“Does everyone else think about fucking as much as I do?” the 15-year-old Minnie (Bel Powley) wonders shortly after losing her virginity to her mom’s boyfriend, Monroe, in Marielle Heller’s The Diary of a Teenage Girl. Minnie is newly initiated into the secret world of sensual pleasures, and as her wide eyes dart wantonly around her favorite comic book shop, cartoon penises suddenly spring free from every fly in the room. Heller’s adaptation of Phoebe Gloeckner’s graphic novel is an emotionally honest and refreshingly liberated coming-of-age tale set in the golden-hued and drug-soaked San Francisco of the 1970s.

As the film navigates the sensitive subject matter of underage sex without ever exploiting it, it’s hard to believe this is Heller’s debut feature as both a writer and director.  Her passionate attachment to the material comes through in every detail from the carefully outfitted period costumes to the impeccable casting. “I really understood the story,” Heller said, “and that’s the most important aspect of directing for me.”

Drawing on her acting background, Heller elicits a truly staggering performance from newcomer Bel Powley, who carries the weight of the movie on her slight shoulders as Minnie discovers her sexuality can be a means to both self-worth and self-destruction. Kristen Wiig delivers as Minnie’s substance-dependent bohemian mother, particularly in the film’s darker second half, and Alexander Skarsgard infuses the conflicted Monroe with a great deal of sympathy and subtle comedy.

FILM COMMENT spoke with Heller days before the movie’s New Directors/New Films opening-night screening tonight, to discuss everything from Minnie’s baby-blue bellbottoms to Patty Hearst to her own adolescent anxieties.

Diary of a Teenage Girl

You come from a writing/acting background in theater, but this is your first film script. I’m curious to know how the project evolved, not only through its different drafts but also through its different iterations: this was first a stage play before going through the Sundance Screenwriters Lab.

When I read the graphic novel, I was just so moved and blown away by its really honest depiction of a teenage girl. I felt so compelled to do something with it that I called the publisher and just started rambling about how I felt like I needed to make this into something. It was totally project-based: it wasn’t like I was looking for something to write, it was more like when I came across the material I knew I had to write it. So I started developing it into a play, which of course had its own creative language—it had a much smaller cast, and was much more contained. It was pretty non-linear and non-realistic.

When I started developing it as a movie, it took on this whole other world. I got to develop the script at the Sundance Screenwriters Lab, which was such a great experience. You get to have some of the best screenwriters in the world read your script and give you their thoughts about it, and a lot of the time they’re conflicting. You get a lot of different opinions and become really clear about what you feel about your story.

The script balances so many different relationships. Did your focus shift to weigh certain aspects more heavily throughout the development process?

The focus definitely shifted and grew throughout the writing process. I ended up focusing more on the mother-daughter relationship than I had in the original script. The scope of the world continued to shift: I’d combine characters in the book into one character, create additional characters, and eliminate others. The character of Aline Kominsky, who is Minnie’s artistic idol in the film, wasn’t something that existed in the book—not in that form. She would write letters to this character [in the book] but I needed to personify that, so I created this animated character that she starts talking to. That came out of conversations at the Lab. People really responded to the character so I expanded it to make it an emotional touchstone in the script.

The mother-daughter relationship does ultimately take narrative precedence, and I understand Kristen Wiig was the first actor attached to the script. Can you talk more about the development of that relationship and your casting of Wiig in the role?

Yeah, it became clear to me in the writing of the script that although the central relationship is between Minnie and Monroe and their affair, in a lot of ways the catalyst for the whole story is the relationship between Minnie and her mother. She’s always dealing with her feelings toward her mom, and that affects everything in the story.

When I first even thought about Kristen in the role, I was really excited. She wouldn’t be the person that casting agents would have in mind for a young mother in the Seventies who’s an alcoholic and dealing with her own demons. I know that Kristen can really tow that line between the truly dramatic and comedic and live in this place where she feels authentic. Kristen and I are friends, and this was the first time I’d ever approached her with a project. The relationship in the script had developed to a place where Minnie and Monroe’s dynamic was really complex and difficult, and I hoped that Kristen would find it to be an exciting challenge. I’d shot a little teaser to show the tone of the film, which she really liked, and she ended up signing on quite early. Once I pictured her in the role, I could find the shape of the film and who I wanted to cast in the other parts. I went to Alexander [Skarsgard] next, and it grew from there.

Diary of a Teenage Girl

Bel Powley’s performance is truly astounding. In your Q&A at the Sundance premiere, you said you cast her off a tape. Did you have a chemistry read between her and Skarsgard? Their dynamic is obviously quite a tricky one to pull off.

Yeah, I found Bel really early on in the casting process, and she was so incredible, but I couldn’t believe that I had found my girl yet—especially one I hadn’t met. I was comparing everybody to Bel throughout the process, and I knew I needed to see her in person to see if she and Alex worked well together, and if the three of us could work together. Because we need to have such a crucial and trusting relationship in order to go into the depths where she needed to go.

At some point after many months we got Bel and Alexander out to New York, and we spent a couple hours going through scenes from the script. I just felt really comfortable and knew that this was my girl—I couldn’t imagine anyone else doing the part. I can’t be happier for the attention she’s getting. She’s in every single scene of the movie, so every single day of filming for 24 days she had to be on. She had to have the entire film memorized and be ready to jump from scene to scene, and she had to carry every scene of the movie. It’s a huge job for such a young actress, but Bel is very mature. 

Minnie’s character is such a delicate balance: she’s very mature in some ways, and still completely a kid in others. In spite of the more risqué aspects of the movie, the costume design and the animation keep her firmly grounded in a sense of childlike innocence.

