Off the cliff

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.

"And Nicole brought a cultural specificity to Evie that I obviously couldn't provide. She kept Evie real and honest. Sometimes she'd be in the middle of rehearsing a scene and she'd suddenly just stop, turn to me, and say, 'You know, there's no way a black girl would say this to her mother! She just would not!' So we'd change it until she was comfortable."

Maggenti and company rehearsed for 30 days in June 1994, then shot for three weeks in July and August. The movie was edited and ready for showing at Utah's Sundance Film Festival the following February.

"It's not a perfect film, obviously," she says. "I couldn't labor over every shot. It's not that special. We shot this movie in 21 days in Westchester and Newark, with no one getting paid, and it cost $60,000. When I look at it now, I can see there are plenty of places where my reach exceeded my grasp.

"But for what it is, it works really well. It's not going to change the world. It's just a good story. I had a lot of help, of course, from everybody from the cast to my producer to my editor, who'd look at me during dailies and say, 'You've got to be kidding with that line! It's terrible! We have to take it out!'"

The film has received mixed reviews from critics, but audiences seem to love it. Which is the reverse of what Maggenti expected when she decided to make a feature film. She admits to being hopelessly out of touch with popular culture. She loves opera, classical music, and the big guns of the Western literary canon. Maggenti's idea of a satisfying leisure activity is riding the subway, watching people around her, and jotting down observations in her notebook. Unlike many independent filmmakers, she's not a big movie buff (for instance, she hasn't seen Flirting, and was surprised when so many viewers compared it to her movie). Given her classical leanings, she never dreamed she'd one day make a film that Esquire would playfully describe as "the first feel-good lesbian romance for the whole family."

"It's strange when I sit in an audience during a screening and hear people laughing or getting emotionally wrapped up in it," Maggenti says. "I guess it's because everybody can relate to it. The movie is one long, unapologetic paean to first love, to that extraordinary experience, to that rush of feeling you never get to have again--that feeling you get when you say to someone, 'I will love you forever,' and you really believe it.'"

Accordingly, the film ends with a printed title dedicating the picture to her first girlfriend and their relationship. "May it rest in peace," it concludes.

"I'm still astonished when I consider that window in time," Maggenti says, "that window of opportunity and experience between childhood and adulthood that I never got again. It's exhilarating, like jumping off a cliff. And that's what it was like making the movie. It was like the actors and the producers and the crew and I all gathered around, held hands, and jumped off a cliff together."

--Matt Zoller Seitz

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