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Listen: ‘Can You Ever Forgive Me?’ Director Marielle Heller Really Wanted to Avoid the ‘Sophomore Slump’

PLAYBACK is a Variety / iHeartRadio podcast bringing you conversations with the talents behind many of today’s hottest films. New episodes air every Thursday.

Coming off her critically acclaimed debut feature “Diary of a Teenage Girl,” filmmaker Marielle Heller put a lot of thought into how she would follow it up. She at least knew she didn’t want to make another movie about teenage life, which was of course how the industry was seeking to pigeonhole her. The answer finally came to her in the form of “Can You Ever Forgive Me?,” the story of author Lee Israel’s campaign of fraud (selling counterfeit letters “signed” by famous writers) in the early 1990s.

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“The statistics show women take a lot longer to make their second movie,” Heller says. “I think it’s just the systemic sexism of our business, that women can make a really great first movie and have less opportunities come their way for a second movie. I really loved making my first movie and I realized I loved directing. Figuring out what I wanted to make second felt like a lot of pressure. You’re setting off on sort of a path of who you’re going to be as an artist.”

Heller was completely taken with Israel as a character. She related to the struggle of a writer eager to conjure stories no one seems interested in reading. She also saw an opportunity to center a film on a warts-and-all female character unlike most of the leading-lady portraits Hollywood cranks out every year. (Melissa McCarthy’s performance is part of a mini-trend of such portraits this year, in fact, along with Carey Mulligan in “Wildlife” and Karyn Kusama in “Destroyer”).

“I found her to be such an asshole. We tend to see male characters who are assholes like that, and we don’t get a lot of female characters like that,” Heller says. “She says everything that comes into her mind and cares so much more about her intellect than her looks. I just found her to be a character we don’t focus movies on, a woman over 50, a lesbian who is a cat lady, basically. She’s not very glamorous. She doesn’t have kids. She doesn’t fit into the industry norm.”

She followed the film up closely with a currently untitled project about television legend Fred Rogers and the journalist whose life he changed forever. Tom Hanks stars as Mr. Rogers and filming recently wrapped in Pittsburgh. As she goes off into post-production on that, Heller has found the movie to be a salve of sorts under this year’s cloud of politics and, of course, the recent mass shooting in the city’s Squirrel Hill neighborhood.

“Until the Mr. Rogers movie I felt like I just wanted to make movies about women because we don’t have enough of them,” Heller says. “I keep saying Mr. Rogers was the one man who could pull me into making a movie about men, but it’s just about wherever your heart is at the current moment. For me, right now, I’ve been so focused on raising my kid and thinking about the state of the world and where we are politically and emotionally and thinking about Pittsburgh and the hate in the world. Making a move about kindness and emotion and people trying to be better just felt right right now. Who knows where we’ll be in another year and what will feel right then.”

For more, including thoughts on what made McCarthy and Richard E. Grant such a perfect pair, listen to the latest episode of “Playback” via the streaming link below.

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Marielle Heller photographed exclusively for the Variety Playback Podcast.
Dan Doperalski for Variety

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