A 'Diary' Unlocked: A Teenage Coming-Of-Age Story Put On Film
Graphic artist and professor Phoebe Gloeckner had an unconventional upbringing. When she was 15, she lost her virginity to an older man — who also happened to be her mother's boyfriend. Gloeckner chronicled the experience in her teenage diaries, which she put aside and then revisited when she found them decades later.
"I remember I opened the box with the diaries and I was just stunned to start reading," Gloeckner tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross. "To hear this child's voice, kind of, talking to me as an adult, it felt like it was crying out to be heard."
In 2002, Gloeckner detailed the turmoil of her teenage years in the semi-autobiographical graphic novel The Diary of a Teenage Girl. Eight years later, actress Marielle Heller adapted the book and starred in a New York theatrical production. More recently, she directed a movie version of the work, with Bel Powley as a teenage girl named Minnie, and Kristen Wiig as her mother.
Heller tells Gross that she felt an immediate connection to Gloeckner's novel: "Even though this isn't my story — I wasn't a teenage girl who slept with my mother's boyfriend — I was a sexual teenage girl, and I was into boys from a really young age. ... Reading Phoebe's book ... made me feel less alone and like, oh, maybe this is normal, maybe this isn't such a crazy thing to have been having all these thoughts and feelings."
On having a sexual relationship with her mother's boyfriend as a teenager
Phoebe Gloeckner: It was my first experience of any sort, the first person I ever kissed. ... It is upsetting, and the book, to me, has a lot of sadness, and it doesn't condone that relationship in the least. I think I was such a lonely kid and the adults in my life were busy with their lives in various ways, and he kind of just stepped in and was paying a lot of attention to me, and it turned into this other sort of attention. And I think in my head I thought, "Gosh, he's such a great guy. If he's doing this, maybe it's OK and maybe I just don't know."
On telling the story from Minnie's point of view, without judgment
Gloeckner: I was very, kind of, hypersexual, and it felt very pleasant and it did feel like love, it did feel like wonderful attention. So in that sense, I look at the story and I'm trying to express the voice of that girl with no judgment, just to express what she felt.
Marielle Heller: It felt like the way to honor Minnie's experience with the film was to tell the story purely from her point of view. So while she's experiencing that conflating of lust and love and that confusion whether these first sexual experiences are consensual or not, I wanted the audience to experience it the way she's experiencing it, and if she's not feeling like a victim in those moments, we shouldn't be feeling like she's a victim. If she's finding empowerment in moments of it, then we wanted that to be the experience of the film. Although I do think it's ... an abusive situation and she's being taken advantage of, but it's being told so much from her perspective, because I think a lot of situations, especially where young women are being taken advantage of — what I thought was so beautiful about what Phoebe had written is she kind of explained how you could fall into this type of situation, and how that could've been almost any of us in many ways.
On telling a therapist about her relationship when she was a teenager
Gloeckner: I went to a therapist, I guess I was sent there when I was 15. I think the school wanted me to go, maybe my mother wanted me to go, because I had been kicked out of several schools already and it wasn't clear why. I told the therapist [about the sexual experience] and she was totally freaked out, she was actually a therapist who dealt with childhood trauma ... so I thought she was going to help me, but she just said, "I've met with your mother, I cannot talk to you anymore. I'm going to have to find someone else for you to go to." She didn't report back to my mother, she didn't tell my mother what was going on, she just kind of flipped out. I remember feeling like, "This is too much for adults, they're not going to want to hear it." I was kind of silenced just by the therapist telling me she couldn't deal with it and not really explaining why.
On her mother's reaction when she found out
Gloeckner: I think she took it very personally that it was a personal blow, we were hurting her. I think that was her initial reaction, which I think a lot of people would have. There's a combination of shock and you don't really realize or fully integrate what's happened. ... She still maintains that she was very betrayed by this.
Heller: She blamed you.
Gloeckner: She blamed me. ... I don't think she was really capable of understanding how it affected me. She had been a teenage mother, she was still very young, very beautiful, very involved in her social life, and having a teenage girl in her life who was about the same age as she was when she got pregnant and got married, I can only imagine that she looked at me as something that was — she didn't know if I was adult or a child. She didn't know how my life compared to hers. People constantly mistook us as sisters. So no matter what she was feeling, there was reinforcement from those around us, like "Big Phoebe and Little Phoebe, they're just two peas in a pod, they're almost the same age." But it wasn't true. I was a child.
