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True Love Never Did Run Smooth: Rebecca Miller on "Maggie's Plan"

Shakespeare’s observation that the course of true love never did run smooth flows through Rebecca Miller’s “Maggie’s Plan,” which sprinkles its own brand of romance-inducing fairy dust upon a group of over-educated New York City dwellers who are given to making some rather amusingly stupid choices.

The screwball comedy stars indie-cinema sweetheart Greta Gerwig as Maggie, a control-freak college administrator who meets Jack, the already-married adjunct teacher of her dreams (Ethan Hawke in lust-object dad mode). It inconveniently happens just as she is about to attempt to have a baby by herself via a sperm donor in the form of artisanal pickle entrepreneur and math whiz Guy (Travis Fimmel of the History Channel’s “Vikings”).

Three years and a baby later, Maggie decides to ditch husband Jack, who basically uses her as a domestic lackey as he focuses on the never-ending bulky novel he has been writing. She secretly plots to get him back together with his Danish-born ex-wife, Georgette (Julianne Moore), an intimidating ice queen of a Columbia prof whose warped and wooly accent is just one of the laugh-producing joys of Moore’s performance. 

“Maggie’s Plan,” based on several chapters of an unpublished book by Miller’s friend Karen Rinaldi, owes as much to a ‘40s screwball master like Preston Sturges as it does to such wry modern-day observers of Manhattan-based romance as Woody Allen and Noah Baumbach. But there is one difference: You can feel a distinctive female point of view in its depiction of  21st-century relationships when it comes to the choices that women now face, whether it’s how they choose to have children, try to juggle the demands of work and their personal lives or deal with step-parenting and the intrusion of former spouses.

As the writer and director of five features and the author of two novels and a collection of short stories, Miller has managed to leave a considerable footprint on the cultural landscape with her vivid portraits of womanhood. That is not an easy task when you are often described as the wife of Daniel Day-Lewis, who holds the record for the most Best Actor Oscar trophies with three, as well as the daughter of the Pulitzer Prize-winning American playwright Arthur Miller of “Death of a Salesman” fame.

Her mother, noted Austrian-born photographer Inge Morath, was no slouch, either. She was declared “the high priestess of photography” by director John Huston, who hired her to capture the action on the set of 1960’s “The Misfits.” She is responsible for those incredibly revealing photos of the film’s cast—Clark Gable, Montgomery Clift and Marilyn Monroe (the then-wife of Miller, who wrote the screenplay)—that continue to be reprinted in books and publications today.

Miller spoke with about her experiences in a profession that continues to be dominated by men, why she decided to finally do a straight-out comedy film and her fondness for a certain TV witch. 

I like how you wove references to a “A Midsummer’s Night Dream” into this film, since there is this matchmaking switcheroo theme to “Maggie’s Plan.” During the final scene, Maggie is compared to Titania, the queen of the fairies. You place an actor in Washington Square performing lines from the Shakespeare play for spare change. I assume there are people in New York who do that?

There is a Shakespearean actor who will do soliloquies for money, yes.

Can I call you Lady Day-Lewis? You qualified for that title when your husband was knighted in 2014 for his services to drama. The only other person I have interviewed who can officially be called a lady is Jamie Lee Curtis. Her husband, Christopher Guest, is a baron.

Christopher Guest? I didn’t know that. Huh—wow, OK.  

As a director, you seem dedicated to making movies that primarily center on the female of the species. If “Maggie’s Plan” was done by a man, I bet Guy the sperm donor would be the central character. You also tend to have women working behind the scenes as well. You had a female cinematographer on your other four films and the same female editor and casting director on all your directorial efforts. Do you think it makes a difference in the work you’ve done when you do have a team that is heavily female?

I like a mix. I guess females may be dominant—I haven’t counted it up. Like, for example, the cinematographer is male for this film and my producing partner that is in my company is a man, Damon Cardasis. But then we have Rachael Horovitz as a producer and, of course, Cindy Tolan who’s my long-term casting director and Sabine Hoffman, who’s my editor. And then Michael Rohatyn, who's my composer. I think it ends up being just a genuine mix. I think because we are used to things being dominated by men, it is surprising.

A mix is good since you obviously have male actors in your films, too. I just wonder whether during the 20-some years you have been directing movies if things have gotten better or worse for women in the industry.

