Maggie’s Plan writer-director Rebecca Miller discusses creating a modern take on A Midsummer Night’s Dream, finding a frothy tone, fitting her script to the actors, the importance of two-shots, and the art of costume and production design.
Rebecca Miller’s new film, Maggie’s Plan, is a modern take on A Midsummer Night’s Dream crossed with a 1940s remarriage comedy except here it’s a love triangle between two women and one man. The film follows good-hearted twenty-something Maggie (Greta Gerwig), who unexpectectedly falls in love with an unhappily married adjunct professor, John (Ethan Hawke).
The film then skips ahead several years to their new life as a married couple. Tired of organizing John’s life for him, Maggie concocts another plan: to give him back to his ex-wife Georgette (Julianne Moore) whom he’s clearly still in love with. Hijinks ensue. But Miller’s highly intelligent script finds the humanity in the situation as an unexpected bond forms between the two women.
When the film screened at the San Francisco International Film Festival, I sat down with writer-director Miller to discuss the influence of A Midsummer Night’s Dream on the film, how she works with her actors and technical departments, and how she found an airy tone for this clever, dialogue-heavy film.
Seventh Row (7R): How did A Midsummer Night’s Dream end up interwoven into the film?
Rebecca Miller (RM): It’s always hard to reconstruct the recipe once you’ve done it. But basically, I did study the play quite carefully while I was writing the film. In a way, it is a kind of romantic comedy with a magical overlay. I wanted that sense of symmetry and absurdity and the sense of people creating their own lives when in fact there was this other layer over them that’s determining [things]. In Maggie’s Plan, that’s rising off the acts and decisions of the characters themselves, it’s beyond what Maggie can control.Listening to those movies, they’re so unapologetically smart. They’re not trying to apologize for being witty. I loved that about them.Click To Tweet
I was also looking at 1940s remarriage comedies and Preston Sturges. For example, The Philadelphia Story, Palm Beach Story, but then also It Happened One Night and His Girl Friday. Just looking at the pacing and that quickness. Listening to those movies, they’re so unapologetically smart. They’re not trying to apologize for being witty. I loved that about them. And yet they totally function for anybody because the situations they deal with are situations that anyone can identify with.
I was really attracted to this idea of inverting the classic triangle. Whenever, I think, one sex talks about the other, there’s always this danger that we’re going to commodify them or objectify them and not really understand them. Certainly, a lot of male filmmakers have done that to women. There’s always the danger that you’re going to do it yourself to the other sex.
7R: How did that influence the speed and punchiness when you’re writing the script and then directing the actors, to make sure you’ve got that pace and rhythm?
RM: I used quite a lot of two-shots in the film. If we were shooting a two-shot, we would only shoot a two-shot. You don’t cover. It’s high risk, but I did that a few times. Then you have to control rhythms inside the shot.
I love two-shots because the eye is able to choose what to look at. Very often, you’re not looking at the person who is talking. You’re looking at the reaction. It’s a less manipulative way of shooting. It’s almost more giving the reins to the audience member and saying, “You decide how to look at this piece of dialogue.” I do sometimes like the risk of not covering. It’s like saying, “Let’s all really trust each other. Let’s be bold and make a decision.”
The other way I controlled pace was with my wonderful editor Sabine Hoffman who has made now four films with me. We were very aware of the pace and trying to create a kind of frothiness. It’s almost like the movie is a kind of souffle. It puffs up and you have to take it out of the oven just in time, you don’t want it to fall. It’s not just about speed. It’s about controlling units of energy. Each scene or each cluster of scenes are like units of energy. Then there’s a moment where there’s a lull, an eddy, where you can go into it, and hopefully the audience is ready to sit and listen. Like, there’s a moment when Maggie talks about losing her mother, and it’s quite touching. But it’s after these series of hijinks scenes. I’m really interested in how you can vary tone and very broad, bold shifts in tone.
7R: When you have to edit within the frame and control the tone, how does that work out on set? What is the key to that?
RM: You have to do more takes than you might normally do because each one will have perfect things and things that are less perfect. And you do want to have something that you can cut away to, like musicians in the park. There’s one two-shot where they’re walking down the hall, and there’s nothing you can cut away from, and we just had to keep doing it until we had the perfect one. There’s another where they’re walking in the park near the fountain, and there I did have a few things to cut away from so that I could use two different takes.The trick, I think, and this is where directing is such a weird art, has to do with figuring out tone, that we’re all in the same movie.Click To Tweet
I think one of the director’s job is to have almost like the music in your head. Because this is a dialogue movie, it’s also a musical score of sorts. So you have to have that in your head. That doesn’t mean you’re not going to manipulate it later. I didn’t cut any scenes out of the movie, but we cut quite a lot of dialogue — literally, second by second, just little moments, so that we could shape performances, as well as dialogue. We just used the stuff that worked the best.
7R: How do you communicate the music of the dialogue you have in mind and the rhythms to the actors?
