Alameda’s Marielle Heller Is One Hot Hollywood Director
The former St. Joseph Notre Dame grad and Alameda Children’s Musical Theater veteran now calls the shots for big-time stars like Melissa McCarthy and Tom Hanks.
Press photo of Heller and McCarthy courtesy the film
In Alameda in the late 1980s, a young girl named Marielle Heller fell in love with acting. It happened on stage with the Alameda Children’s Musical Theater, where she played Rabbit in Winnie the Pooh, Templeton the bat in Charlotte’s Web, and Polly in The Magician’s Nephew.
She had large, intelligent eyes, a preternatural belief in herself, and a gift for connecting with an audience. She did three to four plays per year — “I was missing school for performances; I was obsessed” — and soon moved on to community theater and high school productions at St. Joseph’s Notre Dame in Alameda.
“I was just one of those annoying kids who always wanted to put on a skit or sing a little song or make up a dance with my friends,” Heller said. “I was quite the ham.”
Today, Marielle Heller is in demand in Hollywood — not as an actor, but as a director. Her first movie, Diary of a Teenage Girl, won stellar reviews and was named best first feature at the Independent Spirit Awards in 2016. Her second, Can You Ever Forgive Me?, was a breakout hit at the Telluride Film Festival in September and opens nationwide Oct. 19. It stars Melissa McCarthy in a meaty dramatic role that could win the actress her second Oscar nomination.
Heller’s third and biggest movie to date, You Are My Friend, is currently shooting in Pittsburgh, Pa., and stars Tom Hanks as beloved television personality Fred Rogers of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. The timing is perfect: With the recent success of the Mister Rogers documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, it’s clear there is a deep yearning for civility and kindness in a Trump-traumatized world.
For Heller, a film directing career wasn’t planned or expected. She spent eight years as a working actor after graduating from the University of California at Los Angeles, but as soon as she wrote and directed, she said, “Certain doors started opening, and it felt very natural. Like something I was meant to do.”
Diary, the story of a 15-year-old’s affair with her mother’s lover in 1970s San Francisco, opened nationwide in August 2015 and scored a 94 percent rating on RottenTomatoes.com. The New York Times called it “gutsy, exhilarating,” and The Guardian of London dubbed it “a striking debut” for Heller, “entertaining, insightful, ferociously confident.”
On the strength of Diary, Heller immediately got offers to direct other films and TV series — offers that continue today. She did an episode of Transparent, two episodes of Casual. She turned down several large commercial movies, but demurs when asked to name them.
“I’m really lucky,” she said. “A lot of people make great first features on a really low budget, and for whatever reason they don’t hit people in the same way. My movie got a lot of publicity, and I think it became part of a bigger cultural conversation we’re having right now about women’s sexuality and about women filmmakers. So for that reason, I ended up on a lot of people’s radar in a great way.”
Heller is sitting at a sidewalk café in Brooklyn, blocks from the home she shares with her husband, Jorma Taccone, a comedy writer (Saturday Night Live), fellow film director (MacGruber), and sketch comedian (The Lonely Island troupe, with fellow Berkeleyites Andy Samberg and Akiva Schaffer). He’s the son of Berkeley Rep artistic director Tony Taccone. The couple met 19 years ago at UCLA study acting. Their son, Wylie, turns 4 in December.
Heller, 39, still has the large, keen eyes she had as a child — Wylie has them, too, she said — as well as a sangfroid and centeredness that temper the ego-bloating that results from sudden success. She’s a pleasant companion, smart, relaxed, and articulate.
After Diary, Heller said, “It was really hard to figure out how to follow up something you love as much as that.” She chose Can You Ever Forgive Me?, another tough, unsentimental woman’s story, based on the memoir of scam artist Lee Israel.
Following its Telluride Film Festival premiere, Variety called the film “an unexpectedly profound, incredibly true dramedy” and said McCarthy delivers her “best performance.” Another rave, on the website The Wrap, said Can You Ever Forgive Me? “serves as an astonishing step forward for Heller, whose work here ought to cement her cred as one of the major up-and-coming female directors.”
Israel, who wrote the book in 2008 and died six years later, was a celebrity biographer who fell on hard times and started forging letters by such dead celebrities as Noel Coward and Dorothy Parker. In 1991 and 1992 she created approximately 400 typewritten fakes, which were witty and convincing acts of ventriloquism. Israel sold the letters for tidy sums to autograph dealers, until she was busted by the FBI and in 1993 pled guilty to conspiracy to transport stolen property.
Her book, Can You Ever Forgive Me?: Memoirs of a Literary Forger, isn’t a mea culpa — Israel never showed much remorse — but a mischievous, highly entertaining confession. “I still consider the letters to be my best work,” she wrote. “I was a better writer as a forger than I had ever been as a writer.”
“She’s the kind of character we see men portraying in movies,” Heller said. “Somebody who’s really difficult to deal with, who says all the things everybody think but nobody has the balls to say. She’s just sort of mean and cranky. That’s part of why I fell in love with her.”
