Diary of a Teenage Girl: Interview with Writer-Director Marielle Heller

A highlight of the 2015 Sundance Film Fest, The Diary of a Teenage Girl will be released by Sony Classics.

Writer and Director Marielle Heller has lived with the character “Minnie Goetze” for a long time–8 yearst. First, she began as a fan of Phoebe Gloeckner’s hybrid novel told in “words and pictures,” and then she mounted a long effort to win the rights to adapt The Diary of a Teenage Girl into a stage play. In 2010, she played the character in an acclaimed off-Broadway production at the 3LD Art & Technology Center. Then as a writer, she developed “The Diary of a Teenage Girl” at the Sundance Labs with guidance from the likes of Lisa Cholodenko and Nicole Holofcener.

Heller made her feature film directorial debut at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival with this film. Throughout the entire journey, one thing remained constant. Heller was drawn to the character’s “brutal honesty” and having played many teenage girls as an actress, this role, to Heller, felt most like real life. At the completion of every milestone, she kept finding she wasn’t finished telling this girl’s story.

Encountering Phoebe Gloeckner’s Diary of a Teenage Girl

My sister gave me the book for Christmas eight years ago, just as kind of, “I think you’ll like this.” She is six years younger than me—loves graphic novels— and she introduces me to cool things all the time. She told me she read it in high school and that it had meant a lot to her.

Like the novel, the film is a hybrid, part diary, part graphic novel-comic book. Above all, it’s just an incredibly honest version of what it is to be a teenager, told from the perspective of a teenager. Even if not every teenager goes through this exact experience—I didn’t go through this exact experience— it still feels closer to what it felt like to be a real teenage girl than anything I have ever read. As Minnie becomes a sexual being— and the emotional journey that accompanies it— I think this is a more honest version of what that experience is like, much more than anything we’re used to seeing.


Young girl enjoying and owning her sexuality in powerful way.

I remember watching American Pie and feeling so outside of it, even though I was 17 or 18 when it came out. I remember thinking, “Oh, girls are the objective of this story.” They are not present. The whole story is about how dudes feel about girls and there’s never any perspective given about how girls may feel about boys. I identified more with the dudes. It’s a really bad message to send to teenage girls that boys are the only ones who are going to want sex. You’re going to be the one that doesn’t want it. You’re the one who is going to want to withhold it until you decide that you are willing to give it to the guy. This is going to be your power struggle. Nobody tells a girl what it’s like if you want to have sex. What if you’re a teenage girl who wants to have sex? If you are, there’s still this thing, of feeling like a freak because everything you’ve ever read or seen tells you— you shouldn’t want it. Only boys want it. And that’s not true. Boys are given so many examples of films that say whatever they feel sexually is normal, even if it’s defacing a pie. And girls are just basically relegated to this one little area— you have this virginity to protect and boys are going to try and take it away from you. I do think we have to retrain our minds a little bit as audience members— being OK in seeing these stories about girls instead of just boys. As girls, we have been trained for a long time to relate to a male protagonist, to feel their stories and to be invested in them. And there’s no reason why we can’t invest in female characters the same way. Or why boys can’t watch this movie and think, “Oh I relate to Minnie, even though she’s a girl.” That’s OK. I had to read Catcher in the Rye and relate to Holden Caulfield. When I read Phoebe’s book I thought this is how boys must feel when reading Catcher in the Rye. So, why can’t boys watch this movie and relate to Minnie? It’s a two-way street. Sexuality is something we’re both experiencing and so if one side’s perspective is reflected, the other side should be reflected too.


Extreme promiscuity in film might send wrong message

I don’t think it’s a problem that teenagers have sex. I think it’s a problem when people don’t know their own self-worth and don’t respect themselves. I tried to stay away from this story ever being a lesson. It’s not a morality story. It’s just a depiction of what it feels like to be a teenage girl. We always look at our teenage girls’ stories to have major moral lessons and to be some kind of puritanical morality tale. This is not meant to be that at all. This is a rebellion against that.

Minnie grows tremendously in the film

I think movies are only interesting if our lead characters go on a journey and become better in some way. But I don’t think her journey is that she realizes sex is bad— her journey is she’s realizes that she loves herself, and that her worth is not external. It’s not in anyone else. It’s not in a man. It’s not in a woman. It’s not in any kind of external source. It’s internal.  I wanted to say this without it being a morality tale that tells you sex is bad, or if you go down this path you’re screwed, because I think we also have a lot of stories about girls who have gone wrong and how much that screws them up. Sex won’t necessarily screw you up, because if the lesson on the other end is learning to love yourself and taking control, that’s a good thing.


Minnie has no good role model.

She has no role models. She has no role models in her life about how to handle the stuff she’s going through as a teenage girl. She has a mom who tells her to “dress cuter,” and “show it off while you got it.” She’s taught, “You need men to admire you to have self-worth.” So Minnie has to figure it out on her own which is why it takes a while, and she stumbles, and she has to go through so many heartbreaking things.


And yet it’s so funny.

Well, because I think even when you’re in the worst situations, especially when you’re a teenager—when I look back at the times I totally could have died or was in really dangerous situations, they didn’t feel terrible. They felt funny and I was having a great time. It’s only in retrospect that you’re like, “Oh my God, how did I live through that?”


