“Oh my god, ‘Eggs Purgatory,’” exclaimed writer-director Rebecca Miller, scanning a menu. “I have to order that, if only because of the name!”
As amicable and articulate a breakfast partner as you could ever wish for, Miller had joined me at Café Gitane inside New York City’s Jane Hotel, a Georgian-style structure on the Lower West Side. Neither of us had ever been there before, but then neither of us had ever been part of the ’90s downtown bohemian scene that found a home at the Jane. In the ’90s, Miller was busy making her first movie, Angela, and I was running a film festival in Avignon, France, where our paths first crossed.
Miller’s funny, touching new film, Maggie’s Plan, has all the trappings of a breakout hit. It’s her fifth feature, following Angela, 2002’s Sundance Grand Jury Prize-winning Personal Velocity: Three Portraits, 2005’s The Ballad of Jack and Rose and 2009’s The Private Lives of Pippa Lee (many of those adaptations of her own novels). Yet Maggie is her most accessible and comedic work to date, a witty jaunt into the impalpable world of making babies and sustaining families, based on a then-unpublished novel by author Karen Rinaldi. Borne of a year-long pre-production period, then a rapid shoot in New York City, the film features stellar performances by Greta Gerwig as the sensible Maggie, Ethan Hawke as John, her “ficto-critical anthropologist” lover, and Julianne Moore as his willful, brilliant ex-wife, Georgette. The central love triangle between those three is lifted with equally sharp supporting turns by Bill Hader, Maya Rudolph and Travis Fimmel.
Jerry Rudes, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): You won’t mind me calling you an auteur?
Rebecca Miller (RM): Of course not. I need to have artistic control in order to function. I have a real physical repulsion to people creeping up behind me and second-guessing me on set. You know, I’m very collaborative beforehand, in the sense of working with the DP, with crew members, with producers who have ideas. And I’m very collaborative afterwards—I’ll screen the movie, I’ll talk to people. But on set, I really can’t bear to have any kind of infringement. So that’s dictated a lot of the choices I’ve made. I said no to things that would have given me more money, but I knew that to have this career, where I’ve now made five films on my own terms, it would be worth it.
MM: The Maggie’s Plan screenings at this year’s Berlinale were wildly popular. You’re in the big leagues now.
RM: Not really. This was the third time I’ve been to Berlin, and I think that Maggie has enough artistic quality to be embraced by festivals, but it’s also funny and pleasure-oriented, so the German audience was relieved!
MM: Maggie’s Plan is your fifth film, all of which are about smart, complicated women. Why does this one seem more accessible?
RM: I thought of the movie like a soufflé. You whip it up, you cook it just the right amount time in the oven, and you pop it out for everyone’s enjoyment! But this is also our world—not quite our world, but a touched-up version of our world, slightly elevated, a little surreal, certainly screwball, and yet it’s our world. People will say, “I can see that happening to me.” And I’m sure somewhere, this is happening in our world.
MM: Is there really an academic pursuit called “ficto-critical anthropology?”
RM: When John, the Ethan Hawke character, goes to Canada for a conference, I thought it would be great to have a sign saying, “Welcome to the Association of Ficto-Critical Anthropology.” So I just put it in the script, and then I thought to myself, “Let me Google it to see if there’s any such thing.” And there is! I made it up, and it exists. You can’t get stranger than truth!
MM: But you changed other things for the film?
RM: A lot. For example, the Georgette character was originally French, and I thought it might work better if she were northern European because they have a cooler attitude toward infidelity. So I wrote her as Danish. She’s a type of woman who is not often plumbed in American cinema, who’s capable of authoring a book about the pain of betrayal. I also created Maggie’s best friend, Tony (Bill Hader) and his wife, Felicia (Maya Rudolph). And of course the “Pickle Man” (Travis Fimmel) was not in the book, but based on a guy I know.
MM: All your heroines are torn between their emotions and their intelligence. Maggie is certainly another conundrum.
RM: I never thought of it that way. Sense and Sensibility, really! What’s wonderful about Maggie’s character is that she’s both very intelligent and yet she’s a little bumbling. It’s possible to be smart and stupid at the same time.