Melissa McCarthy, who has played her share of obstreperous women — and scored a major coup as bellicose White House spokesman Sean Spicer on Saturday Night Live — is the perfect actress to play Israel. “Melissa is so inherently likable that when she plays someone unlikable, it’s delightful,” Heller said. “It’s a very nuanced performance of an unhappy person who’s bitingly funny.”
Heller shot on location in Manhattan, at some of the bookstores where Israel sold her forgeries: the six-story Argosy Bookstore in midtown; the tiny, narrow Westsider Rare & Used Books on the Upper West Side. “We shot the movie in the winter,” she said, “so it captures this sort of beautiful time in New York. Lots of snow, rain, seasons. There’s this sort of lonesome, gray quality to it that’s really cinematic and beautiful.”
Her next film, You Are My Friend, is a departure in the sense that the central character isn’t a sociopath or an über-grouch, but in fact one of the most admired human beings of the last half-century. Heller grew up watching the late Fred Rogers in Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, which ran on public television from 1968 to 2001.
“I loved him and I also remember rejecting him at some point,” Heller said. “I remember my sister or brother watching him and feeling like I was too cool or too old for it, which makes me a little sad now.” Today, “I just love watching his show with my kid; it’s been a whole new second life for me with Mister Rogers.”
You Are My Friend was in the pre-production pipeline for a while, but it wasn’t until Heller came on board that Hanks agreed to play Rogers. “I knew Tom a little bit. I’m friends with his son, Colin, and his daughter, Liz. He and I had a meeting after he saw Diary, which he really liked, and talked about finding something to work on together. And he kind of has kept up with me over the years.”
The producers and screenwriters “always dreamed about Tom Hanks as Mister Rogers,” Heller said. “So I said, ‘Well, I have a relationship with Tom. I’ll send it to him.’ Everybody kind of thought, ‘Well, sure. It won’t happen, but let’s try.’ And he responded right away and signed on. Everybody was kind of like, ‘How did you do that?’”
photo courtesy Heller family
For anyone who knew Heller when she was growing up in Alameda in the ’80s and ’90s, her success as a film director isn’t altogether surprising. “Mari just had this kind of a drive and persistence of will that always amazed me,” said her father, Steve Heller, a chiropractor who still lives in Alameda with Mari Heller’s mother, Annie, an artist and art teacher. “I used to go to auditions with her, and I’d be sitting there completely terrified, and she was not nervous at all. I don’t know where it came from, but she always had this attitude: Whenever she saw someone doing something [she thought], ‘I could do that better.’ ”
Mike Hooke, who taught Heller in religion class at St. Joseph’s, remembered Heller as “a young woman with very, very strong opinions. Mari was certainly not afraid to share them and not afraid to challenge ideas I offered in the classroom. But it was always done with an incredible respect, for me and for the material I was offering. She would ask deep, penetrating questions.”
“Mari always had a voice,” said Adrienne Belai, a childhood friend who acted with Heller at Alameda Children’s Musical Theater and joined her in a musical parody trio called The Cactus Cows. “A lot of times, young girls kind of lose our voice around puberty. But Mari’s always been very, very opinionated and confident. And super-determined.”
“I think that’s true,” Heller said. “I read all the time about how girls at some point in their life stop raising their hand in class. They become so self-conscious and stop asserting themselves. And whenever I read those stories I think, ‘Why didn’t that happen to me?’ I just never thought I should do anything differently just because I was a girl.
“I felt the fight in me, I think, from a young age. And it’s part of growing up in the Bay Area with really supportive hippie parents who were artists and taught us to challenge authority and to not ‘fit in.’ My brother and sister and I are all like that.”
“People always ask, ‘You’ve got these three incredible kids; how did you create that?’,” said Steve Heller. “And my answer is always, ‘We just got out of their way.’ I think that’s a natural state to be creative and have a desire to express the creative elements of your personality, but people tend to get socialized away from that. My kids were encouraged to chase their artistic dreams.”
Heller’s brother, Nate, 36, is a musician who composed the score for Diary and Can You Ever Forgive Me? He lives downstairs in the same Brooklyn building where his sister lives. Sister Emily, 33, is a stand-up comic who’s written for the Emmy-nominated HBO comedy Barry.
The Heller kids had an idyllic childhood, sharing a large house on the Gold Coast of Alameda, across the street from Franklin Park. “It was this gorgeous, big Queen Anne Victorian,” Heller said, “where the doors were pretty much always open and always a ton of kids from the neighborhood. It was a really austere, beautiful house, but it was always a mess. There were art projects everywhere, and my mom, who was an art teacher, built the front yard into fairy gardens with mosaic stepping stones. Like a little kid’s magic land.”
“Nate had lots of instruments in his room, and Mari had tons of creative things to draw, sculpt, play with,” her mother said. “She’d have friends over and have clubs and put on little skits.” If the kids were playing at the park across the street at the end of the day, “I’d go out on the front porch and ring a big triangle. ‘Ding, ding, ding. Dinner is ready.’ It was a real old-fashioned kind of childhood.”
