also know I’m competing in a marketplace that, frankly, the fact I have a lesbian main character means a lot of people won’t see it, no matter how funny it might be.

The first time we showed the film, we had six Sundance screenings, and they were all very gratifying. Oddly, my most spectacular screening was in Salt Lake City, which I had been told by colleagues might be my toughest because these were not cineastes, but quote-unquote “regular people.” But everyone stayed for the question-and-answer and they laughed their heads off. The hilarious thing is, being the ignorant New Yorker that I am, they all wanted to know why I had the angel of Moroni in my opening title sequence, to which I, being the great sophisticate that I am, said, “What are you talking about?” In the opening credit sequence, we have this little gold angel holding a trumpet. Well, that was B-roll from the Mormon Center on the Upper West Side. That’s a gratifying thing when you know anyone can identify with the characters’ conflicts, life in the city, and even sushi-chef gags.

You once said, “I’m not above someone slipping on a banana peel if it’ll get a laugh.”

I’m not, are you kidding?

So how do you approach deep-rooted cultural issues with a breezy touch or easy laughs?

That’s just how I look at things. All that stuff everyone talks about comes from years and years of political activism and gender studies at Smith College. I don’t know if it’s about age, or if I’ve always been a little bit of a giggler. I just see things upside-down.

Among your creative inspirations for “Puccini,” you’ve listed opera, psychoanalysis, 1930s romantic comedies, living in NYC… and heavy metal music?

Yes, isn’t that crazy? A couple of years ago, I fell for a serious metalhead who had a band, right? I was introduced to this whole new universe, and I got him into opera. He was fascinated by Carl Orff’s “Carmina Burana,” and I saw this intense relationship between metal and all this other stuff I love. It’s so excessive, I mean, it’s over the top. While living in L.A., I would pop that shit in my car, and I just couldn’t believe I wasn’t riding a low rider. I love the beat and macho-ness of it. You have to understand, I’m a woman who barely watches television. I live so completely in my own little Maggenti universe, it’s pathetic. So I was suddenly saying to my colleagues, “Have you guys ever heard of Audioslave?” and they’re like, [sarcastically] “Maria, yeah?” Well, I never have, and I think they’re amazing. So I’m a slow learner, I guess you could say.

You recently made a short on behalf of the Sundance Institute, exclusively formatted for mobile phones. How do you feel about an immersive medium being experienced on tiny little screens you carry with you?

I’m quite horrified by it, to be honest. When they called me and asked to shoot for a cell phone ratio, I was like, are you kidding? Come on, we need people in theaters! It was actually my mother in San Francisco, now in her 70s and ten times more connected to the real world than I am, who said, “Oh, Maria, people love looking at little things on their cell phones and they share them,” And I said, what do you mean they share them? She says, “I see kids on the bus, and they all gather around to watch it,” and that made me feel a little bit better. I approached it first as a short film, which I hadn’t done since graduate school, and that was really, really fun. And then I looked at what it means to shoot something so tiny. I mean, it’s two by two inches, and it will never be seen bigger than that. Even when you download it on your computer, you’re going to see maybe four by four inches, and I found that incredibly freeing. Plus, it had to be culturally sensitive, appropriate for children, all these parameters, and I found it really liberating. At that size, it’s all about juxtaposition and editing and faces.

Are you working on anything new?

I sold this TV idea to Showtime called “The Beard,” and we’ll see what happens with that. I have to write the pilot, they have to like it enough to shoot it, and then they have to like that. You know what I really want? Someone to hire me to direct a movie. I’ve been thinking lately that when you do an independent film, it’s kind of like being raised by a single parent. You often don’t have a lot, but you’re united against the world, you use your resources as best you can, and you’re really close because you know what your mom’s going through to make sure that there’s food on the table. When you make a studio picture, it’s like having rich parents that don’t really understand you, and the best way for them to love you is to give you stuff. Since I was raised by a single parent, I know that experience, but I’m really looking forward to having some rich parents.

“Puccini for Beginners” is now playing in New York (official site).

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WTF Films

Artfully Off

Celebrity All-Star by Sisters Weekend is available now on IFC's Comedy Crib.

