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Phoebe Gloeckner’s Diary of a Teenage Girl: from graphic novel to feature film

Long before Lena Dunham brought her groundbreaking depiction of the sexual life of post-college girls to HBO, Phoebe Gloeckner shocked audiences with her novel, Diary of a Teenage Girl. Based on her own diaries growing up as a teenager in San Francisco in the 1970s, Diary tells the unflinching story of a young girl’s initiation into sex and drugs, beginning with an affair with her mother’s boyfriend.

Diary of a Teenage Girl has been praised as “one of the bleakest and most brilliant books ever written about growing up female,” and has recently been adapted into a full length feature film, directed by Marielle Heller and starring Kristin Wiig and Alexander Skarsgard. The film will premiere at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival on Sunday, Jan. 25, 2015.

Phoebe spoke to us about the upcoming film.

The book is based on your own diaries and life growing up in 1970s San Francisco. Were you hesitant about handing over the rights to your story for stage and now, film?

Phoebe Gloeckner: Over the years, I've been approached by three different directors about turning the book into a film but I was never comfortable with the vision that they presented. Maybe it was because I had my own vision for a film version. Then, about eight years ago, Marielle Heller approached me about creating a play. I thought that was so insane and I couldn't imagine it, so I said yes.

A page from Phoebe Gloeckner's own teenage diary.

Over the years, as she was researching and writing, we developed a strong relationship and I grew to trust her. So when she approached me about turning the play into a film, I said yes.

Gloeckner talks about the first time she saw the stage adaptation of her novel, Diary of a Teenage Girl.

Did Marielle Heller, the actors, or the production crew consult with you during the filming?

I've spent a lot of time with Marielle, and I've answered her questions and dug up old photos and drawings and read script drafts. Ultimately, it was weird for me to be involved. The material is so personal. I had to defer to Marielle and allow her to follow her own creative vision and create her own piece. I don't think the movie could possibly be as dark and, well, explicit as the book. It's a film, so it has to get an R rating.

I was on the set quite a bit. It was an amazing experience. Alexander Skarsgard did ask me quite a few questions about Monroe, the character he plays. Among other things, he wanted to know what became of him, because the book never explains that.

Gloeckner talks about the process of transforming her own personal diaries into a graphic novel.

The novel has long been considered a masterpiece within the genre of graphic novels. Are there any aspects of your drawings or graphics that have been incorporated into the film?

Marielle created animations based on my drawings for the movie. There's one animation based on a comic I drew when I was 15. In the book, the comics are part of the narrative, but in the movie, I think they play a different role, illustrating Minnie's mind as an artist. Another difference, by the way, is that instead of writing, Minnie records the diary out loud. This just worked much better for film.

On creating a hybrid novel, using pictures and words.

Will you attend the Sundance premiere?

Yes, I will be there. I actually haven't seen the whole film yet, just disconnected scenes. I'm really nervous. But I think Marielle is even more nervous for me to see the film. It's really emotional. That part of my life was traumatic, and there are probably parts of it I still haven't processed. But ultimately, I feel lucky — how many people get to see actors act out their life stories?

Gloeckner talks about making work that confronts the truth of our experiences.

Phoebe Gloeckner is available to speak with journalists about the upcoming film adaption of Diary of a Teenage Girl.

Phoebe Gloeckner teaches interactive books and comic arts at Stamps School of Art & Design. In 2008, Gloeckner was awarded the Guggenheim Fellowship to continue work on a project centering on the family of a murdered teenager living in Ciudad Juárez, several hundred feet from the US-Mexico border. She is currently working on an electronic, hybrid “multi-touch” novel based on her research in Juárez. Diary of a Teenage Girl: A Pop-Up Exhibition by Phoebe Gloeckner, is open through the end of January, 2015, at The U-M Institute for the Humanities, 202 S. Thayer, Room 1022 (Osterman Common Room).

Images from the set of Diary of a Teenage Girl