“A Dirty Sixteen Candles”
Writer/Director Maggie Carey Chats About The To Do List
Don’t let Maggie Carey’s laidback, lackadaisical manner fool you; this woman has talent to burn. The writer/director of the teenage coming of age sex comedy The To Do List, it was important to her to infuse her debut with both smarts and smarm, this chronicling of high school valedictorian Brandy Klark, played with self-effacing easygoing ease by Aubrey Plaza, a female-centric genre entry that’s absolutely unafraid to shock and pull at the heartstrings, sometimes both at the same time.
“I really just wanted to deal with losing your virginity from an authentic teenage girl’s point of view,” comments the filmmaker, in Seattle to promote her film a good two months before its theatrical release. “That was important to me. It’s refreshing to me that the humor comes from a female [perspective]. The movie gets called a female American Pie which I’m totally okay with. I’d call it a dirty Sixteen Candles, but I do like that idea about a female American Pie because [the movie] is talking about sex in a specific way, which is what teenagers do. When you’re not having sex all you do is talk about sex. When you start having sex you don’t really talk about it as much.
“There’s a moment where Brandy is making out with Johnny Simmons’s character Cameron on the couch, and she’s trying to check fingerbang off her list, so she’s encouraging him in a very Type A personality type of girl way and he’s fumbling with her clothes but it turns out she’s not wearing a skirt. It’s a skort! I wouldn’t think a male would write that joke but I do think he’d appreciate the joke, and that’s been a lot of the conversation after people see the movie. My guy friends love that because they’ve had to fumble with bras, they’ve encountered weird clothing they don’t understand, but the girls love it because something like a skort is just so specific. And that’s what I was trying to do. I was trying to be truthful. I was inspired by specific things from my life and my experiences as a teenager.”
In the movie Brandy is a driven young woman who realizes she’s three months away from journeying to college but with no romantic experience whatsoever. More to the point, no sexual experience, and much like she did with her education she’s determined to fix that problem as clinically and as methodically as possible, crafting a sexual to-do list of important and necessary experiences that will hopefully culminate in the losing of her virginity by summer’s end.
“One thing that happened organically, and it wasn’t the intention, was that Brandy was approaching losing her virginity as if she were studying for the SATs,” explains Carey, “She’s very by the book. You do this, this and this and that will equal sex. She is a little bit emotionally removed. Her arc, she learns that feelings and emotions are part of sex. But when she’s going into it she’s just going for that main goal [losing her virginity].
“But then, the other character who has a main role in the movie, Cameron, he is very much about that sex is about love and you first time should be [special]. It happened organically that this ended up being in some ways a gender role reversal between these two, which I think actually gave us a lot to play with in regards to the comedy and that’s also where many of the big laughs involving Cameron come from, stuff like that a girl would give him a hand-job and then not think they were dating.”
With the cast, especially the three principals, Brandy and her two best friends Fiona and Wendy, Carey went off the beaten path, not basing her decisions on trying to fit a certain model or mold but instead going with gut instincts as to who would be best for the part. “Aubrey Plaza who plays Brandy, Alia Shawkat who plays Fiona, Sarah Steele who plays Wendy, I didn’t even think about it, but we cast them because we love them, not because they fit a certain look or anything,” she recollects.
“Aubrey, who I worked with on The Jeannie Tate Show and from working with as part of the Upright Citizens Brigade (UCB), was onboard early on. Alia, it was like, oh my god, I’m such an Arrested Development fan. Sarah had just done Please Give, and she was so good in that, and she just felt so real, and here she just gets so many big laughs in the movie. I was looking at them on the set and I was never thinking, oh, we cast three brown-haired girls, where had this been a studio financed movie you’d have had a redhead, a blonde and brunette, and that would have been important for someone.
“But, for me, I wanted the best people for the parts, and I think because this was an indie movie we had the luxury, as well as the difficulty, of casting the movie ourselves and go after the actors who we admired their work and had a personal connection with. We wanted people who would respond to the material.”
A lot of the humor flowed right out of the filmmaker’s own experiences growing up and going to school in Boise, ID. The more embarrassing the moment or the recollection, the more likely some semblance of those memories would find their way filtered into the script.
“When I was in high school, when I was 16 and you went to Junior Prom, that’s when I thought you lost your virginity,” Carey admits candidly. “Somehow, Junior Prom rolled around and I was still a virgin. I don’t know how I picked that up. Maybe it was watching Beverly Hills 90210 or reading Sweet Valley High or from John Hughes movies. But whatever it was that was coming from the ether had me convinced this was true. But it didn’t happen. So I wanted to explore that, too, with the movie.
“I still have my diaries from the ‘90s. I was very similar to Brandy, very Type A; in accelerated classes, total jock, played a ton of sports. I had a lot going on in my teenage girl life. But my whole diary was boy crazy. It was all about teenage boys. Talking nonstop about them. So that was something else I wanted to explore as well.”
