Some of the greatest masterpieces never made are doomed to occupy a negative space of perpetual possibility. Talent and vision, as crucial as they may be, are only part of the equation. True artists also need the audacity to explode their talent and vision onto a seemingly indifferent world.
The Diary of a Teenage Girl, in theaters now, is about a young woman on the verge of gaining that kind of artistic confidence. The film only exists, though, because first-time writer/director Marielle Heller had already found hers and could wield it like a fine instrument or a powerful weapon.
Diary’s titular teenager, Minnie, spends most of the film deriving her self worth from what men think of her, before ultimately putting more stock in her own creativity. In reality, time proved that Minnie’s faith was not in vain, since the film is based on a graphic novel chronicling the actual diary of Phoebe Gloeckner–who went on to become a much-respected illustrator.
As soon as Marielle Heller read that graphic novel, she immediately embarked on the 10-year path toward adapting it into a movie. She’d been making steps in just such a direction, however, from a very early age.
“Something I truly related to with Minnie was being an artistic kid who was making projects out of everything in my life, coping with whatever life sent my way by making art,” says Heller, whose mother was an art teacher. “I was one of those kids who spent a lot of time alone in my room making things, so it was something I really clicked with in this character.”
One crucial difference between the character, who is portrayed by British actress Bel Powley, and her eventual screenwriter, though, is that while Heller’s talent was nurtured from an early age, Minnie’s is not. The people in her life look at her drawings and don’t acknowledge them. Her love interest–who, by the way, is also her mother’s boyfriend–looks at Minnie’s drawings, deems them freaky, and shames her for them. Nobody else gives her any indication that she should continue what she’s doing either. It’s an artistic existence with no validation from within or without.
External validation is a double-edged sword, though. It can make up the stars that a young artist steers by, or it can serve as a destination unto itself. Heller seems to opt for the first scenario.
“I don’t think it’s wrong to base your confidence at least in part on what other people think,” she says. “When you make the kind of art that is solipsistic and alone, you need people to encourage you, because it can feel like a totally useless act otherwise. You can feel like you’re working in a void. I know when I’m writing, until someone reads the pages I’ve written, I don’t feel like I’ve written them at all.”
The lone ray of light in Minnie’s artistic life in the movie arrives when much-beloved comic artist Eileen Kaminsky eventually responds to Minnie’s letters and encourages her to continue drawing. Once Heller decided she wanted to bring Diary of a Teenage Girl to life, though, she did not receive any commensurate reassurance right away.
When Heller decided to adapt the graphic novel into a play for herself to star in, it took her 10 months to convince Phoebe Gloeckner and her agents to give her the rights to do it. Heller’s outright refusal to take no for an answer similarly guided her through the four years it took to stage the play, and the four years afterward to make the subsequent film based on it. In the interim, she’d received a lot of Kaminsky-like encouragement to continue seeing her vision through, as lead producer Caviar came aboard. One particularly important vote of support came from another producer, Anne Carey.
After Carey saw the play, she reached and expressed her hope that Heller saw the play through to a screen adaptation. By that point, Heller was already envisioning a film version. What she hadn’t thought to do until encountering Carey, though, was apply to the Sundance Feature Film Lab for guidance in the difficult process of making her writing and directing debut. Her acceptance to the program proved to be pivotal.
Heller went into the Sundance Lab with a complete script that she felt fairly confident about. (Eventually, she would go on to write over 85 drafts.) During her time at the Lab, she received feedback in all different directions, and from sources as reliable as acclaimed filmmaker Nicole Holofcener. Some of the feedback would inevitably conflict with other advice Heller received, forcing her at times to double down on the elements of the screenplay she most believed in.
“Some people hate voiceover, they just hate it in general. But I liked voiceover and thought it was a very justifiable use of it in this movie,” Heller says. “So the opposing advice I got made me clarify and go deeper with the things I knew I wanted to do. Having people questioning my choices made me really either let go of things, or go even further with them.”
The Sundance Lab prepared Heller for the sheer breadth of decisions, both macro and micro, that she’s be forced to make once the project barreled toward production. Making one’s first movie, it turns out, is a crash course in having to say no to other people a lot. While collaborating with other artists to achieve the look of the movie, in which Minnie’s imagination might inject vivid animation into the world at any time, Heller learned that her negative responses were a net positive.
“People who are good collaborators don’t mind you saying no, because it means you’re clearer with your vision,” Heller says. “Sometimes women particularly have a hard time being the ones who have to say no to something, but I knew if I wanted to be clear it meant saying no to things and people actually loved that, because you want clear direction from a director when you’re working on a movie, so you can do your best work.”
One could build a strong case that, under Heller’s leadership, everyone involved at every level in Diary of a Young Girl did his or her very best work. The film had a rapturous reception at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, where it was nominated for a Grand Jury Prize, Time Magazine has called it “required viewing,” and it currently has a 94% score on Rotten Tomatoes.
Even with all the acclaim, and even with Heller already having lined up her next project, a Ruth Bader Ginsburg biopic starring Natalie Portman, the budding director recognizes that no matter how confident any of us feels in our art, nobody is exempt from occasional moments of doubt.
“I definitely think everybody has Impostor Syndrome. I still do, at least,” Heller says. “When my movie got into the Sundance Film Festival, I thought I didn’t belong there, it was a total mistake. I felt that way when I got into Sundance Lab, too. I feel that way now that my movie is in theaters. I don’t think that goes away. You just suddenly realize one day that nobody knows what they’re doing and we all feel this way.”