Meet The Women Behind The Most Important Movie Of The Summer

Photo: Joe Scarnici/Getty.
Both Marielle Heller, the writer-director of The Diary of a Teenage Girl, and Bel Powley, the movie’s star, stopped watching Game of Thrones after the first episode. They just couldn’t get on board with the show’s treatment of women.

“We’re the same!” Powley declared. “It happens over and over again,” Heller added.

The topic of Game of Thrones came up while we were talking about the ample nudity in their film, and it wasn't the only time during our wide-ranging chat that Heller and Powley were obviously in sync. It makes sense: They collaborated on the kind of intimate, honest movie that would fail spectacularly if its director and star didn’t share an emotional openness.

Opening in limited release on August 7, Diary tells the story of Minnie Goetze, a 15-year-old girl in 1970s San Francisco embarking on her first sexual relationship. She loses her virginity to a much older man (Alexander Skarsgård), who also happens to be sleeping with her mother (Kristen Wiig). Though the simple facts of Minnie’s story might scandalize some, it’s the rare film that looks at budding sexuality from a female perspective without romanticizing, judging, or moralizing. Diary dares to let Minnie’s sexuality be the centerpiece of the story without ever descending into prurience. It’s a crucial film for women — or, frankly, anyone — to see.

Heller has spent a lot of time with the material, including adapting the 2002 novel by Phoebe Gloeckner into play, in which Heller starred when it was produced in New York in 2010. Powley — a British actress who starred on Broadway in Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia — hadn’t encountered the book before the screenplay came her way, but felt such a strong connection to the material that she made a direct appeal to Heller during her audition. “I just wanted the part so much,” she recalled. “It was the first thing I ever read that was a really honest portrayal of what it feels like to be a teenage girl.”

Here’s what else the friends and collaborators had to say.

I saw the pictures of you guys dressed up at the premiere in San Francisco, which was the coolest thing ever.
Bel Powley: "It was so much fun. It wasn’t planned by the studio. It was our idea. Our first A.D. is a very prolific drag queen called Cousin Wonderlette. We were like, 'Cousin Wonderlette, you host it, invite all of the famous drag queens in San Francisco.' We thought, Why don’t we all dress up too? Alex could go in drag."

Marielle Heller: "He was the one who was like, 'I want to go in drag!'"

The film is so intimate. Did you two first meet in the audition process?
B.P.: "We didn’t meet face to face, though, because I was in London."

M.H.: "I think I was in New York when I first got your tape."

B.P.: "I’d never done this before, but I made an extra scene at the end where I spoke to Mari in my own accent. I was just like, 'Hi, Mari. I’m Bel. These are all the reasons why I relate to this character so much. I think your script is amazing. I really really need to have a conversation with you about it. Please can that happen.'"

How did you guys start building your relationship?
M.H.: "We started talking via Skype pretty frequently."

B.P.: "Mari and I started a dialogue very early on. We were Skyping, talking on the phone, emailing about the reading the book, about what I thought about the book, talking about the kind of music that Minnie would listen to, so I started listening to loads of Janis Joplin and loads of Bowie... Also we had a really big dialogue about the sex scenes."
Photo: Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.
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Did that start over the phone?

M.H.: "Even before I cast Bel, I never wanted any actor to feel like they were going to be exploited or do anything they felt uncomfortable with, but it was really important that whoever got the role was not going to come in and go, 'Oh, by the way, I’m not going to show anything.' We can’t do a movie about female sexuality and coming of age if we’re not going to shoot honestly."

B.P.: "I didn’t actually notice that there was as much nudity and sex in it as there is when I first read it, until I started getting down to the nudity clauses in the contract. I started realizing, Woah, there’s a lot of sex in this. But I took that as a really positive thing. If it didn’t jump out to me, then it’s not gratuitous."

One of the most striking images is Minnie standing in front of the mirror, looking at her nude body. That’s something that every teenager has done. That, in some ways, demands more vulnerability than the sex scenes.
M.H.: "That was something that was really conscious. I wanted the most nudity that we saw to be in nonsexual situations. That scene was one that we talked a lot about really early on. This is a really vulnerable, revealing scene that means a lot to me, and you’re going to have to be comfortable enough to be able to stand there, buck naked in front of a mirror and let us just look at you. We had to feel like she was totally alone."

B.P.: "It kind of felt like that when we shot it, because the only people who were in that room were Brandon, the camera operator, and you. I forgot you guys were there and just went for it."

You needed to create the right scenarios so that you weren't setting up nudity for titillation.
M.H.: "And that it never felt exploitative. Because you know that moment where, for whatever reason, you feel like the actress is being exploited and it’s just for shock value, or it’s to be titillating. Those are all from male perspectives."

B.P.: "And it’s definitely a really fine line. Like, Blue Is the Warmest Color, for example — I probably loved every single moment in that film except the last four minutes of the sex scene."

M.H.: "And everyone has their own line. One thing I thought about, especially when it came to this mirror scene, was Lovely & Amazing, Nicole Holofcener’s movie. There’s that scene where Emily Mortimer was fully naked in front of the guy [Dermot Mulroney] and is like, 'Tell me everything that’s wrong with my body.' It’s gut-wrenching, but there’s something about it, even though you’re watching someone so fully naked, never for a moment do you feel like she’s being exploited — as an actress, as a character, as a woman."

How much rehearsal did you have, and how did that set up your approach to the sex scenes?
M.H.: "Bel and I — we haven’t talked about this — but we rehearsed by ourselves for a little while, and then Alex joined us. Do you remember that?"

B.P.: "Oh my god, I do remember that."

