Exclusive Interview: Maggie Carey on The To Do List
When I saw The To Do List I think I thought it was a lot more feminist than intended. That’s fine, in fact it’s great that a comedy could achieve such balanced themes without trying to get all messagey. Aubrey Plaza stars as Brandy Clark, a high school valedictorian who makes a list of sexual acts she wants to experience before college. Maggie Carey wrote and directed the script, which includes references to ‘90s movies and television (it’s set in 1993) and a rivalry between the community pool and a fancy exclusive pool. Spoiler warning for Beaches.
CraveOnline: Is it tough to embark on a women’s sex comedy because of the double standard?
Maggie Carey: I just wrote the movie because it was a story that I wanted to tell. I didn’t really think about double standards or anything else. I think they absolutely exist but I don’t think that was a conscious decision. You just write what you know and I know what it’s like to be a teenager in 1993 and I’m a woman so I’m definitely going to write from that point of view.
Well, we’ve had Bridesmaids recently but I remember a while before that, The Sweetest Thing came out and it wasn’t just that people didn’t like it. It rubbed a lot of people the wrong way but why? Guys do movies like that.
Yeah, I don’t know. I haven’t seen that movie.
Is there a dilemma in The To Do List that we’re rooting for Brandy to have this life experience of sexual encounters, or we want her to learn a lesson about promiscuity?
No, there is no moral lesson in this movie. I think what was important to me was it’s your classic coming of age story where you so badly want to know about something but you just don’t know until you’ve done it. I think for a lot of people, sex is one of those milestones. You really want to know what it’s like but you don’t know until you’ve had it. I don’t think there’s that dichotomy of are we rooting for her moral downfall or did she make a mistake? That’s absolutely not the message.
If anything, she says it herself. “Will I regret losing my virginity to Rusty Waters? No, this is a great story to tell my friends.” There’s no regret in this story. It just didn’t turn out like she thought it would, but she’s not regretting it. Also I think what was important for me is everything she’s doing as she’s checking things off the list, she’s in control. These are all her choices.
Clearly I saw it as challenging all these terrible social stereotypes we have, and that maybe wasn’t your intention even though I got that from it.
Oh, I think that’s fair. It was not intentional. Look at the characters of Brandy versus Cameron, who Johnny Simmons plays who did a great job. There is a role reversal. It just kind of happened organically in the writing where Brandy is more stereotypically male, where she’s methodical, she’s almost scientific about sex. It’s a goal that she’s trying to achieve whereas Cameron is very emotional. He thinks she should be in love. He’s actually incredibly sappy about it and so there is a role reversal there that happened organically in the writing and it was really fun.
He’s wearing a Shawn Colvin T-shirt which I don’t think you see a lot of teenage boys listening to. In my mind, he was always listening to Sarah McLachlan and Tori Amos so that was really fun, but it all came from an organic place, maybe because that’s what my personality was like in high school. I was very Type A. I was in every AP class possible. I played a ton of sports. I was absolutely a feminist. That’s when I discovered Gloria Steinem and later Susan Faludi’s Backlash which are peppered into the movie. So Brandy Clark is clearly a feminist, but she’s also boy crazy and I think that’s totally fine too. She’s just like a normal teenager who’s curious about sex.
I wanted to thank you for showing that men can be the ones who get emotional and attached. They were teenagers. I’m 35 and I’m still that way.
That’s great! And I don’t think the movie is saying that you shouldn’t be. I think if anything, the movie is more just like when you’re a teenager, the first time, or any time for a first, there’s such a buildup to the first time and it’s never what you expected. That’s, I think, why those things in our life are milestones because there are just certain things you don’t know until you experience them. If anything, because this is a female perspective that you don’t always get to see, I’m not saying this was intentional, but it challenges a lot of things. As much as it says about women, it’s also saying about men. We’re all three dimensional. You can’t put any person in any kind of a box due to their gender or anything.
Brandy gets judged for being too chaste and then she gets judged for being too promiscuous. Is the real lesson: don’t be judging people?
[Laughs] Well, I think it’s impossible. One, everyone judges. They have to. That’s just who we are as humans.
We do, it’s natural, but we don’t have to indulge all our judgments.
Absolutely, and I think yeah, teenage girls as much as adult women, we all are very aware of the “you’re either the virgin or the whore” dichotomy. As old fashioned as it is, it still exists and I think this character, I don’t think she’s answering the question but I think she’s recognizing that it’s not fair.
Yeah, I don’t care about the answer to that question. I want people to stop judging each other.
Is one of the reasons The To Do List is set in the ‘90s because the internet would ruin this movie?
I think it’s set in the ’90s because that’s when I was in high school, but yeah, if the internet existed, it would take her like two seconds to make that list and figure out everything that was on it.
She could look everything up instead of having to do it.
Right, and then decide whether or not she wanted to do that too.