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Sisters Weekend isn’t like other comedy groups. It’s filmmaking collaboration between besties Angelo Balassone, Michael Fails and Kat Tadesco, self-described lace-front addicts with great legs who write, direct, design and produce video sketches and cinematic shorts that are so surreally hilarious that they defy categorization. One such short film, Celebrity All-Star, is the newest addition to IFC’s Comedy Crib. Here’s what they had to say about it in a very personal email interview…


IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Celebrity All-Star is a short film about an overworked reality TV coordinator struggling to save her one night off after the cast of C-List celebrities she wrangles gets locked out of their hotel rooms.

IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Sisters Weekend: It’s this short we made for IFC where a talent coordinator named Karen babysits a bunch of weird c-list celebs who are stuck in a hotel bar. It’s everyone you hate from reality TV under one roof – and that roof leaks because it’s a 2-star hotel. There’s a magician, sexy cowboys, and a guy wearing a belt that sucks up his farts.


IFC: What was the genesis of Celebrity All-Star?

Celebrity All-Star was born from our love of embarrassing celebrities. We love a good c-lister in need of a paycheck! We were really interested in the canned politeness people give off when forced to mingle with strangers. The backstory we created is that the cast of this reality show called “Celebrity All-Star” is in the middle of a mandatory round of “get to know each other” drinks in the hotel bar when the room keys stop working. Shows like Celebrity Ghost Hunters and of course The Surreal Life were of inspo, but we thought it
was funny to keep it really vague what kind of show they’re on, and just focus on everyone’s diva antics after the cameras stop rolling.

IFC: Every celebrity in Celebrity All-Star seems familiar. What real-life pop personalities did you look to for inspiration?

Sisters Weekend: Anyone who is trying to plug their branded merch that no one asked for. We love low-rent celebrity. We did, however, directly reference Kylie Jenner’s turd-raison lip color for our fictional teen celebutante Gibby Kyle (played by Mary Houlihan).


IFC: Celebrity seems disgusting yet desirable. What’s your POV? Do you crave it, hate it, or both?

Sisters Weekend: A lot of people chase fame. If you’re practical, you’ll likely switch to chasing success and if you’re smart, you’ll hopefully switch to chasing happiness. But also, “We need money. We need hits. Hits bring money, money bring power, power bring fame, fame change the game,” Young Thug.


IFC: Who are your comedy idols?

Sisters Weekend: Mike grew up renting “Monty Python” tapes from the library and staying up late to watch 2000’s SNL, Kat was super into Andy Kaufman and “Kids In The Hall” in high school, and Angelo was heavily influenced by “Strangers With Candy” and Anna Faris in the Scary Movie franchise, so, our comedy heroes mesh from all over. But, also we idolize a lot of the people we work with in NY-  Lorelei Ramirez, Erin Markey, Mary Houlihan, who are all in the film, Amy Zimmer, Ana Fabrega, Patti Harrison, Sam Taggart. Geniuses! All of Em!

IFC: What’s your favorite moment from the film?

Sisters Weekend: I mean…seeing Mary Houlihan scream at an insane Pomeranian on an iPad is pretty great.

See Sisters Weekend right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib

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Reality? Check.

Baroness For Life

Baroness von Sketch Show is available for immediate consumption.

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Baroness von Sketch Show is snowballing as people have taken note of its subtle and not-so-subtle skewering of everyday life. The New York Times, W Magazine, and Vogue have heaped on the praise, but IFC had a few more probing questions…

IFC: To varying degrees, your sketches are simply scripted examples of things that actually happen. What makes real life so messed up?

Aurora: Hubris, Ego and Selfish Desires and lack of empathy.

Carolyn: That we’re trapped together in the 3rd Dimension.

Jenn: 1. Other people 2. Other people’s problems 3. Probably something I did.

IFC: A lot of people I know have watched this show and realized, “Dear god, that’s me.” or “Dear god, that’s true.” Why do people have their blinders on?

