Maggie Carey envisioned her feature directorial debut as a dirty “Sixteen Candles." Think Molly Ringwald's Samantha Baker looking to lose her virginity rather than get the guy.
What she ended up with is “The To Do List,” a low-budget romp centering on the overachieving Brandy Klark, played by Aubrey Plaza, who devotes the same fastidiousness that nabbed her the valedictorian slot at her high school to shedding her prudish ways before she begins her freshman year of college.
The film, despite its title and the actual list of sexual activities, many of which can’t be printed here, has a sweetness to it. Due out in limited release Friday, it’s a coming-of-age film that somewhat exaggeratedly, yet still honestly, explores female teenage sexuality in a manner rarely seen on the screen today.
Carey used her own high school diary as inspiration for the character and her quest. Growing up in Boise, Idaho, in the early 1990s, Carey was an all-star athlete and a high-achieving student, yet you’d never know it from reading her journal entries.
“I’m in every accelerated class. I was a total jock and I played all these sports, yet all my entries are about boys,” said the director, who also wrote the screenplay. “I was in the Olympic development camp for soccer but I’m just talking about this boy who lives in Northern Idaho. Will I ever see him again .… ”
Carey’s script, originally titled “The Hand Job,” landed on Hollywood’s "black list" — the list of the most popular unpublished screenplays of the year — in 2010 after every studio in town rejected it. Inclusion on that list prompted another look at the project, eventually leading Carey, Plaza and "Saturday Night Live" alum Bill Hader, who plays Willy in the movie and is married to Carey to do a live table read of the script at the Austin Film Festival, before securing $1 million and a distribution agreement from CBS Films to produce the project.
Yet getting the green light meant Carey would now direct a sexually explicit film filled with a slew of cringe-worthy moments, a first for the Upright Citizens Brigade alum who was very comfortable improvising yet had little experience in the feature film world.
“It’s one thing when you write alone in your room on your computer, ‘Brandy masturbates and her sister walks in,' ” said Carey. “But then you are actually on set and you have the crew around and you have Aubrey wearing a pro-Clinton T-shirt and she’s about to hump the pillow .… Let’s just say it’s much different when you write something than when you shoot it.”
“The To Do List” is rated R for its crude sexual content, explicit language and drug use but there is no nudity. Even in a scene where Plaza loses her bathing suit top in front of scores of guests at the local pool, filmgoers only see the actress, best known for her role on NBC’s “Parks and Recreation,” from the shoulders up.
“It’s a sex comedy with the most un-sexy sex scenes you’ll ever see,” said Carey. “There was safety for me in that — directing sex scenes that were all played for comedy. I don’t know how anyone films a real sex scene. I would be in the corner giggling or I would leave the room.”
Carey, 37, grew up aspiring to be a marine biologist, but when she went to the University of Montana to play soccer those aspirations changed. Shooting and editing all of the highlight reels for her college soccer team, along with working at the local Montana PBS station, Carey developed an affinity for moviemaking.
That led her to film school in Texas before she made the move to Los Angeles, where she first worked as an assistant at CAA but quickly segued into a day job editing reality shows while honing her live comedy skills at The Groundlings in Los Angeles.
She has most recently been a performer at UCB in New York (she performs on Tuesday nights), while writing Web shorts including "The Jeannie Tate Show." But with Hader leaving "SNL," the comedic couple are making the move to Los Angeles, where Carey hopes to make another film soon.
“The To Do List” is certainly going to be compared to “Bridesmaids” for its raunchy, female-driven humor, and Carey is happy to put more female voices on the big screen. Yet she’s frustrated that gender parity in Hollywood is still such an issue.
“I equate most things to sports, and Title IX passing in the '70s was life-changing for me even though I didn’t get to college until the late '90s. But it was the first time I had ever had a female coach. Now six of the players from my program have gone on to be collegiate coaches. It’s nowhere near equal but it’s not a thing,” said Carey.
“On my set there were so many women involved, women in every department, it didn’t feel gender-biased at all. Hopefully what happens is we just stop thinking about it.”