Talking to Writer/Director Maggie Carey About Her New Movie ‘The To Do List’
This past weekend saw the release of writer/director Maggie Carey’s first movie, The To Do List. Set in 1993, the film stars Aubrey Plaza, who’s been collaborating with Carey since her web video days, as an overachieving high school grad who goes on a quest to become more sexually experienced before college. The To Do List features a stellar supporting cast that includes Alia Shawkat, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Andy Samberg, Donald Glover, Adam Pally, and Maggie Carey’s husband Bill Hader. I recently had the chance to talk to Carey about The To Do List, how she got the movie made by pretending it was happening even though it wasn’t at first, and why the original title (The Hand Job) was scrapped.
How autobiographical is the movie?
It’s pure fiction, but that point of view of Brandy Klark is something that I know very well, being that I graduated high school in 1993 in Boise, Idaho. I just used that point of view that I had as a teenage girl. A very type-A [girl] who was probably in every AP class possible, and I played a ton of sports. I feel like I was very accomplished but still totally boy crazy and also not getting anywhere with the boys. So, I took that point of view and then applied it to the story.
When did you first start writing the script?
I guess it was about three years ago? Yeah, I think the whole thing took about, from when I wrote it to when it was finally finished, three years and change.
How did the story change from how you originally pictured it? Is what’s on screen similar to what you first envisioned as the story or did a lot of elements change?
It’s pretty similar. There were some more experiences with different guys that I took out and there were some more B stories that eventually got whittled out, but it is pretty close. Overall, with the whole process and it being my first film and being an indie, I felt pretty lucky that the script I wrote pretty much is the script that’s on screen. That part was kind of cool.
Yeah, that’s pretty rare that it didn’t get tampered with or changed by a studio.
Well, I think when you do something for such a low budget, they forget about you. [Laughs] I think that’s why most people end up doing indies anyway.
Did you always have Aubrey Plaza in mind for the lead role?
I did. I know Aubrey from Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre – UCB Theatre – in New York. She and I were in class together, and I cast her. I did a web series called The Jeannie Tate Show about a soccer mom who does a talk show while driving around in her mini-van, and Aubrey played the angsty, kind of emo step-daughter. So I knew Aubrey from that, and when I was writing, I always had her in mind and it worked out schedule-wise and stuff. It also worked out that when she read the script, she liked it. [Laughs] That helped.
It also worked out that she was at a point in her career where she could star in a movie.
Sure. When we were getting financing three and a half years ago, Parks [and Recreation] was in its first or second season, so yeah.
What was the financing process like?
Well, I wrote the script as a spec. It went to all the studios and they passed. But Jennifer Todd, who ended up being my producer, read it and really liked it and thought a good strategy would be to attach the cast and then we’d go out and get financing. While she and I were doing that, the script was on [the popular screenplay ranking survey] The Black List. That was definitely one of those things that gave the script momentum.
At the same time, the Austin Film Festival – they’re primarily a screenwriting festival – was doing a panel about The Black List, so they invited me to do a staged reading of the script at the festival. Aubrey came and Bill Hader came, and we cast it with local actors. So, we did this staged reading in front of three-hundred people, and it was received really well. The crowd was awesome and a bunch of people blogged about it, and I love saying “blogged” because I feel like it was the fall before Twitter. I think Twitter really came about at South by Southwest in the spring, so it was like before Twitter. It just feels so old-fashioned to say that people blogged about it. Anyways, that was really helpful and gave us a ton of momentum so then I could go to – we went to actors that we were friends with and fans of their work and also I could show them this positive press that we’d gotten from that staged reading. I think that absolutely helped.
And then, from there, I just pretended – I just played make-believe that the movie was getting made that summer. I went to LA twice and did table reads with the cast, and the cast would entertain my fantasy. They would rehearse with me, as well, even though we didn’t have a start date or financing. While I was looking for financing, I was meeting with different DPs and editors and costume designers. Those were fun conversations because they’d always be like, “What’s your budget?” and I would say, “Low” because I knew that would be the right answer. Then, they’d want to know how many shoot dates, and I would always say, “Not very many.” And both of those answers were correct.
I knew we had to shoot the next summer because almost all of the cast was on TV shows, so we really needed to do it on the summer hiatus so it was a bit of a ticking clock. When we finally got financing, it happened very quickly. My other producer, Brian Robbins, had just made a deal with CBS Films to do some low budget comedies. He made that deal with [studio exec] Wolfgang Hammer, then 12 hours later got my script. And then, 12 hours later, we were financed and immediately went into pre-production. That part, once it finally happened, it happened quick.
Was it a challenge directing the story as a period movie instead of doing it in modern times?
