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Interview: The Diary of a Teenage Girl Author Phoebe Gloeckner

On Seeing Diary of a Teenage Girl Brought to the Screen

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One of the most exciting films to come out of festivals this year has been the indie Diary of a Teenage Girl (now in wider release). The film is an adaptation of the graphic novel by writer/artist/professor Phoebe Gloeckner, and while not autobiographical, it’s based on her own experiences growing up. The process of seeing her work brought to the screen took more than a decade and saw several directors express interest in the project before the 2015 film came about.

Rather than put the character of Minnie Goetze in the hands of a filmmaker with a long filmography, Gloeckner finally gave the rights to comedian Marielle Heller, first as a play and eventually a film adaptation it into a film starring Kristen Wiig, Alexander Skarsgard, and Bel Powley as Minnie. Gloeckner spoke about the experience of seeing her work adapted and why the very personal story has such broad appeal.

Lesley Coffin (TMS): Rather than being a straight translation from book to film, there’s also a play Marielle Heller wrote, directed, and starred in. Was it Marielle who originally reached out to you regarding her interest in adapting the book as a play?

Phoebe Gloeckner: That was exactly what happened. I had spoken with a few directors right after the book came out, and I just couldn’t work with the ideas I was getting from them. So I sort of just forgot about making it into a movie, and then a few years later, Marielle contacted me about it and wanted to do it as a play. She was young and very enthusiastic, and just loved the book, and she was very persistent.

She talked to people I knew to try to get a hold of me, and when we finally got connected, I was flabbergasted when she said she wanted to do a play, because I couldn’t imagine the book as a play. So I said “okay, give it a try,” and I really didn’t think it could be made into a play or assumed it would never show, so it seemed like kind of a risk-free thing, because it would either be a great play and people would see it, or it would suck and no one would see it. A play is different from a film because film has a lasting imprint.

The play was great, and I was astonished. Not long after, she asked me if she could do a film, and I think doing the play gave her the experience she needed to make the film, because she hadn’t written and directed anything before. The play demonstrated to me that she could make the film.

TMS: What were some of the reasons you hesitated to sign the rights over to directors who approached you earlier?

Gloeckner: One director in particular I liked a lot and had lunch with him a few times. I’d liked his previous films, which had a certain tone that didn’t exactly make me feel confident that he would necessarily adapt the book as I would have. But during our last lunch together, when I was about to sign, he told me he was going to have Minnie marry her mother’s boyfriend, which I just couldn’t believe. I think he had another take on the book, because the first thing he said to me was, “I’ll never look at teenage girls the same again.” And I think he meant, rather than not understanding them, he just didn’t know they thought about sex that much.

TMS: Of course we do. I think for me the thing that really stands out about the story is that Minnie is very specific, her thoughts and ideas about life and family and sex feel very universal. After writing the book, when did you realize audiences had a personal connection to the character of Minnie?

Gloeckner: The book is based on my own experience, but I generally deny it being autobiographical because it isn’t a tell-all or anything. It’s a carefully crafted novel that’s meant to be read as fiction. So, in doing that, the character is based on me as a teenager, and as a teenager, I hated myself.

But I couldn’t write the book hating that character. It wouldn’t have made any one else like her. So I had to get all schizophrenic and separate myself from her and try to think of her as any person. Not just any girl, but any person—and I love that person. So the fact that a lot of people have written to me over the years and told me their life experiences growing up were nothing like mine or Minnie’s—that they didn’t have the same experiences—but that her thoughts and complicated inner life were so familiar has been gratifying. That was ideal response for me as a writer and hopefully for the film, because the story isn’t about sex—it’s about becoming a person. It just happens to have a lot of sex in it.

TMS: As a coming-of-age film, it seems like Minnie’s big emotional moment is realizing she doesn’t need outside validation, because she can finally love herself as she is. And it’s a very powerful scene to witness that epiphany and one a lot of people probably identify with, whether they have had Minnie’s experiences or not. For you was that your aim in for Minnie’s character?

Gloeckner: Yes, it was. Minnie comes from a particularly bereft family environment, with no one patting herself on the head and telling her she’s great or can succeed. So really to survive, she had to learn to love herself, and I think so many people feel that way—teenagers, young people … even older people. Anyone going through a transitional stage in life goes through this kind of self-hatred and doubt, And so, I think that message—that we do all need to learn to love ourselves—is a very important lesson.

TMS: What is it about the ’70s, particularly having Minnie and her mother experiencing women’s lib first hand, that’s so important for the book and film?

Gloeckner: Well, it is a story based on my experiences, and that’s when it happened. But it’s funny that Minnie is sort of “post-sexual revolution.” I remember being 8 or 9 years old and hearing about bra burnings and then abortions becoming legal. I hadn’t even had my period yet, but remember thinking to myself, “I’m so lucky because this is going to be all over by the time I become a woman, and everyone is going to be equal.” So I kind of grew up thinking I was equal and assuming everyone would understand that, but in reality you realize there are countless barriers for women, some of which are very subtle.

