In 1995 writer-director Maria Maggenti turned conventional narrative on its
ear by melding it with a lesbian teen romance, creating The Incredibly
True Adventure of Two Girls in Love.
Over a decade later,
Maggenti tweaks the romantic comedy once again in her InDiGent
production of Puccini for Beginners
, this time limning
gender fluidity with laughs and posing fresh questions for an
evolving queer community. Whether on the large screen or on the scale
of microcinema, Maggenti's full-bodied humor feels enlightened and
inventive, and nowhere is this more evident than in the interview she
has conducted with herself for Landmark Theatres' FLM magazine
. Whether reading her
full-fledged attack on herself over her authorial choices or
bantering with her during a recent telephone interview, I can't help
chuckling along with Maria Maggenti.
So, Maria, down the line do you think Puccini for Beginners
will be included in a Screwball Comedy Film Festival?
Wouldn't that be nice? I would be honored to be included.
Screwball comedies are obviously a genre with
which you are clearly familiar and comfortable playing with. Why
Well, I guess it's a certain amount of nostalgia. I grew up watching
those movies. I was lucky enough to have my mother take my sister and
me on Friday nights to see the American Film Institute in Washington,
D.C. Long before kids stayed at home and watched videos, we went and
saw black-and-white movies. I grew up with a great love of that form
and later studied it quite extensively on my own, reading about how
they made the movies and who the filmmakers were. I'm curious with
how this film will do because it's a form that's hard to pull off,
and I don't know if even I did it as well as I should have. It's a
tough form in a time when we have so many problems, y'know? The fact
that I decided to do a screwball comedy when we're faced with this
horrible war in Iraq and the rise of the Christian Right and all that
stuff, I hope is not a mistake on my part.
I hardly think so. We all need a good laugh during times like
these, and besides, weren't the screwball comedies a direct response
to the Depression? Perhaps it's an essential dyad: hard times and
good laughs? Puccini For Beginners came to San Francisco last
year as the opening night feature for Frameline 30.
Unfortunately, I missed it at that time, but I'm curious to know how
it did with the crowd.
Oh my God! I was there with friends and family and I wondered if
maybe people had gotten high or something before the screening. They
laughed so hard that they couldn't hear half the lines! It was
extraordinarily gratifying and wonderful; every filmmaker's dream.
I can understand why the Frameline audience was amused. Puccini
for Beginners has a wry texture of freeze frames, voiceovers,
flashbacks, bystander commentary and all those gender reversals; it's
a clever script.
Thank you. Thank you very much. That really makes me feel good.
I noticed, however, that - as sexy as this film is - you didn't
portray sexuality as much as you explored gender.
That's true, actually. Some of that is because, gosh, sex, certainly
sexual identity, is so complicated. I wasn't as interested in that. I
was more interested in what makes a heterosexual relationship and
what makes a lesbian relationship and are there differences? There's
a famous line by writer Richard Goldstein [to the effect that] gay
people and straight people are incredibly different except when
they're in bed. [Chuckles.]
Part of me felt it was more interesting to try and take on the idea
of gender than sexual identity. The film raised more questions, I
hope, than I answered, because I don't have any answers; but I am
definitely curious and interested. Especially in how men and women
are portrayed in film, not necessarily always in life, but in film
there seems to be, I don't know, a poverty of imagination around what
women are and what men are.
I found your gender inversions sophisticated. Elizabeth Reaser, as
Allegra, is in a role that a man would usually be playing in these
screwball comedies, and yet it worked. She pulled it off. She really
was attractive and "fuckable."
Yes, she's darling, isn't she? She had to do something very
difficult. She had to be a character for whom the intellect is the
primary way of being in the world but, as an actor, she had to be
about emotions and feeling and physicality. That's a tough role for
an actress. Actresses usually aren't given the opportunity to be
smart, y'know? We were incredibly lucky to find Elizabeth and we only
found her approximately a week and a half before we started shooting.
