This New Girl-Power Movie Is On Our "To-Do List"

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Aubrey Plaza. Alia Shawkat. Shameless teenage comedy. Set in the '90s. Can you think of a more perfectly fun antidote to action-packed summer blockbusters? Because we can't. In The To-Do List, writer/director Maggie Carey takes on the trope-filled genre of high school sex romps and turns it on its head, putting girls in the spotlight. But what we love about this movie isn't just the fact that it doesn't shy away from showing girls seeking out sex, being crass, and even masturbating on screen. In addition to all those sadly underrepresented themes, this flick does it all without attempting to make some grandiose statement about feminism. It's just a funny movie about sex and teenage awkwardness, and the main characters happen to be girls. And, also, it happens to be awesome.
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Seeking to know more about this gem, we got cozy with Carey for a little one-on-one and, lucky us, discussed two of our favorite subjects: girl power and the power of the '90s. A force to be reckoned with, if we've ever seen one!
We thought this movie was such a refreshing take on the typical, male, sex-romp comedy — and really empowering to young girls exploring their sexuality. Was that something you kept in mind while writing it?
"You write what you know, and I really know 1993 and Boise, Idaho very well. I had my journals from that time, which I read to refresh my memory of being a teenage girl. And I was absolutely a feminist in high school! Hillary Rodham Clinton was a big deal to me, and she figures in the movie in a very earnest way. I loved how opinionated and how right I was about a lot of things, and I think that comes through in the voice of the girls in the movie. Brandy has awkward moments, but she's a very confident character who is really taking charge of her summer. I set out to write a comedy — that was really all I cared about, but there is always that truth in comedy, and feminism was definitely part of the point of view I was writing from. I didn't worry about it specifically, though, because it just came out. That's who I am. And who my cast is."
So, are you rooting for Hillary in 2016?
"Um, duh. Yes. Absolutely! And I want Chelsea to run for office, too."
What do you think about the annoyingly incessant debate on whether or not women are funny?
"I love the whole genre of Superbad-type comedy — that's why I like this movie. If it's funny, it's funny. I came from a place of theater where it didn't matter if you were a guy or a girl. That prejudice exists, but I never thought about it or took it seriously. I didn't ever think about the female perspective, because I'm a woman, I wrote the movie, and I directed it. It would have felt false to write a male lead for me, personally. You write what you know. But I do have male characters, and I hope they come across as whole and three-dimensional, too. But I think the whole thing is ridiculous. We got the right to vote so long ago, and things are still backwards — even stuff like Title 9 makes me mad."
Were you and the cast all friends before working on this project?
"The comedy world is pretty incestuous. Aubrey and I met at Upright Citizens Brigade [UCB] in NYC. I always had her in mind, but then it turned out that she liked the script, which was great! Bill Hader's character is not a big stretch — he's even named Billy — so, he had no choice. I knew Donald Glover from UCB as well. As for Scott Porter, Aubrey was shooting a movie with him, and she just texted me late one night and suggested him. I was like, "Yes, please!" So, she literally just knocked on the door of his trailer and gave him the script, and he said yes! The only person I didn't know was Rachel Bilson. I didn't even get to rehearse with her, but she was fantastic. Funny on the first take — super dirty but super hilarious."
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Was the filming kind of a constant party?
"It was an indie film, we had a super-low budget, and we shot it in 24 days — so it was a little bit grueling, plus it was also like 110 degrees in the Valley. The cast was all on TV shows; they were doing me a huge favor to do this movie. We had them for such a limited amount of time. That said, I learned that Scott is not just a good singer, but he can totally dance and beatbox. For me, the whole film experience is like summer camp. You wake up and go to bed — okay, not go to bed, but at least say goodnight — with the same people every day, so it really does become a family."
Though it's obviously about teenage antics, when we saw this film in theaters so many of the adult — even middle-aged — reviewers there were just in hysterics. What was your intended audience?
"My intended audience was my high school girlfriends, for sure. From day one, that's been my goal: to just make a movie my friends would like. It definitely plays really well to the 18-24 demographic, but I think it works for older people, too. That's why there's a call-waiting joke in there — to identify the over-30s in the theater!"
Could this have been set in any time other than the '90s?
"I do think the '90s was important to the story. Even in the two years since we shot the movie, things have changed so much. It was important to me that this take place in the early '90s, before the Internet and before cell phones. It really has changed how teenagers communicate, and I can't pretend that I understand how it works now. I still think there are universal truths to teenage expression that technology can't really change. When I wrote the script, all of the studios passed...maybe they didn't like the idea of an R-rated teen movie, but some asked if it could be set in present day, and the answer was always "no." I don't know how, as a teen girl, you deal with all that technology. And I was too lazy to research it!"
So, how much of this is based on your actual journals from high school?
"I did not have a list — this movie is complete fiction. The journals were about being able to read what I wrote as a teenage girl just to get in the mindset. Brandy was the voice I had back then; I was super type-A and in every AP class possible, but I was also boy crazy and nowhere near having sex. Unlike her, though, I didn't have sex until long after high school. I used to iron my T-shirts before soccer practice — what a waste of time!"
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