Aurora: Because most people when you’re in the middle of a situation, you don’t have the perspective to step back and see yourself because you’re caught up in the moment. That’s the job of comedians is to step back and have a self-awareness about these things, not only saying “You’re doing this,” but also, “You’re not the only one doing this.” It’s a delicate balance of making people feel uncomfortable and comforting them at the same time.


IFC: Unlike a lot of popular sketch comedy, your sketches often focus more on group dynamics vs iconic individual characters. Why do you think that is and why is it important?

Meredith: We consider the show to be more based around human dynamics, not so much characters. If anything we’re more attracted to the energy created by people interacting.

Jenn: So much of life is spent trying to work it out with other people, whether it’s at work, at home, trying to commute to work, or even on Facebook it’s pretty hard to escape the group.

IFC: Are there any comedians out there that you feel are just nailing it?

Aurora: I love Key and Peele. I know that their show is done and I’m in denial about it, but they are amazing because there were many times that I would imagine that Keegan Michael Key was in the scene while writing. If I could picture him saying it, I knew it would work. I also kind of have a crush on Jordan Peele and his performance in Big Mouth. Maya Rudolph also just makes everything amazing. Her puberty demon on Big Mouth is flawless. She did an ad for 7th generation tampons that my son, my husband and myself were singing around the house for weeks. If I could even get anything close to her career, I would be happy. I’m also back in love with Rick and Morty. I don’t know if I have a crush on Justin Roiland, I just really love Rick (maybe even more than Morty). I don’t have a crush on Jerry, the dad, but I have a crush on Chris Parnell because he’s so good at being Jerry.



IFC: If you could go back in time and cast yourselves in any sitcom, which would it be and how would it change?

Carolyn: I’d go back in time and cast us in The Partridge Family.  We’d make an excellent family band. We’d have a laugh, break into song and wear ruffled blouses with velvet jackets.  And of course travel to all our gigs on a Mondrian bus. I feel really confident about this choice.

Meredith: Electric Mayhem from The Muppet Show. It wouldn’t change, they were simply perfect, except… maybe a few more vaginas in the band.

Binge the entire first and second seasons of Baroness von Sketch Show now on and the IFC app.

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G.I. Jeez

Stomach Bugs and Prom Dates

E.Coli High is in your gut and on IFC's Comedy Crib.

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Brothers-in-law Kevin Barker and Ben Miller have just made the mother of all Comedy Crib series, in the sense that their Comedy Crib series is a big deal and features a hot mom. Animated, funny, and full of horrible bacteria, the series juxtaposes timeless teen dilemmas and gut-busting GI infections to create a bite-sized narrative that’s both sketchy and captivating. The two sat down, possibly in the same house, to answer some questions for us about the series. Let’s dig in….


IFC: How would you describe E.Coli High to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

BEN: Hi ummm uhh hi ok well its like umm (gets really nervous and blows it)…

KB: It’s like the Super Bowl meets the Oscars.

IFC: How would you describe E.Coli High to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

BEN: Oh wow, she’s really cute isn’t she? I’d definitely blow that too.

KB: It’s a cartoon that is happening inside your stomach RIGHT NOW, that’s why you feel like you need to throw up.

IFC: What was the genesis of E.Coli High?

KB: I had the idea for years, and when Ben (my brother-in-law, who is a special needs teacher in Philly) began drawing hilarious comics, I recruited him to design characters, animate the series, and do some writing. I’m glad I did, because Ben rules!

BEN: Kevin told me about it in a park and I was like yeah that’s a pretty good idea, but I was just being nice. I thought it was dumb at the time.


IFC: What makes going to proms and dating moms such timeless and oddly-relatable subject matter?

BEN: Since the dawn of time everyone has had at least one friend with a hot mom. It is physically impossible to not at least make a comment about that hot mom.

KB: Who among us hasn’t dated their friend’s mom and levitated tables at a prom?

IFC: Why do you think the world is ready for this series?

BEN: There’s a lot of content now. I don’t think anyone will even notice, but it’d be cool if they did.

KB: A show about talking food poisoning bacteria is basically the same as just watching the news these days TBH.

Watch E.Coli High below and discover more NYTVF selections from years past on IFC’s Comedy Crib.

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