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'I Needed Actors Who Could Go to the Really Dark Places'

Actress, writer, and Alameda native Marielle Heller dishes on her directorial debut, The Diary of a Teenage Girl.

Marielle Heller, Diary of a Teenage Girl

 

This is "Think Tank," an occasional series of conversations with Bay Area power players, conducted by San Francisco editors. Interviews have been condensed and edited for clarity.

Name: Marielle Heller
Job: Writer-director
Age: 35
Residence: Brooklyn

Your film [The Diary of a Teenage Girl, in theaters August 14] portrays the sexual coming-of-age of an artistic teenager who has an affair with her mother’s boyfriend in San Francisco in 1976. It’s a story that fits that time and place, and your portrayal of the ’70s-era city feels very accurate—the partying and the lack of direction. How’d you pull it off?
In the ’70s, there was this time between the Summer of Love and the Reagan era that was both sad and politically interesting, and I think the Bay Area was caught in it. At the time, San Francisco was also a place where a lot of people came who were running away from their lives. That makes for an interesting landscape of people who don’t want to grow up. There was this perpetual adolescence, but there wasn’t exactly a lot of authority.

Even the insides of the houses look like they’re in the city.
They are. We actually shot in a house on Haight; it’s the same house that was used in Looking.

And you shot the opening scene and the final scene on the first day?
Right. It was insane. It really wasn’t a creative choice, but a logistical one. In the first week, we ended up shooting all of the scenes between Minnie [Bel Powley] and Monroe [Alexander Skarsgård].

So it was all of their sex scenes, all of their flirty scenes—all of their scenes happened in the first week. We basically bookended their relationship on the first day.

The cast is just phenomenal: Powley as Minnie; Kristen Wiig as her mother, Charlotte; and Skarsgård as Monroe, Minnie’s paramour. What were you looking for?
I needed actors who could go to the really dark places but also have a lightness to them that made everything feel OK. For Monroe, it was finding somebody who was sort of like a big kid, someone you could believe was not very conscious of the things he was doing—definitely not the villain. Alex [Skarsgård] was just so nonjudgmental about the character—he was able to see all of the gray zones, and it was just perfect. And with Kristen, too, I wanted it to feel like she was that mom you knew who was really beautiful and had kids really young and had never given up partying and was just reliving her youth through her kids.

And how did you get Kristen on board?
My husband [Jorma Taccone] wrote for Saturday Night Live, and I was friends with Kristen before this, but I had never broached working together before. I gave her the script and a little thing I had shot—a little teaser—and I gave her a million outs, like I’m sure you don’t want to do it; it’s no big deal. But she really liked it.

Berkeley Rep lent its costumes and props?
My father-in-law [Tony Taccone] is artistic director of Berkeley Repertory Theatre, so the company was kind enough to let us raid its closet.

Apparently this was a completely San Francisco production.
It really was. And for me, it was a real family affair. My sister-in-law did our costume design, an incredible job—she was ransacking every thrift store she knew and everything. My brother did the music composition—he composed the score for the film. Both of them were living in Oakland at the time. Even my parents were extras.

Originally published in the August issue of San Francisco

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