On casting Bel Powley as Minnie
Heller: In my mind, I kind of quantified the type of beauty I was looking for as being something different than the sort of traditional "hottie" ... young actress. I wanted somebody who was strikingly beautiful in a weird way, in a way that she might not know how beautiful she was, but that it was the type of beauty an older man would see and be drawn to, and that maybe even boys her own age don't yet know how special she is, but there is something there that is really amazing, and that you want to look at.
But I also wanted to cast somebody who felt like a real human being, that never felt like they were this airbrushed Disney version of what a teenage girl looks like. I wanted to feel like she was me — so she needed to be a little normal. She had to have a normal-ish body; she had to have normal-ish features; she couldn't look like a model had stepped off a page. And Bel had all of those qualities. She has these strikingly beautiful eyes that draw you in, that tell you everything you need to know, which are really similar to Phoebe's eyes — which are really similar to my eyes. In some ways, we all have big, intense eyes, and Bel had this face that I just wanted to look at.
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
We're going to talk about "The Diary Of A Teenage Girl," with my two guests. Phoebe Gloeckner wrote and directed the 2002 graphic novel of the same name from which the film is adapted. She's now an associate professor at the University of Michigan School of Art and Design. Marielle Heller wrote and directed the film adaptation. Before that, she wrote a stage adaptation of "The Diary Of A Teenage Girl," and played the part of Minnie when it was produced in 2010. This is her first film. Note to parents, we'll be talking about teen sexuality but not in an explicit way.
Marielle Heller, Phoebe Gloeckner, welcome to FRESH AIR. Marielle, let me start with you. You adapted Phoebe's graphic novel into a play, you starred in that play, and now you've written and directed the movie adaptation. Why do you have such a strong emotional connection with this story?
MARIELLE HELLER: I first read Phoebe's book about eight years ago when my sister gave it to me as a Christmas present. It wasn't like I was looking for material to adapt or anything. But I was so blown away by the honesty of the way Phoebe told the story and the voice of this teenage girl. Even though this isn't my story, I wasn't a teenage girl who slept with my mother's boyfriend, I was a sexual teenage girl. And I was into boys from a really young age. And I think I always thought something was kind of wrong with me. There weren't a lot of characters that I came across that were girls in movies or in books that were having those types of thoughts. It was always the boys who were having those thoughts.
And so part of me actually kind of thought maybe I was a boy or something because I felt like I matured really early and had all of these thoughts and feelings. And I didn't see - I didn't know that anyone else was having those thoughts and feelings until later in life. Until you have good girlfriends who you can sit down and talk everything through with and realize, oh, you had those feelings, too. I wasn't the only one. Why did I think I was the only one? And reading Phoebe's book made me feel that way. It made me feel less alone and like, oh, this is - maybe this is normal. Maybe this isn't such a crazy thing to have been having all of these thoughts and feelings.
GROSS: Phoebe, your graphic novel "The Diary Of A Teenage Girl," was published in 2002. What were your motivations for writing the book?
PHOEBE GLOECKNER: Well, it's based on actual diaries that I kept when I was 15 and 16. And I put it aside for a long time. But I always keep this stuff because I'm an artist, I'm a writer, you know, it's just stuff. You might use it somehow. And after my kids were born, I remember I opened the box with the diaries, and I was just stunned to start reading. I almost felt like - well, first of all, it just brought me back to that time. But to hear this child's voice kind of talking to me as an adult, it just - it felt like it was crying out to be heard. You know, I always say that it's not autobiographical, and I mean that. So even though I may have had every experience in that book, the act of creating a novel is both destructive and constructive. You're tearing things apart. You know, I would be the last one to say this is true in a novel sort of way.
GROSS: So are you saying that you actually had an affair when you were 15 with your mother's boyfriend?
GLOECKNER: Yes, it was my first experience of any sort; the first person I ever kissed. Yeah. Yes.
GROSS: I just can't imagine what that must have been like. I just - the movie is very nonjudgmental, as is the book. But I just find it so disturbing that that would be a first experience with somebody who should not have been - you know, with a man who should not have been having this sexual relationship.
GLOECKNER: Yeah, no, it is upsetting. And the book, to me, has a lot of sadness, and it doesn't condone that relationship in the least. I think I was such a lonely kid. And the adults in my life were busy with their lives in various ways. And he kind of just stepped in and, you know, was paying a lot of attention to me. And it turned into this other sort of attention. And I think in my head I thought - gosh, you know, he's such a great guy. If he's doing this, maybe it's OK. And maybe I just don't know. Does that answer that?
