10 Directors to Watch: Secrets of Marielle Heller’s Sundance ‘Diary’

Actress captures the female side of coming-of-age angst in all its complexity with 'The Diary of a Teenage Girl.'

Within a month and a half, Marielle Heller is giving birth twice: to her writing-directing debut “The Diary of a Teenage Girl” (premiering in competition at Sundance) and on Dec. 12 to son Wylie Red Heller Taccone, her first child with husband Jorma Taccone.

So if Heller seems to be bubbling with enthusiasm, it’s understandable: Brutally frank and yet whimsical enough to withstand animated doodles and other stylistic embellishments, the Holden Caulfield-esque tale of a sexually insecure teen (played by British newcomer Bel Powley) who shags the stud (Alexander Skarsgard) dating her mom (Kristen Wiig) is the fulfillment of an 8-year dream that began when her younger sister gave the UCLA/RADA-trained actress a copy of Phoebe Gloeckner’s 2002 graphic novel as a Christmas present.

“I had one of those totally compelled experiences where I closed the cover and called the publisher, not even really knowing what I was going to say,” she recalls, “just babbling about how I wanted to make this into something and how moved I was by the story.” At the time, she says, “I was interested in finding more interesting female voices, and that wasn’t in anything I was reading and auditioning for.”

After a year of lobbying, Gloeckner agreed to sell her the theatrical rights, from which Heller produced an Off Broadway multimedia show featuring herself in the lead role. From there, Heller was invited to workshop the project at Sundance’s Screenwriters and Directors Labs. Heller, 35, says she also “learned a lot about how to be really scrappy and make things happen” from Taccone, who exec produced the feature: She got a script to Skarsgard via their friend Jack McBrayer, and hesitantly sent it to her pal Wiig, who costarred with her in Taccone’s helming debut “MacGruber.”

Writing the “Diary” play also inspired Heller to pen other film and and TV scripts, from the comic adaptation “Renegade X” for Disney Channel to projects with writing partner Cailin Goldberg-Meehan, including ABC pilot “The Big Apple” (about twentysomething foodie pals) and gal-centric “Superbad”-style laffer “Fifteen to Life.”

With the arrival of her first produced project, she says she’s open to direct, write and act in TV or film, including a new “personal script” idea similar to the “not totally realistic world (of “Diary”) with animation, exploring different mediums and ways of storytelling. I’m interested in character-driven women’s stories — and all stories — telling them in ambitious and crazy ways that other people might think are insane,” she says.

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