MM: You’ve worked with terrific actors, whether Catherine Keener, Robin Wright, Julianne Moore, Kyra Sedgwick, Parker Posey or now Greta Gerwig. How do you rope them into the adventure?
RM: The fact that I can reach out to any actor is my trump card. If you have great opera singers, they’re looking for great scores that are going to make them stretch. It’s the same thing for an actor—you have to write the part and then you’ll get the actor. And they know they can trust me because I make actors feel that they can do their best work. So those two things combined mean that I can get really good people.
MM: Even the money names?
RM: All artists are divided between “seekers” and “careerists.” And I’m never going to get the careerists, because my films are not really a pragmatic choice, or necessarily a financial boon. But seekers are drawn to projects that allow them to do something different. So I’ve been lucky to be able to work with these people. For me, it’s not about fame. But the realities of the business mean that to get money, you need to have actors with a certain level of name recognition.
MM: Do you rehearse a lot before shooting?
RM: Not that much. What I tried to do was make sure the words worked, as if they were part of their conversation. There is a little improvisation, but not very much; everything’s scripted. I wanted to make the script actually feel like improvisation, so the words just roll out. With all actors, there’s enormous sensitivity. Each one requires something a little bit different. As a director, the one-size-fits-all doesn’t work because they’re trying to portray complex characters.
MM: You’ve always stressed the importance of casting.
RM: Oh yes! Casting is really rewriting because you’re turning your character into a real person, and it’s not the person in your imagination. Unless you wrote it for someone, which is always a bad idea because what if they’re not available?
MM: Like all auteurs, you’ve got your team of collaborators who keep working with you, like casting director Cindy Tolan.
RM: I’m very loyal and I benefit a lot from a certain kind of shorthand that we work with. I gave Cindy her first job; we’ve grown up together. She’s a genius, one of my best friends and godmother to one of my children.
MM: How do you make your personnel choices?
RM: It’s a kind of alchemy. What are the inherent qualities that you put into the mix, and how will they interact? I rely on actors to create the character, like Julianne creating the Georgette character in Maggie. She’s fabulous and extremely brave. But Julianne also has her essential “Julianne-ness” which is not the same as Catherine Keener’s “Keener-ness.” That is something that the camera will perceive. You have to know what that is and be ready to adjust, which is done in rewriting.
MM: For Maggie’s Plan, you also brought in some crew for the first time.
RM: Yes, I like working with people who are in the process of becoming themselves. DP Sam Levy [Wendy and Lucy, Frances Ha] was wonderful. He’s youngish, his personality was perfect, and his ideas were good. Most importantly, he hasn’t completely peaked yet, meaning he’s really good but still growing. Same goes for costume designer Malgosia Turzanska [Ain’t Them Bodies Saints], a brilliant young designer from Poland who I came upon. She showed up with an amazing set of conceptual ideas for the film—I told her I liked all her strange photos of cracked ice, but let’s just talk about clothes. She’s very poetic, but then she has a grittiness about her and invented these wonderful, classic costumes.
MM: The music in Maggie is quite diverse. That’s where your long-time collaborator, composer, Michael Rohatyn comes in?
RM: It’s a function of the multi-faceted nature of Maggie’s character: She’s very logical but very emotional, deeply instinctive and almost manipulative. She’s bumbling yet pragmatic. How do you show someone who is such an anomaly?
Michael and I met when we were 19 and we’ve spent our lives together. He’s so brilliant. As we speak, I’m trying to describe our process since I’m just writing the liner notes for Michael’s score for Maggie’s Plan, the first time he’s had an album in all our five films. Things have changed, but he always goes deep down into trying to find the characters, and then the music to reflect them. He has wonderful insights about music. When we started out, we would have terrible fights. We’ve mellowed out a little bit, but what it boils down to is trust. You trust someone enough to be able to fight with them, but when it’s all said and done, he invents something out of nothingness, clawing through the clouds to create a beautiful thing, the music track, which is so integral to all my movies. When I look back on it, I see that they couldn’t be the same movies without Michael.