GROSS: Yeah, well, you know, the impression I get from the movie and the novel is that Minnie, the character, really wants intimacy. She doesn't feel like anybody loves her. And she's confusing physical closeness - she's confusing the act of sex with an act of love and with emotional intimacy.
GLOECKNER: Yeah, very much so. I mean - I guess - well, I wrote another book called "A Child's Life And Other Stories," and that gives more of Minnie's back-story, which was not - you know, there were cases of not overt sexual abuse but kind of a emotional abuse where I felt - or Minnie felt as a very young girl that that was her value - that sex was her only value. I remember being told by my stepfather that I was not pretty. But there was something about me that was very sexy. And I didn't understand that. But I think it - you know, along with his subsequent behavior, I tried to make sense of that. But it was almost like Minnie was sort of a sitting duck for anyone to do what the character, Monroe, did because she kind of believed that that was her value.
GROSS: I'm hearing a difference between the two stories - between the stories of each of your lives. I mean, Marielle, it sounds like sexuality is very empowering for you. And, Phoebe, it sounds like sexuality was something that you were, like, misled into.
GLOECKNER: No, but I never would have thought that, though. I mean...
GLOECKNER: I was very kind of hypersexual. And it felt very pleasant. And it did feel like love. It did feel like wonderful attention. So in that sense, you know, I look at the story, and I'm trying to express the voice of that girl with no judgment, just to express what she felt.
HELLER: And I think I took that idea, and what I read when I read the book, which was this purity of Minnie's voice and this story coming from so much from the perspective a teenage girl, where these stories are so rarely told from that perspective. And it felt like the way to honor Minnie's experience with the film was to tell the story purely from her point of view. So while she's experiencing that conflating of lust and love and that confusion of whether these first sexual experiences are consensual or not, I wanted the audience to experience it the way she's experiencing it. And if she's not feeling like a victim in those moments, we shouldn't be feeling like she's a victim. If she's finding empowerment in moments of it, then we wanted that to be the experience of the film. Although, I do think it's a situation where she's in an abusive situation, and she's being taken advantage of. But what I thought was so beautiful about what Phoebe had written is she kind of explained how you could fall into this type of situation and how that could have been almost any of us.
GROSS: And, you know, Minnie thinks of it as empowering. Like, she has power over this man. He - she thinks that even if he doesn't love her, he loves her body. And that's giving her a sense of power and of comfort in her body, which leads me to another thought. You know, there's times where, like, Minnie is looking at herself in the mirror naked, and, you know, the way that teenagers critically analyze their changing body. And the thought of becoming sexual before your body has fully matured is - it's such a complicated thing because your body is changing. You don't know how you feel about it yet. Let me quote something that Minnie says in the novel. You know, she's thinking that she's maybe unattractive, that she's maybe fat, that her breasts aren't the right size. And in the book she says, "A body can depress you. You wonder is it fat? Is it ugly? What does it look like from behind?" So the thought of putting yourself in such a kind of vulnerable situation at the age of 15 when your body isn't even fully matured yet. It seems like such a hyper-vulnerable age to start becoming sexual.
GLOECKNER: Yeah, I mean...
GLOECKNER: I mean, I've read all the reviews of the film - which indeed I think is a great film. And I'm so happy that Marielle was the one to make it. Some of the reviews - I mean, they do use the word empowered and, you know, Minnie has agency. But I can tell you that Minnie was overwhelmed with sex. And I don't think if you had told her, you're empowered and you have agency - it would not have computed.
GROSS: My guests are Phoebe Gloeckner, the author of the autobiographical 2002 graphic novel "The Diary Of A Teenage Girl," and Marielle Heller, who wrote and directed the new film adaptation of the same name. We'll be back after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. My guest, Marielle Heller, wrote and directed the new film "The Diary Of A Teenage Girl" about a teenage girl's sexual coming-of-age. She adapted it from the 2002 graphic novel of the same name by Phoebe Gloeckner, who is also with us. The novel is based on Gloeckner's experience when she was 15 and had a relationship with her mother's boyfriend.
So, Phoebe, in your life, did anyone discover that you were having this affair with your mother's boyfriend?
GLOECKNER: Oh, well, eventually, yeah. Well, actually, I could tell you this. I went to a therapist. I guess I was sent there when I was 15. I think the school wanted me to go. Maybe my mother wanted me to go because I had flunked - I had been kicked out of several schools already, and it wasn't clear why. So I told the therapist, and she was totally freaked out. She was actually a therapist who dealt with childhood trauma, and she helped the children of Chowchilla, the Chowchilla kidnapping. So I had known some of these things, and I thought she was going to help me, but she just said, no, wait, I've met with your mother. I cannot talk to you anymore. I'm going to have to find someone else for you to go to. And she didn't report back to my mother. She didn't tell my mother what was going on. She just kind of flipped out. And I remember feeling, like, this is too much for adults. They're not going to want to hear it. And I was kind of sort of silenced just by the therapist telling me she couldn't deal with it and not really explaining why.