There seems to be common knowledge that a movie with a female protagonist is about 70% harder to get made. That’s what I have been told. I have definitely encountered different levels of resistance to putting money into my films. On the other hand, I have to say I’ve also been very lucky because I have gotten to make five films now. And, also, I write books so it’s not like I’m trying to make films all the time. So I have made as many films as I wanted to make. Some of them, they have gone from taking zero time to finance to taking 10 years to finance. With independent film, it’s just really, really hard whether you are male or female. There might be a harder element to it when you are trying to write about female characters. It’s difficult for me to measure. But, yeah, overall, it’s a stubborn statistic. It doesn’t seem to bruise very easily. I personally feel it has been easier for me to make films because I have building up a body of work over really many years. So now I am always so lucky in that actors want to work with me. And when actors want to work with you, then the money follows the actors.

When I was growing up, I just naturally gravitated towards films where a girl was at the center. It was important to see what opportunities were out there and what life might be like in the future. Did you ever connect strongly to any female character in that way?

My absolute favorite character was actually in the TV series “Bewitched,” played by Elizabeth Montgomery. [Miller imitates the sound effect that would played whenever Montgomery’s character, Samantha, would twitch her nose to cast a spell.] That was my ideal. It’s influenced me a lot, that show. A whole generation of women was influenced by the fact that, in the middle of the show, she suddenly changed husbands and nobody even noticed there was a different actor. “Oh, hi, Darrin.” A different guy walks in and you’re thinking, “So?” Seriously, there was something about the fact she is hiding her power but she still uses it anyway. But she had to use it in a rather underhanded way. And the world needs her power because there are situations she needs to rectify.

She has to hide it in order to maintain this perfect middle-class suburban existence with her family.

The idea that, in order to make everything work, you have to sort of hide some element of your power or what you are doing. It was quite interesting to me. The fact is, I just loved the show. And I loved her power. And I just got such a kick out of it. But I think there is something very profound about that show. There is something about the interior of that suburban dwelling. Actually, when I made “The Private Lives of Pippa Lee” with Robin Wright, there is something about her and about her house that just minds me of “Bewitched.”

l am glad that you finally made a straight-out comedy with “Maggie’s Plan.” Your other films aren’t just serious, but can be very serious in their subject matter and themes. Talking to you now and listening to your Q&A onstage after the screening last night, you are funny naturally. Why did you decide the time was right for a comedy now?

To my mind, all my movies have had portions of them that have been funny. Even the saddest ones. Even “Angela” [a young girl creates a fantasy world to cope with her dysfunctional family] or “The Ballad of Jack and Rose” [an ailing father’s teen daughter resents the new woman in his life], there are places where you get to laugh. I remember watching a screening of “The Ballad of Jack and Rose” way back and thinking, “I really like that feeling. I love hearing people laugh.”

Could you hear the audience last night?

I was there at the end and I could hear that things were going well. The movie has played well to a surprising array of audiences. Here in D.C., New York, Berlin, Dallas and Florida. I think you can enjoy it for a lot of different reasons.

I like the line, “Like is a language prophylactic.” Did you come up with that?

Yes, I did.

Give me an example of what you mean.

Well, it’s like what John says. If you say, “It was, like, terrifying,” it is not as powerful as saying, “It was terrifying.” It is a fear of commitment.

Do you keep a wish list of actresses and actors you want to work with? Especially actresses, because you do have really good taste. All your casts are well-curated.

I have loads of people I would love to work with. I really do. I would love to work with Amy Schumer, Helena Bonham Carter …

Those two should be in a movie together. Greta has this lovely open quality, she invites you in. And the way  that Julianne plays Georgette is reminiscent of her role as the avant-garde feminist artist in “The Big Lebowski” with her clipped, upper-crust accent. Here, she sounds like a Nordic version of Madeline Kahn’s Lili Von Shtupp in “Blazing Saddles.” It’s trew, it’s trew.” Did you ever hear of someone who basically gave her husband back to his first wife?

I haven’t heard exactly that, no. When Karen sent me the those chapters, it rang such a bell. Because six months before, Julianne had been talking to me over coffee about a friend of hers who had left her husband for this big romance with this other man. It was a blended family situation and five years later she found herself organizing ski vacations and arranging school pickups, and she is thinking, “Life is twice as complicated as it was before. Maybe I should just have stayed with my original husband.” The whole idea of like stuffing it back in the box was already in my mind. So when I read those chapters, I thought maybe this would feel so contemporary.

