Shaping romances from the twists in her life

Maria Maggenti drew upon her own experience to make the unconventional comedy `Two Girls in Love.' It took her a decade to follow it up.

February 11, 2007|Mark Olsen | Special to The Times

THE first film by Maria Maggenti, "The Incredibly True Adventure of Two Girls in Love," turned the writer-director's own blushing, youthful romantic interlude into a tender, comedic tale. With her second feature, "Puccini for Beginners," Maggenti again draws from the well of her own relationship travails.

Around the time of production of "Two Girls in Love," Maggenti, who then identified as lesbian, found herself in love with a man.

She has recast that experience into a sharp, smart homage to the screwball comedies of the '30s and '40s, as "Puccini" traces the triangle of a woman who simultaneously embarks on affairs with a man and a woman without knowing they were only recently a couple.

The film, which opened Friday, takes place in a delightfully romanticized version of New York City, all dusty bookshops and sidewalk cafes, that even Woody Allen doesn't often portray anymore. It also features tangy, freewheeling performances by Justin Kirk and Gretchen Mol as the confused couple, Elizabeth Reaser as the conflicted lesbian, and Julianne Nicholson as the ex who sends her into an emotional tailspin.

"I am often surprised that my writer self is so much more light and breezy than I am in person or inside my head," says Maggenti of the way she blends her own experiences into her work. "In my head I am absolutely distraught most of the time, about love, friendships, the ever-present fact of loss. My work is not really autobiographical so much as it is personal.

"What I mean by that is that I understand deeply where my characters come from and I know their feelings very well. Sometimes if I've had an encounter or an experience that is especially ripe or right for comedy, I'll steal it and use it. But mostly I am far older and wiser than the characters I've written so far, and I view them the way I might view a younger self, with bemusement and affection."

"Two Girls," which premiered at the 1995 Sundance Film Festival, was a warm, live-wire comedy about a pair of high school girls from different sides of the tracks who fall for each other -- think "Some Kind of Wonderful" without Eric Stoltz -- that was among the key films in the mid-'90s mainstreaming of gay culture.

It is easy to overly romanticize the earlier days of Sundance and the world of independent film. Though largely lacking the corporate financing that now fuels the frenzy, the art of the deal still rubbed shoulders with the art of cinema.

"I loved the screenings and the Q&As," says Maggenti, recalling her first experience there. "And I was completely unprepared for everything else that went around it, the business aspect of things. I found it really freaky and upsetting.

"When the Miramax guys came to buy the foreign rights for the film, they were crunching across the snow in big black cashmere coats with really nice leather shoes. I felt like I was being visited by the Mafia."

After that initial trip to Sundance, Maggenti soon found herself on the typical rounds of meetings in L.A. -- "I met everybody," she recalls -- which led to a studio writing job adapting Cathleen Schine's novel "The Love Letter." Though "Two Girls" was a modest box-office success, Maggenti was unable to secure financing for an early version of "Puccini," then called "Us, Them and Me." There was also uncredited rewrite work, and she would move to Los Angeles to work for three seasons as a staff writer on the show "Without a Trace."

Eventually she quit her job, sold her house and headed back to New York to shoot "Puccini." Maggenti shot the film for less than $1 million in 18 days in September 2005, and she would work for nine weeks with editor Susan Graff, who also cut "Two Girls," to hone the film from 118 minutes to its final, breathless 82 minutes.

Maggenti returned to Sundance in January 2006 to premiere "Puccini for Beginners," and she found a completely different experience.

"The publicity machine was not there [in 1995] in the same way, and in that respect Sundance is a reflection of the culture at large. It was not as celebrity-focused a moment, and now it is. Of course there were famous people, but you wouldn't have front-page coverage of who was there and what they picked up as presents. I mean, there wasn't even the word 'swag.' "

"Puccini" was both for sale to distributors and screening as part of the main competition, which only upped the anxiety. "The competition was very fierce," she says. "We didn't get anything, and that felt like a terrible disappointment. You feel like the thing that is supposed to be wonderful, interacting with the audiences, is nothing compared to where you've ended up on the pecking order of the marketplace. If you have not sold your film for a lot of money and you have not received an award, you're kind of invisible."

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