GROSS: What message did that send to you about what you had done?
GLOECKNER: I just had this kind of, you know - I was so afraid to tell her, and I built up, and I told her. And I was expecting, I think, some sort of help or relief or something, a discussion, at least. But her reaction made me feel like I had done something very bad. And she immediately, you know, switched notes and told me she was - she can't talk to me anymore. She was going to find me a different therapist. It just gave me this cold feeling in my heart, like she thought I was a little weirdo or something. I don't know. I don't know exactly, but it felt bad.
GROSS: When your mother found out, could you compare how she reacted to you and how she reacted to her boyfriend, who had been having sex with you?
GLOECKNER: Well, I think she took it very personally that it was, you know, a personal blow. We were hurting her. I think that was her initial reaction, which, I think, a lot of people would have. I mean, there's a combination of shock, and you don't really realize or fully integrate what's happened. I think I was...
HELLER: I don't know that she has the reaction that a lot of people would have. Sorry.
HELLER: It always struck me as such a very specific reaction and not the reaction I would ever expect a mother to have in that moment because she doesn't jump to your - she didn't, from what I know about the story, didn't...
GLOECKNER: No, she didn't.
HELLER: ...Jump to mothering you.
GLOECKNER: She didn't. No, and she still says - she still maintains that she was very betrayed by this.
HELLER: She blamed you.
GLOECKNER: She blamed me. So - but here we are talking about this kind of area.
GLOECKNER: I don't think she was really capable of understanding how it affected me. I mean, she had been a teenage mother. She was still very young, very beautiful, you know, very involved in her social life. And, you know, having a teenage girl in her life who was about the same age as she was when she got pregnant and got married, I can only imagine that she looked at me as something that was - she didn't know if I was adult or a child. She didn't know how my life compared to hers. You know, people constantly mistook us as sisters. So no matter what she was feeling, the kind of - there was reinforcement from those around us, like, oh, yeah, big Phoebe and little Phoebe. They're just, you know, two peas in a pod. They're almost the same age. But it wasn't true. I was a child, and I did need a different kind of attention.
GROSS: We'll hear more of my interview with Phoebe Gloeckner, the author of the 2002 graphic novel, "The Diary Of A Teenage Girl," and Marielle Heller, who wrote and directed the new film adaptation after a break. We're listening to music from the soundtrack. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
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AMBER COFFMAN: (Singing) What did you dream about last night? How did you feel...
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with my two guests. Marielle Heller wrote and directed the new film, "The Diary Of A Teenage Girl," which is about the sexual coming-of-age of a 15-year-old girl named Minnie whose first lover is her mother's boyfriend. The movie is adapted from the graphic novel of the same name by Phoebe Gloeckner, who's also with us. The novel has many parallels to Gloeckner's teenage years. We've been talking about the complications of living through this story and of telling it.
You know, another complicated thing, I think - I think 15-year-olds are children but they want to think of themselves as not being children. They want to think of themselves as adults. So...
GROSS: ...So I think that's - it's so easy for that misconception that you're actually a fully-formed adult to lead you into behavior that you're not ready for.
GLOECKNER: Yeah, definitely. It was - I think it was easy for Minnie to kind of convince people that she was more adult because she was a smart kid despite having being kicked out of school. I'm sure it was confusing...
HELLER: That was something I related to so much about the book, was, I remember feeling at 15 like I was an adult and like every decision I was making I was making with full eyes open and - because I knew what was best for me. And the thought that anyone would've told me that because I wasn't of legal age I couldn't make my own decisions, it just would've sent me through the roof. And I always related to that feeling about Minnie. I think every teenager has that feeling.
GLOECKNER: Yeah, except I don't think Minnie quite felt that way. I think that she didn't really have much to rebel against at all because there were no controls.
GLOECKNER: So she wasn't trying to be an adult. I think she did wish that there were - there had been more restraints on her. People used to tell me now - they used to tell me, God, you know, your family is so cool. You can do whatever you want. You can smoke pot at home, you can do this. And I would say, you know, I wish I lived in your house. (Laughter). I would've welcomed the chance to not have been allowed to do anything. You know, I used to fantasize about living in a monastery where I would be absolutely controlled and yet they would respect my talent and I could sit there with a candle and draw all the time - illuminated manuscripts. So I really longed for that kind of, like - you know, I wanted to be just held tightly and controlled because it was - everything was so anarchical.
