Puccini for Beginners (2006): Interview with Director Maria Maggenti

Maria Maggenti’s second film in a decade, the romantic comedy, Puccini for Beginners, received its world premiere at the 2006 Sundance Film Fest.

Maria Maggenti: First of all, I hate these things they seem so solipsistic. Part of me just wants to say, golly, go see the film and I hope you like it! Another part of me wants to write and talk for a good few hours, preferably over wine and cigarettes, about this whole weird, humbling, difficult thing called filmmaking. I would so prefer to just smile and nod and say, yeah, yeah, sure, whatever you say, but duty calls.

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Obstacles in making a second feature

MM: The film took seven years to make. Although the script seemed like a simple, smart romantic comedy, it was impossible to cast the lead role of Allegra. I learned over the course of our many obstacles that, although I had a few things going for me in the storywit, originality, good dialogueI had many more things going against me. Namely, my lead character is female, she’s smart in a peculiarly New York intellectual way, she’s a self-proclaimed lesbian with little concern for the sexual identity of her partners and she loves opera, an art form that most Americans find, to put it mildly, opaque. In addition, she blithely beds down a man and then a woman without much concern for either her feelings or theirs.

New Type of Female Role

I needed an actress who could pull off the intellectual and the visceral in this character. She needed to be appealing and sexy, but in an off-handed way. In the script, she’s described as a woman who cares more about her vocabulary than she does about her looks. She needed to be funny. She is the subject and the object of all the action, and in that respect, is in the traditional “male” role. We didn’t find Elizabeth Reaser until a week before we started shooting.

Sexual politics

What I was most interested in exploring in this film was a kind of sexual politics that is currently way out of fashion, an amalgamation of 1970s feminism, 1980s identity politics, and current retro gender stereotypes. But I wanted to do nit in a comic way, poking fun at both the seriousness of my characters and the seriousness with which American mainstream culture views men and women. My take on how gender functions in mainstream media isn’t necessarily originalI think most of it is lame, reactionary and traffics in some of the worst elements of dumb, reductive, sexist male humor. However, I am not above someone slipping ion a banana peel if it’ll get a laugh.

Sexual pleasure and sexual freedom

A woman who wants sexual pleasure and sexual freedom is still in a real bind in American culture. If she’s at all intellectually inclined and her sexiness isn’t necessarily located in her cleavage, she’s especially screwed. That is the problem that I faced in casting, directing and editing of this film. How do you make a smart, and I don’t mean she’s a brunette who wears glasses, woman both fuckable and able to fuck and at the same time keep it funny I know this language is crude. It comes from being in the business for so long. Female characters are always discussed in terms of their fuckabilityask anyone, they’ll tell you.