By Iain Blair
Rebecca Miller is a rara avis in the industry: a female director and screenwriter in what is still essentially a boy’s club. She’s written and directed five films, including Sundance Film Festival winners Personal Velocity, Angela, The Ballad of Jack and Rose and The Private Lives of Pippa Lee. Miller also happens to be daughter of legendary playwright Arthur Miller, and wife of Oscar-winner Daniel Day-Lewis (whose knighthood also entitles her to be referred to as Lady Day-Lewis).
In her latest, a romantic comedy titled Maggie’s Plan, Greta Gerwig portrays Maggie Hardin, a thirty-something New Yorker working in education who, without success in finding love, decides now is the time to have a child on her own. But when she meets John Harding (Ethan Hawke), an anthropology professor and struggling novelist, Maggie falls in love for the first time, and adjusts her plans for motherhood. Complicating matters, John is in an unhappy marriage with Georgette Harding (Julianne Moore), an ambitious academic who is driven by her work. With some help from Maggie’s eccentric and hilarious best friends, married couple Tony (Bill Hader) and Felicia (Maya Rudolph), Maggie sets in motion a new plan that intertwines their lives, and which teaches her that sometimes destiny should be left to its own devices.
I recently met up with Miller to talk about making Maggie’s Plan, and why there are so few women directors.
Given that you make indie films with limited budgets, what were the main challenges of pulling this together?
It’s always a challenge to stay light on your feet and keep the crew small enough so that you can move quickly, and make sure all the players are very good so you don’t run into problems later with the sound or lighting and so on. Because if you have a problem, it’s a bit of a snowball, and once one thing goes wrong it affects everything, and then you have to fix it all in post, which I really don’t like to do.
You have an all-star cast, including Oscar-winner Julianne Moore. Do you know them well enough to just call them, or do you go through all the agents and managers?
It depends. I know Julianne, so I just dropped the script through her mailbox. She liked it and signed on. I met Greta and within 10 minutes knew she was right. I didn’t know Bill Hader at all, but he knew my work, so casting wasn’t that hard.
You shot this in New York City. How tough was it?
Very. It was a very cold winter… we were in the “polar vortex,” and everyone was freezing. But it was a joyful shoot with a very close-knit and happy crew, so even though we had a lot of locations every day, we moved very fast and I was very well prepared. DP Sam Levy and I worked for months prepping it, so once we started it went very smoothly.
Do you like the post process?
I love it, and it’s this wonderful time where you can finally relax and take another stab at basically re-writing your whole film. Post is where all the layering and detail work comes in, especially with sound, sound design and music.
Where did you post?
We did it all at Technicolor-Postworks NY. We cut for about 10 to 12 weeks, and then we had a few extra weeks to play with. We did a pre-mix and then the final mix.
Your editor was Sabine Hoffman (Harlem Aria), who worked with you on Personal Velocity, The Ballad of Jack and Rose and The Private Lives of Pippa Lee. How did that relationship work?
She came to the set a couple of times, but usually what we do is, I shoot and send her material, and she starts cutting as fast as she can and starts an assembly. The big benefit is she can check it all and say to me, “We really need an exterior shot here, and an establishing shot there.” It’s usually something I didn’t think we needed, so I’ll go back to the location a month later and grab what we need.
It’s very important to have the editor working during the shoot, rather than just handing her all the material after we wrap, as it’s too late then. She knows the script inside out. She’ll come to some of the early script readings and storyboard sessions, so she knows all my shot lists and so on, and how I picture cutting it all together. I really love the editing process, and I love the freedom you have with digital editing.
For instance, on The Ballad of Jack and Rose we tried cutting it forwards and then backwards. On this we cut it in sections, almost like movements, and kept combing though and combing through. The color grading was done by colorist Alex Bickel on Resolve. This was my first time working with him, and he was terrific. The grading was very important as we had a very specific color palette for various scenes. We added some grain since Sam shot on Alexa. We also did an unusual amount of screenings on this — not test screenings so much as just people we invited, and it was more just to hear their reactions. It was painful, but it was very helpful. I don’t like having to do it, but I felt it was necessary.
Can you talk about the importance of music and sound in the film?
They’re as important as what you see in many ways, and I worked very closely with composer Michael Rohatyn, who also did The Ballad of Jack and Rose and The Private Lives of Pippa Lee. I was there when we recorded all the music, and we had this great music editor, Todd Kasow, who was very helpful in where to place music and how to use it most effectively. The sound design was also so important for me and this film, as it’s also all about creating intimacy in key scenes between characters, when you manipulate sounds in a way that two people stop hearing the world around them because they’re so into each other. Every little bird noise, every footstep, was important — also when you artificially take away sound in a scene — and how speech rhythms work, as the dialogue is so crucial in this movie. Luckily, we barely had to loop anything in post.
Do you get surprised by how your movie changes in post?
I do, but if I didn’t like surprises I’d just be a novelist instead, where you have total control over everything. Part of the fun is seeing how it changes from your original vision for it.
Ethan Hawke said that even though he’s been acting professionally for over 30 years now, this is the first time he’s been directed by a woman. Why are there so few women directors?
It’s simply lack of opportunity, and it’s an employment problem. There are women directors — but they just don’t get hired. It’s the same problem facing minorities in this business: we’re all seen as a lump, as if we’re all the same, but we’re all different, as all human beings are, and we don’t direct in some “female” way. We’re all individuals, but it seems strangely difficult for people to understand.