I do like that you define your two main female characters by how they dress as well. Maggie, who seeks solace at Quaker meeting places, wears these knitted tights and scarves, sensible shoes and colorful plaid jumpers and lumpy coats. And Georgette, who is described as “glacial,” wraps herself in furry vests and wears pastels. 

With Maggie, there is a contrast between her modesty and her color sense, which is very sort of joyful and childlike.

And when John comes over when she is getting ready for bed and they have sex for the first time, I thought it was great that she wore this body-covering nightgown with a million pearl buttons that he had undo. Very much like a bodice-ripping moment.

It was Greta’s idea. She said, “I think I’ve got to have an enormous nightgown.” It was such a great idea. Then the costume designer, Malgosia Turzanska, is just a brilliant designer. She changed the buttons so they were these really sexy buttons.

It is interesting that you started out as a film actress in supporting roles so you could learn directing and earn money to make your own movies. For five years in the early ‘90s, you worked with Mike Nichols in “Regarding Henry,” Carroll Ballard in “Wind,” Alan J. Pakula in “Consenting Adults” and Paul Mazursky in “The Pickle.” Then again, as you recently told the New York Times, “I worked with giants on some of their worst films.”

In a way, the fact I wasn’t in successful films was really good. Because I got to learn everything but I didn’t get famous. So I could walk away unscathed. For me, becoming a famous actress would have been a disaster. I would have been tempted to go further. And, also, I didn’t want that. I wanted to learn as much as I could and then get out. Not because there is anything wrong with being an actor. I just knew that wasn’t my main talent. I'd much rather direct real actors who are really good at what they do.

Sony Pictures Classics is a very smart distributor. Bringing this movie out in summer is good counterprogramming. Older audiences and perhaps adult women will appreciate it. If you look at what is opening opposite “Maggie’s Plan,” you have “The Angry Birds Movie,” “Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising” and “The Nice Guys” with Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling. There is a major demo gap there.

That is what I am hoping, that people will latch onto it and tell each other about it. That is how the movie can really succeed, with word of mouth. They will tell their friends, “You have to see this. We had a really good time.”

You have two sons, Ronan, who turns 18, next month. And Cashel, who just turned 14. Do they want to be part of the film business?

One of them is a painter and one of them is really into languages. And my stepson, Gabriel, is a musician and he is also modeling. He is definitely an artist and so is Ronan. I think the youngest one might end up an academic or a professor.

Just as long as he isn’t a ficto-critical anthropologist like Ethan Hawke’s character [in "Maggie's Plan"]. I looked at that description on Wikipedia after seeing the film and I still don’t quite understand what it is. For having grown up with such highly accomplished parents, you have done an amazing job of finding your own path in the world. I just wonder what you picked up from both of them.

The main thing you get when you have artist parents who work hard is a work ethic. It is like the Nike ad, “Just do it.” The hardest thing for creative people, when there is no deadline, is how you get yourself to do the work. If you don’t have an example, then you have to struggle to find that in yourself. And, of course, people do. But that was a big advantage. I just watched two people who did the work.

Do you and your family still live both in New York and Ireland?

I live in New York during the school year at this point. And then we go to Ireland in the summer. But we used to live in Ireland all the time and then come here in summer. We sort of flipped it about.

I was thinking if certain people get elected president, you could just stay in Ireland permanently.

There has definitely been talk about it in our house.

What else are you working on?

I have a script that is an original that I am trying to work out. And then I also have book that I wrote called “Jacob’s Folly,” which I might try to make into a multi-part television series. I don’t want to do something that is potentially endless, like a situation where you could be doing a series for a long time. But the idea of six parts or so feels perfect, it feels like a novel.

The nice thing about multi-part TV is that you establish a longer relationship with characters.

Feature films are like a tightrope, every second counts. You fall off, you fall off. Television is slightly more forgiving, but I feel that with a limited series, you are still on your toes.

You directed Daniel [Day-Lewis] in “The Ballad of Jack and Rose.” Do you plan to do a film together again?

I would love to. We both would really love to.

He’s been on a hiatus since “Lincoln.”

Well, he always goes on a hiatus. He’ll go back soon. We sort of found a couple things that we like. Not for the next one, certainly. Maybe in a few years.

Susan Wloszczyna

Susan Wloszczyna spent much of her nearly thirty years at USA TODAY as a senior entertainment reporter. Now unchained from the grind of daily journalism, she is ready to view the world of movies with fresh eyes.

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