Mari Heller’s friend Adrienne Belai fondly remembered the Heller house: “A lot of times kids don’t want to hang out with their parents. Or they’re, like, embarrassed by their parents. It wasn’t like that at all with Mari and her family. I mean, they were just joyful.”
At a certain point, Heller grew impatient with her hometown. “I mean, at the time I hated it, if I’m being honest,” she said. “There was this real small-town mentality to Alameda, which at the time made me crazy.” In retrospect, “I think it was a pretty idyllic place, in a lot of ways.”
There was never any question that she would move on. “I love the Bay Area. I mean, it was such a nice place to grow up. I think I needed to leave in order to not feel like I was just treading water. I left when I was really young, ’cause I went to UCLA and never really went back.”
After UCLA Heller studied acting for a year at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, in London. Back in the United States, she found work on stage, at Magic Theater, A.C.T., Berkeley Rep, and the La Jolla Playhouse. She wrote screenplays with a writing partner, Cailin Goldberg-Meehan. The scripts sold, but the films never got made.
Although the trajectory of her career seems enchanted — to segue in three years from an extreme-low-budget film to working with Melissa McCarthy and Tom Hanks — Heller said “none of it is without struggle.” She views the creation of Diary as a situation she “manifested into being. That project was eight years of my life, and it was not like anybody was clamoring to let me make that movie.”
It started in 2006, when Heller’s sister gave her a copy of the book Diary of a Teenage Girl for Christmas. She fell in love with the raw, unvarnished emotion in Phoebe Gloeckner’s illustrated novel and set about acquiring the stage rights.
“I kind of stalked Phoebe and her agent. There was about a year where they didn’t really want to let me do this thing because they didn’t know who I was and I just didn’t have any track record. It was very personal work for her and something that she obviously guarded closely, which I understood.”
Heller flew to Ann Arbor, Mich., where Gloeckner lived, “and kind of convinced both Phoebe and her agent to let me have the rights.” With Gloeckner’s blessing, Heller wrote the script and played the lead role of 15-year-old Minnie when Diary was staged in 2010 at the 3LD Art & Technology Center in Manhattan.
Turning it into a film took another four years. Heller applied to the Directors Lab at the Sundance Institute in Utah, got accepted, and received a heady, six-week crash course in film directing.
“They just throw you in the deep end,” Heller said. “You have some of the world’s best cinematographers just standing by on your set watching. Some of the world’s best directors. I had Michael Arndt, the screenwriter of Little Miss Sunshine and Toy Story 3, giving me notes on my script. And Angela Bassett giving notes and asking questions and kind of cheering me on. It was incredibly transformative.”
Heller never went to film school and knew much more about theater than film. “I felt like this rookie, like, ‘I don’t know anything about lenses or how to set up shots.’ And I came out realizing I had a lot of ammunition in my pocket that led me to being a filmmaker: As an actor, I knew how to talk to actors; how to break down scenes; figuring out the rhythm and blocking of a scene.”
With the footage from the Sundance Directors Lab, Heller went looking for producers and backers to turn Diary into a film. “I was just not taking no for an answer.”
In 2014, Diary started shooting in San Francisco. Kristen Wiig (Bridesmaids), who’d become a friend after working with Heller’s husband on Saturday Night Live, agreed to play Charlotte, the hedonistic mother of 15-year-old Minnie (Bel Powley). Alexander Skarsgård, whom Heller also knew through a mutual friend, signed on to play the mother’s boyfriend. Powley got hired on the strength of an extraordinary audition tape.
The Diary budget was slightly above $1 million, chump change compared to the average Hollywood budget of about $90 million. “We had no money,” Heller said. “My animator came out and stayed with my parents. My sister-in-law Carmen was my costume designer. My brother Nate wrote the music. We raided the Berkeley Rep costume shop and their props department. We were calling in every favor known to man. It was a labor of love.”
Diary debuted at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2015, won an award for best cinematography, and the next month won another prize at the Berlin International Film Festival. Diary wasn’t a box-office smash when it opened the following summer, but it launched Heller’s career was as a director.
“What a wonderful life this is!” she exclaimed when Diary was named best first feature at the Independent Spirit Awards in Santa Monica the following year. “Sometimes a project comes along that just changes your whole life, and this project was that for me.”
Heller’s Cinderella tale hasn’t been without its downside: When she shot Can You Ever Forgive Me?, Wylie was 2 and she rarely saw him. “The nature of directing movies is all or nothing. You’re either in production, which is 16-hour days, or you’re sitting on the couch fielding phone calls and doing a little bit of writing. It’s really, really hard because I’m usually so present with my kid. I had these long days where I’d leave before he wakes up and get home after he goes to bed, which is heartbreaking.”
Will she act again? “Acting is the dark mistress,” she said. “What’s really hard is that 90 percent of your job is trying to get a job. If somebody offered me a great part that I could go off and do, I would love it. But I can’t commit to the major part of being an actor right now, which is being an auditioner.
“Somebody said this a long time ago, ‘Follow the green light,’ which is sort of a phrase I’ve kept in my head. When I started writing and directing, I started to be a little more in control of my creative life, which I really appreciated. I get to decide now when I get to work and how I get to work. All of that.”