By Aaron Hillis
[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).