It’s difficult to summarize how much of an interesting scene was taking place while we were interviewing the director and writer of How to Build a Girl, Coky Giedroyc and Caitlin Moran. We were on a rooftop lounge for an intimate roundtable discussion, and I was treated to a free show at the beginning of some prop comedy with Moran, there were planes seemingly flying very low overhead, Moran was vaping throughout, there were strange lines of questions, and overall, it was one of the most entertaining interviews of TIFF, which feels like so long ago, but the film feels extremely fresh.
The following is an edited and condensed version of a funny international roundtable with Caitlin Moran and Cody Giedroyc of How to Build a Girl.
[Coky Giedroyc notices a bottle of water in front of us and asks if anyone is going to drink from it]
Caitlin Moran: Oh yeah, go for it, yeah. I like how they have tiny shot glasses as well, just in case we want to have shots of water, it’s like a vice, that’s nice, it’s always good to have variety.
BT: I’ll indulge one, then.
CM: Yeah, let’s do shots! Of water! It’s so California!
[Later] CM: I like that the first 30 seconds of your tape is going to be ‘sound of glugging water. Listen to yourself talk and go: ‘Oh yeah, I sound pretty grumpy there’.
BT: I like to use square brackets for that.
CM: “Do you put it in? Kind of like [glugging sound]?
BT: “Joined in progress”
–When did you know you found the right actress for the role?
CM: What, to find Beanie (Feldstein, who plays the lead)? We had done an open casting audition because we loved the idea of finding an undiscovered talent. If you’re a big young actress, you probably won’t have many roles coming to you because we still don’t write roles for that, so we had an open casting process, we looked at every actress who was available, but I didn’t realize when we were writing the script that this character is almost impossible to cast, she’s got to be this big 16-year-old, working-class, funny, clever…
CM: Sex-positive girl.
CM: Who can go on this journey and just be this optimistic girl and turn into the biggest dick in the world, just like a massive, swaggering asshole, and then coming all the way back around to learning her lesson and going on again. Do sex scenes, do them in a funny way, wear a bikini made of a garbage bag, deliver these huge speeches – both to camera and to characters and stuff, like it’s almost impossible. At one point we were like: Judi Dench? Like CGI, do Polar Express, just do the eyes? Or Andy Serkis?
CG: And also at that time, we had pressure to find a name. A name to sort of raise the finance, and full credit to Film4 and Lionsgate and Tango Entertainment, because Beanie was then on the rise, but she hadn’t hit the stratosphere that she is hitting now. She was absolutely the right person, she was all the things that Caitlin describes and more. She’s luminous, she’s hilarious, she’s kind, unbelievably optimistic.
CM: And your eyes from just the first minute that you see her, you’re like: “Okay, I’m on that girl’s side. Whatever she’s going to do in this film, I’m going to go with her.” (Producer) Debra Hayward had seen an early screening of Lady Bird and rang us up and said: “I got it”. So the search stopped there and it was like: “Okay, we found it. We’re sorted now”. And thank God it takes so long to make a film, because we started writing this film, which feels like it was about 200 years ago, Beanie hadn’t been born, like she hadn’t been invented. We literally had to wait for Beanie to be born, invented, and grow into this experienced actress before we could find her, so it was perfect timing.
BT: On stage, you talked about how you want this movie to open as wide as possible. Coky, you directed Harlots which streamed on Hulu, and Hemlock Grove, one of the first Netflix shows. Do you consider a platform release to be as wide as possible?
CG and CM: We were talking about that this morning!
CG: Earlier, yeah. I’m old and I’m old-fashioned, so I love the idea of a marquee and a release. Caitlin is younger than me and more plugged into everything.
CM: Well that’s how kids watch stuff now, still, how all my kids watch stuff. And if you’re a teenage girl, all my kids start watching stuff on their tablets at like 10 o’clock at night and they’re just streaming stuff. To actually go to the cinema, they do it two, three times a year? And also there’s no barriers to watching if you’re streaming, like you can watch it every time, it doesn’t cost you anything, you can watch it with your friends if you want to make it a communal thing, you can do an online sort of premiere together and watch it together and be commenting on it. And that’s how I watch stuff and that’s how my kids watch stuff. It’s all in the hands of the Gods, but I love the idea of being able to just watch something at home whenever you want.
CG She’s my guru!
CG: I’m more old-fashioned but I would love both, I really would.
BT: Who did you envision to play the different characters and the different voices on the God Wall?