TMS: It’s funny because you get the sense that Minnie’s mother believes in feminism and equality and sexual liberation, but then she says some things to Minnie that just go against that ideology.

Gloeckner: And I don’t think that is necessarily a product of her time, but your children reflect you—or at least you think they do. So if they don’t look attractive to you, you’re going to say something and make comments, and I think there is also a little bit of jealousy and self-hatred from her. So I think her comments are a product of her own insecurities, rather than being the product of old-fashioned ideas.

TMS: What were your initial thoughts on incorporating animation in the film?

Gloeckner: Marielle decided to include it, and I don’t think I would have thought to do it myself, or at least not that kind of animation. But it works as a cinematic device. Minnie isn’t an animator; she’s an artist who draws. In the book, she writes in her diary; she doesn’t tape-record entries. But perhaps these work better on the screen and I don’t think they disrupt the spirit of the book.

TMS: What initially drew you to being a cartoonist and writing stories like this as graphic novels?

Gloeckner: We all start writing and drawing at the same time, probably around kindergarten. I’ve just always loved to draw, and I was always told I was a great artist by people, including my dad. I didn’t always like my drawings, but I was encouraged to keep doing them. But for me, there can be nothing more maddening than to see the static image, because I want it to tell a story, and words and images are intrinsically linked in my head.

That’s how I remember things, and images function very differently from words in a story. There is an immediacy to images—the idea emerges very quickly, and you can look at pictures further and see more detail, whereas the words are words, and they create a different kind of propulsion. I just have to use both when telling a story.

TMS: Because the character is based on yourself, did you want to have any input on who would be cast in the role of Minnie?

Gloeckner: Marielle ran things by me and told me about Bel, and I realized Bel is a good actress and could become any character. But it also happened to be that Bel had had life experiences that had informed her own response to the story, and in that sense, I thought she was perfect for the role. She really connected to Minnie. And the way she looks—she doesn’t look like me or Minnie, but she transformed herself and does look like Minnie in the film. It’s just the magic of film or she played the character so well that she took on those qualities. I thought she was great.

TMS: One of the relationships I found really interesting but was always in the background was how Minnie interacted with her younger sister, because with her sister Minnie had the opportunity to show affection to someone and break this chain that exists between mother and daughter. Besides the role her sister played in the narrative, why was that relationship between the sisters important to include in the story?

Gloeckner: I think that’s an important message, because it gives the viewer hope. There are all these loose strings that should give the viewer hope for the future, and that’s one of them. I think that relationship is incredibly important, and it isn’t that unusual. Right now, I’m doing a lot of work in Mexico, writing a book and speaking to people who are very, very poor, and I often see kids forming a kind of subfamily within their existing families.

Perhaps their dad is dead or a parent is on drugs, and the kids just aren’t getting what they need, and they will either act out and attack each other, or they will take care of each other—or both. There’s a physical memory of being treated well by a sibling but of also being beaten up; Minnie and her little sister have that kind relationship. Minnie will beat the crap out of Gretel but then feel regret and tell her she does love her, so it’s a complicated relationship that can wound as well as heal. One hopes the healing is what is remembered.

TMS: When you saw the film put together, what was it like to see your work interpreted by someone else?

Gloeckner: It was really weird. When I first saw the play, I was so affected by it that I was crying. The movie, there were so many people more interested in it than the play, so there was a certain amount of self-consciousness. So I was looking at the film but also looking at the audience.

I had to beg Sony to let me look at the film one more time, and they finally sent me a link, because I just had to calm down and watch it. The more I see it, the more I like it, but I don’t know how many more times I could watch it without losing my mind. But I do think it’s a great film, and there are a lot of differences, but that is true with any film based on a book. Books are generally longer than films, and films have to add music to push your buttons and make you feel a certain way at that moment. There are so many different things going on, so you just have to hope that the general feeling from the book is somehow translated, and I think it was.

TMS: When the adaption began, did you want to be a part of the decision-making and work with Marielle and the producers, or did you want to keep your distance?

Gloeckner: It was never “they” really, because I only ever spoke with Marielle, and we became pretty close. She stayed at my house a few times, and I realized she really did relate to the book. The reason people relate to books is because the book is speaking to them and their own experiences, and those experiences effect how you will interpret the character.

It was easy for me to realize that if I needed to be heavily involved, I should just make the movie myself. I considered doing that, but I didn’t want to live with this story anymore. I have other things I want to do, so Marielle was such a genuine person with such a genuine love for the character that I decided I just needed to let her run with it, because it would be hard to imagine she would fuck it up. I mean it’s a huge risk to give the rights to your book over to someone; a lot of authors have suffered because of it. But I’m not suffering. I’m happy with the film.

Lesley Coffin is a New York transplant from the midwest. She is the New York-based writer/podcast editor for Filmoria and film contributor at The Interrobang. When not doing that, she’s writing books on classic Hollywood, including Lew Ayres: Hollywood’s Conscientious Objector and her new book Hitchcock’s Stars: Alfred Hitchcock and the Hollywood Studio System.

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