Off the cliff

Maria Maggenti, the director of Incredibly True Adventure... declares her independence

A friend of mine who writes film criticism in another city was waxing rhapsodic the other day about Maria Maggenti, the New York-based writer-director of The Incredibly True Adventure of Two Girls in Love.

"Oh, you're just gonna fall in love with this woman," she told me. "After I met her and talked to her, I warned her that she might open her apartment door one morning and see me standing there on her stoop with a suitcase, going, 'Hi! I'm moving in!'"

It's easy to understand her enthusiasm. Maria Maggenti is for real. The woman obviously has her head screwed on straight: you can sense this from the first moment you speak to her. She's smart, funny, eloquent, and beguilingly self-deprecating. She has a firm idea of who she is, what she believes in, and what she wants to do with her career.

And when she talks about her resolve to remain an independent filmmaker and resist the siren song of Hollywood, she doesn't sound like just another directorial flavor-of-the-month spouting self-aggrandizing bilge for the media. She actually believes in the ideals she espouses--and more importantly, she understands the sacrifices required to live them out.

"I'm not interested in anybody who lives in Los Angeles," says the 32-year-old Maggenti, speaking long-distance from what she cheerfully describes as a "$500 a month East Village hovel."

"I'm not willing to work under the terms corporate filmmaking requires," she continues. "It sounds like I'm being awfully coy when I say that, because common wisdom holds that when you say no to Hollywood, as I've been doing since this film first started getting serious attention, your desirability quotient goes up tenfold. But I'm quite serious about it.

"I have been very clear from the beginning that I'm committed to remaining an independent filmmaker. I won't make films by consensus or to fit a certain market niche. If that's the only choice open to me, I'd rather stay in my apartment and listen to my records and read books."

Unlike many filmmakers of her generation, Maggenti has lived a bit. She was born in Washington, D.C., in 1963. At the age of 13, Maggenti and her younger sister moved with their single mother, an agricultural economist on assignment with the World Bank, to Lagos, Nigeria and lived there for four years. She went back to America's capital to finish high school, bummed around Italy after graduation, then returned stateside again to study philosophy and literature at Smith College.

She moved to Manhattan, worked on television commercials until the experience began to make her feel permanently nauseous, then jumped to the far less lucrative field of documentary filmmaking for a while. She attended New York University's graduate film program and made lesbian-themed short films that won basketloads of awards at film festivals worldwide.

Incredibly True Adventure..., her debut as a feature filmmaker, started as a much more serious, arty tale that followed the girls' relationship from its middle to its bitter end. "It was a melodramatic, tragic, teen-angst kind of movie," she admits. But the subject matter of the obviously autobiographical tale was dear to her. She wanted to make the picture anyway.

At the time, her best friend Melissa Painter, who would end up taking an associate producer credit on the finished movie, suggested making it on the cheap--just bite the bullet and do it. "I said, 'Oh, no, that would be horrible!'" Maggenti says. She wasn't satisfied with her script. It didn't feel quite right to her, though she couldn't figure out why.

Then a couple of New York film producers expressed interest in it--on the condition that Maggenti rewrite the script so the audience got to learn how the girls met. Maggenti was given eight days to finish a new draft; she holed up in her apartment and just "ripped right through" the story, and was startled to discover that what was coming out of the other end of her printer was actually funny. "I was amazed how quickly everything happened," she says. "I basically just gave in to the mystery of the creative process. I finished it, printed it out, and slapped the title on it, and that was that."

The producers who had pushed them to rewrite the script ended up bailing on the project. Then along came Dolly Hall, another New York-based producer, who loved the new draft. She helped Maggenti assemble a shoestring budget and a crew and cull a cast of unknown actors from across the country.

Maggenti was especially fortunate in casting the leads. She learned of Laurel Holloman, known to friends as Lu--a North Carolina native who's been acting in New York plays for several years--when the actress mailed in a head shot and resume. Baltimore native Nicole Parker came to Maggenti through her casting director. "They both made it clear from the start that they wanted these characters for their very own," Maggenti says.

And they subtly changed the roles during the rehearsal process, offering their young director invaluable input. "Thanks to Laurel," Maggenti says, "the character of Randy became much more fragile. Her sweet bravado became more apparent. It already existed subtextually in the script, but Laurel brought it out physically, in the loping way the character walked, in the way her pants would just sort of hang down on her body.

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