CG: The characters were absolutely there in the script, forever. And the organic process for us was working out who would come in and play those characters and our rule is that they have to be iconic, aspirational people now who could now morph into the characters.
CM: So I just emailed everyone I love and I was like: Sharon Horgan, Lily Allen, Michael Sheen—the day that Michael Sheen said that he would play Sigmund Freud, I was like: “Ahhhhh”. Then I emailed Emma Thompson and she said yes, so it was going through a list of my heroes now, to play my heroes when I was a teenage girl.
CG: And Deb (Hayward) and producer Allie (Owen)’s friends, and Alison is Lily (and co-star Alfie) Allen’s Mum, and my sister is Mel, she’s Mel and Sue, they’re the Brontë sisters. We had a bit of familial, like “You’re doing it”.
BT: And you were happy with everyone in these particular roles?
CG: I still wish that Frida Kahlo moved her eyebrows. I really do. And we had Joan of Arc at one point, and I’m really sad that she wasn’t there.
CM: She was always on fire and quite angry about it. Just angrily giving advice because she was on fire. But it was too expensive to set an actor on fire, so we were like: “No, okay, don’t do that”.
CM: No, no! And then Jameela Jamil contacted me and was like: “Could you write a role for me?”, just really quickly because she was only in the country for one day. And I said: “Come be Cleopatra and you’ll be fabulous as Cleopatra”, so she put on the eyeliner and made a beautiful Cleopatra.
BT: You mentioned Booksmart, which was another great film, and what’s common in that movie is that queerness isn’t at the forefront of the plot in any way.
CM: No, and they aren’t for young people, it’s like very uncool if you’re a young person and teenage girl or boy now, and go: “Well, she’s fat or she’s black or he’s gay”, like you literally don’t say it. Not even my generation, like one of my daughter’s best friends is gay and we were trying to work out what outfit she was going to wear and we both agreed on this outfit that she should wear and I went: “Like okay, the gay boy loves it and the Mum loves it, so you have covered the board”, and she was like: “For my generation, for being gay, you don’t even mention it now, not even in a positive way”.
CG: Yeah, you don’t. I get told off all the time by my kids, even though I’m a really hippie Mum.
CM: No, the kids are much cooler than us now. Like we’re playing catch-up. That’s why it’s great to have teenage girls, because it’s like: “Okay, I’m going to write for you“. You are already in the future.
CG: Their language is very different.
Would this journey be different right now?
CM: Well that was part of the reason why I wanted to write the book and why it’s so amazing that it’s a film is that when I was a teenage girl, to be able to have a platform and to be a little bit famous and have your opinions, I was the only teenage girl in the country that could do that, possibly the world, as I don’t know if there were any other ones at the time. Now, every teenage girl can talk to the world on social media. So everyone’s a little bit famous. And the moral of the story is that we all go through the same process that does Johanna, like go on social media first and be like: “Hey! I love this band”. And then someone goes: “You’re a dick for loving this band”, and you actually become more defensive, cynical and then you become one of the trolls, just being angry about stuff and having pile ons and stuff and flame wars. And you can’t do that. If you put the cynicisms on really early and you become really hard and you become this attacking creature, it stunts your growth, you’ll just become trapped as a cynical, hateful person. It’s far braver and bolder to be an optimist and be joyous and go: “I just love this”, you don’t need to talk about what you hate. We all know Trump is a dick, we all hate Boris Johnson, it’s fine. We’re all scared about global warming, let’s talk about the positives instead, let’s talk about Greta Thunberg, let’s talk about Emma Gonzalez, like point at the heroes. Don’t waste your time destroying your enemies. It’s fine. Be joyous.
But I love the turnover because Instagram even about two years ago was very much about female perfection. And you’re in your bikinis and it’s all about very slim girls and stuff. But because it’s an open platform, girls rebel against that very quickly and now they’re so much more about body positivity. You see big girls on there, girls with stretch marks, girls with different bodies, people who are disabled, all of whom also have the same platform, taking pictures and they find their audience. The turnover has been so rapid, even in the last two years, from this kind of ideal of perfection, to people going: “No! I want something more real. I want to see people who represent me”, and Beanie is part of that. For instance, when I went to the premiere of Booksmart, when she walked in the room, girls in there freaked out, because they’ve never seen a big girl so beautiful and so confident and so optimistic and happy. Like there just hasn’t been another teenage girl like that, a young woman like that, and if I’d had a role model like that when I was a teenage girl, my whole life would be different.
How To Build A Girl is now available On Demand