GROSS: Well, you were 15 in 1976, which is when the book and the movie "The Diary Of A Teenage Girl" are set. Your mother was a hippie. And Marielle, I read that your parents were hippies even though you're younger. Is that right?
HELLER: It's true. Yeah, I grew up in - across the bay in Berkeley, in Alameda, in the East Bay area. My mother grew up in Berkeley and my dad was from Brooklyn but showed up sometime in the late '70s to Berkeley. And they were definitely hippies.
GLOECKNER: Marielle, can I ask you - how old are your parents?
HELLER: They're in their mid-60s now. So they were really, like, you know, the late '60s hippie movement, and...
GLOECKNER: Yeah because my mom is just 71 or 72. So they're similar in age, really.
HELLER: Yeah, yeah.
GROSS: Phoebe, you described what didn't work for you about that, that you wanted limits. You wanted somebody to tell you, you can't do that, that's not good for you. And I think you would've accepted it as a sign of love if somebody had told you that.
GLOECKNER: I think so. Yeah.
GROSS: So Marielle, what worked for you and what didn't work for you, in retrospect, growing up in an environment that stressed freedom as opposed to limits?
HELLER: I mean, I had a very different childhood in a lot of ways than Phoebe. I was the kid of hippies, but hippies who were together and in love and were coming up with new ways to raise kids that were very loose but were based on positive reinforcement. I was nursed for a really long time - till I was, like, 3-and-a-half. And they wanted to be the most loving parents they possibly could be. And I have really wonderful parents. But I saw constantly in all of my friends, I mean, there were many examples of friends of mine dating someone else's dad and people were smoking pot with people's parents constantly, or doing coke too - but that was a little bit less. You saw that - that was more rare. But there was this kind of free-for-all that was happening. And sometimes that left - I knew a lot of kids who that left kind of feeling just alone and like they weren't being seen and they definitely weren't being parented. And there was a lot of anger, I felt, kind of growing up where there were a lot of kids whose parents were so self-involved that they were sort of left hanging, feeling like they didn't have anybody looking after them. And it was something that I recognized in Phoebe's book for sure 'cause it was still something that I saw happening in the Bay Area constantly. I'm sure it happens everywhere.
GROSS: In the book and in the movie "Diary Of A Teenage Girl," 15-year-old Minnie is exposed to her mother and her friends drinking and doing drugs and having sex and stuff. And are there things that you each feel like you were exposed to that maybe you shouldn't have been?
GLOECKNER: Well, may I say something that was good about all that exposure?
GLOECKNER: Sure. So my mother, you know, no matter what else I can say, I mean, she was someone - she survived. She survived a lot. She had a really up and down life. And, you know, we lived actually in Pacific Heights, which is, like, a very rich neighborhood in San Francisco. But how did we do it? I don't know. She found a flat very cheap. She was so good at that. Like, if something was good, she could maybe get it, like, at, you know, one-sixth of the price. And anyway, so we lived in this wonderful place - not at all at the same economic level as anyone around us, but we lived there. Also she's very smart. She's a librarian. She read all the time. And - including comic books. And she and her husband at the time - when I was, you know, 11, 12 - they read underground comic books too. And they hid them from us, but we found them. And I loved them. And a light bulb went on in my head and I said, you can tell anything in this medium. I mean, I didn't even like comics before that. I just realized that this could be anything. And I started doing them when I was pretty young.
GROSS: So I just - one more thing before we move on to another chapter. I just keep thinking of how treacherous the teenage years are. And I know, Marielle, you just had a baby. Phoebe, I think your children are probably grown?
GLOECKNER: One is 24 and one is 16.
GROSS: Well, Phoebe, let me ask you - the graphic novel "The Diary Of A Teenage Girl" is dedicated to - I'll read the dedication. It says, (reading) this is for all the girls when they have grown.
So in terms of your daughter now, who's 16, and who was a part of the making of the movie, what message do you want her to take away from your experiences and from the book and the film?