No because I didn’t really even realize I was writing a period movie. [Laughs] I didn’t feel like the ’90s were period, honestly, until we started working with the production designer and the costume designer. Once I met with my line producer, she kept telling me that you can’t get a Ford Festiva with automatic seatbelts anymore. We actually had to go down to Long Beach and buy that from someone off of Craigslist. Anyways, that was when it kind of dawned on me that it was the ’90s. No, it wasn’t hard. It was super fun, and I probably bugged people because I was always walking around set with my high school yearbook. If someone questioned something, I would be like, “No, look at my yearbook! It has to be this way!” Especially the hairstyles.
You have a lot of younger actors in the movie. Did any of them not understand the ’90s references?
For the most part, they were totally game. But it was fun – we had the premiere in LA last week, and my high school girlfriends came. Aubrey sat right behind them, and they laughed at like every little subtlety. Afterwards, Aubrey was like, “Okay, now I get why you kept that. Now I get why it was in the script.” It was absolutely to make my friends laugh, which I think is kind of the only thing. You can’t please everyone. That was the whole reason I made the movie, so that my friends could see it and laugh and enjoy it.
Did you do a lot of research into ’90s slang? How’d you go about getting the dialogue to sound that way?
No, I had my diary from the ’90s, so I definitely looked at that. I remembered, obviously, a lot of it. Also, back in the olden days of the ’90s, we used to write notes during class, which is where you took a pen and wrote on paper and folded it up and passed it to somebody. My friends and I, we saved so many of those. I don’t know why. It was a thing where you would keep all your notes in a big, giant shopping bag, so I had tons of those too. Also, just mixtapes and things like that that we had made that had little notes that you would read. A lot of those things came back pretty organically and ended up in the script.
Do you enjoy go through that stuff? I find it’s sometimes frustrating to see what I was like as a teenager.
I love it! I didn’t find it frustrating. I liked how as a teenage girl, I was really confident. I was really right about stuff I knew nothing about, and I love that I had strong opinions, and I think that’s great about teenagers now. I think they should have strong opinions, and you should be confident. I think, sometimes as you get older, you shy away from that. I actually wish I had a little more of that.
I guess I’m just different. I was confident and wrong about everything.
[Laughs] Well no, in my mind, I was right. I’m not saying I was right about everything; however, we did predict – my friends and I volunteered on the Clinton/Gore campaign. I couldn’t vote but a lot of my friends could vote in that. It was a big deal in our high school, we would spraypaint the rocks when you were a senior. These just giant boulders we had in front of our school. That might just be because Boise is kind of boring, but that was like a big deal. So my friends and I, when it was our turn to spraypaint ’em, we wrote, “Hillary ’96” or something like that. We were legitimate, and I still am very earnestly a Hillary Clinton fan, but that was kind of funny that we spraypainted that back then not knowing that one day she would run for president, which is pretty awesome.
The movie was originally called The Hand Job. How’d the decision to change the title come about?
Well, when we started location scouting at schools, I quickly realized we couldn’t use that title. Also, you were going to have signs for crew parking that said like, “The Hand Job – Crew Parking.” I think they probably would have gotten some stragglers who thought something else was going on than what was really getting made … I don’t know if a lot of movie theaters would have let us use the title. Once we changed it, I was fine with it because I think the hand job is a very important scene. It’s kind of a turning point in the movie, so I think it works as a title, but I also think The To Do List fits too.
Were there teen movies or shows that you sought to emulate the style of when making this?
Not really the style. What we wanted to do with the style was just kind of natural and organic. I think the title sequence is pretty important in establishing the tone and the style of the movie because all those props are practical. There’s no visual effects there. We made everything. There’s even little bumps and stuff in the camera moves. If anything, that sort of set the look and tone of the movie, but there’s definitely movies that I’m a fan of. John Hughes movies were huge when I was growing up. Pretty in Pink, Sixteen Candles, Breakfast Club. John Hughes as a filmmaker and the way he can have really big comedic moments but he’s also really grounded with his characters, I really like that. And then, I love the genre. I love Dazed and Confused, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, American Graffiti. I also really love American Pie and There’s Something About Mary. It’s not directly derivative of any of those, but I’m absolutely a fan of those movies.
Have you started writing your next movie or your next project yet?
Yeah. Yeah, I have another script that I wrote that I’m excited to get set up and direct it.
Can you talk about what that is or do you want to just keep it quiet for now?
I’ll keep it quiet for now.
What are some of the biggest things you learned directing and scripting your first movie?
I feel lucky that I had this great ensemble cast and I had a lot of actors who came from the UCB improv comedy background and then I had other cast who came from theater or just different types of background, so I thought that was really cool to be able to work with different personalities. I think I really learned as a director [that] it’s not you job to change any of that; it’s your job to adapt to that. I have a real respect for actors. I think I had that going in, but I think they have a really, really tough job. I think they have the hardest job on set. By far, they have the hardest job on set.