Marielle Heller loves to make movies about unexpectedly scary women. Her directorial debut, The Diary of A Teenage Girl, was about a 15-year-old Minnie Goetz's (Bel Powley) complicated journey of sexual self-discovery, which involves losing her virginity to a much older man — who also happens to be her mother's boyfriend. Based on the graphic novel of the same name by Phoebe Gluckner, the film walks a precarious tightrope, depicting a relationship that's ultimately abusive without ever judging its protagonist.
Now, in Can You Ever Forgive Me?, which hits theaters October 19, the director turns her lens on Lee Israel, a curmudgeonly writer turned literary forger played by Melissa McCarthy. Lee has almost nothing in common with Minnie. She's in her 50s for one thing, and a lesbian. She'd pick hanging out in her Upper West Side apartment with her cat, Jersey, over almost any human interaction.
Still, both are women who challenge expectations of onscreen femininity. They're complicated, messy, even unlikeable — and it's impossible not to root for them, because they feel real.
I met Heller ahead of the film's Toronto International Film Festival premiere. Dressed in a glamorous silver spangled gown paired with a pair of lethal-looking stilettos, she was doing everything in her power to stave off a cold. Heller has no time to be sick — she's currently filming her next project, a highly anticipated film about Fred Rogers, starring Tom Hanks.
Between cups of tea, Heller talked about working with Melissa McCarthy, what surprised her most about Lee, why she pivoted from scary women to America's most lovable man, and how she thinks of The Diary Of A Teenage Girl post-#MeToo.
Refinery29: What drew you to Lee Israel's story?
Marielle Heller: "I like projects about women that people might be a little bit afraid of, or stories that feel like they're not being told, or a perspective that’s not being explored as much — and Lee is that type of character. She's sort of an asshole, and if she was a man we’d be like ‘Oh, he’s so fascinating.’ But as a woman we're like, ‘I don’t know, can you have a character like that who doesn’t care what people think of her and is kind of a jerk to everybody and cares more about animals than people?’ You know, we never ask about Tony Soprano being likable. I just found [Lee] really refreshing in that way. There’s something about seeing a woman like that, especially a woman over 50 who’s just largely ignored by society, doesn’t have kids, has never been married. She’s a lesbian and a writer, she’s very smart and cares more about her intelligence than her looks. And seeing a character like that in a movie shouldn’t feel radical in any way, but it kind of did."
I think we tend to underestimate Melissa McCarthy's ability to play a serious role. Did you always have her in mind to play Lee?
"What surprised me most about Melissa was we were working on this character so much, and [Lee] has a very specific energy to her. She’s sort of heavy, she has the weight of the world on her in many ways. And any time it would be the weekend and I’d hang out with Melissa as herself, I was like, ‘Oh my god you’re so light.’ She’s just got a sunshine-y energy to her as a person, which is very different than Lee, and I would almost forget. I wouldn't recognize her.
"It’s very true we underestimate comedic actresses a lot. Jim Carrey or Bill Murray — all these funny men, we see their acting abilities. We tend to put women in general in boxes, like, 'You’re good at this thing, so it’s what you do.' And [Melissa] is definitely a Renaissance woman in every way. She’s the busiest person I’ve ever met and runs a million businesses and is great at everything she does. But I do think America has forgotten, or never knew, how great of an actress she is. And she really is. I think people will be really blown away by her performance in this. I think they’ll be very surprised."
When you’re dealing with a character who’s kind of unlikeable, how do you make sure that the audience still cares about them?
"I think a huge amount of it is in the casting, having an actor who has an inherent empathy goes a long way. Melissa [McCarthy] has that in spades, you love her no matter what she’s doing. So honestly, I never felt scared of that because we have Melissa. She’s so endearing that she can get away with a lot. And I think there’s some emotional redemption for [Lee] in this movie, and there are moments of real vulnerability."
"A lot. We had access to a lot of people who had known her very intimately, and Nicole Holofcener [who co-wrote the script] had done a huge amount of research too. And you can read her writing — she left a big legacy of her work and her inner thoughts. [But] we weren’t trying to imitate her, she’s not somebody who was that famous, so we didn’t feel the need to be impersonating her. We wanted to get her essence right more than anything, to create a relatable character...Lee is surprising in a million ways, from her music selection to the way she just conducted herself in the world. Everything about her was interesting and surprising, and she’s a very complete, complex person."
