Interview with "Two Girls in Love" Writer/Director Maria Maggenti
"When you're in your life it's normal to you. It just is, no matter what that life is." -- Maria Maggenti The lively, often hilarious film The Incredibly True Adventure of Two Girls in Love follows two high-school seniors -- tomboyish Randy and privileged Evie -- as they embark on an exhilarating and risky romance. The film's snappy dialogue and high energy level reflect the world of its seventeen-year-old protagonists. For Maria Maggenti, who wrote and directed her first feature after making several documentaries, the film is a labor of love. A lesbian and gay-rights activist who is terrified of riding in automobiles, Maggenti is a live wire. Smoking cigarettes on a balcony of Ma Maison Sofitel -- where there's a view of the Hollywood sign -- she gushes enthusiastically about her film and the experience of making it, but also talks soberly about her life and career. Born in Washington, D.C., Maggenti moved to Nigeria when she was eleven with her single mother, who was an agricultural economist for the World Bank. After she returned to Washington to attend high school and spent a couple of years in Italy, she studied philosophy and the classics at Smith College. She then moved to New York, where she got her break working on television commercials. Switching to documentaries, Maggenti was associate producer of Phil Zwickler's Rights and Reactions and the film Voices From the Front. She studied film at the NYU Graduate Film Program and has made four shorts including the award-winning Name Day. Now, Maggenti says, she is pursuing the truth "in a different way with fiction films." Maggenti is likable, smiles a lot, and laughs with genuine amusement. Sure, this is an interview and she's the new "gal" in town, but one doesn't question her sincerity. It's really hard to imagine that the creator of Two Girls in Love would be anything but a ball of fire. Beginning a number of comments with, "Can I tell you?" and truly charming when she puts herself down, Maggenti is the front woman for a trio that includes producer Dolly Hall and editor Susan Graef. These three brought Maggenti's original script to the screen in the traditional way of independent films. As Maggenti tells the story, she frequently cites Hall and Graef as essential collaborators. Maggenti began writing her screenplay in 1993, starting with the image of a tough girl skateboarding with love notes sticking out of her pocket. After a year and a half, "I just threw it in the trash," Maggenti remembers. What she deemed "dreck" was a "very melodramatic" teenage drama, with more lurid material than the finished film contains. "There was sex for money, and abortion -- heavy-duty shit." She put it aside until her best friend Melissa Painter urged her to consider making it as a "gritty, no-budget, 16mm film of teen love and angst." An associate producer on Lodge Kerrigan's Clean, Shaven, Painter initiated the search for a producer. After Maggenti "sort of revised" the script, the pair approached a prospect and seemingly hit pay dirt. But before any money would change hands, Maggenti had to rewrite the script to include more of the history of the protagonists' friendship. In the heat of the pitch, Maggenti based her story, both in spirit and somewhat in fact, on her own first lesbian relationship, describing a funny, charming film that she hadn't yet written. The meeting ended well, but Maggenti was faced with a deadline of eight days to write a new, radically different draft. With Painter's support, Maggenti sat down with her "piece of shit" Leading Edge PC and pounded out 120 pages. With a crisis in her relationship and friends eager to know what progress she was making, Maggenti doesn't quite know how she did it. "It was like the mystery of the creative process exploded within me." Alas, her efforts were received in the "classic" Hollywood way -- the interested party didn't call back. Wiser in the ways of people who do not always stay true to their word, Painter and Maggenti slapped the present title on the cover page and sent the script to producer Dolly Hall, a onetime stage actor/producer/writer (who also line-produced Ang Lee's The Wedding Banquet and produced Steven Jarr's Joey Breaker). A handshake on Memorial Day last year got the project rolling, with Hall's apartment almost immediately transformed into the production's headquarters. With a crew working for no pay, and two relatively unknown actresses, filming began July 28 and concluded 21 days later. Originally, Maggenti wanted to use nonprofessionals in the lead roles, but she realized that did not have enough experience to pull it off. After meeting Laurel Holloman in person, Maggenti was convinced that she was too pretty and tall to play Randy. But