Even though her movie was filled with comedic heavyweights including Clark Gregg, Andy Samberg, Connie Britton and Christopher Mintz-Plasse (as well as included a scene-stealing central role for husband Bill Hader), Carey never doubted for an instant Plaza wouldn’t be able to front the picture. Carey was positive from the get-go she had her Brandy in the actress even though she had never played a character quite like this one before.
“The Jeannie Tate Show is this web series about a soccer mom who does this talk show from her minivan while she’s driving errands,” Carey explains. “So she interviews people like Rashida Jones, Bill Hader, Rob Riggle and others while she’s driving around town and picking her kids up from soccer. Aubrey is her angsty teenage stepdaughter who [Jeannie Tate] hates, and she’s continually hilarious, coming up with lines and little moments that would continually have us all breaking down in laughter.
“When you do improv you play like ten characters in one show, so thanks to the web show and to UCB I knew [Aubrey’s] range. She does play this kind of dark, sarcastic, angsty person real well, which is somewhat similar to like April on Parks and Rec, but I knew she could do a lot more. It was fun to cast her as someone much different than April. Brandy is a very Type A personality. I kept telling her that this person, Brandy Klark, was Aubrey Plaza’s version of Tracey Flick from Election. When you see the film, there are just these specific moments where you see this spark of Aubrey coming through that gives it [the performance] a specific spin, like the masturbation scene. When you see it and you see what Aubrey decided to do, it’s genius.”
But while her praise for Plaza is massive, at the same time Carey made a point not to leave out another actress she feels steals as nearly as many scenes in The To Do List as her headliner did. “I did want to say, Rachel Bilson, she’s so funny,” says the filmmaker with a gigantic grin. “I knew she was talented and funny because I adored her on The O.C., but I think people are going to be surprised at just how funny she is. She did a lot of improvising with her lines, which was awesome. She was great. It was a wonderful surprise. [Rachel] was perfect for the part as [Brandy’s] hot older sister, but then to have her elevate that character so much with her own humor and improvising was awesome.”
With a cast filled with so many comedic heavyweights, the pressure to let them all have free reign to come up with material on their own was omnipresent. But the script was Carey’s baby, born from experiences she herself had while recollecting upon her own high school coming of age minefield. As such, one does wonder if battling the impulse to let her actors improvise or forcing them to stick to the written material weighed on the filmmaker during shooting.
“It did,” Carey admits. “You don’t want to be too precious with your words but you also don’t want to become too attached. When you’re directing comedy, there are jokes that are going to play on paper but aren’t necessarily going to play once you edit them into the movie. Then there is the joke that is going to work on-set and the crew is going to laugh at but isn’t going to work in the finished film and you have to cut it out. Then there are the jokes that don’t click when you shoot them but bring the house down when they’re shown to an audience.
“I think what you’re just hoping for as a director is to try and get options. I want to shoot it all ways. I want to shoot as scripted, but if this actor is responding to something on the set or in the moment, something we couldn’t predict, I want to shoot that, too. I also like to see the stuff that we get that’s unscripted, that’s totally improvised. I would tell people, we’ve got the shot, we’ve got what was on the script, now go for it. If there’s something you want to do, something you want to try, now is the time. In the same moment, the hardest thing you’re struggling with on a movie with such a low budget is time. You need options in editing with comedy but you’re also fighting this thing with time where you have producers telling you that you need to move on even though you want to wait because you know it could be funnier. You want to keep trying.”
As for the movie, at this point the main pressures are born from the fact that what was once this little independently produced labor of love has now been dropped right into the heart of the summer season amidst the big budget major studio tentpoles. This fact hasn’t been lost on Carey, the filmmaker doing her best to retain perspective and stay confident in the fact she’s made a comedy all involved have every reason to be proud of.
“It’s a little intimidating,” she laughs. “I just kept saying to my husband that I just wanted the movie to be good so I could show it to my high school friends. That was very important to me. Then hearing [CBS Films] was going to do a somewhat wide release was a dream come true, but it was also very intimidating. But I think it speaks to the strength of the cast. It’s such a fantastic cast, and I felt lucky to work with them all.
“What I like about the movie is that hopefully younger audiences will like it because it is closer to what they are dealing with now. But then, also, I do think people who grew up in the ‘90s will love it as well because they’ll enjoy all the shout-outs to the particular callbacks to the time period. There’s a really good call waiting joke I think my fellow 1990s peeps are going to find particularly funny. I’m happy with the movie and I’m just glad people are going to get the chance to see it and enjoy it for themselves. Hopefully that’s just what they’ll do.”
– Interview reprinted courtesy of the SGN in Seattle