MM: Can you talk about tone?
RM: I always try to show character in terms of tone. A director’s job is, essentially, as much about creating tone as anything else. For that reason, the music is so important. So if you break down the score for Maggie, it’s full of various types of music that don’t necessarily match: You have a waltz, then you have some zither, then you have orchestral chamber music. It’s a very post-modern approach to scoring that works for me.
MM: What about in a broader sense than music?
RM: The most important thing for any actor to know is, “What movie am I in?” Every good actor says, “What movie am I in?” and they adjust what they’re doing accordingly. And one of the things that all the actors in Maggie’s Plan were able to do was smell the tone off each other and keep that going. And that’s my job, to keep that going. It’s something ineffable.
MM: Does it bother you that it’s been six or seven years since your last movie?
RM: I started writing books because I couldn’t get money to make movies, to be honest with you. But then the writing became a thing in itself; it became a way of making a living. It’s a wonderful, free thing to be able to write anything you want in a book without anyone telling you that you can’t afford it. But that aside, I have three children with Daniel [Day-Lewis]—one is a step-son who lives with us—and so there is a family, and to go from one movie to another wouldn’t have been any fun. We were able to spend a lot of time together, but I never stopped working. I always had a choice and I was able to control my material and call the shots in terms of when I was ready to shoot. Also, it does take you time to write things, and I’m not the fastest writer in the world. It took me two years to get the screenplay for Maggie just right. There is a lot of rewriting. I think far too many screenplays leave their nests before they’re ready. You see third acts that don’t work, you see holes, you see shabby work. And a lot of films have another problem: that there are often too many screenwriters involved, so there’s no voice anymore.
MM: Are you going to write more books [after your last novel, Jacob’s Folly]?
RM: For me, writing fiction requires complete integrity of mind, and it takes a lot out of you. If I had been only a novelist, I would have been completely crazy by now. It took me five years to write Jacob’s Folly and if I had just gone straight into writing another novel, it would have been psychologically very hard to stay sane.
MM: What’s changed for you since you started making movies?
RM: I’ve finally grown up, in a sense, to a point where I want more control of my work, more responsibility for what happens to a film after I make it. I’ve been 100 percent an artist, with no interest of any kind in a producing role beyond the natural job of casting, where there is some leakage.
MM: That’s why you’ve set up your own production company, Round Films [with partner Damon Cardasis]?
RM: Yes. I’m OK if I don’t direct a film, but if I produce—and I’ve just started getting interested in that—it has to be a rock-solid script. And as far as my scripts go, I’m not letting them out of my clutches until they’re really solid. You know, I grew up in an environment that was so hostile to the kind of films I wanted to make, I was going against the tide 1,000 percent. Plus, I was a woman. I’m not complaining, because plenty of other directors from my generation have not been as lucky as me. But those of us filmmakers who started out in the ’90s are tougher than most because we received no special consideration; we were all running around looking for money. That was the culture we all grew up in. I felt that when you got the money for a movie, it was almost like a mugging—you ran off and made the movie and felt lucky to get it in the can. That was great, but now I need to know what happens afterwards, and the whole idea of business is no longer quite as much as a dirty word to me, because it also means control, which is what I want to have.
MM: You grimaced earlier when I called Maggie a “small” movie. I meant it was intimate.
RM: There’s a lot of baggage attached to that adjective, in the suggestion that small, independent films can’t reach a lot of people. This is an odd thing to say coming from me, but I think all my films can reach masses of people. The masses may have not been attracted to my other films, but with Maggie, I think I might be actually right—it will appeal to a lot of different audiences.
MM: What’s next for you?
RM: I’ve got another script that I’m writing that takes place in Philadelphia. It’s in the wheelhouse of Maggie’s Plan, a little absurdist but with characters you can recognize, a contemporary story. I am finishing another book of short stories. And then there’s my novel Jacob’s Folly. I don’t want to make it into a feature film, but rather a six-part TV series, set in 18th-century Paris and contemporary Long Island. It would be quite expensive to produce, but I would love to do it one day. MM
Maggie’s Plan opens in theaters on May 20, 2016, courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.