What's your favorite forgery of hers? Have you read them all?
"There’s more than I actually can even name. The one that’s focused on in the script is really delightful. That’s where the movie gets its name. She wrote this line about Dorothy Parker having gotten too drunk the night before and doing something terrible, and [Israel is] writing a note to someone [as Parker] saying 'I’m sure I must have said something terrible, but I can’t really remember, I’m thinking of having little notes run off that say ‘can you ever forgive me? - Dorothy' And it’s just so cheeky and clever! But there are so many incredible forgeries. If you read them, you cannot believe she was able to write in the voice of Noel Coward, or Dorothy Parker, or Louise Brooks. She was almost able to channel these authors. She was such a good writer herself, but she could write as good as some of the best writers in the history of the world. Nobody can do that, right?"
What were some of the challenges you faced in making this movie?
"They were different challenges than Diary in many ways, because it’s not a movie that’s as challenging politically or anything like that. It doesn’t have any sex. I went from a movie with tons of sex to a movie with no sex, basically. But it’s a movie about a different era. In many ways, I feel like I made a movie from the seventies or something. We don’t really make movies that are just about people, in these simple ways, anymore. And this particular person, Lee, found herself sort of out of time even in 1991, [when the film takes place.] She felt like she belonged in an even earlier era. So, in a lot of ways what we were playing with was somebody who really should have been part of the Algonquin round table and hobnobbing with Dorothy Parker. That’s really her interior life, and then she’s walking around grungy New York City in 1991, kind of bumping up against the culture of the day."
What do you hope women will take away from Can You Ever Forgive Me?
"Any time we tell stories about women who may have been overlooked, it’s a positive thing. I don’t think there’s any up-on-its-high-horse moral lesson happening here, but I think it’s just great whenever we get to have full, complex women on screen, who are flawed and difficult and interesting and a joy to spend time with at the same time. This is a movie for a lot of people who haven’t felt like they’ve seen themselves on screen in a long time. I hope that makes people feel more seen."
For your next film, you're directing a film about Fred Rogers' friendship with journalist Tom Junod, starring Tom Hanks. What made you decide to transition from scary women to the nicest man in the world?
"I didn’t really think I was going to, honestly. Not because I wasn’t being offered things about men, because I was, but I guess I sort of felt like I only really wanted to make movies about women, because we don’t have enough. But I keep saying Fred Rogers is the one man who could’ve pulled me over into doing a movie about men. And I think it’s important to make movies about good men, and men who are trying to be better, and about the struggle of manhood. I’m raising a young boy, so I find it very interesting. All of my ideas about gender are being thrown out the window and questioned. I’ve always been so connected to women, I think when I was having a kid I always imagined I was having a girl. Like, when I made Diary I was always thinking about the childhood of girls, and what it is to be a teenager. And then I ended up having a boy, or that is the gender he was assigned at birth — we’ll see where he ends up. But it just made me realize that, gender’s so much more complex than that."
The Diary of A Teenage Girl came out in 2015, before the #MeToo movement hit the spotlight in a big way. Do you think about it differently now?
"I don’t think I would have ever approached it any differently. It was a movie that was about abuse, but it was a movie that was from a very specific point of view, the girl’s point of view, and I feel like that is very powerful no matter what. And because it was something that she didn’t view at the time as abuse, I couldn’t show it that way in the movie, it had to be gray. It had to feel like both at the same time, both exciting and abusive and all at once. It was never meant to be a morality film. It was meant to be empowering for people who had had their own experiences through their teenagehood that had been muddy."
I thought about it a lot when I saw The Tale earlier this year, which also features a character who doesn't remember her first sexual encounter as abusive, even though it clearly was.
"I actually spoke to Jennifer [Fox] and the cast of The Tale. She had seen Diary and was like, ‘How did you find Bel [Powley]?' I remember just telling her, don’t give up, look through thousands of girls if you have to until you find the right person. That’s so important.
"Diary came out at an interesting time. It might have been taken differently if it came out now, maybe more people would have seen it. Or, maybe people would have called me a pedophile sympathizer or something."
Are there any other forgotten women whose stories you'd to tell?
"I don’t know if I want to continue to tell stories only about people who’ve really lived. You know, I’m now on my third movie about someone real, which is wonderful and really compelling but also has its own challenges. So, maybe the next movie I do will be completely fictional."