The Antidote To The ‘Hideous Teen-Boy Gross-Out Comedy’: A Conversation With Liz Garcia

The writer/director talks directing, sex scenes, and the new 'Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants' movie

Liz Garcia's One Percent More Humid premiered at Tribeca this week, but it's been in the making for more than 15 years. Garcia first wrote the coming-of-age indie drama at age 24, in response to, as she puts it, an onslaught of "hideous teen-boy gross-out comedies." But thanks to an industry that treats female writer-directors like niche oddities, it took more than a decade — and directing 2013's black comedy The Lifeguard, a starring vehicle for proven, bankable star Kristen Bell — for her to find financing and support.

The result is a dark, explicitly sexual, gorgeously filmed story about loss, grief, and self-delusion. Juno Temple stars as Iris, a troubled but free-spirited twentysomething spending her summer vacation alternating between slicing meat at a local deli and boning her married professor (Alessandro Nivola) by way of avoiding her feelings about a recent tragedy. Her best friend Catherine (Julia Garner), more inextricably entangled in the traumatic event, distracts herself from pain in her own misguided ways, like pretending she's completely healed and having ill-advised sex with a local boy (Philip Ettinger) who can hardly stand her. Garcia tells both young women's stories with a lack of judgment, peppering the movie with eroticism, empathy, and stoner-y observations espoused during late-night swims. MTV News caught up with Garcia during her Tribeca downtime to talk about taking young women's lives seriously, her fascination with humanity's "darker instincts," filming sex scenes that "celebrate female beauty," and her work on the next Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants installment.

[This interview has been edited and condensed.]

MTV News: Tell me about the process of writing this script — where'd the initial idea come from?

Liz Garcia: I don't know if you heard or were told this, but I wrote this in 2001! I wrote it the week before my 25th birthday. I was just out of college, and I grew up and went to college in Connecticut. The tragedy in the movie — I'll be non-spoilery — was sort of a hideous coming-of-age that we experienced growing up in suburban Connecticut, where you were young and thought that nothing would ever touch you, and then there were these incredible tragedies. I'd heard a few stories, and been in proximity to a few stories, where kids who'd been involved in accidents had to suffer legal repercussions. Given that all of us were constantly fucking up and taking our own lives and others' lives into our hands and being reckless, the idea that fate would swoop in for these particular people, and visit them with grief and guilt and punishment, just interested me. It was really terrible and painful, and I was really fascinated by how a person would survive that.

At the time, I was working as an assistant, and I wanted to be a screenwriter, and I'd just gotten a manager. It was 2001, and everything that was being made was a hideous teenage-boy gross-out comedy. It was like, "Write a spring-break romp!" And I tend to react perversely to any kind of expectations, and I certainly did in this case, because I wrote this tiny movie instead of something that could sell. I'd never read anything like this. The world of film and TV has changed a lot since I wrote this, because when I did, there wasn't a script that went across anyone's desk that took young women's lives seriously, that was honest about their sex lives, the drugs they did, their interior lives. So when I wrote it, I thought, "Nobody's ever gonna read this, nothing's ever gonna come of this, and also, is it too embarrassing to show anyone, because it's so personal?" And it ended up being the script that changed my career — it just took forever to get made.

Why do you think it took so long?

Garcia: One, until recently, I hadn't directed a movie. I was a first-time director, a young female — in 2001, that was not a thing. There were very few women out there making movies. Two, we were shooting indies on film until somewhat recently, the last five to seven years. Instead of asking people for, you know, $1 to $2 million to make your little movie, we were asking for $2 to $4 million. And, again, this is in the era of people being suspicious of female directors, and not engaged with female stories. Also, usually you build financing around your cast, and the idea is that they should have foreign sales value. Well, there are very few young women who've been in the business long enough to accrue foreign sales value. So it was tricky all around.

So what made it finally happen?

Garcia: Well, finally, I made The Lifeguard. That changed everything. People had seen it, people who could set us up with financing had seen it. That was proven, and we just had to get interesting actresses who ticked the financing boxes, and we did. It was never hard to get interesting actresses.

Why'd you have an easier time with The Lifeguard, which also focuses on a woman experiencing a breakdown?

Garcia: The Lifeguard took nine months from first draft to production. Which, compared to 15 years, is insane. First of all, things had changed by then. There were brand names like Lena Dunham and Diablo Cody and Sofia Coppola. We were shooting on digital instead of film, which was cheaper. And the film revolved around an ensemble of actors who were around 30, and it's easier to find somebody like Kristen Bell, who was worth something internationally.

Both One Percent More Humid and The Lifeguard focus on inappropriate sexual relationships between thirty- or forty-something adults and somebody who's a lot younger. Why that topic?

Garcia: [Laughs.] I think it's a few things. One is that I'm really interested in movies about sex and lust, because I think those are primal, carnal instincts that translate well to a visual medium. Two, these things that I write, or want to make, are an expression of — I don't want to say darker instincts, but let's say darker instincts [laughs]. But that's why I'm a writer. I'm a civilized person who obeys the law and is pretty easy to get along with, but I'm more complicated than that. I use my work as a way to get all that other stuff out and experiment with feelings and ideas, and the forbidden. That's just part of my process, I think, to identify something forbidden. That's what lures me into wanting to do the work, write the story down.

