What a 'To Do'
Writer/director Maggie Carey's debut feature film, The To Do List, stars Aubrey Plaza as a studious virgin who decides to work her way through a checklist of sex acts the summer after graduation.
A raunchy riff on the classic teenage sex comedy, The To Do List is loaded with wince-worthy gags and 1990s nostalgia. Supporting cast members Bill Hader, Rachel Bilson, Johnny Simmons, Alia Shawkat, and Sarah Steele maximize the comic potential of the sharp screenplay, which made the 2009 Black List of best unproduced scripts in Hollywood. The film got a warm reception at an advance screening last week by the Austin Film Festival, and the Austin Chronicle sat down with Carey afterward to discuss three-dimensional female characters, improv, and a few scenes in the film that are sure to raise some eyebrows.
Austin Chronicle: One thing I really loved about The To Do List is that it's very unapologetic about teenage girls' interest in sex.
Maggie Carey: While I was writing the script, I had my one pink diary from the ’90s. Reading it, I loved that I was very type-A, I was in all of these AP classes and I played a lot of sports … but I was also totally boy-crazy. But it didn’t mean I was a silly little girl. I was doing a lot with my life, and I had hormones. It wasn't a negative, it didn’t mean that I wasn't taking things seriously or myself seriously or the Clinton/Gore campaign seriously. Women are three-dimensional and they’re complicated, and while stereotypes and archetypes are incredibly important in film and literature and I love them, it's also nice to … If you think about everyone that you know, you can't just put them in a box. They're not just one way.
AC: Do you feel like there's a lack of movies out there right now that present that kind of picture of teenage girls?
MC: I can't really speak to that. I can speak to the world of comedy. I come from UCB [Upright Citizens Brigade] Theatre, and Amy Poehler is one of the founders of the theatre, so right there you have an incredible role model. Some of the funniest people at the theatre right now happen to be women. There’s funny men too, but when you're there, it's just, is it funny? It's never like, we need a funny girl. So I don't overthink that part of it. I think there's awesome movies out recently, with Bridesmaids and Bachelorette, even Girl Most Likely, all of these. It’s exciting.
AC: Were you always funny?
MC: Oh, that's nice.
AC: Let me rephrase that. How early were you funny?
MC: I think had a strong point of view, from a very early age. I don't think I was intending to be funny, but people took it as funny. So, that's fine. And I think there are actually moments in the film which are played very earnestly, and they should be laughed at, but I love that that is not the intent. We have a lot of references to Hillary Rodham Clinton, when she was a first lady. I am a huge fan of hers, I really admire and respect her. And she’s in there earnestly. The character really, really looks up to this woman, and you can laugh at that, but I'm being really serious: I really like her.
AC: Shades of Amy Poehler's character from Parks and Recreation.
MC: Absolutely, it's fantastic.
AC: Tell me more about the sketch and improv world you come out of.
MC: In undergrad I went to University of Montana, and was in an improv group, and we came to Austin. They had the Big Stinkin’ Improv Festival back in the day, I think that was the last time they had it. That was really eye-opening to me. That's why I actually ended up going to UT for film school, because I was exposed to Austin and found out about the film school. Basically, I've always had an interest in comedy and filmmaking, and you don't have a lot of access to that when you grow up in Idaho. We didn't have Second City in our town. We didn't have a lot of camera equipment, and it wasn't that accessible. So I sort of fulfilled one technical skill that I really wanted, to learn how to shoot and edit television and film. But also, along the way, I've always loved comedy, so when I moved to New York, the first thing I did was sign up for classes at UCB Theatre and attended improv and sketch here. Then I got on a Harold team, which is Tuesday night long-form improv, and I have done that ever since.
AC: You have talked about how during the long process of making a film, the jokes can get stale for you. I can imagine that being very different from improv, where it's a flash and it's gone. Tell me something you have learned from experimenting on stage in improv over and over again.
MC: At UCB Theatre they call it the “game” in the scene – the unusual thing. If you look at any comedy, it's a point of view, it's really pushing what that unusual thing is. The other thing, I had a teacher, Michael Delaney, who said, “Play at the top of your intelligence” – even if it’s not a smart character, to still make smart choices as an actor, and not to dumb things down. Begin with the scene when you're writing – and even in a feature, which is much longer, it's broken down into scenes. And each scene, on set, I always felt so much better if it showed the writing was clear because it had a clear game, because the actor had something clear to play with. In those scenes where that was missing – one, they didn't stay in the movie, and two, on set you could feel that it wasn’t working, and why. Something wasn't necessary, if it's not doing that. … But also, I don't really overthink it. That's more when you're going back and analyzing.
AC: So there's one scene I don't want to spoil, but it's really gross … the one in the pool … so how do you know when it's the perfect gross-out gag or when it’s too much?
MC: I don't see it as gross-out comedy; I see it as being specific and being frank. I think it's fair to say that, but I don't write it that way, and I don't see it that way. Even with a scene like that, it's coming from a place of honesty. I was a lifeguard at a pool. My older brother worked there. And I was totally hazed. They didn't do that, but they did the actual Caddyshack one, where they put a floating Baby Ruth in the shallow end. I thought I was cleaning up poop, and I wasn't. So it was just that experience that I took and flipped it, so that she thought she was in on the joke. And there wasn't a joke.
AC: And it was super funny! About Aubrey Plaza – she’s fearless in this movie. A lot of people have mentioned the masturbation scene. How did she respond to that scene? Did she just run with it?
MC: I think this is a great example of why actors are so fearless and vulnerable and incredible. The most important part of the movie is the cast. The script is pretty simple: Brandy masturbates, and her sister walks in. I did insist on the “Pro-choice, Pro-Clinton” T-shirt, and I set the camera angle. But Aubrey did everything else. She’s fantastic, and it's so funny, and it's very true to the character. We talked about her character, and we said it was Aubrey Plaza's version of Tracy Flick from Election. I think that's one of those moments where you see – yes, it's very much Brandy Klark, but you see a little Aubrey Plaza sneaking in. She has such a specific point of view with comedy. In real life and onscreen, she does awkward so well, and it’s such a strength.
AC: Looking at your body of work, you've been involved with a lot of projects that were female-centered. Is that an interest for you in writing?
MC: I think you just write what you know. I'm a woman, so a lot of my main characters are women. I don't think there's much more to that.
AC: You and Bill Hader have two daughters. There’s a lot in the movie about how the parents deal with their daughters’ sexuality, and vice versa. Besides the fact that it's funny and awkward, did that come from a real place for you?
MC: My daughters will never see this movie. They don't show R-rated movies in the convent where my girls are going to high school, so I'm not worried.
The To Do List opens Friday, July 26. See Film Listings for showtimes and our review.