The Diary of a Teenage Girl
Phoebe Gloeckner x Marielle Heller x Bel Powley
Interview by Holly Grigg-Spall
Illustrations by Phoebe Gloeckner
Portraits by Nate Hoffman
“I shy away from calling it autobiography because
that term seems to negate the whole process.
Minnie is a character. I made myself this character.
I don’t like to think of her as me, but she is me.
She could be any girl, any person really.”
— PHOEBE GLOECKNER
The Diary of a
A largely autobiographical graphic novel written by Phoebe Gloeckner, The Diary of a Teenage Girl follows 15-year-old Minnie Goetze’s exploration of drugs and sexuality in San Francisco during the 1970s, as told through her own diary entries. The 2015 film of the same name is based on the graphic novel, and written and directed by Marielle Heller. The film stars Kristen Wiig, Alexander Skarsgård and Bel Powley and premiered at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival.
A cartoonist and novelist, Phoebe Gloeckner’s works include graphic novels Diary of a Teenage Girl and A Child’s Life and Other Stories, among others. Noted for their explicit content, Gloeckner’s works do not shy away from depictions of sex, drug use and childhood trauma. Her style features a unique combination of prose, illustration and short comics. Gloeckner teaches at the University of Michigan and lives in Ann Arbor with her family.
A writer, director and actress, Marielle Heller played the role of Minnie in her theater adaptation of The Diary of a Teenage Girl, and later wrote and directed the 2015 film adaptation. Heller has been honored with both the Lynn Auerbach Screenwriting Fellowship and the Maryland Film Festival Fellowship.
A British actress known for her roles in M.I. High, and Side by Side, Bel Powley plays Minnie, the protagonist in the 2015 film adaptation of The Diary of a Teenage Girl.
Phoebe Gloeckner’s 2002 graphic novel, The Diary of a Teenage Girl, began in her own confused adolescence. As a fifteen-year-old who hated school, loved to draw and needed an escape, Gloeckner threw herself into the seedy, drug-fueled chaos of 1970s San Francisco. These experiences are distilled into Minnie Goetze, a teenage alter-ego rendered in explicit black & white comics which narrate a year of her life. Minnie’s diary is dark, disturbing and incisive as she experiments with drugs and sexuality—often using her body to win drugs and affection from the morally ambiguous characters who alternately care for and exploit her.
As Gloeckner wrote in a 2003 Issue feature, “So, yes, I was a teenage girl once, and I ran away from time to time, and cried and laughed, and loved and despised myself and everyone else concurrently.” It’s this story—one for anyone who’s ever grappled with sexuality and self worth in an often cruel wider world—that stuck in Marielle Heller’s mind. A playwright and actor, Heller identified so strongly with The Diary of a Teenage Girl that she adapted it to theater and played the role of Minnie herself. Now, years later, she has adapted it again into a screenplay and cast British actor Bel Powley in the role of Minnie. The film, which centers on the story of Minnie’s affair with her mother’s boyfriend, Monroe (Alexander Skarsgård), won the Cinematography Award and was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at this year’s Sundance.
So here we interview a cast of Minnies—Gloeckner, Heller and Powley—three incarnations of a character who lived first by the pen, then the stage and the screen, accompanied by an excerpt from Gloeckner’s book, The Diary of a Teenage Girl.
›› Jump to interview with Bel Powley & Marielle Heller
Holly Grigg-Spall: What was it like to see Marielle play Minnie/you in the play?
Phoebe Gloeckner: It was amazing. But the strongest experience I had was at the read-through of the play before it was produced because initially Marielle asked to do a play of the book, and it seemed like such a ridiculous idea to me. Several people had already contacted me about making the film, and I hadn’t wanted to do that. I just told her to knock herself out on it. She invited me to the read-through. I was really actually frightened; I was afraid to see it. But when I did, it was really moving, and at some point I started crying. It was such a strange experience.
HGS: Do you describe the book as an autobiography or as a novel?
PG: It’s highly autobiographical if you want to compare the book to my life at that time. But I shy away from calling it autobiography because that term seems to negate the whole process. All writers write about their experience in one way or another. The process of making a novel is artifice. You’re taking one thing and changing it into something else entirely. Minnie is a character. I made myself this character. I don’t like to think of her as me, but she is me. She could be any girl, any person really. It’s not a document; it’s a novel. An autobiography is history and tells some kind of truth, but it’s always just one perspective. It’s complicated.