GLOECKNER: Certainly I'm not encouraging her to do the same things. But I know that anybody, any teenager is just faced with this, like, incredible soup of, like, conflicting emotions and feelings. And it's - everything is in the moment. You're in this cloud. You can barely see beyond tomorrow. And you certainly aren't, like, too empathetic with the adults. And for me, that's a lot of what that book is. It's trying to give voice to that turmoil. I remember reading "Lolita" and seeing the movie, and things like that infuriated me because the girl was typically reduced to a cardboard, you know, sex object that didn't have these feelings. And there are these archetypes, like, you know, the virgin. The virgin girl is something that inspires men to protect her. And if she's not a virgin, you know, she's kind of questionable. She's a seductress. But she's - her kind of personhood is denied. And it's infuriating. It makes you feel empty watching these things.
GROSS: My guests are Phoebe Gloeckner, the author of the autobiographical 2002 graphic novel, "The Diary Of A Teenage Girl," and Marielle Heller, who wrote and directed the new film adaptation of the same name. We'll be back after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. My guest, Marielle Heller, wrote and directed the new film "The Diary Of A Teenage Girl," about a teenage girl's sexual coming-of-age. Heller adapted it from the 2002 graphic novel of the same name by Phoebe Gloeckner, who's also with us. The novel is based on Gloeckner's experiences when she was 15 and had her first sexual relationship. It was with her mother's boyfriend.
Phoebe, can I ask you if there were ever any consequences for the man who'd been your mother's boyfriend who you had the affair with?
GLOECKNER: No. No consequences.
GROSS: Do you wish that there were?
GLOECKNER: Well, I guess what I wish is that maybe someone had intervened and stopped it. But that didn't happen. I spoke with him on Facebook a while ago. And we discussed the past a little bit because he was excited about the movie coming out. And I'm laughing as I say this.
HELLER: It's so weird. It's so weird.
GLOECKNER: Yeah, he was showing the trailer to a friend of his without saying his relationship to the movie. And he told me his friend said, oh, that's a really screwed up situation. That's - oh, wow. And Monroe said, what do you mean? That's a real man.
GROSS: Wow, so he still thinks, like, this was a good thing.
GLOECKNER: I guess so. I mean I think somehow even when I was writing a diary when I was 15, some part of me was hoping that he would read it one day and that he would realize how much I loved him. And he would love me back, see me for who I was. But now I know at that time and not at this time - you know, after I've been disabused of any kind of desire to connect that way with him again - I realize that, that's not something he was capable of doing.
GROSS: Just one more thing about this, you know, when I watched the movie and when I read the book, I was very angry with the mother. Like, how can you not see that this is happening? How can you be that oblivious? And I don't know if you feel comfortable talking about this, Phoebe, but were you ever really angry with your mother for not only having not said you can't do this, but not to have even noticed that something so terrible was going on?
GLOECKNER: Well, I guess it wasn't anger. I kept thinking that she must know. In my heart I was thinking, well, why isn't she saying anything? In fact, I thought, everybody must know, why isn't anyone saying anything?
HELLER: It was a question that came up in the shooting of the movie too because those questions about human behavior of why doesn't Charlotte say something is the exact kind of question that an actor would ask of, do I know? How much do I know? What do I see? And we ended up kind of talking a lot about conscientious denial or just that not seeing what you don't want to see and how powerful that can be. And I guess I always imagined that the mother character - I don't know if we're talking about reality (laughter) or the story at this moment, but they're so mixed up - but that denial plays so heavily into this situation.
GROSS: So did Kristen Wiig, who plays the mother, and who is also a good friend of yours, say to you, why does my character not get it?
HELLER: Yeah, definitely because those are the questions you dig into as an actor first is, why am I behaving this way? Why am I - and I think for anyone reading the script, maybe the first thing you would think is, why don't I say something so much earlier as the mother? Why don't I see it so much earlier?
And the decision we made was that she has this powerful denial going on because if she had to admit that then she would have to admit - it would open up a can of worms that she doesn't want to deal with. And she would rather let herself go on believing this man and what he tells her because it's easier. And then she would have to be - she would have to step up in a major, maternal way and deal with a major problem, which she didn't have the emotional capabilities of doing. So in so many ways, it was a way to protect herself.
GLOECKNER: Yeah, and any kind of rickety support system she had kind of involved that man.
GLOECKNER: And that would just, like, all collapse like a stack of cards or something.
GLOECKNER: You know, can I say something - one thing in general about the film? OK. If I compare the book and the film, to me, the book is sadder and darker, although it really does have a happy ending. But the journey that Minnie goes on is, you know, it kind of goes to greater depths. Whereas in the movie, you do feel sort of elevated enough pretty quickly that you don't have to feel those real lows. And I think it really works in the film.