the actress came to an audition in costume and "inhabited the character." A native of North Carolina, Holloman has appeared on stage in Chicago and in New York -- most notably in an off-Broadway production of The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter. Cheerfully admitting her inexperience in many aspects of feature filmmaking, Maggenti says that Holloman taught her two important lessons. "Actors will do anything for a job. And you can't tell, based on how they look, if they're right for the job." She was no longer in high school when her own romance took place, but Maggenti says she was more like the African-American Evie (played by Baltimore-born, off-Broadway actress Nicole Parker) than Randy. Evie has "not really had anyone say no to her," explains the filmmaker. Besides sharing an upper-middle-class background, both character and author were raised by single mothers. In fact, so was Parker, who improvised so well with Holloman in an audition that Maggenti "knew on the spot" that they were right for the parts. Evie was written from the beginning as an African-American, because Maggenti wanted to "subvert some of our filmic expectations" about a black character. But she stresses that she wanted to be matter-of-fact about it, because the film represents "my view of American culture at this moment." Maggenti, noting that she's more interested in issues of class than race, says she anted to explore how a person with a sense of class entitlement is impacted by sexuality that some consider "deviant." In the film, Evie can't understand why people would think her romance with Randy is wrong. Like Evie, Maggenti says that in real life she had the kind of naiveté "that can actually translate into bravery." When Maggenti was nineteen, she and her lover were feisty "girls in love," defiant and always in trouble. "I went to college. She never did," Maggenti says of her first girlfriend. "She wanted to be a rock star. I wanted to be a writer. She was a real struggler." While the film chronicles the meeting, friendship, and romance of Evie and Randy, there is a lot more to The Incredibly True Adventure of Two Girls in Love. For the film's comedic elements, including Randy's old flame (played by Maggie Moore) and other memorable characters, Maggenti created a composite portrait of "later episodes" in her love life. The actual plot emerged out of her conception of "how to make a movie funny." Saying that she's not one of those "nerds that go to the movies all the time," Maggenti cites the works of Billy Wilder, Preston Sturges, Gregory La Cava, and the films of producer Pandro Berman as her primary influences. "I grew up on My Man Godfrey, The Thin Man, and Stage Door." When she's got a free evening, Maggenti usually opts for going to dinner with friends and talking. The film that Maggenti hopes to do next is an urban sex comedy inspired by Wilder's The Apartment, but she needs time to finish writing the script. She has other plans for the future, including producing "some young gal's" film and a documentary about masculinity. Meanwhile, she's nervous about the opening of Two Girls in Love, which is being distributed by Fine Line Features in major cities around the country. She was "mortified" when she watched footage of the film and found it sentimental. "Everyone's going to know I'm really like this. Everyone's going to know I'm really a sap, really emotional," she laughs. In years past, Maggenti was a serious gay-rights activist with a black-and-white view of the world based on ending the AIDS crisis. But as she lost "a lot of friends" to the incurable virus, the filmmaker underwent a philosophical change. To her, life became "gray, contradictory, eccentric, and difficult." Filmmaking became a way for her to express what she believes about the world. Maggenti is annoyed and hurt by what comments that she feels are dismissive of her efforts. "Sometimes I'm treated as though I made a filmette." (In a generally positive review of the film, Los Angeles Times critic Peter Rainer dubbed it "an amateurish, sweet little piddle of a movie.") If she was a man, the filmmaker believes, she would get more respect. But she's not really worried about getting accepted into the show-biz community. Maggenti expresses no interest in a conventional Hollywood career, defiantly responding "No way" when asked if she has an agent. On the other hand, Maggenti actually welcomes any backlash from the religious right or anyone else who is offended or feels threatened by the film's subject matter. These are the kind of foes she knows how to handle. "I can stand behind this picture as an accurate moment in American culture. Go ahead and take me on. Try telling me this isn't real. Are you kidding? The old activist in me is saying, `Yes, come at me.'"