That's what I understand. And this after seven years?!
Indeed. Seven long years of struggling to get this film off the ground.
Puccini for Beginners is a smart "salad to steak to salad"
comedy with a bossa nova frothiness to it that I enjoyed very much.
It made me curious about your writing process. You have these
wonderful one-liners like, "You never sublimate hideous issues, you
just act them out," and "Love doesn't have boundaries but sexual
identity does"; these are great lines. In your writing process, do
these lines come to you randomly and you jot them down? Or do they
come to you in a torrent of inspiration? What's your writing process
Gosh, that's a really good question. I find writing just incredibly
painful. Very, very difficult. I work quickly but only on my first
draft. Then I revise and I revise and I revise. I would say, when it
comes to anything that comes across as particularly smart or funny,
it's probably something I barely worked on. I will say, too, that I
have been in analysis for many years, and I'm a great believer in
psychoanalysis, and I guess the combination of psychoanalysis and
getting older [means] you gain a sense of humor. There's something in
that material that can't help but make you want to joke. [Laughs.]
That's how I look at it anyway.
I've long felt that a sense of humor indicates your spiritual
growth. The more you can laugh at yourself, the more you're
understanding, like you say, that there aren't answers to some of
these lifelong questions. Life isn't a problem to be solved; it's a
predicament to be experienced.
That's very true. That's very accurate, actually. I'm going to have
to think about that question of writing process because, as I say, I
was with this script for a long time and then right before we started
shooting, I got a group of my female writer friends together and took
an extraordinarily tough level of scrutiny from them and criticism
and, again, went into a hardcore revision process. Then of course,
the material changes again when you have your actors. I can give full
credit to Tina Benko
, who played Nell, who had some wonderful
lines that she herself came up with. One of my personal favorites is
when she says, "So Philip, a big fan of Kant..." That was Tina. I
didn't write that.
Yes, her wit was brittle, clever. So you were amenable, then, to
working with your actors on that level with your script?
Absolutely. If someone has a better idea than myself, I'm thrilled. I
will take it.
You have been involved in much GLBT and human rights activism in
your younger years. Now that you've shifted into filmmaking, have you
received any criticism for catering to "has-bians"?
Not yet. We'll see when the film comes out what kind of reception
I'll get. The good news is that the community itself has changed
quite remarkably in the last 10 years and issues around sexual
identity are in many ways more fluid. The discussions in the lesbian
and gay community are remarkably sophisticated, I have to say. They
also have changed. The whole notion of a queer community, for
instance, is a phenomenon that has developed in the last 10 years. It
will be interesting to see. I'm always interested in what the sisters
have to think. [Laughs.]
A few months back I was speaking with Jamie Babbit when The
Quiet came out, and at that time, we talked a little bit
about how she's recontextualizing certain feminine stereotypes, like
the cheerleader and what-not. Yet your character moved in a different
tack. It wasn't so much that you were recontextualizing a feminine
stereotype as much as you were shifting a woman into and occupying an
agency that women usually aren't associated with.
I would say that is a very accurate way of portraying what I was
attempting to do, yes.
Is there any feminine stereotype that you would like to
That's a good question. Let me put it to you this way: There's an
advertisement right now for a movie that's about to come out called
. I don't know if you've seen the advertisement; but, you won't be
able to miss it. It shows a big fat Black woman on top of a skinny
Black man with glasses - I believe it's Eddie Murphy
- and the
headline is: "Have you ever made a really big mistake?" Here I am,
not in my 20s, and I had the strongest desire to face that poster
with the following remark, which is: "Have I ever sat on a skinny
Black man with glasses? Yes, I have." [Laughs.] So, in that respect,
I'm always looking at things and trying to turn them a little bit
That's funny. I have seen that advertisement and I think both
characters - the fat Black woman and the skinny Black man - are Eddie
Murphy in that situation.