“It makes me feel a little weird to think
that people will be seeing the movie
with the perspective of it being
about empowering female sexuality.”
— Phoebe Gloeckner
HGS: How did Marielle explain why she particularly connected to this character of Minnie?
PG: She found it honest and she related to it. My goal as a writer is to be perfectly honest. In the end, though, once any creative work is out in the world, the author is not that important—what’s important is the relationship between the consumer and the creative work. They make connections between it and their own lives, unless they don’t. A lot of people will be able to relate to any truly honest piece of work because it’s not about a specific person; it’s about being human. People often write to me saying they never experienced anything Minnie experiences, but they say, “I am Minnie!” That’s what I had hoped and intended.
HGS: What are your thoughts about Marielle’s theater performance of Minnie compared to Bel’s performance of Minnie?
PG: When Marielle played the part, she was in her late 20s. Bel is in her early 20s and closer to being a teenager. Marielle almost played Minnie in a funnier way and a more innocent way. I think Minnie could be taken out of that book and put at any place in time. People have remarked that it’s so typical of 1970s San Francisco, but the truth is this can happen at any time. There are millions of girls like Minnie; we just don’t happen to hear their voices. Narratives about teen girls are often written by men.
HGS: Did you work with Bel directly?
A Swedish actor known for playing vampire Eric Northman in the series True Blood as well as his role in the HBO miniseries Generation Kill. Skarsgård has appeared in Zoolander, Lars von Trier’s Melancholia and plays Monroe in the film adaptation The Diary of a Teenage Girl.
PG: I met Bel on set plenty of times. Maybe it’s my own interpretation, but I felt she was somewhat intimidated by me. It must be strange to play a character, then see the real person who is that character in front of you. Marielle didn’t have me on set for Bel’s scenes because Bel would become self-conscious.
HGS: Did you talk with Alexander Skarsgård about Monroe?
PG: Yes, he was asking about the character’s motivations; he was interested in what happened to this guy and what he’s doing now. He played it wonderfully, but the character was not part of him, and he couldn’t relate to it entirely. So he really wanted to know, like, what the hell?
HGS: What were you thinking when watching the movie for the first time? Did you compare it to the book?
PG: For me it’s hard to even judge this. I love the movie, but comparing it to the book is so complicated. A film can show things more immediately, but it just suggests at back stories and can’t go in so deeply. The film is definitely not as dark as the book. If I had made the movie myself, it would have been dark as hell. It would not have spared any punches. But Marielle is not me, and I can’t imagine many directors feeling the way she does about my book. She made it more accessible and acceptable to a wider audience. In some cases she gave Minnie more agency. In the first scene when Minnie has not had sex with Monroe yet and is flirting with him, it’s much more Minnie-driven than it was in my real life.
HGS: The message of the film is very different from that of the book in that the film ends on a much more positive and empowering note.
PG: In films you expect a happy ending, and it succeeds in that. The comments about the film so far have reflected that—they’re saying Minnie has been given authority over her sexuality. It’s much less clear in the book. The book is grayer, which is the area that always fascinates me. The film is definitely more on the positive, let’s-be-happy side. Even the parts when Minnie takes drugs, they’re included in the film, but those experiences are not the deep chasm they are in the book. It seems more like a dalliance than something threatening. The movie will be a lot easier for people to swallow.
There’s a new edition of the book coming out and it will have original diary pages and photos from that time of my life. The book wasn’t a bestseller. It’s probably sold pretty steadily, but people who read comics are the ones that know it. I hope it gets a wider audience as a result of the film. I’ll be curious to see the response. I mean, if they see the movie and then read the book will they be horrified by the book?
A CHILD’S LIFE
Written and illustrated by Phoebe Glockner, A Child’s Life and Other Stories is a 1998 graphic novel about a teenage girl’s loss of innocence. The novel addresses issues such as rape, drugs, and AIDS and has been labeled “disturbing, compelling [and] brilliant.”
HGS: Your book is more subversive than the film, I would say.
