Interview: Rebecca Miller
She may be the daughter of the man who penned Death of a Salesman, but Rebecca Miller reveals an undeniable talent for thoroughly goofy comedy in her latest film, Maggie’s Plan
By Katherine Monk
Rebecca Miller’s intellectual pedigree cannot be argued: daughter of Pulitzer-winner Arthur Miller, graduate of Choate and Yale, and married to the towering dramatic talent named Daniel-Day Lewis. But speaking to Miller over the phone, the legacy of Willy Loman walks out the door and the inner goofball emerges.
It’s a side of Miller that’s on full display in her latest work, Maggie’s Plan, a feature film that charmed audiences at this year’s Sundance Film Festival and opens theatrically this week. A full-on comedy that’s been drawing comparisons to Woody Allen’s witty dissections of the academic elite, Maggie’s Plan stars Greta Gerwig as a modern gal looking to enhance her life in a millennial way.
Maggie wants to have a baby without feeling beholden to anyone. She also wants to improve the lives of those around her using underhanded, highly manipulative, but ultimately well-intended techniques. She’s every Shakespearean villainess in a can, but in the hands of Gerwig and Miller, Maggie is more of a Charlie Chaplin than a Lady Macbeth.
“Well, you know I always loved her,” says Miller of her scheming lead. “Yeah. I think she does do a lot of things that are not smiled upon, one of which is breaking up someone’s marriage. But she thought it was a rotten marriage and is convinced of that.”
There’s a wacky logic to everything Maggie does, says Miller.
“I’ve always been interested in people who are not obviously heroic, who are not obviously good people. You find what is good in them. I mean I don’t know anyone who isn’t flawed. We’re all flawed a little bit.”
Certainly, everyone in Maggie’s Plan is flawed, whether it’s the comically arrogant central character, the somewhat limp academic romantic lead played by Ethan Hawke, or his eternally shrill, academic better and ex-wife played by Julianne Moore.
I’ve always been interested in people who are not obviously heroic, who are not obviously good people. You find what is good in them. I mean I don’t know anyone who isn’t flawed. We’re all flawed a little bit
“If you are partly making fun of yourself you can make fun of everybody,” says Miller of the laughable triumvirate. “I am not a member of that kind of intellectual elite, but there are aspects of myself that I am making fun of. And one can tell the difference between sardonic or cruel, or a more loving quality, which is what I am more interested in creating.”
Miller says as a writer, you have to use yourself a lot. “You have to give your essence to things.”
The rest is research. So even though Miller grew up around the likes of literary lions and noted artists and sculptors, including Alexander Calder and former tutor, Philip Grausman, she climbed the narrow stairs of the ivory tower to learn more.
“Even though people [make movies about academics] occasionally, very often they don’t bother to make it real. And I think making it real, and really plausible is the fun part. I did all the research. So crypto-anthropology is real. Everything is real and the reality of it is what makes it funny, instead of making them absurd in a way that trumps it up. I love that part.”
The harder, less obvious, challenge is figuring out which medium to explore a given theme. As a painter, sculptor, dramatist, screenwriter, film director and novelist, Miller has more than one option for any given idea.
“They are all one art, but they are all different. You know, a book is only that. You have one sentence and it’s that sentence, and it has to be right. A screenplay is more of a blueprint. It is something that is waiting for the actor to breathe life into and for light to infuse an image with meaning and color…. In a way, it is standing in for something else.”
Miller says every person who came onboard, from Gerwig to cinematographer Sam Levy, brought their own ideas and made things better.
“Greta and I kind of mind-melded, which is rare,” she says. “And the cinematographer’s dad was a violinist, so he understood how to handle all the dialogue – it had its own rhythm. It was like a musical score.”
You can hear the enthusiasm in Miller’s voice as she talks about Maggie’s Plan, a sense that the bitter cold winter shoot in Manhattan still brings back warm memories. Hard to believe there was a time when Miller quit film.
“The break I really took was before I made Personal Velocity. That’s when I had quit film. This break last break was writing a book,” says Miller of the last six years, since the release of The Private Lives of Pippa Lee starring Robin Wright.
“I never meant that I wasn’t going to make another film. I knew I had a book in me, and how many times does that happen? So I sat down and wrote it, knowing full well that I would come back to film.”
The novel is called Jacob’s Folly, and according to Miller, it’s about “an 18th century Parisien Jew who is reincarnated as a fly in contemporary Long Island.”
It’s hard not to laugh. And Miller is happy for the response. “It is funny. It’s an absurdist book with a lot of different strands. It deals with modern life, and anti-Semitism and being Jewish…”
Miller says that last part offered the biggest revelation, on a personal level, given she identified and practised Catholicism when she was younger. Her mother, photographer Inge Morath, was Austrian Catholic – but her father, Arthur Miller and one-time husband to Marilyn Monroe, was the descendant of Polish Jews.
I am drawn to religion, and I am aware of all its dangers, I suppose
“I am drawn to religion, and I am aware of all its dangers, I suppose,” says Miller, who describes herself as a “mutt” – currently not identifying with any denomination or belief system.
“I think anything clannish in general can be dangerous because it involves exclusion of others’ ideas and beliefs. But I have been very drawn to religion and always have been. I actually became quite Catholic when I was young and was baptized and went to Catholic Church and so on. That left a bit of an imprint on me and it wasn’t until I wrote this book that I got in touch with the part of myself that was — at least culturally — very Jewish: my humor, my rhythm, my way of being.”
Her way of talking – somewhere between declarative statements and divine questions – saying something substantial without sounding arrogant.
“I guess I just feel comfortable being myself. I don’t really have a sense of more Jewish or more Christian. I’m a mutt. It would be a lot less complicated and easier if I weren’t, but I am.”
No panic. She’s used to being an outsider: “I have identified as an outsider for a long time and being a female director, I didn’t end up with buddies who were directors. Now I am starting to have friends who are also directors but I always felt quite alone on that one.”
Then again, part of the creative process is all about being alone – and digging deep into recesses of one’s own self, studying, reflecting, sifting.
“All art is one, it just takes time to get good at stuff,” she says.
I don’t think I was ever over-confident but I never had a crippling lack of confidence. I have always been a worker. I believe in work, and in a way that is my salvation
“I don’t think I was ever over-confident but I never had a crippling lack of confidence. I have always been a worker. I believe in work, and in a way that is my salvation: Making something that I am proud of. And other people, and it can be devastating if people reject what you have done. But you have to remember that they are just people.”
Besides, creative artifacts live in a different universe.
“When you make something, it has its own series of laws. It’s own gravity. It’s own laws of physics. So if you make something that obeys those laws, then you have done everything you can do. The rest is out of your control. You can’t tell what people are going to like, or if the Zeitgeist even needs you,” she says.
“You don’t know what film is going to be necessary for people. It may have lots of merit, but no one seems to need it. You know what I mean?… So it’s, like, well, maybe they will need it later.”
Fortunately, you can watch Maggie’s Plan sooner than later. The film opens in major markets Friday.
THE EX-PRESS, June 2, 2016