GROSS: I feel a little compelled to say when you say that your novel has a happy ending, its not, like, the 16-year-old and the 35-year-old realize it is true love and...
GROSS: ...And live happily ever after. It's more like, she discovers some kind of inner core that allows her to, like, stand on her own two feet...
GROSS: ...And be independent and know who she is.
GLOECKNER: Yeah, and she...
HELLER: And I hope that that's the empowering part of the story more than anything is...
GLOECKNER: More than the sex or anything else.
HELLER: ...Her connecting to herself. When people call it empowering, what they're hooking into is that she connects to herself as an artist and to herself as a person.
GLOECKNER: That is the point of the book really, if there's a point, and what you get from the movie.
HELLER: And the point of the film.
GLOECKNER: And the sex is there. It carries everything along. But it's really kind of secondary. It becomes a device and it's interesting, but this is a young person finding their voice and beginning to accept themselves and know who they are.
HELLER: And I hope that part is the same in both - I never know how to feel when you talk about the difference between (laughter) the book and the movie.
GLOECKNER: Well, you shouldn't feel like...
HELLER: ...Well, for so long all I wanted - I wanted to please you in some way. And I think - and then at some point had to let go of that 'cause otherwise I wasn't going to make a good movie.
GLOECKNER: But it's not even that I'm not pleased. I just - you know, I think you come from a background that is a little less - your family was intact, OK? I had this other kind of family. I think that in many ways, Minnie's voice is kind of amplified because it is this kind of heightened awareness, heightened reactivity. And it's kind of the voice of, you know, emotional trauma, of some sort, in that kid. So maybe that's why people get it - because it is amplified. And I think that you took out of that whatever was, you know...
HELLER: ...True for me.
GLOECKNER: True for you. But what you did get is this voice which - you've held it throughout the movie. And when I say that it's a little less dark, or this or that, I'm not saying that as a criticism. You know, I love the movie. And I am just looking at it because I'm the author and so I have to naturally say...
HELLER: Of course, yeah.
GLOECKNER: ...Does this say what my book says? And what are these differences? And what do those differences mean in terms of what are viewers going to interpret it, the meaning of the story? Yeah, so it's natural.
GROSS: Well, let me introduce you both for people who are just tuning in. We're talking about "The Diary Of A Teenage Girl." It started as a graphic novel in 2002, written by my guest, Phoebe Gloeckner, and now it's been adapted into a new movie, written and directed by my other guest, Marielle Heller. We're going to take a short break and then we're going to talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, my guests are Marielle Heller, who wrote and directed the new film, "The Diary Of A Teenage Girl," which is about the sexual coming-age of a 15-year-old girl, and also with me is Phoebe Gloeckner, who wrote the graphic novel that the film is based on. Marielle, you originally adapted this as a play. And this was what, in 2010?
GROSS: And you starred in the leading role...
HELLER: (Laughter) I did.
GROSS: ...As the 15-year-old girl. And now that you're making the movie, you've just had your first child, you're married, you're too old. Years have gone by. You're too old for the role. So you cast somebody else in the role. She's really good. Her name is Bel Powley.
HELLER: She's amazing.
GROSS: When you were casting for the actress to play the 15-year-old Minnie - who doesn't think of herself as attractive, who thinks she's fat, who thinks that her breasts are too big or too small - did you - how did you go about casting for looks? Because you know, so often there's, like, a beautiful actress who, in order to look like a normal person, is just, like, not wearing makeup and her hair is a little mussed.
HELLER: Puts on glasses (laughter).
GROSS: Puts on glasses, exactly. But you can tell, like, this person is absolutely gorgeous. And there's something less than convincing when you see somebody as attractive like that in a role of somebody who's supposed to be plain or self-conscious because they think of themselves as unattractive.
HELLER: Well, I guess...
GROSS: So how did that come into play?
HELLER: I guess I - in my mind I kind of quantified the type of beauty I was looking for as being something different than the sort of traditional hottie kind of little beauty that I would want in a young actress. I wanted somebody who was strikingly beautiful in a weird way, in a way that other - that she might not know how beautiful she was, but that it was the type of beauty an older man would see and be drawn to. And that maybe even boys her own age don't yet know how special she is, but there is something there that is really amazing that you want to look at. But I also wanted to cast somebody who felt like a real human being, that never felt like they were this airbrushed, you know, kind of Disney version of what a teenage girl looks like. I wanted to feel like she was me. So she needed to be a little normal. She had to have a normal-ish body, she had to have normal-ish features, she couldn't look like a model had stepped off a page. And Bel had all of those qualities. She has these strikingly beautiful eyes that draw you in, that tell you everything you need to know, which are really similar to Phoebe's eyes, which are really similar to my eyes. In some ways, we all have big, intense eyes. And Belle had this face that I just wanted to look at. But somehow I didn't look at her and feel like - it felt like she was me. It felt like she was a girl you would be friends with and you would know.
