Some filmmakers have a style. Rebecca Miller has a subject.
Though you wouldn't immediately recognize them as the work of the same artist, all of Miller's features follow female protagonists fumbling toward personal fulfillment while navigating knotty family dynamics. These dramas are acutely observed and sometimes overly literary, and though her 1995 debut, "Angela," and 2002's "Personal Velocity" earned, respectively, the Filmmaker Trophy and Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, Miller's work has neither attempted nor achieved mainstream success.
Her newest film, the Manhattan-set romantic comedy "Maggie's Plan," seems poised to reach a wider audience when it opens Friday in Los Angeles. Miller said she deliberately wanted to tinker with her formula.
"All my movies had some comedy in it, so what I thought is, let me flip the ratio, and make it more comedy," she said in a recent interview in West Hollywood. "The thing wanted to be funny, and so it was."
Adapted from an unpublished novel by her friend Karen Rinaldi, "Maggie's Plan" recognizes family planning as the stuff of folly, a form of casting in which the performers keep trying to switch roles. Ready for motherhood but unwilling to wait for the perfect relationship, logical, sensible Maggie (Greta Gerwig) solicits a sperm donation from her friend, an artisanal-pickle maker. With the plan already set in motion, Maggie falls for a New School colleague, a "ficto-critical anthropologist" and aspiring novelist (Ethan Hawke), himself unhappily married to a successful, high-maintenance professor (Julianne Moore).
A zigzagging neo-screwball romance, "Maggie's Plan" nods to "A Midsummer Night's Dream" and shares DNA with the 1930s-40s Hollywood subgenre that philosopher Stanley Cavell dubbed the "comedy of remarriage."
"I did not always know where I was going when I wrote it," Miller said. "Usually I fill up a character with propensities and tendencies and qualities and anomalies, and eventually there's a critical mass built up and they almost seem to move of their own accord."
In this case, her actors helped push the story toward its unexpected outcome. "They were almost like advocates of their own character."
It is Miller's first movie set entirely in New York, where she lives with her husband, the Oscar-winning actor Daniel Day-Lewis, and their children. It's centered around the moneyed quaintness of Greenwich Village, where shelves are crammed with books, and copies of the Paris Review and NPR mugs double as bourgeois signifiers.
The self-consciously sophisticated environment is crucial to the comedy, Miller explains.
"There's something about the world this is set in, with people who genuinely, with great ferocity, talk about ideas and about themselves constantly. It's real — they do that. But it's also hilarious, and ripe for screwball." In this urban farce, the lead characters can speak authoritatively about Slavoj Zizek and kinship structures, but can barely manage to pick up the kids from school.
An artistic and intellectual polymath, the 53-year-old Miller is a former actress, painter and sculptor, and has family roots in the theater (her father was famed playwright Arthur Miller) and photography. She's also a published author who has twice directed film adaptations of her own books.
"I'm a total glutton for punishment, partly," she said. But "the thing about actors is they bring another dimension, an emotional dimension. When you see your work interpreted, it breaks through this barrier — and an actor teaches you what you've written. You understand it again. It's almost like a greed for more knowledge."
Though Miller describes herself as "a real structure geek," her primary obsession is individuality. Nearly every Miller project has its protagonist's name in its title. When writing, she said, "There's so much temptation to deface individuals, or to nullify their individuality."
"This has its parallel in the whole women filmmaker question," Miller said, "because I think one of the problems is that [women] are being thought of as members of a group that could all stand in for each other."
Miller, who has completed five films in 20 years, has her own distinct take on the much-discussed topic of the dearth of women directors for feature films. "There's no question that there are problems. You just have to look at the statistics." But, she added: "It's hard to get money, no matter who you are. And I'm very lucky. I've had an amazing life so far. I get to make films and books. Did I get any support initially from my agencies and from anyone? No. Was there any example for me to look at? Pretty much no.
"I think I was a bit unconscious about things," she continued. "I was always the kind of person who just gets on with it. I just did it. And I didn't really want to acknowledge that it was hard, and in my not acknowledging that it was hard, it kind of became easier, because I ignored it. I just tried to get on with it as if there was no prejudice.
"I think that as women, we have to acknowledge there's a problem, but … I want us to be seen as individuals rather than getting favors or getting quotas as women. I want people to start to just hire filmmakers."
For Hawke, "Maggie's Plan" is the first time — in a 30-year acting career — that he's been directed by a woman. Speaking by phone from New York, he said that the difference mattered: "I spent a lot of my life in movies that felt a little like boys' clubs, and it was really wonderful to be on a set with three totally individual women that are smart and funny and passionate, all in different ways. It's a different film set for me."
The fact that Miller hadn't previously directed a comedy didn't deter her performers, all of whom have deep roots in indie cinema. Hawke called Miller "somebody with brilliant wit and insight and learning — but she's silly." Gerwig added, "She's a terrifically funny, goofy, wildly intelligent weirdo." Sometimes, "you want to sign up for the circus for a little while, and she seemed like she'd run a good circus."
When describing her approach to working with actors, Miller elaborates on "Maggie's Plan's" central metaphor: "As a filmmaker, I think you're more of a gardener [than a rose]. You're a rose in the sense that everybody has to listen to you, you're the top of the pyramid, but you're at the service of the story, you're at the service of other people.
"It's a hard thing to describe exactly — like a feeling of transparency. It's wonderful."