Rebecca Miller’s films, from THE PRIVATE LIVES OF PIPPA LEE and THE BALLAD OF JACK AND ROSE to PERSONAL VELOCITY and ANGELA, have garnered praise from Sundance to Edinburgh.
MAGGIE’S PLAN (Sony Classics), which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival, is being touted as an awards-season favorite. The comedy follows Maggie (Greta Gerwig), who decides her husband John (Ethan Hawke) should get back together with his ex-wife Georgette (Julianne Moore).
OnWriting spoke with Rebecca about her 20 years as an indie filmmaker, the writing process for MAGGIE’S PLAN and why this film is her most honest work to date.
The idea for MAGGIE’S PLAN was inspired by a Karen Rinaldi short story, but where did the story begin for you?
Rebecca Miller: Karen sent me the Maggie chapters of her book. It was different in many ways. There was no pickle man. There were no friends. It was not set in academia. Maggie worked as a publicist. She’s quite a different character.
The similarities are Maggie has the affair with John, who leaves his wife Georgette before Maggie comes to think, “I should give him back to his ex-wife.” That essential idea of what happens if you want to give your husband back to his ex-wife was what really got me thinking this is such a great idea. There were certain things that I took from the novel, but at the same time, I had to come up with a structure. In the novel, this was only one strand of a larger work.
Can you tell us a bit about that writing process?
Every situation is different. In this case, I didn’t refer to the book that much once I knew what I was going to use. I wrote down all the parts that were interesting to me. I had a lot of conversations with Karen over coffee and meals. I would go back and forth giving her drafts, and she would say what she thought of things. There was definitely a dialogue with us.
I generally do index cards. I put them up so I can start to get a structure of the whole thing. That’s what I did here. I could see the structure of the acts. I was writing a screwball comedy that had to keep surprising the audience. One of my biggest moments of revelation was the timing when you suddenly see Maggie with the baby. I like the idea that you come to the happy ending, where the girl gets the boy, 25 or 30 minutes into the film. Then suddenly, you leap forward three years, and she’s got the baby and she then realizes that the marriage isn’t working out. It felt liberating that I didn’t have to write a lot of scenes that aren’t that interesting. For example, when the wife finds out. I skipped all of that.
The Tony character is based on one of my best friends, whose relationship with me is very much like their relationship. I put my own life into that one, in terms of the way they talk and yell at each other. It’s very open, very intimate, but at the same time, a kind of brother and sister relationship. I felt like I needed somebody to tell Maggie that what she was doing was crazy – or inappropriate – because so much of what she does is so eccentric.
One of the things that Karen said to me early on is that I could do whatever I wanted with Maggie, but I couldn’t have her acting out of guilt. That was really helpful, because I have a tendency to think in terms of guilt. Karen was very adamant that Maggie not be a guilty person. That is one of the things that made her so original and interesting as a character.
When I had a first draft, I had a lot of conversations with the actors. Most of the script was written by then, but I was tweaking it and changing it for the characters.
Given that your lead actors are also indie filmmakers, did that affect your approach? Were you thinking about casting while writing?
I was looking for the best people. I created this world that was full of intellectuals. Take the character John, who is a writer. Going to Ethan, who is in fact a writer, made a lot of sense. He knows how to look like a writer. He shares the obsessive nature of being a writer. The certain kind of egotism that you have to have, which he takes to the ninth degree in the film.
With Greta, we talked about a lot about things. I said, “I think that she’s got a religious background.” We decided together that she’s Quaker. Neither of us can remember exactly who said she’s Quaker, but once it was decided, it totally made sense. I went back and I wrote the scene in the Quaker meeting house.
Another example, working with Julianne, she’d say, “I feel that we need to see her in a working environment, or we need to see her with her family.” Those notes were great and I went back and created those scenes in the auditorium with the family. My idea originally was that we wouldn’t see Georgette until we’d seen her from Maggie’s point of view. I broke that wall. I switched points of view. I ran into the family without Maggie there. At first, I thought you wouldn’t see anything. You would think of her as a witch. Then, Maggie goes to the bookstore. When she did that, I thought it wouldn’t work, but it ended up working, because we left Maggie’s point of view to follow John and Georgette in this mini-movie in the snow.
I don’t really have a relationship with these actors where they’re actually proposing lines. Rather, they are proposing situations that they instinctively think would be right, and then I adapt and create scenes around those situations.
Is this the quickest film you’ve written? I recall your saying THE BALLAD OF JACK AND ROSE took a lot of drafts.
That was a really, really long one. PERSONAL VELOCITY was the quickest film I’ve ever written. I wrote that in a couple of months. I had written the book already, so it was a very fast writing job. MAGGIE’S PLAN took a couple of years, because it wasn’t so easy to get the plot right.
Rachel Horowitz, one of the producers whom I also conferred with about the script, said, “Of course John’s got to find out.” That was good advice and then I had to figure out how does he finds out. What exactly happens?
The whole thing of finding what I call ‘a causal chain.’ It doesn’t matter how absurd your movie is, as long as the causal chain makes sense. Then you can do whatever you need to do. It has to feel like one thing is causing another thing. Finding that in this movie was tricky, because you’re trying to be responsible to everybody – and it’s an absurd premise, but it’s also a really plausible one.