PG: Minnie’s backstory in my other book, A Child’s Life, further complicates things because she was in many ways psychologically affected by her upbringing—kind of hyper-sexualized as a result. That’s not really addressed in the movie; it’s just seen as teenage sexuality, and that’s not exactly right. It makes me feel a little weird to think that people will be seeing the movie with the perspective of it being about empowering female sexuality. I can love the movie, but it’s got a different message. It’s less complex, less realistic and definitely more upbeat.
“One of the reasons I wrote the book
is because you’re often told to shut up
about your past… I was fucking pissed off
about what happened to me, and I needed
to correct it for myself.”
— Phoebe Gloeckner
HGS: How do you now think about and feel about your past?
PG: Well, one of the reasons I wrote the book is because you’re often told to shut up about your past by family and friends and whoever. You develop this kind of rage, especially as I was seeing other movies about teen girls and knowing what’s represented is not true and not real. I needed to have this voice expressed. I was fucking pissed off about what happened to me, and I needed to correct it for myself by writing this book. Minnie’s family has no center and no parental figures at all. She just wanted someone to love her and take care of her, like you’re supposed to take care of kids. The pain that’s behind all that doesn’t come through for me in the movie—the looking for love, confusing love with sex—that is all so difficult. Girls definitely confuse love and sex all the time. Men are more able to separate the two. I think this film, in how it uncomplicates Minnie’s sexuality, almost encourages that kind of behavior. I hate to say that, as I don’t know for sure, but we will see how it goes I guess. A teenager’s brain is not complete. [Pause.] My daughter’s 16. She’s listening to me here, and just slapped me when I said that!
My daughters are in the movie. My youngest daughter has one line: she says “slut” in the high school scene. My middle daughter is in the Rocky Horror scene. My oldest daughter was a PA on the set.
HGS: How did you feel about the animations in the film?
PG: They work as a device for the movie because obviously they play better than stills. But even those add a kind of upbeat, fanciful feeling to it, adding to the climate I was talking about earlier. The film has a different emotional tone to it.
HGS: Do you know what happened to Monroe?
PG: A few years ago I saw that he was on Facebook. He is actually living on a boat like he always wanted. He has a dog. I don’t know what he does for a living. He never read the book so that he could finally see how I felt, as I wanted—as some kind of carried-over fantasy I guess. But when he heard about the movie he got kind of excited, so at that point I sent him the book, and he has not completed it yet. He said it was “overwhelming.” He’s looking forward to the movie. People are different with movies than they are with books. It’s more exciting and Hollywood. It’s different.
›› Jump to interview with Phoebe Gloeckner
Known for for her blues-inspired vocals and electric performances, singer-songwriter Janis Joplin (1943-1970) rose to fame in the 1960s with acid rock band Big Brother and the Holding Company. Joplin then emerged as a solo artist with her own backing groups and has been referred to as “The Queen of Psychedelic Soul.”
Badlands is a 1973 crime drama written and directed by Terrence Malick and starring Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek. The film tells the story of the murder spree of a teen girl and her greaser boyfriend in the South Dakota badlands. Badlands has been preserved in the Library of Congress for its cultural, historical and aesthetic significance.
Holly Grigg-Spall: When did you first read the book The Diary of a Teenage Girl?
Marielle Heller: The book was given to me as a Christmas present, and it was so compelling to me that I started writing it out—first as a play and eventually as a movie. I had never come across such an honest depiction of what it feels like being a teenager and teenage sexuality. The book changed my life.
Bel Powley: I read the script first. I knew it was based on a book, but I’d never heard of it. I didn’t read it until I’d booked the job. As an actress, if there was a previous film or book or play, it’s always a decision whether you’re going to delve into that. You don’t want it to affect your choices in the role. It was really useful to me, though. It couldn’t not be useful because it’s narrated by Minnie about Minnie, and it gave me more food for thought. I also started listening to loads of Janis Joplin, watched Badlands, then felt like I could work on the role my way.
HGS: Did you work closely with the author?
MH: When Phoebe first gave me the rights to the book, I visited her and spent a lot of time with her and her family. She was really generous about the story. She knew it had to become its own thing so she gave me a lot of freedom and didn’t interfere in what I was doing. We have become really close. She came to visit the set.
