Based on Phoebe Gloeckner’s graphic novel and adapted by Marielle Heller, The Diary of a Teenage Girl is a coming-of-age film that centers on Minnie (Bel Powley), a 15-year-old in 1970’s San Francisco who begins an affair with her mother’s boyfriend, Monroe (Alexander Skarsgård). Heller’s directorial debut made big waves at last year’s Sundance Film Festival, and is still on people’s minds — it was nominated for three Independent Spirit Awards and the Directors Guild recognized Heller in the First-Time Feature Film Director category.
The film was released on Blu-ray earlier this month, and Heller spoke to EW about how she adapted the source material, brought a different kind of teenage girl to the screen, what her DGA Awards nomination means, and more.
Adapting Gloeckner’s graphic novel
Heller says she was a sexually curious teenager, but never saw that represented in movies or literature, so she connected to the realness of Gloeckner’s semi-autobiographical 2002 work. “I had never come across a teenage girl who I felt like really embodied what I actually remember feeling,” she says. “[This] was such a brutally honest account of all of those thoughts and feelings you have when you’re a teenage girl.”
When it came to adapting it — first as an Off Broadway play that starred Heller and ran in 2010, and then as the feature film — Heller had a lot of creative freedom. “[Phoebe] had taken her original journals and diaries from when she was a teenager and fictionalized them and let them grow into something new [to] make the novel,” Heller says. “She knew that I needed to take her novel and let it go through a similar process as it becomes the film.”
Heller expanded Minnie’s relationship with her mother (Kristen Wiig), for example. She also added new layers to the material while at the Sundance Screenwriters Lab. “I went in there with a pretty complete script, but I was able to work with all of these incredible advisors who helped me further deepen and connect what was a really ambitious and complicated script,” she says, adding that she wrote around 85 drafts between the play and the film. “It wasn’t one of these simple, three-people-in-a-room scripts that you can really get your head around easily.”
Challenging perceptions about teenage girls
Minnie is an artist from the Bay Area, which Heller really connected with, but she thinks her protagonist has a much broader appeal too. “Anyone can relate to feelings like ‘Is there anyone out there who loves me that I don’t know about?’ ‘Does everybody think about sex as much as I do?’ ‘Am I a freak?’ or ‘Is something wrong with me?’” These things are universal, she adds, but we typically only hear them from teenage boys in movies — not teenage girls.
She continues, “It’s damaging that the message we get when we’re teenage girls is that boys are going to be the ones who think about sex and your job is to protect your virginity until you’re ready to give it away. You’re not going to want to [have sex]. Boys are going to want to try and take it from you, and you’re just going to have to decide when you’re ready.” The film challenges all of that, showing Minnie as a teenage girl who is interested in sex — even more so than some of her male peers, like the boy from school, Ricky (Austin Lyon), who is intimidated by her boldness.
In that sense, The Diary of a Teenage Girl is a breath of fresh air. “Telling a story about a teenage girl makes everybody uncomfortable because for whatever reason, we want to heavily moralize teenage girls’ stories,” she says. “To tell that story without telling the audience, ‘Don’t worry, she’s going to be punished,’ I felt like there was something wonderfully subversive.”
When and why she used animation
The film employs innovative, cartoon-like animation. “I thought about the animation similar to the way you think about music in a musical, where someone should only burst into song when they don’t have the words to say what they’re feeling, when the emotion is so big that they have to burst into song,” Heller says. “It had to hold a real emotional place that there was a reason why we were getting a little peek into [Minnie’s] imagination in these different moments.”
As an example, the film depicts some of Minnie’s art coming to life, including a comic she created. There’s also a scene where Minnie and Monroe take acid and as the drugs start to go into effect, Minnie visualizes herself becoming a sort of bird, developing feathers and wings and floating up to the ceiling. “So many people have done drug trips before,” Heller says. “They can be really cheesy. I wanted it to hold this more sacred, emotional place about her art and who she is seeing herself become. … The animation always served to really bring us into Minnie’s mind’s eye. We’re really seeing the world through her creative lens, whenever we’re seeing an animation.”
Working as a first-time feature director (and in a male-dominated field)
Heller credits her background as an actor and writer with preparing her to direct. “I know about story, how to talk to actors, how to build trust on a set, how to create an environment where everybody could do their best work,” she says. “So much of directing is really that, hiring incredible people and guiding them with a singular vision into doing their best work.”
She believes women are “innately good” at the job. Still, Heller was the only woman nominated in the DGA Awards’ feature film categories. (No women were nominated in the Oscars’ directing category either). “It’s wonderful to be the one woman on this list,” she says, adding that the DGA nod is a huge honor, especially because it came from her peers. “I hope next year, [the category] is filled with women. I’m the one woman on a lot of lists right now, and it’s not because there aren’t amazing women directors everywhere, so I’m hoping that this conversation is really changing things.”
What action should be taken to get more women on these lists? “The more women who are hired, the more women who will get hired, kind of a top-down thing,” she says.
There’s been a lot of attention on this issue lately, like with Jennifer Lawrence’s essay addressing gender pay inequality and The New York Times article “The Women of Hollywood Speak Out” that looked at sexism in the industry and featured Heller. Looking ahead, Heller says we need to maintain that attention to see progress. “We keep this conversation going until there really truly is a major shift.”