RM: Sometimes, I give them a reason that they’re rushing somewhere or I might say, “Let’s try it in a more breezy way.” Sometimes, that’s very liberating. I don’t think speed just for speed’s sake works as much as having a sense of why are we rushing? We’re rushing because we’re late for a class. He’s late for a class. She’s got to get somewhere. It helps to have some sense of why you’re moving along.
We were very aware of the pace and trying to create a kind of frothiness. It’s almost like the movie is a kind of soufflé.Click To Tweet
The trick, I think, and this is where directing is such a weird art, has to do with figuring out tone, that we’re all in the same movie. Especially in a movie like this, where it has its own special tone, everyone has to be in the same movie. That’s where having great actors, who have experience and understand and just know what kind of film they’re in.
7R: I understand you and Greta Gerwig were working on her character for months before you went to shoot. What was that process?
RM: We rewrote some things together. The fundamental character and story was there. But what happened was things like we would talk about the fact that she’s such an unusually pure character. She’s almost out of time. She’s ethically motivated. I always had this hunch that she had a spiritual background of some kind. So what was that? I can’t remember which one of us said “quakers,” but one of us said, “What if she’s a quaker?” Then we both separately went to quaker meetings and came back and said, “It’s perfect. She’s a quaker.”
There’s something about her modesty, the way she dresses, her particular type of the way she expresses herself in the world. Quakers are people who do good works in the world, and Maggie, in spite of the fact that she’s messing up one situation after another, is always doing it for all the right reasons. So as Bill Hader says to her, “Little Miss Quaker Two Shoes, always trying to do the right thing.” So that’s an example of something very profound about a character that was arrived at in a fairly collaborative way.The final draft is after you’ve cast the film. It’s like sewing a couture dress on somebody. That last lap has to be about moulding the part to an actor.Click To Tweet
The final draft is after you’ve cast the film. It’s like sewing a couture dress on somebody. That last lap has to be about moulding the part to an actor. The same with Julianne. She had some important suggestions. Julianne was the one who said, “I think we’ve got to see her at work. We’ve got to see her in a professional context.” So that lead to the auditorium sequence, which ended up being a really wonderful moment. What was great about it was that it was an academic scene about her being in an academic setting, but really, it was a fight between two people that were really talking about their marriage.
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7R: The costumes are so great and specific to the characters and lived in, especially Greta Gerwig’s costumes. What was the process for putting them together?
RM: [Costume Designer] Malgosia Turzansk is a name i think you’re going to be seeing a lot in the future. I think she’s a genius. I had never worked with her before. She came in with all these photographs that were very conceptual, like cracked ice and pieces of fur, and all this stuff talking about Georgette. And I said, “This is all great, and I love this, but we’re going to have to really talk about clothes at some point.” She said, “That’s fine. I just wanted to say, conceptually, what I was thinking.” So she thinks of it conceptually and moves from there.
We talked about Maggie, that she would have a real sense of colour, unlike anybody else in the film. She would express herself in a colourful way, but that she also had this modesty. She doesn’t have much money, but she wants to look good for school. So what does she do? She’s going to go to thrift stores.
Malgosia, who is 28 years old, is very much in that moment of her life. What do you do? You have a sense of style. You’re a young woman. You’re a professional. Where do you go? She went to Queens. She got this wonderful bag of stuff from this thrift shop. It’s all very authentic and real. I think a lot of trouble was taken on every single item of clothing: every vest, every colour.That, to me, is part of the joy of making the film: every object or piece of clothing inside the frame is a sign.Click To Tweet
That, to me, is part of the joy of making the film: every object or piece of clothing inside the frame is a sign. It means something about your socioeconomic status. It means something about your taste, which is such a profound thing. All of these things give a sense of authenticity. Even the tiniest things, people can feel authenticity, whether or not they really notice it consciously.
7R: The production design, too, is terrific. These look like spaces people really live in. My understanding is you’re really hands on with working with the department heads for that collaboration. What does that process look like?
RM: I started with the DP [Cinematographer Sam Levy]. Then, once I hired Alexandra Schaller, the production designer, and Malgosia — actually, they were friends. They knew each other already, and they were both young women. We started to test wall colours against clothing and start looking at what does that look like together? What does that look like with the Alexa, the camera that we used. How does that translate? What does that red do with that blue?
We were creating a tone and a world that was very specifically real but slightly heightened — like our world, but just a little bit to one side of our world. It’s got a slightly fairy tale quality about it, a little bit screwball surreal. But at the same time it’s real.
We [Sam Levy and I] created this aesthetic with the camera, which was playful but very utilitarian. The camera was prescient. The camera would know more [than the characters].We were creating a tone and a world that was very specifically real but slightly heightened — like our world, but just a little bit to one side of our world.Click To Tweet
There’s this scene where Maggie and John are sitting at the bench. She’s describing his novel and how much she loves it, and she’s freezing so they’re going to go. The camera is watching them, and the camera just moves to the left on its own. It waits for them. And then they go. That happens a few times in the movie. The camera is waiting as if to say, “after you” or “Please come this way, this is the way it’s going to go.” This also created this sense of some other — going back to Midsummer Night’s Dream — there’s something else going on. It’s not just these people deciding.