The curtain has been pulled to reveal the writer behind the new film How to Build a Girl, starring Beanie Feldstein as “Johanna.” Caitlin Moran, screenwriter and the novelist upon whose life the story is based, recently spoke with me about the truth versus exaggeration analysis of the film, “face acting,” and how she knows her teenage daughters haven’t read her books.
From the first hello transmitted from across the pond, the energy in Moran’s voice was contagious. Describing her “Zoom” view versus the reality view of scattered items around her office where her dogs have buried bones beneath the piles, the interview was off to a fast-paced, hilarious start.
The premise of How to Build a Girl is an incredulous one, as are many of Johanna’s exploits. The word “true-ish” was used in the opening credits, but I didn’t expect the answer I received to what that meant.
“It means that if anyone tries to sue me for libel, I can [say], ‘Hey! It wasn’t about you. It was about some other guy who was an asshole!” Laughing together, as this was as contagious as her energy, Moran continued, “85 percent of it is literally the stuff that happened to me. … The weirder it looks, the more likely it is to have happened. That’s the guide. I had an unusual life.”
An “unusual life” is putting it mildly. Moran was one of eight children in a three-bedroom council house much like in the movie. Lacking a formal education as her parents thought “it’s an absolute pain in the ass to get all these kids dressed and to school every day by 9 o’clock,” the kids were pulled from school and allowed to do whatever they wanted all day, including watching a lot of TV. But they also made daily – if not twice daily – trips to the library, which fed Moran’s seemingly insatiable hunger for reading.
Moran credits the fact that she didn’t read any of the great male novelists until she was in her 30s with who she has become today. The male authors of the Hemingway generation, Moran said incredulously, “The way they describe women, if I had read that, if I had seen women through the male gaze when I was 13 or 15, I think it would have absolutely damaged me.” Moran read Charlotte Bronte and others whose protagonists were heroines, seeing herself in these characters. “They usually come from a poor background. They’re usually good people and they have to struggle through life and they succeed…”
At the ripe old age of 13, with no education and no means to obtain any qualifications, Moran realized she needed to get a job. She emphatically stated, “The only thing you can do if you’ve got no money and no resources, is to write. … Anybody can be a writer.”
It’s finding that audience who can identify with you and your situations that is key. Moran attempted her first book at age 10, shockingly coming to the realization that even though it only took her one day to read a book, it takes more than one day to write a book – but she did then successfully publish at age 15. After winning writing competitions as depicted in the film, and at the age of 17 earning a position as a columnist at national newspaper The Times of London, she looks back on this time with a newfound perspective, understanding that this is not the normal sequence of events. Moran wants “…every teenager to watch that movie and [think], that could be me!”
How to Build a Girl is Moran’s first film, which opened her eyes to the complicated and expensive process of filmmaking. Director Corky Giedroyc’s organizational and timing skills astounded Moran: “If you ever really want to do something really complicated, the best thing to do is hire a middle-aged [female].”
Moran admitted that she hadn’t read the tutorials about how to write a screenplay. As a novelist, she said, “You just tell, tell, tell. Obviously, in a movie, you have to show things instead.” Quoting herself from the screenplay, lacking the technical terms, she wrote descriptions like, “Johanna does some face acting here. She will act with her face here.” Laughing, she said she wanted to give the actor the freedom to bring her own skills and interpretations to the scene. And obviously, seeing what Feldstein does, Moran didn’t need the technical jargon. “Face acting” worked perfectly.
One final question revealed that Moran, a mother of two teenage girls, didn’t impose the female-only authors rule. “Well, they’re millennials, so they don’t read any books at all!” After much laughter, she continued, “They haven’t read any of mine. I made sure I made the dedication of my third book to [my daughters]. ‘If you read this, come to me and I will give you a hundred pounds.’ And they still haven’t gotten that money and that book came out five years ago.”
© Pamela Powell (05/8/2020) FF2 Media
Photo credits: IFC Films