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DID YOU READ

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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Final Countdown

The Best Of The Last

Portlandia Goes Out With A Bang

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The end is near. In mere days Portlandia wraps up its final season, and oh what a season it’s been. Lucky for you, you can watch the entire season right now right here and on the IFC app, including this free episode courtesy of Subaru.

But now, let’s take a moment to look back at some of the new classics Fred and Carrie have so thoughtfully bestowed upon us. (We’ll be looking back through tear-blurred eyes, but you do you.)

Couples Dinner

It’s not that being single sucks, it’s that you suck if you’re single.

Cancel it!

A sketch for anyone who has cancelled more appointments than they’ve kept. Which is everyone.

Forgotten America

This one’s a “Serial” killer…everything both right and wrong about true crime podcasts.

Wedding Planners

The only bad wedding is a boring wedding.

Disaster Hut

It’s only the end of the world if your doomsday kit doesn’t include rosé.

Catch up on Portlandia’s final episodes on demand and at IFC.com

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Rev Up

Your Portlandia Personality Test

The New Portlandia Webseries Is Going Your Way

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Carrie and Fred understand that although we have so much in common, we’re each so beautifully unique and different. To help us navigate those differences, Portlandia has found an easy and honest way to embrace our special selves in the form of a progressive new traffic system: a specific lane for every kind of driver. It’s all in honor of the show’s 8th and final season, and it’s all presented by Subaru.

Ready to find out who you really are? Match your personality to a lane and hop on the expressway to self-understanding.

Lane 10: Trucks Piled With Junk

Your junk is falling out of your trunk. Shake a tail light, people — this lane is for you.

Lane 33: Twins

You’re like a Gemini, but waaaay more pedestrian. Maybe you and a friend just wear the same outfits a lot. Who cares, it’s just twinning enough to make you feel special.

Lane 27: Broken Windows

Bad luck follows you around and everyone knows it. Your proverbial seat is always damp from proverbial rain. Is this the universe telling you to swallow your pride? Yes.

Lane 69: Filthy Cars

You’re all about convenience. Getting your car washed while you drive is a no-brainer.

Lane 43: Newly Divorced Singles

It’s been a while since you’ve driven alone, and you don’t know the rules of the road anymore. What’s too fast? What’s too slow? Are you sending the right signals? Don’t worry, the breakdown lane is nearby if you need it.

Still can’t find a lane to match your personality? Check out all the videos here. And see the final season of Portlandia this spring on IFC.

Uncle-Buck

Give Back

Last-Minute Holiday Gift Guide

Hits from the '80s are on repeat all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC.

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GIFs via Giphy, Photos via The Everett Collection

It’s the final countdown to Christmas and thanks to IFC’s movie marathon all Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, you can revel in classic ’80s films AND find inspiration for your last-minute gifts. Here are our recommendations, if you need a head start:

Musical Instrument

Great analog entertainment substitute when you refuse to give your kid the Nintendo Switch they’ve been drooling over.

Breakfast In Bed

Any significant other or child would appreciate these Uncle Buck-approved flapjacks. Just make sure you’re not stuck on clean up duty.

Cocktail Supplies

You’ll need them to get through the holidays.

Dance Lessons

So you can learn to shake-shake-shake (unless you know ghosts willing to lend a hand).

Comfy Clothes

With all the holiday meals, there may be some…embigenning.



Get even more great inspiration all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC, and remember…