In Rebecca Miller’s Maggie’s Plan, Maggie (Greta Gerwig) knows exactly what she wants: to have a baby without having a baby-daddy. She’s even lined up an eligible candidate, Guy (Travis Fimmel), whose penchant for close-talking and wearing man capris year-round is mitigated by his love of math and success launching an artisanal pickle company.
He’s great on paper, and he’s already donated the genetic material, but then Maggie meets John (Ethan Hawke), an angsty adjunct at New York’s New School, where she also works as an administrator, liaising between student artists and the businesses that might be willing to invest in their dreams. John, a “panty melter,” per Maggie’s friend Felicia (Maya Rudolph), is an aspiring novelist and a medium-respected fictocritical anthropologist with two kids; a fancy upper Manhattan home; and a very brilliant, very volatile, eccentrically European wife, Georgette (Julianne Moore), who just so happens to be a tenured professor of fictocritical anthropology at Columbia.
“Every relationship has a rose and a gardener,” John confides in Maggie after she agrees to read chapters of his unfinished novel. “She’s the rose. I’m the gardener, and I don’t have a green thumb.”
You may already be able to guess what happens. Flash-forward a couple years: John and Georgette are divorced, and John and Maggie are married with a toddler. John, very much the rose, devotes long hours to crafting his now-behemoth, still unfinished novel, and his spare time to long phone calls with his wounded ex-wife. Maggie has her hands full taking care of her husband, two stepchildren, and her own daughter. “I’m Mrs. Jeffries,” she bemoans to John, referring to one of his fictional characters. “The colorless, efficient postal worker who makes your life easier.”
What happens next is less expected: Maggie, sinking into the feeling that maybe John and Georgette were perfect together all along, goes into manipulative overdrive to reestablish the equilibrium she disturbed, to bring the couple she broke up back together. It’s a plot that involves befriending her former rival, colluding to send John to a conference in the backwoods of French Canada, a blizzard, an ill-begotten snowshoe expedition, a fantastic Bruce Springsteen cover, and the line: “No one unpacks commodity fetishism like you do.”
“The idea I had,” Miller explained when we spoke by phone, “was to try to put a very modern story in what is our great American form: the screwball romantic comedy.” It works, in large part, because of the off-kilter chemistry between Gerwig and Moore. The schoolmarmish, Quaker-raised Maggie, capable to a fault and preternaturally calm, is the eye of the storm; Georgette, whom Moore plays with a speech-impeded Danish accent and a wonderfully madcap intensity, is the whirling cyclone.
Miller, who is married (to actor Daniel Day-Lewis) with two sons and a stepson, chatted with Vogue.com about matchmaking, romantic comedies, and how she learned to go with her gut.
Why make this movie now? Do you see women like Maggie in your own life, or was this more of a thought experiment?
I think it’s in the air. I have friends who’ve had babies on their own; with a sperm donor and a partner; with a partner they knew they weren’t going to stay with that long; more traditionally, like myself. Part of what interested me was that I’d had a conversation with Julianne Moore about a friend of hers who’d left a marriage for another person who had kids and found herself, several years later, organizing everybody’s travel, coordinating two families, and thinking: What was I thinking? Life right now is very complicated, and complication is funny sometimes. So I just felt it was ripe.
This film is based on an unpublished novel by your friend Karen Rinaldi. You’ve done movies before based on your own writing projects. I was looking at your blog, and I saw that you referred to this project as “letting go.” What appealed to you about using someone else’s source material?
Well, what was wonderful about it was that it had a premise, an emotional geometry, but it wasn’t so complete that there was nothing to add. It had a lot of freedom in it. I love freedom. So I thought, this is great.
There are definitely aspects of her that I do relate to. I often think I can see what will be best for people. Sometimes I’m right and I can really help. Sometimes I should just be quiet. In general, I think the lesson is that you really just have to let the world turn. It’s going to be okay.
I imagine for someone like that, having kids is really a good thing. They introduce a certain level of chaos.
Absolutely. You have to acknowledge [kids] are their own people. If you don’t acknowledge it, they will help you to that realization very quickly.
Have you ever been a successful matchmaker?
I’m really good with pairing people up with the work they should be doing. I’m like a work matchmaker. I wish I could be a good matchmaker. That would be really amazing.