M.H.: "We did a week by ourselves, because there’s so much material of Minnie alone. Then we had about two weeks where Alex and Bel and I would spend a couple of hours just working on the material. We would work through their relationship chronologically, because when you shoot, you don’t get to shoot chronologically, unfortunately. They’re on such a roller coaster, their relationship is such a push and pull and it’s so nuanced."

Bel, what was it about the character that spoke to you?
B.P.: "It’s very implicitly me when I was a teenager. I didn’t sleep with my mum’s boyfriend, but I was turning the pages literally being like, I felt like that, I felt like that, I felt like that. You feel like everything’s very on the surface, everything is life or death — that confusion that one has between sex and love, where someone touches your tit and then you think you’re in love with them. It was also just bringing up a conversation about sex amongst teenage girls that I don’t even think we talk about with each other, let alone put in movies or write about in books."

At the very beginning, Minnie says something like, "I wasn’t sure if I wanted to fuck him, but I’m not sure another chance would've come along." The movie is so not precious about virginity —
M.H.: "Well, virginity is a total myth that’s perpetrated to women by the patriarchy. There is a book called The Purity Myth, which is really amazing."

B.P.: "Really? I need to read it."

M.H.: "The whole idea behind it is that virginity and purity are a way to keep women down — basically, to say you have this precious gift, you have to decide when to give it away, and once it’s given away, then you’re a used rag nobody will want. That’s perpetrated by religion and all of that, and has been around forever. Minnie talks a lot in the beginning: 'Do I look different? Am I an adult now?' Even she kind of falls into the idea of once you lose your virginity, are you a different person? Has something changed? Will people be able to see it on you?"

I just had this picture of a woman being into her own ass, strutting her ass down the street and feeling great about it.

Marielle Heller
Your movie does a lot with blood. So often, when you see blood after a girl loses her virginity, it’s that the guy is shocked, or it's seen as this harmful thing. Minnie takes it as a point of pride, keeps it under her finger, and marks him with it, like she’s marking her territory. How did you approach that moment?
M.H.: "We never thought of it as marking. I think we just more thought of it like she’s saying, 'Oh, look at this! Isn’t this interesting.'"

B.P.: "That’s what I thought of it as — like, 'Oh, hey, look! There’s blood.'"

M.H.: "And definitely not treating it with any shock or shame or disgust, which I do think is a problem. That’s how period blood or hymen blood is always treated in movies."

B.P.: "We discussed this when we were doing that scene. When she marks him, and he says — what does he say?"

M.H.: "'I didn’t know you were a virgin.' She assumed he knew. Even the way he says, 'I didn’t realize you were a virgin' — there’s nothing shameful or disgusting about what’s just happened with the actual blood."

B.P.: "He’s not like, 'Eww! What are you doing?'"

M.H.: "I’m sorry, but I have never had a boyfriend or anyone I’ve had sex with who has a problem with blood."

B.P.: "It’s a myth. It’s a complete myth."

M.H.: "Guys don’t have a problem with blood."

B.P.: "I’ve never had an issue with it, either."

I wanted to ask you about the opening shot of the movie, which is a close-up of Bel’s butt.
B.P.: "I didn’t know it was going to be that close, by the way. I didn’t know they were filming my bum. I thought they were just filming me walking from behind."

M.H.: "The whole idea of that opening shot for me...was, when you’ve had sex for the first time and you feel like this whole world just opened up to you, and all of a sudden you’re strutting through the world feeling like a badass. And you suddenly feel like people are looking at you, and so much of what we are taught as women is about how we are seen, and I do think we can sometimes derive power out of that, out of the knowledge that people are looking at us and checking out our body. I just had this picture of a woman being into her own ass, strutting her ass down the street and feeling great about it, and feeling like there was her own personal theme song playing in her head, and it’s almost moving in slow motion and people are kind of checking her out, and she’s kind of like, 'Yeah!'"
Photo: Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.
There’s a Saturday Night Fever type of swagger to it that you usually see on a dude.
M.H.: "Yeah, a swagger. And it was so important to me that we said right off the bat, 'This girl’s having sex and she likes it.' This isn’t a victim. It had to be, like, boom!"

B.P.: "Which is what you feel like when you lose your virginity. You feel like you’ve been let into this amazing secret, and now you can do it all the time, whenever you like, and it’s free. I literally remember thinking that when I first had sex. It was like, Oh my god this is amazing, and it doesn’t cost anything. This is the best activity ever. I remember having that swagger, and I called my friend. I was on the train platform. I was like, 'I had sex today. Yes.'"

M.H.: "And don’t you remember kind of what it would feel like — after you had sex — to put clothes on, and recognize that things hugged your body in certain ways?"

B.P.: "Yes!"

Do you think that the fact that Diary is set in the past, during a more permissive time, helps you tell the story?
M.H.: "Totally. I think these stories happen every day and they are still happening today, there’s no doubt about it. But I think we, as a society, have a really hard time looking at those stories. We have a really hard time examining them without judgment. I was really hoping that by having this set in the ’70s, the audience could enter into the story and examine Minnie and be able to explore Minnie’s whole life without as much judgment. You want them to remember what it was like to be a teenager."

Bel, how did you feel when you finally saw yourself up there on screen?
B.P.: "Honestly, it sounds like a lie, but when I first watched the film, I never had a moment of, 'Oh, I look fat there,' or 'Oh, I don’t like how my body looks.' I felt proud to be showing my normal, real body on screen. Because I feel like it’s so damaging for young women to have these fake, Hollywood-ized versions of women on screen. I was nervous doing it, but watching it, I’m like, 'Woo, yeah!'"

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