Bel Powley 

She’s so incredible. She is a British actor. She submitted a tape that was just so good, and at the end of the tape she included this personal message to me about why she loved the material. She connected to it in this real way. And it was weird because it was pretty early on in the casting process that her tape came to me. And I really loved Bel’s tape, but I kept thinking I can’t have found Minnie yet. So I just kept searching, and I auditioned hundreds of girls and kept comparing them to Bel. I wanted to cast Monroe before I cast Minnie because I felt like their chemistry is going to be so crucial. When I cast Alexander (Skarsgård), who’s amazing, I had Bel fly out to NY. I had them in a room together and we spent like 3-4 hours working through the scenes. And they really connected. Then I knew it was right. We talked about how pretty much everyone in the movie is emotionally stunted. He’s definitely stunted, and they’re kind of an emotional match. If anything she has surpassed him. This isn’t an abusive relationship. There are actually real feelings happening inside him. While he knows the relationship is wrong— he’s not taking advantage of her. It’s more complicated and grey than that. I think towards the end of the film, he really does discover he’s in love with her. And that’s a very real moment for him. Bel was a champion. She is in almost every single scene of the movie. She was 21 when we filmed (22 now) and that’s pretty young to basically carry an entire movie. She had really embrace a flawed character and live in there all day long, every day for five weeks. She was a total pro. She does theater, and I come from theater. I feel like theater actors are taught to be professional and come in with their prep work done.


She wants to be on top to have an orgasm, and that freaks the boy out.

It goes back to Minnie going on this journey that brings her closer to herself, that she thinks is about other people, but is really about herself.


Creating the script with its comedic sensibility.

I always found parts of this really funny, and other people would tell me I don’t think people will think it is as funny as you think it is. I found a lot of humor in it, because I think  there’s something really relatable and humorous about what it is to be a teenager. Whether you’re a boy or girl, how your logic works when you’re that age is just sort of hilarious. It’s also brutally honest. The film opens and she doesn’t want to pass up the chance to have sex with him because she thinks she might not ever get another. I remember having that thought as a teenager. Maybe no one will ever want to have sex with me? And as an adult you come to realize that’s insane. And it’s especially insane because girls really can have sex whenever they want. Pretty much. There’s always someone who wants to have sex with you. But we all have thoughts of, “maybe it will never happen.”


Bel is real and beautiful in unassuming way

It was really important to me that she was a girl we could relate to in a real way… that she was really somebody who you could look at and go, “that’s me.” And Bel just draws you in. Her face just draws you in. We would put on this one close-up lens and you would feel everyone on the monitors lean forward on her close ups. Bel’s skin and eyes pull you in and she’s just so open. She’s not the typical sarcastic teenager which I feel like I’ve seen a lot. Pure curiosity, totally earnest, she’s not self-conscious. She’s really a hero to me in that way. We’re experiencing something really raw, and just unfiltered. And Bel was perfect for that.


Set in the 1970s, it brings distance that makes Minnie’s sexual awakening more accessible

It would be more frightening to watch it happening if it were set in contemporary time. The book takes place in the 1970s in San Francisco, and I’m from the Bay Area. There is a very different culture that’s still present in that city. I connected to the location even though I was a teenager living there in the early 90s. I felt the reverberations of the hippie movement even when I was growing up. My parents were hippies. My mom grew up there but my dad came from New York to escape New York. I think San Francisco is a place where people go to escape their real lives and to live in this sort of utopia. But there are consequences to that, especially if you’re a kid whose parents are all running away from their real life.

The women’s movement was starting to get into full force

Yeah, it was kind of a weird time for the country in the 70s. I used the Patty Hearst trial as this little reflection of the time period. I read this article about the Patty Hearst trial written decades later. And when it was 1976, the question was “Are we responsible for our own decisions?” Basically that is what it was coming down to. Is this girl, Patty Hearst— is she a victim? Or is she culpable? And this article was saying if this trial had happened in 1966, we would have just said she’s a victim, she was kidnapped, she’s been brainwashed— she’s definitely a victim. If it had happened in 1986, they would have said she’s responsible— individual responsibility, she should pull herself up by her bootstraps, we are all responsible for ourselves, so, get it together.

But in 1976, we were sort of in between these two extremes and that’s where the character of Minnie lives. There’s this big question of who’s responsible for this situation— is this character responsible for what’s happening to her, or is she not? And that’s what we were so obsessed with culturally. Somewhere culturally we were living in between those two extremes— victimhood and personal responsibility.


It started as a stage play.

I spent three years turning Phoebe’s book into a stage play, which we did in New York in 2010, and I played Minnie. Because I was an actor, I came at it from an acting perspective. And was so in love with this character. Weirdly, at that time, I had been playing a lot of teenage girls on stage and I just hadn’t felt nearly as connected to any of them. After I read the book I thought, “This is the teenage girl that I want to play on stage.” So anyway, I went through the whole process of basically trying to convince anybody, the publisher, the agent, and eventually the author that I had any credibility. I was trying to give them a reason why they should let me adapt this book. And that took a little bit of time because I was basically coming at it with no knowledge. I had never done anything like this. But I was just so driven by this passion… I just felt totally compelled, like I have to do this thing. So that process started and putting up the play was an incredible, really great, learning experience.  Meanwhile I had started writing other things, other screenplays and other film and TV things while I was working on this purely as a play. And then after the production ended and we had a great run, we got a good New York Times review and all of that good stuff and it ended.

But I just wasn’t done with it. We considered doing another production of it in San Francisco, which seemed interesting but I felt like, well, I’ve done that. The production was already great—it’s not going to be any better in a different city. And then I started to see it as a movie, which was going to be very different from the stage play. And one of the first people I talked to about it with was Anne Carey (producer). She’d seen the play and it was her suggestion that I try to get into the Sundance Labs because it was tough material. It might help if you can be associated with something as prestigious as the labs. I started working on the script and then was just lucky enough to get into the Writers Lab with it. From the Writers Lab I went to the Directors Lab, and it really grew from there. Lisa Cholodenko and Nicole Holofcener were some of my first advisors. I just had incredible advisors, including David Stevens, Michael Arndt, Susannah Grant, and Scott Frank. I had really, really great people supporting me.