Your career is really inspiring. You’ve been a visual artist, an actor, a novelist, a director. You seem to feel this freedom to rove across the creative landscape, to try different things. Who gave you the idea that you could do that, that it wasn’t prohibitively risky?
I don’t know if anybody really did. I guess my mother [photographer Inge Morath] gave me a lot of permission to be myself, and my father [playwright Arthur Miller], too. But I planted various seeds young: the seed of being a painter, of being interested in writing. As I got older, I was able to pluck the fruit. It felt like a natural process.
In terms of the fearless factor, that’s a character thing. If anything, I think I alarmed the people around me, because they thought I went completely off the rails sometimes. [With] some of the more dramatic screwball turns of my life, when suddenly I was acting in movies, everybody was like, What are you doing?
I just knew I would be okay if I followed my internal compass. Probably everybody has that; we just get really good at not listening to it. I have very strong instincts and I usually follow them. I think that a lot of growing up in our civilization is about burying your instincts. And if anything, the key is to unbury them.
It’s true in your movie, too, right? Had Maggie followed her first instinct, she would have saved herself a lot of trouble.
That’s funny. That’s true, and yet the mess that she makes maybe saves John and Georgette’s marriage? It was not in a good place. What it really needed was Maggie to come mess it up completely.
Every relationship needs a gardener and a rose. But it strikes me that John and Georgette’s relationship really needed a third party. Is that a knock on academia, that these two academics really needed this business administrator to come in and teach them how to live their lives?
[Laughs] I think every marriage needs a third party! To do, I don’t know what: organize them or something.
Maggie’s Plan has been compared to Woody Allen movies, Noah Baumbach movies. I couldn’t stop thinking that it was sort of the inverse of How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days or The Parent Trap. What were you thinking of?
There’s this 18th-century play by Marivaux, a French farce in which the women plot to trick a man. Also I was looking at A Midsummer Night’s Dream in terms of its symmetry, the idea that mortals are running around clueless while there’s fairy dust flying all over the place. I was looking at The Philadelphia Story and His Girl Friday in terms of the comedy of remarriage tradition. I suppose it’s sort of a classic thing, this idea of The Parent Trap. I understand where you’re coming from.
None of what you’ve mentioned is particularly in the genre of romantic comedy.
I think A Midsummer Night’s Dream is almost a romantic comedy. I guess Bringing Up Baby: I think of that as a screwball romantic comedy.
The problem with romantic comedy, as we think of it now, is that it has gotten debased. You leave your wits at the door. This is more in a tradition of movies where language is allowed to be snappy, and the audience is honored and thought of as just as smart as the people who made the movie. It can be very human and witty at the same time. There’s not one joke that I changed so it could be accessible. But I think the film is still accessible.
I’m sure you’re sick of this question, but this film has a woman director, a woman producer, and it’s based on a woman’s unpublished novel. Do you feel like women in Hollywood ought to support one another’s projects?
The way I look at it is: The problem, and this goes for women and minorities, is when we’re thought of as primarily our sex or our race. People say, “We really need a woman director for this.” What the hell does that mean? We’re not all alike.
I think sometimes women are thought of as better at certain kinds of movies than others. As if they have expertise or limitations of some kind. You wouldn’t want them doing a mystery story or a spy drama, because they haven’t worked as spies for the most part. But actually, most men who make spy movies are not spies!
There needs to be an easing off on being obsessed with gender as a limiting thing. Of course, that is going to involve some reeducation. There must be unconscious prejudice or else we would not have these abysmal statistics.
I work with a mix of people. I think it comes out to almost fifty-fifty. A lot of the people involved are female, but I only think of them as people. I would hire guys. It’s just that the best men for the job are women in those cases. I never hire anyone because of their sex. I think that’s insulting. Who wants to be hired because of their reproductive parts? We want to be hired because we’re good.
Absolutely. I will say, though, it’s still remarkable, watching a movie like Maggie’s Plan, to see Greta Gerwig’s character and Julianne Moore’s character develop a relationship that evolves outside of Ethan Hawke’s character. It’s pathetic, but that’s still noteworthy.
Absolutely. From that point of view, I definitely agree with you. People say, “Do you deliberately make a point of creating these strong or multifaceted female characters?” I say, no. I just show what I think life is like. My life is full of women who are complicated and full of anomalies and contradictory character traits, just like men are. We’re just humans. And that’s what you would hope for characters in movies to be.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
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