6 Filmmaking Tips From Marielle Heller

The director behind 'Diary of a Teenage Girl' and 'Can You Forgive Me?' talks storytelling, tenacity, and fighting for representation both behind the camera and in front of it.

Marielle Heller And Melissa Mccarthy
Twentieth Century Fox

Marielle Heller did not intend to be a film director. After studying theater at UCLA and the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, she acted on stage and in a handful of film and TV roles before moving behind the camera. Her journey to directing movies is fundamentally linked to the film that marked her directorial debut, The Diary of a Teenage Girl. Heller quickly fell in love with the story after receiving the graphic novel by Phoebe Gloeckner as a Christmas present, and ended up “stalking Phoebe and her agent until I got the rights to adapt it.”

This lead to a well-received off-Broadway play, in which Heller also played the lead. Determined to see the story on the big screen, Heller adapted it once more, this time as a screenplay. Though she did not plan to direct it at first, she realized that her attachment to the story was such that she would not want anyone else to do it. Premiering at the Sundance Film Festival in 2015 and taking home multiple awards on the festival circuit, The Diary of a Teenage Girl received critical acclaim and also proved to be one of the more controversial releases of 2015, earning an “18” rating in the UK—the British equivalent of NC-17.

Since The Diary of a Teenage Girl, Heller has stayed busy, directing episodes of Transparent and Casual. With her sophomore feature film, Can You Ever Forgive Me?, currently building awards buzz for star Melissa McCarthy (in a dramatic turn as author and literary forger Lee Israel), Heller already has a third feature in production: You Are My Friendstarring Tom Hanks as Fred Rogers. She might not have decades of experience in the director’s chair just yet, but she’s already shared plenty of advice worth sharing, including the following six tips:

Make Things You’re Passionate About

While Heller hasn’t done too much press for her new film Can You Ever Forgive Me? considering she’s already in production on You Are My Friend, complete with life-affirming pictures of Tom Hanks in costume as Mr. Rogers, she did speak with the website Women and Hollywood last month when the film screened at the Toronto International Film Festival, shortly after premiering at Telluride. When the interviewer asked her what advice she would give young female filmmakers, Heller replied:

“Just make things, and find people you love working with. If you’re working on something you truly love and are passionate about, you will do your best work.”

Marielle Heller Directing Diary Of A Teenage Girl

Heller directing ‘The Diary of a Teenage Girl’

To Keep Fighting, You Need to Take a Break

As The Diary of a Teenage Girl takes place in 1970s San Francisco, it’s unsurprising that Heller did an interview with local publication SF Weekly leading up to the film’s release. Considering Heller spent around eight years working on The Diary of a Teenage Girl between the stage and film adaptations, SF Weekly asked her how she managed to stay tenacious for all that time. Here’s what she had to say:

“The truth of the matter is I think, like everybody, you have moments where you doubt yourself. For so long I felt like I was alone in making [‘The Diary of a Teenage Girl’]. Before I brought on my incredible producers and financiers and casts and cinematographer, it was just me. I was trying to figure out how to move this machine along, and it felt like pushing a boulder up a hill. I would have days where I would get out of bed, and think, ‘I don’t know what the hell I’m doing. How dare I think I can do this? What is my problem?’ I just made a promise to myself on those days, I’m not going to do anything. I’m not going to make a phone call where I try to talk about the film. I would just say, ‘This is the day that I can’t do anything, and I’m going to wait until my confidence comes back before I call that person back or before I make that plea for money or before I give this script to somebody.’ Sure enough, if I waited a few days, then I’d be like, ‘I love this project. I’m going to make this project. I have to make this happen.’ It’s something that we all have to overcome.”

Directing is More About Knowing People Than Cameras

Heller was nominated in the Best First-Time Feature Film category at the Directors Guild Awards for The Diary of a Teenage Girl, the only female nominee out the 10 total directors contenders in the two narrative film categories—one other woman, Liz Garbus, was nominated in the Documentaries category for What Happened, Miss Simone? (the First-Time Feature award ended up going to Alex Garland for Ex Machina).

In a January 2016 interview with Vogue, done shortly after Heller’s DGA nomination was announced, she elaborated on her thoughts about being a female film director. When the interviewer brought up showrunner Jill Soloway, and a comment she made about directing being a little like playing with dolls, which is generally regarded as a more traditionally feminine pastime, and that  a number of the skills required to be a good director are within the realm of traits generally stereotyped as being more feminine.  Heller agreed and added:

“I remember thinking when I set out to direct my movie that it was all about lenses and the shots you were going to get. Really, directing is about tapping into what makes us the most human, telling stories, emotions, and managing a group of empathetic people.”

Don’t Be Afraid to Make Men Uncomfortable

And on the subject of being a female filmmaker and dealing with the gender disparity in Hollywood, Heller also shared the following words of wisdom in a 2015 Vanity Fair profile:

“I want to talk about [gender inequality in Hollywood] and meet every other female filmmaker and help each other and work with each other and promote each other… I don’t think anyone should be afraid anymore. We definitely shouldn’t be afraid to make men uncomfortable.”

Marielle Heller Directing Can You Ever Forgive Me

Heller directing ‘Can You Ever Forgive Me?’

Remember the Value of Helping People Feel Seen

From the sexually curious (and sexually active) 15-year-old at the center of The Diary of a Teenage Girl to the somewhat unsociable lesbian author Lee Israel, Heller has shown repeated interest in putting the kinds of people Hollywood usually leaves on the sidelines front and center. In an August 2015 interview with Interview magazine, she elaborated on exactly why she thinks on-screen representation is so important:

Seeing yourself reflected on screen is a very important part of being human. It makes us feel less alone, it makes us feel more connected to humanity. Women, gay men, and trans people for a long time have not seen themselves represented, so being able to show the complexities that we all have—just as complex stories as a heterosexual white male—is crucial for us to feel more human and have other people see us as human beings.

Movies Don’t Need to Preach

In telling an honest, generally sex-positive story of teenage female sexuality, The Diary of a Teenage Girl stirred up a sizable amount of controversy, from some people who had seen the film and a whole lot more who had not but felt the need to chime in anyway. In a Cosmopolitan interview published in August 2015, Heller addressed the controversy and shared some compelling filmmaking advice in the process:

“If people actually see the film and don’t just read the liner notes, they’d understand that we’re making a complex movie about a complex issue that isn’t one-sided, and we’re trying to do that without judgment. I don’t think the purpose of movies is to tell people how to live their lives. If it were about a male character, nobody would be seeking for it to be prescriptive. Nobody criticized the characters in ‘The Godfather’ for being bad examples of how to be men. Movies about teenage girls have this onus of showing perfect people making perfect decisions. And that’s not what this movie is about.”

What We Learned

Although Heller’s directorial slate is now full enough to make a person feel vaguely overwhelmed just by looking at it, she did not enter the field dead set on being a movie director, but as someone who loved and felt too connected to a story to hand it over to somebody else. While there’s definite value to knowing the tools of the trade, it’s not always the be-all-end-all some people might sometimes make it out to be. Sometimes, as Heller’s trajectory shows, having that fundamental passion for and connection with the story being told is really the most important thing to have—after all, the rest you can learn along the way.

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