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).


New Nasty

Whips, Chains and Hand Sanitizer

Turn On The Full Season Of Neurotica At IFC's Comedy Crib

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Jenny Jaffe has a lot going on: She’s writing for Disney’s upcoming Big Hero 6: The Series, developing comedy projects with pals at Devastator Press, and she’s straddling the line between S&M and OCD as the creator and star of the sexyish new series Neurotica, which has just made its debut on IFC’s Comedy Crib. Jenny gave us some extremely intimate insight into what makes Neurotica (safely) sizzle…


IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a fancy network executive you met in an elevator?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon.

IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon. You’re great. We should get coffee sometime. I’m not just saying that. I know other people just say that sometimes but I really feel like we’re going to be friends, you know? Here, what’s your number, I’ll call you so you can have my number!

IFC: What’s your comedy origin story?

Jenny: Since I was a kid I’ve dealt with severe OCD and anxiety. Comedy has always been one of the ways I’ve dealt with that. I honestly just want to help make people feel happy for a few minutes at a time.

IFC: What was the genesis of Neurotica?

Jenny: I’m pretty sure it was a title-first situation. I was coming up with ideas to pitch to a production company a million years ago (this isn’t hyperbole; I am VERY old) and just wrote down “Neurotica”; then it just sort of appeared fully formed. “Neurotica? Oh it’s an over-the-top romantic comedy about a Dominatrix with OCD, of course.” And that just happened to hit the buttons of everything I’m fascinated by.


IFC: How would you describe Ivy?

Jenny: Ivy is everything I love in a comedy character – she’s tenacious, she’s confident, she’s sweet, she’s a big wonderful weirdo.

IFC: How would Ivy’s clientele describe her?

Jenny:  Open-minded, caring, excellent aim.

IFC: Why don’t more small towns have local dungeons?

Jenny: How do you know they don’t?

IFC: What are the pros and cons of joining a chain mega dungeon?

Jenny: You can use any of their locations but you’ll always forget you have a membership and in a year you’ll be like “jeez why won’t they let me just cancel?”

IFC: Mouths are gross! Why is that?

Jenny: If you had never seen a mouth before and I was like “it’s a wet flesh cave with sharp parts that lives in your face”, it would sound like Cronenberg-ian body horror. All body parts are horrifying. I’m kind of rooting for the singularity, I’d feel way better if I was just a consciousness in a cloud.

See the whole season of Neurotica right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib.


The ’90s Are Back

The '90s live again during IFC's weekend marathon.

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Photo Credit: Everett Digital, Columbia Pictures

We know what you’re thinking: “Why on Earth would anyone want to reanimate the decade that gave us Haddaway, Los Del Rio, and Smash Mouth, not to mention Crystal Pepsi?”


Thoughts like those are normal. After all, we tend to remember lasting psychological trauma more vividly than fleeting joy. But if you dig deep, you’ll rediscover that the ’90s gave us so much to fondly revisit. Consider the four pillars of true ’90s culture.

Boy Bands

We all pretended to hate them, but watch us come alive at a karaoke bar when “I Want It That Way” comes on. Arguably more influential than Brit Pop and Grunge put together, because hello – Justin Timberlake. He’s a legitimate cultural gem.

Man-Child Movies

Adam Sandler is just behind The Simpsons in terms of his influence on humor. Somehow his man-child schtick didn’t get old until the aughts, and his success in that arena ushered in a wave of other man-child movies from fellow ’90s comedians. RIP Chris Farley (and WTF Rob Schneider).



Teen Angst

In horror, dramas, comedies, and everything in between: Troubled teens! Getting into trouble! Who couldn’t relate to their First World problems, plaid flannels, and lose grasp of the internet?

Mainstream Nihilism

From the Coen Bros to Fincher to Tarantino, filmmakers on the verge of explosive popularity seemed interested in one thing: mind f*cking their audiences by putting characters in situations (and plot lines) beyond anyone’s control.

Feeling better about that walk down memory lane? Good. Enjoy the revival.


And revisit some important ’90s classics all this weekend during IFC’s ’90s Marathon. Check out the full schedule here.


Get Physical

DVDs are the new Vinyl

Portlandia Season 7 Now Available On Disc.

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GIFs via Giffy

In this crazy digital age, sometimes all we really want is to reach out and touch something. Maybe that’s why so many of us are still gung-ho about owning stuff on DVD. It’s tangible. It’s real. It’s tech from a bygone era that still feels relevant, yet also kitschy and retro. It’s basically vinyl for people born after 1990.


Inevitably we all have that friend whose love of the disc is so absolutely repellent that he makes the technology less appealing. “The resolution, man. The colors. You can’t get latitude like that on a download.” Go to hell, Tim.

Yes, Tim sucks, and you don’t want to be like Tim, but maybe he’s onto something and DVD is still the future. Here are some benefits that go beyond touch.

It’s Decor and Decorum

With DVDs and a handsome bookshelf you can show off your great taste in film and television without showing off your search history. Good for first dates, dinner parties, family reunions, etc.


Forget Public Wifi

Warm up that optical drive. No more awkwardly streaming episodes on shady free wifi!



Internet service goes down. It happens all the time. It could happen right now. Then what? Without a DVD on hand you’ll be forced to make eye contact with your friends and family. Or worse – conversation.


Self Defense

You can’t throw a download like a ninja star. Think about it.


If you’d like to experience the benefits DVD ownership yourself, Portlandia Season 7 is now available on DVD and Blue-Ray.