GROSS: So what advice did you give Bel Powley, the actress who plays the 15-year-old in your movie but is actually in her '20s? And I think she was 22 when she shot the film. And Alexander Skarsgard, who plays the older man who she has the affair with - and he's probably best known to Americans as Eric the vampire in "True Blood." And it's a terrific performance in this 'cause he gets a lot of emotional mood swings and a lot of - like, you see deeper and deeper into him as the film goes on. So what advice did you to give them about what their relationship should read like on screen and especially when they have these sex scenes together - which I should say are not explicit, but still, they're doing something that, you know, is - they should not be doing.
HELLER: Yeah. Well, we talked less about how the audience should perceive what they're doing, and we much more talked about what it should feel like for them internally. And we actually approached sort of all of the characters in the film as sort of being emotionally 15. It kind of gave us an entry point into talking about how they might relate to each other 'cause I think Monroe is a character who - he's one of those guys who just hasn't really grown up. He's sort of a bit of a man-child and definitely doesn't take responsibility for himself and his life and his actions, and he's clearly doing something that's wrong. But whenever anybody is doing something that's wrong, they don't think that they're doing something that's wrong. Nobody thinks of themselves as a bad guy. So he can't approach the character with that. He needs to approach the character finding out why he does what he does. And he needed to bring a humanity to the character also because I felt like it was important as a story that we show all of the gray zones of this relationship, and how they really got into it because if we start from a place of judgment watching a movie, you're never going to engage. You'll - the movie might as well be over two minutes in. You have to go along with the story and understand why the characters are doing what they're doing and imagine yourself as Minnie, I think. Imagine yourself falling into this relationship with this man and how might that happen. So you have to see the positive sides of this guy. You have to see all of the wide range - the ways that he's really charming, the ways that he gives her attention that she's been seeking and hasn't been getting from anybody else. And then, hopefully, later in the film, you get to see the much darker sides of him.
So we really approached it from just trying to find the humanity in these characters and find the ways in which they connected 'cause it was obviously easy to find the ways in which what they were doing was wrong. It was harder to find the ways in which what they were doing was right.
GROSS: There are moments where Bel Powley, the actress who plays the 15-year-old Minnie, is naked. And that she's staring at herself critically in the mirror, as I recall.
GROSS: And, you know, and evaluating her body kind of negatively. So when you were shooting her naked, how did you want to shoot her so that it wasn't, like, hey, here's a hot chick. Like, look at that body, you know? So you weren't shooting it to like - with a purpose of, like, arousing men in the audience, but rather to communicate what you wanted her nakedness to communicate?
HELLER: It's a really fine line and something I've thought a lot about because I was really nervous that it would feel like we were exploiting a young actress. And that was not the intention of the film at all. It's a movie made by women and about women's experiences, but you can't avoid the fact that people are going to watch a body naked on screen. And you can't really tell a movie about coming-of-age and sexuality without showing some nudity. It just wouldn't work, I don't think. So I kind of made some rules for myself. And one of rules I made for myself was that when we saw the most amount of nudity, it would be in nonsexual situations. So like, the scene you're talking about - she's fully naked looking at her body in the mirror. And there's another scene where she and Monroe get into a big fight and she's almost totally naked - she has little underwear on. But those are the scenes where you see the most, and they're not titillating, they're not sexualized. They're really about the self-reflection that comes when you're a teenage - 'cause I think everybody did that. Everybody whose body started to change and started to imagine that someone else was going to see them naked for the first time, stood in front of the mirror, totally naked, examining their body, trying to figure out what someone else was going to see when they saw you naked. And it's one of my favorite moments in the movie. But we tried to just let it be really observational and let the camera work and the lighting and everything that was happening, not editorialize. It wasn't telling us what to think about it or it was trying to give sexy camera angles or quick cuts or anything to make it feel sexy. It was really trying to let it just be pretty naked in itself. To let it be really vulnerable, to let it just play and to let it reflect where Minnie was emotionally, I guess.
GROSS: Marielle Heller wrote and directed the new film, "The Diary Of A Teenage Girl." Phoebe Gloeckner wrote the 2002 graphic novel, "The Diary Of A Teenage Girl," from which the film was adapted. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.