HGS: How did you work on translating the book into a screenplay?
MH: The film is very different from the book. The book encompasses so many more characters and a lot more time. I had to focus the movie on this one particular relationship and one trajectory. The format of a novel can take you in many different directions and it doesn’t have to follow the kind of narrative arc you need in a movie. It was hard to cut stuff out because I loved every part of the book, but the book is giant in comparison to the film.
BP: The book goes a lot further, and it’s a lot darker than the movie.
HGS: The scene in the book in which Minnie and Monroe begin their sexual relationship is actually really uncomfortable to get through. It feels very different than how you depicted it in the movie. Did you consider how watching this story unfold on screen might be different than reading about it in the book?
MH: I was nervous that it would be the opposite—that seeing something on screen would make it more uncomfortable. I was consciously trying to make sure that a film audience would have a similar experience to reading the book. I found myself not judging these characters. I found myself weirdly rooting for them to get together. I also found myself stepping back and not believing that I could be feeling that way. I had such an intimate experience. I wanted to capture that—for the film to be 100% from Minnie’s point of view—which is really rare to have in a scene like this. We did try to live in the grey zone, where we weren’t showing judgment but just presenting this in all of its humanness. So the audience can make their own judgments.
“I had never come across such an honest
depiction of what it feels like
being a teenager and teenage sexuality.
The book changed my life.”
— Marielle Heller
HGS: Do you think you would have responded differently to the script if it were written by a man?
BLUE IS THE
A 2013 French romance-drama written, directed and produced by Abdellatif Kechiche. Starring Léa Seydoux and Adèle Exarchopoulos, the film revolves around a teenage girl’s self-discovery and relationship with her blue-haired, painter girlfriend. Blue Is the Warmest Color won the Palme d’Or at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival and the Louis Delluc Prize for best French Film of 2013.
BP: Definitely. One of the things that attracted me is that it’s a film about women, for women, by women. I think if a man had directed it, it would be weird. I remember when Blue Is The Warmest Color came out—the sex scenes were so graphic. And there was that whole thing about how it was directed by a man and the actresses felt really uncomfortable. A man hasn’t had the experience of what it is like to be a teenage girl-—that’s what it comes down to. If a guy had directed it and said, “Bel, I think you should do this, or have sex in this position or whatever,” I wouldn’t feel so trusting of him because he hasn’t gone through that. He doesn’t know what that feels like, whereas we have both been teenage girls. I could remember when I had an orgasm down to that detail, for example. I had to be so exposed on set, wearing three band aids and simulating sex. It’s always weird, but it wasn’t bad weird. We had a closed set: the first AD was gay, our gaffer was a woman, the DP and his assistant were husband and wife. Alex and I rehearsed for two weeks before we got on set.
MH: We were playing with the female gaze and making it from a girl’s point of view. That affected all of our choices in the movie—the way we shot the sex scenes, the way we looked at other characters, down to the choice of underwear—it’s all from a female perspective. Bel and I would talk to each other about our own teenage experiences and what we felt and did. We were doing this authenticity check with each other all the time. We wanted to honor this character of Minnie, who we both love but who is separate from both of us. We wanted to do her justice.
HGS: In terms of the relatability of Minnie, did you feel there was a similarity between what it was like to be a teenager in the ’70s and today?
BP: I personally feel like Minnie’s story is relatable to any decade because it captures what it feels like to be a teenager. You don’t have to have slept with your mom’s boyfriend to be able to relate to the story. There are some aspects of the ’70s that wouldn’t translate to today—the free love, the drugs, the blurred line between parental and child relationships—that was definitely more extreme in the ’70s because it was just after the social and sexual revolution. Marielle always says that she feels the setting of the ’70s acts as a buffer in the depiction of a sexual relationship between a teenager and an older man.
HGS: In the UK right now we have this huge scandal about the number of people in powerful positions in the media and politics who have been found to have sexually abused young girls en masse in the ’70s. I found it hard not to think about this when watching the movie. Did that inform the filmmaking process in any way?