Do you let the director side of you edit yourself at that point? Is there a point where you write it to a certain level of fulfillment and then rework it as a director?
There’s the director side of me and also the producer side. I had a 125-page script and I saw our schedule and I thought this isn’t going to work. Some of the financiers said, “It looks like a very long film to be made in this time.” They were right. I took out about 10 pages. That was really just consolidating, going word by word and thinking, “What don’t I need?”
I tend to write small and get bigger, rather than write huge. I’ll start with quite a short script – 80 pages – and then gradually it gets bigger and bigger. I have to usually pull in a little bit. I do like to try to whittle things down to what’s essential. I only cut one scene from the movie in the end. I cut over a half hour of dialogue. What I ended up cutting was banter that wasn’t necessary. I was left with the best stuff.
What’s a scene that you wrote that translated exactly as you envisioned from the page to the screen?
There are two scenes that come to mind. One is the scene where she talks about when her mother died. That’s the first romantic / quiet scene in the movie between John and Maggie. We come to her apartment, and it’s cold. She’s complimented his book, so he’s all excited. Then, they sit down, and she starts to talk about her mother. I cut a little bit of dialogue out to get into the heart of the scene quicker, but the essence of that scene, which I think is the heart of understanding Maggie, is that it is the first time we really open the door and find her. She’s very, very sympathetic in that moment.
She reveals herself. It is one of those joyous moments where you see a performance completely filling up a moment. That goes for both of them—the way he listens and the way she exposes herself. She then heals up immediately and makes the best of it, which is her character.
Then, the scene on the ice at the end of the movie. I had worked out a shooting plan with my DP. Even though there’s very little dialogue in that scene, I was really happy with the simplicity of how it was shot and the look on her face at the end of the movie. There’s such weight in that look. I was so pleased to be able to get that.
I feel like those are the moments where all her hopefulness in life – her letting go of the tension of her life, of always resisting something – and we see she’s in love with somebody. The burden all was on her.
It’s shot in this very simple way—there’s really three or four shots in the whole scene. That is a purely cinematic moment that I felt emotional even while I was writing it. It’s always about balance with film. You’re writing for images. Some of the most successful scenes don’t have that many words in them.
It’s been roughly 20 years since your first film. How do you feel you’ve grown as a screenwriter and director?
I still think it starts with character. I remember when I made my first film, I wanted to find the essential image of every scene and everything was built around that image. I sometimes work like that.
I definitely have become more adept at writing inside of scenes and understanding how to switch tones. One of the things I’m most interested in is how to switch tones from sad to happy to sad, because that’s like life. Life is like you’re laughing, you’re crying, then you’re numb, then you’re going grocery shopping. Life is constantly changing internal channels. If you can try and reflect that in art, that’s both difficult and really rewarding.
Do you have peers whose writing makes you feel you’re in good company?
Certainly. There are so many people who I admire who are working right now. I can think of so many people. Kelly Richard and Spike Nonzero are doing really interesting work. On television, there’s interesting stuff going on. I find it a little bit hard to get into long series, because I don’t like the enslavement element of having to watch 60 hours. I do enjoy it when I dip into it.
So many filmmakers now work in various mediums, from stage to screen, screen to television. Where do you find yourself? Do you want to stay within this realm of film?
What I love about a feature film is that it’s like a tightrope walk. One foot wrong and you’re falling into the abyss. Every moment counts in a film. You can have a few weak moments, because you got a lot of time to make up for it.
Perhaps it’s a macho thing, but I like the hardcore aspect of features in that they’re all or nothing to me. TV seems like a more forgiving medium. It’s interesting from the point of view of being novelistic in a way. There’s plenty of room to explore character in different ways than there is in features. In features, every moment needs to somehow be moving forward, which I think is a little different than in television.
I’d definitely be open to television. It’s not that I’m not. It’s just that I love features. I love the fact that it’s still somewhat of an event and that it’s one go. It’s like life. You have one chance and you’ve got to get it right. That’s a very compelling thing. I’m pretty addicted to that. I probably will do television, but my next thing’s going to be a feature film. I can’t help it. I make feature films.
I don’t know if you’re partial to indie film, but is there a specific approach that you believe in as a producer, in terms of economics, that you feel works for getting the biggest effort out of a smaller budget?
I’ve only made independent films. I definitely feel that, for me anyway, that was the right approach. I’ve surrounded myself with people who are good at getting the most for the least. I do think that the thing that makes up for less money is always time. I start locations scouting at least a year earlier than I’m going to shoot. I do a lot of research. I’m pretty focused in that way on preparation.
I also really believe in getting a script right. It doesn’t matter how long it’s going to take. I’ll take that time to get the script right. I’m very focused on the writing. In a way, I think of all phases of filmmaking as writing. I write it, then I cast it, which is a kind of rewriting. I shoot it, which is another kind of rewriting. I cut it, which is another kind of rewriting. The initial urge toward making the film comes from the writing, and then each phase is connected to that initial one.
Can you name a line of dialogue from MAGGIE’S PLAN that you feel embodies the film?
“Every relationship has a gardener and a rose.” That seems to be a line that means a lot to a lot of people. I feel like a lot of people walk away thinking, “What am I? Am I the gardener, or the rose?” I do think that in good relationships, there’s a bit of a switch off, which is key.
Rebecca Miller can be found online at rebecca-miller.com