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A Magpie and a Storyteller: An Interview with Rebecca Miller

We chat to the novelist and film director about her new film, which chronicles a very modern relationship.

Rebecca Miller is an acclaimed novelist and film director with an impressive heritage. Wife of Daniel Day-Lewis and daughter of Arthur Miller, art clearly runs through her veins. Her new film, Maggie’s Plan, details a very modern relationship crisis that takes in sperm donations, a mature attempt at a three-way relationship and artisan pickles. We chat to her about fate, love and adaptations.

London Calling: Maggie has more than one plan, and neither turns out exactly as she expects. Is this a cautionary tale?
Rebecca Miller: If there is a cautionary element it’s that old adage – the best laid plans… I try to stay away from the idea of messages.
LC: There's the idea of not being able to control your fate.
RM: Absolutely. I myself have had lots of plans in my life and have often been surprised by how things ended up. I think you have to be open and accept the screwball that is life.
LC: Maggie goes through different phases of dependency in the film. She starts very independent and ends up being depended on. One of the film’s characters remarks that in every relationship there’s a rose and a gardener.
RM: She does get depended on. She becomes the gardener, and no one wants to be the constant gardener.
LC: Do you believe relationships are like that? A rose and a gardener?
RM: Some relationships are like that, where those roles are fixed. Most good relationships have some shifting where you get to be the rose for a time and the gardener for a time. Traditionally the gardener has been the female but I think those days are basically gone. That’s contributing to our marital confusion about roles in relationships – how are we supposed to take care of each other when every role has been thrown out now? Women now are wonderfully free to create their lives and their families and have children in a lot of different ways. But then we’re looking at each other and saying, “well what are we to each other? How do we live our lives?”
LC: The function that a marriage or a couple once served is debunked. The film’s timely in that way – if a woman can have a child by herself we’re forced to question the function of a marriage.
RM: Absolutely. It throws us into choice. We have to choose each other on a daily basis. In long marriages there’s heavy weather and there’s sunny skies and sometimes heavy weather lasts years. How do you weather that and is it worth weathering it? What’s a dynamic marriage?
The question is: do you have enough curiosity and enough ability to be surprised by each other to stay interested as you go? For John and Georgette [two parts of the film’s love triangle] the thing that really connects them is the life of the mind. They’re really interested in each others’ minds. For them that’s sexy and it’s interesting.
LC: The film pokes gentle fun at academics. Do you have experience with those kinds of people?
RM: My best friend is an academic and I lived with another for a long time. I definitely see them as rounded people. We’re all ridiculous in different ways.
LC: Some of the dialogue aims quite high, with lines like “no one unpacks commodity fetishism like you do”. Were you worried that slant might go over viewers’ heads?
RM: Amazingly people laugh at those things. People don’t need to know what these things mean exactly. With this film I didn’t lower the tone one minute. I didn’t dumb anything down. I thought if I don’t condescend to the audience, they would be happy. I’m not an intellectual of the highest level. I’m a magpie, I’m a storyteller. I figure that if I can understand it, a lot of people can.
LC: Three of your films have been adapted from texts, two yours and one someone else’s. How faithful do you remain to a text?
RM: I’m very unfaithful to a text, especially to my own. I always break the back of the structure immediately and get rid of stuff. That’s why I would be loathe to adapt a masterpiece that everybody loved. I would never make a film for young people on a book they love because I know my own children – if a single scene is missing from a book they’re outraged. Never would I do that. Because you want to be able to be irreverent.
LC: You’d be even more irreverent with your own stuff?
RM: Yeah, I’m only hurting my own feelings. It’s important to have a separate identity as a writer. You have to have three identities when you’re making a film from your own book. You’ve got yourself as a novelist, yourself as a screenwriter who has to disrespect yourself as a novelist, and then yourself as a director who has to disrespect yourself as a screenwriter.
LC: There was a striking chronological leap in the film, as you’ve done in a few of your films.
RM: I’ve always had an elastic sense of how you can use time in films. One of the great things about films is how you can skip huge gaps where you think it might be boring to watch it. Audiences are so visually literate and their imaginations are so ready to fill in gaps. There are two kinds of confusion in films, good confusion and bad confusion. Bad confusion is where you’re not rewarded and you just feel confused and irritated. Good confusion is where you might not know where you are right now but you’ll know in thirty seconds. It keeps you alive and with it. It’s a good thing.
Maggie’s Plan is in UK cinemas now.