News Column

Females take lead in 'To Do List' sex comedy

July 24, 2013


July 24--Remember the moment in "There's Something About Mary," where Cameron Diaz and, er, hair gel combined for one of the great gross-out guffaws in film history?

In several scenes, "The To Do List" roars past that envelope-pushing laugh like a race car passing a Segway rider.

"I still watch the movie and sink down in the seat and go, 'Ah, I can't believe we got to do that,' " says Maggie Carey, who wrote and directed the low-budget indie comedy that opens Friday in Detroit.

Considering the decades' worth of coming-of-age comedies with sex on the brain that have been told from a male perspective, "The To Do List" seems downright revolutionary.

Set in 1993, the same year Carey graduated from high school, the movie centers on Brandy Klark, a valedictorian who's ready to conquer college. But she's an underachiever in the romance department. Told by her sister that her upcoming freshman year will be "one big sexual pop quiz," Brandy draws up a list of activities to complete over the summer, including losing her virginity.

Brandy is played by Aubrey Plaza, the deadpan costar of NBC's "Parks and Recreation," whom Carey says she always had in mind while writing the part.

The cast also includes Rachel Bilson ("Hart of Dixie") as Brandy's older sister, Alia Shawkat ("Arrested Development") and Sarah Steele ("Spanglish") as her best friends, Connie Britton ("Nashville") and Clark Gregg ("The Avengers") as her parents, and former "Saturday Night Live" star Bill Hader as Brandy's slacker boss at a community pool.

Hader, who's married to Carey, says he's proud of what his wife has achieved. "I have a lot of friends who sit down in coffee shops and open up a laptop and fire up Final Draft (software) and start writing a screenplay and those movies never get made. I'm one of them. We all sit there and write a movie, and tons of scripts never get made. And she got it made," he says, speaking by phone during a break from Comic-Con in San Diego.

Hader liked the frankness of the script right way, and admires Carey for not watering down the content. "That's what I like about Maggie. If you're going to go to the bell, ring it. She definitely does that."

To hear Carey tell it, the movie's journey was one of proceeding with somewhat false confidence before all the pieces were firmly in place.

"I got advice early on to just act as if the movie would happen," Carey recalls.

The script for "The To Do List" (originally named for, ahem, one of the tasks) was included in 2010 on the annual Black List, a prestigious roundup of Hollywood's favorite scripts not yet produced.

That same year, it had a staged reading at the Austin Film Festival featuring Plaza, Hader, Jessica Alba, Colin Hanks and others that brought down the house.

Carey says she approached the story with lessons learned as an alumnus of the theater comedy troupe Upright Citizens Brigade, where one of the philosophies is write what you know.

"Back in my day, no one was having sex," recalls Carey. "But it was always about how close have you gotten, the little things like seven minutes in a closet."

It was important to Carey that Brandy is in control of what happens in the story. It's always the character's decision to do the things on the checklist. And it makes the director angry when Brandy is considered slutty.

"She is not slutty. She's just making out with different guys," she says.

Carey praises Plaza and the rest of their cast for their willingness to go with the script. "The only time we had issues (it) didn't have to do with anything sexual. It was just if something wasn't funny," she says.

And what about having to helm a comic sex scene between her husband and Bilson? "Definitely Bill and Rachel were a little, 'Uh, is this going to be OK with you?' " she admits.

They may have been a little nervous, but not Carey. "Basically, I was like, 'You need to go faster,' " she says with a laugh.


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