They're both Eddie Murphy, but again, the presumption that the "you"
is male, that there's really only one audience, and that the mistake
would be that you'd be squished by a big fat Black woman instead of a
Black woman saying, "Have you ever sat on a man who didn't appreciate
your big fat ass?" That's much funnier to me.
I see what you're saying. So it's not so much about
recontextualizing a stereotype as it is reversing the gaze and
upsetting the presumption. Now, I know that it took such a long time
- seven years - to make Puccini for Beginners, and no doubt
after all that effort, you hate comparisons to other filmmakers; but,
I'm sure that you've frequently heard that the film reminds audiences
of Woody Allen, partly because of its Manhattan setting. Before I read any of
those comparisons, however, Puccini for Beginners reminded me
of Woody Allen, not so much because of the movie itself, but because
of something you said in your press notes. You said, "I'm not above
someone slipping on a banana peel if it will get a laugh." That
instantly reminded me of that scene from Sleeper where Woody
Allen is running on a giant banana peel.
Of course! [Laughs.] Well, listen, to be able to use my name in the
same company as Woody Allen is an extraordinary compliment, and I
certainly am a great fan and know all his movies very well, but I did
not in any way consciously say, "I want to do a Woody Allen movie."
I'm really trying to figure out who Maria Maggenti is and what my
vision of the world is. I can honestly tell you that Woody has never
once shot in the subway. In that respect, we part ways.
The subway sequence - where the train operator comments on
Allegra's life over the intercom - is a comic, paranoid fantasy. That
whole premise of the bystander commentary - which some have likened
unto Woody Allen - worked for me, even though Cinematical's Jette Kernion felt you were
inconsistent because you had other passengers on the train listening
to and responding to the intercom advice. But I didn't agree with
that criticism; it failed for being too literal. I assumed that all
those scenes were not literal; they were Allegra's fantasies and the
paranoid aspect of her fantasies would precisely be that other people
around her were listening to this voice butting into her affairs.
They were. They were supposed to be her unconscious that shifts over
the course of the story as her own consciousness starts to change.
But yes, everyone butts in basically because they're her unconscious
speaking to her. Its success or failure is to be left to everybody
else, but I will say - also as a person who has lived in New York
most of her adult life - it's not uncommon to have people butt into
your conversations and give you plenty of opinion whether you think
they're coming from your head or not. [Laughs.]
I understand you went to the NYU Undergraduate Film School just
because it was in your neighborhood?
I went to undergraduate at Smith College where I studied Philosophy
and Classics. Then I moved to New York and got involved in politics
as an activist. Then applied to NYU Undergraduate Film School, yes,
having no idea that it was a competitive place and what it would
entail; but, I lived in the East Village and I could walk there so I
thought, "Well..." I had to figure out what to do with my life
because I wasn't doing that well. [Laughs.] I was never good at any
of the jobs that I had, so I thought maybe - since I've always been
good at school - I should go back to school.
In your Flavorpill
interview at Sundance last year, you mentioned that, upon completing
Puccini for Beginners
, you were hoping to get a job where you
could shuffle around in house slippers and curlers and make a movie.
Has that happened?
No, it has not, unfortunately. A couple of other things have come up.
I just sold a TV series to Showtime so, if all of that comes through,
I'll have a 90-hour week for a couple of years. And then I just
finished a short film project for the Sundance Global
Short Films Project
and that was an assignment in which they
selected six of us, I believe, to make four-minute movies that will
be available on the Sundance Network website and on cell phones.
That was an extraordinary challenge. I was making something that was
two inches by two inches and it had to be accessible to a wide range
of audiences, acceptable for children. It forced me back into a
primal notion of storytelling. Those are the two little things that
I've had going and, of course, I'll be traveling around with
, which I'm about to do next week, to France and then
Istanbul, where the film will be playing in a film festival. I'm very
interested in how it goes there.