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."
The film was eventually picked up by the distributor Strand Releasing and has gone on to play at numerous other festivals around the country and internationally. Maggenti's differing experiences at Sundance and beyond in many ways reflect what has become of the world of independent film — as well as the perceived niche for gay-themed films — in the intervening years.
Critic Amy Taubin visited the set of "Two Girls" while it was in production, and she recalls the differences in audiences between then and now. "That was a moment where people were simply interested in indie film," Taubin says.
"I remember actually going to the Angelika," recalls Taubin, of seeing "Two Girls" at the seminal venue for independent film in New York City, "and there being heterosexual couples all around me who really liked the film because it was a romantic comedy. I think all those couples were totally identifying with no-budget indie film. And that moment is long over."
As well, having been instrumental in forging the theatrical niche for gay-themed films with "Two Girls," Maggenti — who offhandedly refers to herself as a "has-bian" — holds out hope that "Puccini" will connect with and be seen by the broadest possible audience.
"This becomes a cultural discussion about the changing nature of who we think we are in the United States," says Maggenti. " 'Two Girls' was a crossover film; it was marketed as a crossover film and expected to be a crossover film. People used that word. Nobody has said that once about 'Puccini.' I haven't heard anyone even use the word.
"I am not sure myself what this development means . I do fear that being seen only as a lesbian/gay film — which is a niche-marketing term and not really an accurate way to sum up the nuances, inflections or challenges of my particular film — indeed squishes the film into a sausage casing that is neither accurate nor appealing."
Maggenti is certainly hoping it won't be another 10 years before she directs another feature. She is working on a script about the life of journalist Dorothy Thompson. She recently sold an idea for a television series and even took part in the Sundance Global Short Film Project, which involved making films for cellphones.
All the ups and downs have given Maggenti a unique perspective on the worlds of filmmaking, relationships and her relationship to filmmaking.
"My own life has turned out to be much more complicated and mysterious than I thought it was," Maggenti says. "But I've been very lucky because I have been able to live my desire always."Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times