MH: We were definitely talking about a period and a place when all social contracts were being questioned. The difference between adult and child were being blurred. I live in the Bay Area, and I think of it as a place where a lot of people go to not grow up. They move from all over the country to live out an extended adolescence. The characters in the movie are all emotionally 15. Both Minnie’s mom, Charlotte, and Monroe are not fully-fledged grownups. It was a time when the biggest virtue was to be open-minded.
BP: I was so engulfed in Minnie during the whole process. It was very hard for me to judge their relationship because Minnie doesn’t judge it. She’s in love with him. She doesn’t feel victimized. I couldn’t be objective about it.
HGS: Culturally, today we talk a lot more about consent in sexual relationships. In a way, this film isn’t really about judging this relationship. It’s about what we agree as a society is acceptable and legal behavior.
MH: I think, though, that people look to a movie like this and hope there will be a judgment and that it will come down on one side or another. We felt it was a more interesting story to tell if we were just truly presenting it from the perspective of a teenage girl. If we came down on a side, we would be in the role of an adult casting a judgmental eye on it. I wanted to honor this character. When I was a teenage girl, I didn’t feel like I wasn’t yet capable of making my own decisions about what to do with my body and myself. When I started having sex, I thought my eyes were open. I didn’t think I had to wait until I was 18 to make conscious decisions. Minnie doesn’t think about how she’s under the age of consent.
BP: It’s not about her sleeping with an older man. It’s about losing her virginity. He could have been 18. He could have been 25. He’s her first love, her first fuck. It’s about a young girl exploring her sexuality, feeling horny, having sex and feeling those feelings.
MH: From an outsider’s perspective, this man took advantage of a girl who had a budding sexuality and was bursting from her own curiosity. By the end of the movie I think we are aware of that as well as being aware that, from her perspective, it was entirely consensual. But from his perspective, he just took no responsibility for what he was doing.
“The movie shows so well the teenage
extremity of feeling
and how you oscillate between
a million emotions in an hour.”
— Bel Powley
HGS: How did you prepare with Alexander Skarsgård for his role as Monroe?
MH: We talked about how he’s someone who is at war with himself. He wants this and is coming up with justifications as to why it’s okay—that she’s an adult and wants this, and they’re not hurting anybody. He doesn’t recognize himself as an adult and that he needs to be taking responsibility in this situation, which is also just kind of a male thing. He’s this hapless dude who doesn’t have a career and is just floating along, not taking enough responsibility to even have a house plant. He’s in no way thinking he has this young girl’s heart in his hands and that he could fuck her up. He can’t go that deep. We talked about [Alexander’s] own relationships with women and with pain and about his past. He had to get to a place where it felt okay. We didn’t want him to feel like this character was a straight-out villain. Monroe really isn’t, and in some ways he really does love Minnie. It’s more interesting to see complex characters than an after-school special morality tale.
HGS: What would be your ideal audience for this film?
MH: I thought that maybe we made this movie for a select group of women, but I was pleasantly surprised by the reception we got from the audiences at festivals. It wasn’t just this small group of women who said it meant a lot to them. It was men and women of all ages who said they really related to Minnie. I realized I have been relating to male protagonists all my life, so why can’t men relate to this teenage girl? Minnie asks some universal questions.
BP: I think teenage girls will want to see this! They are so misrepresented in films. They’re always so 2D. This is the first film with a well-rounded, honest representation of what it is to be a teenager. Minnie is unashamedly herself. She makes mistakes and learns from them and then learns to love herself. She says, “This is me—take it or leave it.” The movie shows so well the teenage extremity of feeling and how you oscillate between a million emotions in an hour.
MH: As a teen girl, I never felt represented in films and books. Girls were always the object. Boys wanted sex, and girls had to protect their virginity. No one talks about being the girl that wants to have sex. If you are that girl (and most people are), you end up feeling like something is wrong with you because you don’t see that presented as normal anywhere. I also felt there was this bullshit way teenage girls talk in movies—everything is quippy, snarky, self-aware and really thought out. There’s no earnestness in it. No one talks like that. When I was a fricking teenager, I was the most dramatic, fully earnest person who ever lived. I wasn’t sarcastic or quippy. Everything was the end of the world. Everything was life or death. Everything felt like more to me than anything that had come before it. When my boyfriend broke up with me, I actually thought I was going to die.