How 'The Diary Of A Teenage Girl' Writer-Director Marielle Heller Found A Star In Bel Powley

Marielle Heller made quite an impression with her Sundance 2015-premiering directorial debut The Diary Of A Teenage Girl, a film taking on the tricky subject of burgeoning female sexuality—a topic which has perhaps never been treated with this level of honesty. The film, which was based on a graphic novel by Phoebe Gloeckner and picked up for a pretty penny by Sony Pictures Classics, stars Bel Powley as Minnie, a teenager coming of age in ‘70s San Francisco, who engages in a sexual tryst with her mother’s boyfriend. Heller’s film is driven, in large part, by the talents of women both above and below the line, and is suggestive of the fresh, exciting, female-driven storytelling we can continue to look forward to if studio gatekeepers would only take a few notes from the Sundance programmers. Heller is reasonably frustrated by the lack of diverse voices in the industry, while recognizing that she may be amongst the first wave of women to benefit from a hopefully major tidal shift. Last week, ahead of the Independent Spirit Awards, Heller got on the phone with AwardsLine to discuss her learning curve of a directorial debut, working with the source material and the state of female representation in film.

How has Phoebe Gloeckner responded to the incredible reception of the film?

She has been an incredible collaborator. She’s been amazing. She’s such an artist herself, and she really understood right from the beginning what I needed in order to make this movie. I really needed to be able to take it and let it become its own artistic project, its own separate entity, so obviously, it was a big deal when I first met her. We had to build up a lot of trust, but once we did, she really let me have a lot of freedom with the film, and kind of take it and run with it.

She came and visited the set and was there for a number of weeks. Also, her daughters were both involved in the film. One of them was a PA on the film, the other was an extra, so she’s been really happy with the outcome. She didn’t see the film until it premiered at Sundance, and when she saw it, she was really blown away, and I think really loved it. There are things that are very different from the book, but I think she felt ultimately like it fulfilled the spirit of the book and the main story, and that that’s the most important thing, and although part of the narrative had to shift in order to be a movie, she really understood that and feels like it honored her story, which means a lot to me.

Was there a learning curve throughout this process, Diary being your feature directorial debut?

It definitely was a steep learning curve. Directing is a really difficult job and one that I felt a little bit intimidated by before I started out, but I went to the Sundance Director’s Lab, which was a hugely helpful process in terms of feeling like I knew what I was doing and that I was prepared for it. It was my version of film school condensed into five weeks, where I got to workshop scenes from the movie and work with really great advisors. I came out of there feeling like I at least had the tools I needed to get the job done, and so much of it was about feeling confident that I knew my story inside and out, and I knew what I wanted the movie to be, and that I was so clear on my vision of it that everything else could fall into place.

With your prior adaptation of Gloeckner’s graphic novel to the stage and now to film, you’ve spent an extraordinary amount of time immersing yourself in the character of Minnie and her world. What were some of the ways in which you augmented or added color to the original material for this adaptation?

I condensed a lot of stuff. The movie has to have one long narrative arc, and the book, you can read in multiple sittings and put down, and so there are tons of storylines that I didn’t even get to touch that are in the book that just would have felt like they were taking us off course. And then I combined characters, and characters grew and shifted.

The relationship with the mother was something that I could have expanded on in the script. As I was writing the script, I felt it was sort of calling for a little bit more fleshing out between the two of them in certain scenes, so I took a lot of liberties with that relationship. Also, once I was imagining Kristin Wiig in the character, it shifted things for me too. It was like hearing her voice in a different way.

You were born at the tail end of the ‘70s. How was it, then, recreating an era on screen that you didn’t live through?

 Even though I was born at the very end of the ‘70s, there’s this vibe in the Bay Area, which is that you missed out on the best time to be alive, which was the ‘60s and ‘70s, and we all kind of grew up with this feeling that we had just missed the party. All of our parents and everybody you know were constantly reliving and talking through what their lives had been like back then, so I felt like I was already an expert on that just from my own family’s history. I did do a lot of digging through old pictures, and my amazing production designer, Jonah Markowitz, and our art team were also really invested in the authenticity of the Bay Area, specifically in the ‘70s, not just like Ohio in the ‘70s or some generic version of the ‘70s. It was really what this specific place was.

We had a lot of fun digging through all of our family’s pictures and old archival pictures of the city and then also, just kind of telling stories and reliving all the stories we had heard from our families, or in the case of some people, who had lived through it. It’s very present still—the ’70s are very present in the Bay Area.