The costume designer Carmen Grande and I talked a lot about reflecting the evolution of her growing up in her costumes. Sometimes she can look like a really young kid and then when she ventures out in to the city—like in the Rocky Horror scene—she starts changing how she dresses and you can see that she looks a little bit more grown up. By the end she’s somewhere in between, because she’s realized she doesn’t need to grow up too fast. Similarly, with the animation, we viewed that as a reflection of her emotional state, so it was really important that the style and the skill were reflecting wherever she was in her life.

It was really important to be always crystal clear on where she was in her journey in each scene, and to track that in all of the different design elements, as well as her performance and how we shot it. The art department was really conscious of that. We had to work on that a lot, because obviously you don’t get to shoot a movie chronologically.

Diary of a Teenage Girl

The opening sequence really sets the tone: that low-angle shot of her in baby-blue bellbottoms hiked up just a little too high.

[Laughs] It’s funny because at the Sundance Lab we did a little workshop about opening sequences of movies. We watched the beginning of The Graduate and Nashville, and I can’t remember what else, but it was a really good discussion about what your opening images set up. It made me think very carefully about what I wanted mine to be. So I came into the shoot really knowing that I wanted the first image to be of her butt sauntering through the park in a pair of awesome Seventies bellbottoms.

We got so lucky the day we filmed that in Golden Gate Park. It had been raining right before, and we’d had so much fog and clouds and really wanted to have a sunny shot of her walking though the park. As we arrived, the clouds parted and the sun came out and we got this perfectly beautiful day for that opening shot—it was so great.

In film school they usually advise students making first features to avoid period pieces at all costs because they’re difficult to make and hard to get financing for.

Thank God I didn’t go to film school so I didn’t know any of the things I should be nervous about. [Laughs] I wasn’t even aware of how ambitious I was being with a lot of this movie, setting it in the Seventies with so many different locations. There was a pleasant naiveté to all of that. I heard a quote by Francis Ford Coppola along the lines of: “If anybody knew how hard it was to make a movie, they would never do it.” I think that was true. I didn’t know that wasn’t supposed to be something you do in a first feature, I was just so excited politically by what was happening in the country in that time period. I’m from the Bay Area so I was excited to set the movie there and about what we could explore visually in that era. I wanted to do that authentically—not the costume-party version of the Seventies, but rather to try and capture the realness.

Speaking of the political backdrop, the most explicit reference in the film to the outside world are the Patty Hearst trials that we see on TV in Minnie’s living room. Obviously this could be read as simply an indicator of the time and place, but it also presents this element of Stockholm Syndrome or brainwashing in contrast to the relationship between Minnie and Monroe, which is not meant to be read as simply manipulative.  

I’m so glad that came through. There’s a mention of the Patty Hearst trials in the book, but it was very brief. I remember reading about 1976 and what was happening in San Francisco at the time and realizing everybody would have been tuning in and watching this trial. They would have been devouring it the way that when I was in high school we were devouring the O.J. Simpson trial. I interviewed my mom and my mother-in-law, who were both feminists in the Bay Area at the time, and was asking them how they viewed Patty Hearst, trying get a read on where everyone was falling at the time. They were very politically active and actually saw her as kind of silly.

But I thought there was something interesting about Charlotte [Bel’s mom] trying on being political. It’s not exactly her forte, but the Patty Hearst trial for whatever reason captures her attention, and she can relate to her and sympathize with her. I imagine that she was someone who had middle-class parents and rejected a certain lifestyle in favor of the bohemian life in San Francisco.

The trial was questioning whose responsibility this young woman was: is it her own personal responsibility, or is it society that needs to take responsibility for her? I read an article saying that if this trial had been in 1966, the verdict would’ve been that society needs to take care of this poor girl, and if it had been in 1986, the consensus would’ve been that she needs to pull herself up by her bootstraps and take responsibility for her own actions. In 1976, America was somewhere between those two realities politically, and I just thought that was so indicative of this time period and I tried to use it as a metaphor for Minnie’s story. That’s what everyone wants to know when hearing about the film: who’s responsible? Minnie? Monroe? Her mom? I wanted not to cast judgment but just present the story.

Diary of a Teenage Girl

Thematically, sex and love are frequently confused but both become so clearly linked to Minnie’s developing a sense of identity. The thought that somebody loves her changes her profoundly. The ways in which she measures her self-worth is an important difference that develops between her and her mother. 

That was a really important theme for me in trying to remember what it felt like to be a teenage girl. There were blurred lines for me between sex and love and self-worth—it’s so easy when you’re first exploring your sexuality to think that if somebody wants you sexually, it means they love you. As a society we tend to show girls that their self-worth is very wrapped up in a man desiring them. There’s that confusion between external love and self-love and finding your own self-worth in somebody else. Hopefully by the end we feel that Minnie has grown beyond the idea, but that’s something that her mom hasn’t evolved past.

I also find humor in the limitation of our lives as teenagers: she can’t imagine that anyone else will ever want to have sex with her in her whole life. I remember thinking that—when will I ever get this opportunity, and if I do, maybe it will be the only time it will ever happen. It’s hilarious in hindsight—you have your entire life to be a sexually active person, but when you’re that age you just can’t imagine it. She can’t see beyond that week, let alone that year of her teenagerhood. I find that to be some of the funniest stuff in the film: “I didn’t know if I wanted to fuck him or not, but I didn’t want to pass up the chance because I may never get another.”

I love the letter she leaves for Monroe on his car.

[Laughs] Yeah, the “I know you think I’m fat” letter. That’s another thing that I think is very universally a female thing. No matter what your body type is, we all go through a phase where you think everybody thinks you’re fat. It’s such a hilarious mentality.