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‘To Do List’ Director: How to Film the Most Unsexy Sex Scene in History

Maggie Carey on why studios hated her decision to set her film in the 1990s and Hollywood's glass ceiling for comedy

From "Porky's" to "American Pie," teenage sexual discovery has inspired countless movies that push the boundaries of good taste with antics the involve everything from backseats to baked goods.

It would be tempting to add this summer's "The To Do List," except there's one crucial difference. Unlike those earlier exercises in hormonal hijinks, this film is told from the woman's point of view.

Credit first-time feature film writer and director Maggie Carey and her muse, the reliably deadpan Aubrey Plaza (at left), for steering clear of cheap laughs. 

Together they've pooled their formidable comic talents to craft a fresh take on a worn-out genre. The film follows a high-school overachiever who creates a checklist of sexual experiences — ranging from oral sex to the "Big V" with a few detour into more outré experimentation — that she is determined to cross off before hitting college.

Also read: Will 'The Heat' Fuel the Fire for More Female Buddy Movies?

Carey talked to TheWrap about why she decided to set her story in the era of VHS and the Spin Doctors, her criteria for for filming an unsexy sex scene and if comedy's glass ceiling for women is showing cracks.

It's so rare to see a sex comedy that is told from a woman's perspective. Was that something you were trying to achieve — a sort of girl's version of "American Pie"?
I take credit for directing and writing the most unsexy sex scenes in history.

Also read: From 'His Girl Friday' to 'The Heat': The Evolution of Female Comedies (Photos)

I keep seeing people writing about how this is a sex comedy or a raunchy comedy and that's fair, but when I was writing it, I wasn't thinking about it in that way. I just wanted to write something honest and frank.

Do you think being a woman changed the way you directed the sex scenes?
I don't know. I guess I never really questioned if I was pushing anything too far, because I knew Aubrey very well and we had this sense of trust and she knew that I would do anything to make sure that she didn't feel she was being taken advantage of.

(At right: On set with "To Do List" actor Clark Gregg)

It was important to me that she was always taking the lead in sexual situations, because that's where the humor comes from. When she actually loses her virginity in the film, it wasn't what she expected sex would be like. But  when she looks back on that night, it will be a fond memory.

Do you hope that movies like this and "The Heat" will finally abandon the prejudice that women can't handle raunchy material?
I hope so. I don't know why there aren't more movies like this. I got my start at Upright Citizens Brigade, and there were a ton of talented women there with strong comedic points of view. It was never about gender there. It was about, are you funny?

Why did you decide to set the film in the 1990s? It's not a decade that we commonly see referenced nostalgically in movies or TV.
They say write what you know, and I know what 1993 was like in Boise, Idaho, really well.

It's fascinating how technology has changed how teenagers communicate. Aubrey's character is a Type A girl who wants all this information about sex, but she doesn't just have instant access to it. She has to take out the Encyclopedia Britannica and she has to talk to her friends.

Was the time period a selling point with studios?
Not at all. I wrote this script as a spec script, and all the studios passed on it. The suggestion I kept getting from people was that they didn't like the time period, and they kept asking why it just wasn't set in the present day.

Well with Google that list would have taken about two seconds to make. The art of research is a lost art. It's like cursive handwriting. I just thought it would be lazy to write in the present day.

If you had set it today, how would that have changed things?  Would you have had Aubrey Plaza's character sexting?
If she did I think she would have been writing incredibly well thought-out sexts. She would have been quoting Gloria Steinem.

You had a budget of less than $2 million. How were you able to get a cast that includes not just your husband Bill Hader but also prominent actors like Andy Samberg, Connie Britton and Clark Gregg?
Bill had no choice but to be in the movie, so that wasn't a stretch, but the rest of the cast did us favors. We just reached out to actors we were friends with and basically begged them to be in it. Thank goodness these are all TV actors and they have actual paying jobs. 

How much of Aubrey Plaza's character is based on you?
Her Brandy Clark shares personality traits that I had as a teenager, but I always descibed it as Aubrey Plaza's version of Tracy Flick from "Election." She has such a unique point of view and comedic sensibility that she can't help but put her own spin on something.

Like Brandy, I was on the studio council, I did all of the sports and I had a pink diary. I read back through it to get in the right mindset before I wrote the script and in one entry I'm at this competitive soccer camp and all I’m talking about is some boy that I saw two fields over who gave me his address. When he finally wrote me back, it took two weeks for his letter to arrive and it was really boring.

Will you direct and write another film?
Absolutely. There's another script I'm setting up to direct, but I can't really say anything else.

Will it be set in the '90s, too?
Oh yeah, it's set in 1994. It's a big, big stretch.