Diary is gorgeously shot and has a very unique visual aesthetic. How did you land on the color palette and a lighting strategy for the film?

Brandon Trost, our DP, who’s incredible, and I talked a lot about thinking about the film almost like a faded Polaroid, and the biggest inspiration along the whole line was always just being in Minnie’s point of view. Every decision was informed by that— how she would have been remembering this story or thinking about it. I also always envisioned the script even in writing as sort of a memory piece where it flows together the same as you would remember a story, like a memory. We used that as inspiration and then tried to match the color palette to what would have been film stock from the ‘70s too. We didn’t use colors that didn’t exist back then (on film), as though if we had been making the ‘70s, we wanted to kind of keep it within that realm.

All of the designers—our costume designer, Carmen Grande, and Jonah and Brandon, everybody worked together and we all came up with this color scheme that felt really right where browns replaced your blacks, and using a little bit of black and brown, and everything has that real authentic feeling of the ‘60s and ‘70s in the Bay Area. We let it all be based on these characters and really what they would have been into, and how they would’ve decorated their house, and how they would’ve dressed.

When you’re shooting a city like San Francisco for a period piece, is it also a matter of framing a certain way, or avoiding certain things?

Yeah. It’s a careful game of hiding little aspects, shooting a little more into the buildings, or trying to. Worst-case scenario, we would put extras in front of pieces of the city that we couldn’t move. You were carefully trying to hide things left and right. Luckily, San Francisco still looks a lot like the ‘70s, but there are big sections of the city we had to avoid, like downtown, and then we did our best to redress things as much as we could. Yeah. We were a scrappy gang.

Along with these very fresh visual choices, you have an incredibly dynamic, unique soundtrack and score, which you worked on with your brother, Nate Heller. How did that all come together?

Nate had to do a lot of recreations and figure out how to score in a way that felt like it was both imaginative and could fill out the comic book element or the fantasy element of the film, as well as tie it together with the ‘70s vibe. Then our music supervisor, Howard Paar— who’s really incredible— helped me to find all of this music. It was more underground real music that people would’ve been listening to in the ‘70s, not just the big pop hits that we would remember. I also pulled some music from my brother-in-law, Asa, who sent me tracks he had been digging through, record bins and found stuff. He found the Labi Siffre song which I love, Crying, Laughing, Loving, Lying.

It was a fun process but a tough one because people hear of the ‘70s and they think of like five bands that we all remember, but there was a lot of really great music, and great music specifically coming out of the Bay Area, or that the people in the Bay Area would’ve been listening to, that was a little more subversive.

Howard and I talked a lot about the difference between the music that Minnie would’ve been listening to versus Charlotte (Kristin Wiig’s character)—that Charlotte’s character is still a little bit caught in the ‘60s and is also maybe slightly dipping her toe in some disco, and Minnie is much more influenced by the punk scene, which is developing, and glam rock and all of that.

The film features a few lively sequences of animation. The animation workflow is typically a long process—how did you integrate that process into the overall construction of the film?

We started the animation process a year before we started filming. Sara Gunnarsdóttir, the animator, and I started working together and developing the style. She started the actual animation back then, and then we could storyboard schematics of where the animation would come in and then film according to that. Then there was other stuff we found in the edit later where we realized there were moments where we needed something and we would add in some animation, so it was a long, evolving process, and she hand drew everything with animation and just did an incredible job.

You’ve commented in depth about the state of female representation in film and television. Are you optimistic that a progression is occurring as far as the presence of diverse voices in entertainment?

Well, I think female characters are one aspect of it. Representation behind the lens is the other aspect of it. There’s been a bit of a tipping point in terms of talking about female directors this year, which I think is a really positive thing, and I’m hoping that the public outcry about the Oscars and about the lack of diversity in general will lead to a little bit of a shaming of the studios and the studio systems so people tip. But I have been a little bit discouraged when I’ve talked to some of my more seasoned female peers who’ve said, “Oh, every couple of years this conversation happens and then nothing changes,” and I just sort of hope that’s not true. I hope that this time people have bitched enough and actually want change, and it shifts.

What’s your next big move as a writer-director? You are notably attached to a film, On the Basis of Sex, starring Natalie Portman, while directing for acclaimed series such as Transparent and Casual.

I’ve been enjoying exploring all of the cool storytelling that’s happening on TV, and then sadly the movie with Natalie Portman is not happening, but I have a lot of other projects, which I am considering right now—a lot of other movies, and I can’t really talk about them too much. I hate to say it, but I’m reading a lot of scripts and deciding what I want to do next, but I think I’ll make another movie soon.