Making “Puccini for Beginners”

 
 

Although they hadn't worked together before Puccini, all of the cast members except Kirk and Mol have had roles on the various versions of Law & Order, and Nicholson even has a regular role on Criminal Intent now. But Reaser explained that it's somewhat coincidental: "It's like a rite of passage if you're a New York actor.

Reaser had been acquainted with Jennifer Dundas, who plays Allegra's friend Molly, from the theater world, and she had already known Tina Benko, who plays Allegra's ex-girlfriend Nell, for a long time. But she hadn't worked with either of them before Puccini. "I always thought Tina was extremely talented — like scary talented — and so wonderful and funny and cool," Reaser enthused.

Benko made some her own contributions to the script. "If someone comes up with a better line than I wrote, I'm more than happy to take it," Maggenti said, "and Tina was wonderful at that. She's remarkably smart and funny and intuitive, and came up with some great lines."

The script evolved and the film changed shape along with the performances. Maggenti arranged for many rough-cut screenings and then modified the film according to the feedback she received. "Sometimes what worked great on the page we realized just didn't move quickly enough when we actually had the footage," she said.

Puccini was shot in September 2005 and premiered at Sundance in January 2006, before screening at Frameline in San Francisco and Outfest in Los Angeles. Audiences have generally reacted with uproarious laughter. At Sundance, Maggenti kept thinking, "My God, is this a midnight screening? Is everybody here high?" But the laughs were even more intense at the queer festivals — and came at different moments. "They got a lot of the subcultural humor in a way that the other audiences didn't," she said.

Reaser concurs: "Outfest was such a fun audience, and they got every single nuance." After the Outfest screening, Reaser attended a large after-party where she had a chance to talk to many members of the audience. "A lot of them were really interested in the idea of identity," she said, "and how we like to name what we are. And how Allegra was really thrown because she had a name for what she was, and then suddenly she was attracted to this man, and it threw her whole life into a whirlwind because she didn't know what that was, and she didn't know how to name it."

The film's ending was a special challenge for Maggenti. "The setup had so many possible endings," she said. She had to determine what would work in terms of the romantic comedy genre.

Viewers at the rough-cut screenings suggested that Allegra end up alone, but Maggenti tried that and found it too depressing. You'll have to watch the film to find out what happens, but let's just say that Maggenti chose a more organic conclusion, and Allegra winds up with the person she needs to be with.

Maggenti's main preoccupation, however, is what we can do to make the world safer for women; to make it OK for a woman to always act on her desire without risking her health and safety. "Does my film necessarily answer any of those questions?" she mused. "No, but it shows what an ideal world would be like: that consequences of emotional engagement are emotional. They're not political; they don't make you lose your job; you don't worry about someone beating the hell out of you."

At Smith College, Maggenti was involved with the lesbian feminist movement and also began working with ACT UP just as it was starting. "It just was the perfect fit of the kind of activism I wanted to do," she recalled, "which is direct action, and the kind of people I wanted to be with, which were iconoclastic and smart and rebellious and challenging everything in both mainstream and gay culture."

Maggenti has spent time on both coasts. After graduating from Smith in 1987 with a degree in classics and philosophy, she moved to New York City. Then in 2002 she moved to Los Angeles and worked as a script editor and writer for the television series Without a Trace. In 2005, she sold all of her furniture and moved back to New York and made Puccini for Beginners, then six months ago she moved back to Los Angeles.

Her latest work is a Spanish-language short film that she made in conjunction with the Sundance Global Short Film Project, Los Viajes de King Tiny (The Travels of King Tiny). King Tiny is Maggenti's dog, and "the film's about a small dog who takes off one day when his owner is at work and he goes and takes a tour of Los Angeles and then he flies home. It's strange and funny."

Looking back on her film career, Maggenti is quite satisfied. "I've been really lucky because I've worked with people who really believe in film, and I'm really grateful for that," Maggenti said. "That's true with InDigEnt [who co-produced Puccini along with Logo]. They give you an incredible amount of creative freedom and support, and that was a great experience."

Puccini for Beginners is now playing at select theaters.
Get more info at the official website; read our review here.
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