"Professor sleeps with student" is sort of a cliché at this point. How do you avoid having it read that way onscreen?

Garcia: It didn't occur to me when I wrote it that it was a cliché, because I always thought about it as a young woman who was grieving and isolated in her grief, and found this man, who was older than her peers, so she automatically assumed he'd be somebody she could talk to about this tragedy, and that she'd target him: "This is gonna be my pain relief, I'm going to make that happen for me, and I'm going to seduce him." You rarely see that from a female perspective. It's usually the young beguiling student seducing the professor, the male fantasy.

This also very much came from being in my twenties and knowing how me and my friends were using our sexuality — not having sex just to feel good, but to feel all these other things, and say things you couldn't say, and try on identities. And also to experience pain and discomfort, which is an aspect of the movie with Catherine and Billy. And then you mature, and hopefully stop using sex that way? But maybe you don't. When I was writing about Iris, it was like, "This is what I would do." I'd find a person who was a distraction, and maybe also helped, and pursue it with no eye to the consequences.

There are a lot of sex scenes in this movie, a lot of female nudity. I'm curious how, as a director, you work to make sure those scenes doesn't feel exploitative or male gaze-y — what are the visual considerations that you're making?

Garcia: We talked about what each sex scene was about. There's a progression in their sex lives that reflects the progressions in their emotional relationships and Iris's feelings. You talk about that with the actors, so they know, going in, all of the elements. There are a lot of sex scenes in The Lifeguard too. Sex scenes are intimidating, because when in life are you around people you just met in a work environment, and you're taking your clothes off and figuring out where to put your genitals? [Laughs.] But I got great advice from my husband, who produced both movies and is an actor: "Be very specific with the actors about what they're doing. This is choreography, like a dance scene or an actor sequence." The way you freak actors out is like, "OK, guys, act passionate, do whatever you'd normally do."

And I don't want to exploit them, so it would never occur to me to. It's a really interesting question, because people talk about the male gaze as though only men have the right to use the camera in an erotic way. And I don't believe that. The camera is your way to see what you want to see — it's an extension of the director's fantasy. I'm executing my personal fantasy, whether it's a fantasy of pleasure or of pain and fear. You see plenty of the girls' bodies, because I think they're beautiful. So if I'm showing that, it's because it feels like, Oh, I want to show a moment where the girls feel comfortable being naked, or, I want to show that there's incredible female beauty in this movie, and celebrate that. And when we were filming, I thought I wanted to see shots of the male experiencing pleasure. You never see that [in movies], but that's something when you're on the other side of a sexual relationship with a man, that's what you see. How does it feel to him when you touch him for the first time? That's what I want to see. This is gonna be a fun, erotic experience for an audience that's attracted to men.

Both movies also deal heavily with this idea of moral relativism, of forming a sense of personal ethics.

Garcia: It's funny, because with both films, people have asked me about the message, or what I'm trying to say. I'm never trying to make a statement about morality ever. If there's a statement to be made, it's "People are complicated. They do things that may hurt other people, or exploit other people, but they may do them for the right reasons, or out of desperation." I don't judge that sort of "bad" behavior. I'm only interested in a world where people break outside of the norm, and I believe people do whatever they have to do to relieve themselves of pain. I just want to watch and see how that plays out.

What can you tell me about the new Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants movie?

Garcia: That's been the best writing experience I've had with a studio. I've been working with Ken Kwapis, who directed the original, and Christine Sacani, who produces with him, and [Blake Lively, America Ferrera, Amber Tamblyn, and Alexis Bledel]. Something you discover as a writer is that actresses who are successful are incredibly smart. For some reason, there's this myth that if you're a beautiful actress, you're not bright, you're a puppet. But it's completely the opposite. These are people with a finely tuned sense of story, and who are also strong and articulate. You have to be, to be a woman holding your own on TV and film sets. It's been awesome developing with the four of them, these women who know their roles so well and are compassionate, smart, and cool. I hope it gets made. Fingers crossed.

I'm curious what it's like, 15 years later, looking back on the script you wrote at 25 years old. What changes did you have to make? Anything that felt "wrong" for the story, or embarrassing to read?

Garcia: I'm three weeks from my 40th birthday, and I've been reading it over the years, but at some point, I shifted from being the girls to being [the professor and his wife]. I have two kids, I've been married for almost 10 years. So when we were going to make this, I read over it, and I felt far away from the girls. I worried about them in a maternal way. And that told me that I shouldn't touch any of their scenes, that they were authentic and I should leave them be, so I did. But I went into the marriage, and made it more believable. Because when I wrote it, I didn't understand marriage, and I didn't understand specifically how marriage could go wrong. Or that it could be just OK, but one person in the marriage is lost and needs something they're not getting and finds it outside the marriage.

It's been wild to be both people. Although, I'm very much Iris still. We all have the person inside of us who's never gonna age, you know? And when I watch her, and what she needs, and what she's hoping will come along for her, and the way she expresses herself — that's me. And that will always be me.

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