ELIZABETH REASER (LEFT) AND GRETCHEN MOL IN PUCCINI FOR BEGINNERS.
Puccini For Beginners took writer-director Maria Maggenti almost 10 years to bring to completion, and that wasn’t just because of the usual obstacles — financing, finding talent — faced by so many other independent filmmakers. Maggenti’s own wave of personal changes in the years between her two features also had something to do with the film’s long development process.
After establishing herself with the successful no-budget first feature The Incredibly True Adventures of Two Girls in Love, which was distributed by Fine Line Features, Maggenti relocated to Los Angeles and moved into television writing for the crime series Without a Trace. She also veered from the gay, activist lifestyle she’d become strongly identified with due to her high-profile work with the AIDS activist group ACT UP as well as her own self-identification as a lesbian. With Puccini for Beginners, in which a twentysomething lesbian writer (Elizabeth Reaser) has secret side-by-side affairs with a male college professor (Justin Kirk) and the woman he just dumped (Gretchen Mol), Maggenti, who is, for all intents and purposes, now straight, decided to explore the complexities of her own personal life by making a tart and traditionally structured romantic comedy.
“The story was stimulated by the first big love affair I had with a man,” Maggenti explains. “I would always ask him why his ex-girlfriend didn’t want to meet me. He would say, ‘Because she’s my ex-girlfriend and you’re my new girlfriend, and I’m telling you she doesn’t want to meet you.’ I’d say, ‘Why do women always have to be in competition for the man? That’s such an anti-feminist idea!’”
WRITER-DIRECTOR MARIA MAGGENTI.
“It’s hard to analyze your own work because the best part comes from your unconscious,” she continues. “In Two Girls I was dealing with first love and what it feels like to say ‘I love you’ when you feel like it’s the last time you’re ever going to say it. In Puccini, I was more interested in the problem of commitment. I was also more interested in and had the opportunity to finally write about and shoot in New York, where I’m from.”
In addition to exploring the issues of commitment and, by extension, monogamy, Maggenti’s film also challenges the concept of maintaining a singular and fixed sexual identity. “My attitude is someone insouciant towards all of this,” she laughs. “You have to see the movie in the context of screwball comedy. It’s a genre picture in that respect, and [the genre] makes its own demands. I tried to just play it pretty light. In my ideal world, which is what I was trying to create, desire defines everything. That’s where identity lies. And that isn’t to take away from the significance of having a lesbian character, but by the same token I kind of felt like, ‘That’s not everything — that’s just one part of her, the beginning of the story.’”
So how, then, did Maggenti reconcile her ideals for this world and her characters with the logistics of story? The three-act structure with the fact that things don’t come to a tidy resolution in real life? “[Traditional] structure so far has made a lot of sense to me in my narrative filmmaking,” she says. “Does it make sense in life? Does it happen in life? No. But I don’t do documentaries. [The romantic comedy structure] gives me sheer filmmaking and narrative pleasure — it’s also a quintessentially American way of understanding both the human experience and the film experience.”
“Sometimes when you use form, it can get mixed up with your content,” she continues. “In Puccini, the form is very simple; the content is far more complex in terms of the issues I’m trying to deal with. When it’s super successful, I think you have a winning combination for subversion. But sometimes, because we are so bombarded with [traditional] storytelling, we think we already know what [a film] is about. The idea becomes ‘Because it came in this package, which is very comfortable and familiar to me, it’s not very radical in any of its intentions.’ And that’s too bad. I think that if you were to look at [Puccini for Beginners] from the ‘text’ point of view, there’s a lot of radical stuff in there. I talk about things that nobody wants to talk about anymore. But I am also creating a portrait of a world that, quite frankly, doesn’t exist in New York right now, a very romanticized New York of people who care about books and music and conversation.”
Reflecting back on her first film and its influence on Puccini for Beginners, Maggenti says, “One reason Two Girls worked and was successful was because people laughed. They felt like they were allowed to laugh through what otherwise might have made them feel uncomfortable. In the same way, that’s what I hope happens in Puccini. And I know it’s happening — at my screenings I’ve got 20-year-old guys coming up to me saying, ‘I know we’re not supposed to be your demographic, but we thought it was fuckin’ funny!’”
Maggenti says she never aimed for a target audience while making Puccini. “I had all these ideas and I wanted to figure out how to work them out through this particular story at this particular time,” she recalls. Nor did she feel pressure after the success of Two Girls to continue plowing forward as a Queer Cinema trailblazer — mostly because, as she explains, “my personal life was so complex, nobody was very interested in having me do so.... I’m not much of a conformist myself. I don’t really fit in anywhere. When I meet gay people, they all know who I am and what I’ve done. When I meet straight people, they have no idea, and that puts you in a very strange position. It wouldn’t be so bad if the culture was separate but equal, but it’s not.”
Despite the difficulties Maggenti faced in trying to complete Puccini for Beginners, she never thought about attempting another story over those 10 years. “If I could have thought of something that Ben Affleck could have played, maybe my life would have been different, but it just didn’t come naturally,” she says. “I kind of stumbled my way through. I’ve been very lucky that I’ve been able to work — that part has been good — but it’s definitely been tough not to be a director all the time.”
Being a TV writer has helped Maggenti to continue broadening her horizons while overcoming another obstacle, however. “I had worked by myself for 10 years and then suddenly I was in a room with all these other people,” she recalls. “After the first six months of being called into the principal’s office over and over again for everything that I was doing wrong, I ultimately came to love it, and I loved my colleagues. I couldn’t believe that I was getting paid to be in a room with all these smart people! It was like Smith College, NYU graduate film school, ACT UP and my dinner parties all combined. But from a lifestyle point of view, I couldn’t stand it. I didn’t like the idea that we had to work Monday through Friday every day in an office for 11 straight months. It was like a real job — I hated that. I gave it all up to make Puccini, but now I’m back living in Los Angeles. I don’t know if that says more about me or the business, but I will say I feel I can have a freer, more bohemian life here in Los Angeles than I can in New York, ironically.”
Speaking of independence, the opportunity to work with InDigEnt on Puccini for Beginners was a huge bonus for Maggenti, especially given the fact that the production company is being shut down this year. “The thing about their setup is you’re given such extraordinary freedom,” she says. “You don’t have a lot in terms of financial resources, but I felt like I had everything I needed, and that’s every filmmaker’s dream. No one was over my shoulder; my editor and I were the ones who did the four rough-cut screenings to get the film where it needed to be. I wasn’t forced into that. I was given extraordinary support, and I was deeply appreciative — it was a great experience.”