Austin Film Festival: The Hand Job screenwriter Maggie Carey

Austin Film Festival: The Hand Job screenwriter Maggie Carey

Every year since 2004, The Black List has compiled an annual inventory of the best unproduced screenplays circulating through the offices of Hollywood bigwigs. While it certainly isn’t on par with getting your script made into a movie, landing a spot on the list is a high honor in industry circles—past honorees have included Juno, Lars And The Real Girl, and this year’s award season shoo-in, The Social Network. Nonetheless, when screenwriter Maggie Carey first heard of The Black List, the first word that jumped to her mind was “communism.” Those non-existent ties to McCarthy-era stigmatization were erased by the time Carey landed a screenplay on the list, though the script itself remains something of an outsider: Entitled The Hand Job, it’s a bawdy teen sex comedy, culled from Carey’s own memories of being an overeager, over-earnest 17-year-old lifeguard in Boise, Idaho. The world might not be ready to laugh at/with a teenage girl who looks to work through a laundry list of sex acts in one summer, but the Austin Film Festival is. Alongside the script’s attached stars—Parks And Recreation’s Aubrey Plaza and Saturday Night Live’s Bill Hader (who’s also the screenwriter’s husband)—Carey will present a staged reading of The Hand Job at the Rollins Studio Theater this Sunday, Oct. 24. Before the reading, she spoke with The A.V. Club about making The Black List, writing what she knows, and the difficulties of selling a movie called The Hand Job.

AVC: What’s the current status of The Hand Job?

Maggie Carey: Right now, we’re going to go out and try to attach other actors, and then find financing. So it’s still in the early stages. But the reading’s giving it a good push, which is nice.

AVC: How did you react when you saw that the script made last year’s Black List?

MC: I was incredibly surprised and crazy excited. I’m just such a fan of other scripts that have been on The Black List, so it was really, really cool to be a part of that. Also, there was such a mix of scripts, and so many different types of scripts, so that was really cool, too.

AVC: The setting of the script is autobiographical—how much else pulls from your real life?

MC: It was totally inspired by the summer I was 17. I was a lifeguard at the pool, and I dated one of the lifeguards—who at the time seemed like he was an “older man,” but he was actually just one year older. And, to be frank, he was the first guy I gave a hand job to. And it stuck with me. I don’t know if men understand it like women do, but for women, we’ve all had that experience: the first time you give a hand job, or the first-time blowjob. I know that sex is usually the first big thing, but for me, when I gave my first hand job, it was a memory that never left me. [Laughs.] I was so boy crazy, but wasn’t doing anything—I wasn’t at all sexually active. But just the way I would write, and the way I would talk about boys, and talk about things with my friends, I was so earnest and serious about it. But when you look back, it’s just hilarious—and maybe a little bit pathetic.

AVC: How did you capture that earnestness in the script?

MC: In the original script—it’s changed a little bit, because I did a rewrite—most of the embarrassing moments are all inspired by—if not directly from—real-life experience and some of my friends’ first-time experiences. It’s sort of the worst of the best moments. 

AVC: If there was a movie like this that came out when you were that age, would these experiences seem less embarassing?

MC: I don’t know. I look back on a lot of films—like American Graffiti has that fantastic scene in the movie theater, when the girl reaches over and the guy has his erection through the popcorn box. Or in Sixteen Candles, where the beautiful cheerleader showers in the locker room, and you see Molly Ringwald looking at her. Little bits of those movies stayed with me—and I read a ton of teen romance novels. When I was that age, I really thought that you would just have sex your prom night. And then I got to senior year at prom and I wasn’t even close to having sex—and that’s when it started to click in that it doesn’t really happen that way. 

AVC: Do you think a sex comedy told from a teenage female’s perspective is a tough sell? 

MC: Definitely. I have this group of friends that I’ll send my scripts to before I send them to a large audience. And over and over again, they said they felt like the main character was kind of slutty. And it really bothered them that she hooked up with more than one guy. And that to me seemed like such a crazy double standard—but it really affected them as a reader. Like they didn’t like her, or they were really worried about her. It was mostly the men who were uncomfortable with it.

I also think it’s hard to understand, because we don’t see it a lot in mainstream culture—an authentic teenage girl’s perspective on sex. It’s still the same thing: “the virgin” or “the whore.” But I do think girls have just as much libido at that age as the boys do. Half of my high-school career was spent on the phone with my girlfriends, talking about boys and what we wanted to do. And that went way into college. And that was actually most of the way I learned how to do things—when I was finally ready—with a guy. I think that sex—and when I say “sex,” I mean making out, all the things across the board—is personal, so I understand that it’s not always a public thing. And, that time of your life, you’re so awkward anyway, it’s fine to be embarrassed. That’s why I wanted it to be a comedy—there were so many funny moments in those awkward stages.

AVC: Would you allow the film to be made under another name, or does it have to be The Hand Job?

MC: I really don’t care about the title. Now that I’ve done a rewrite, the proper name is The To-Do List. The main character is a Type A, straight-A student who approaches sex the same way she would study for a math test. So it’s sort of like—learn the simple skills first, and then those can apply to the larger concept. If she can understand all those little things from a technical point of view, then she can start having sex.

AVC: When you were writing the script, did you have Aubrey Plaza in mind for the lead? You had already worked with her through the UCB Theater and your web series, The Jeannie Tate Show.

MC: She seemed like she could play the part. To be honest, it’s me—it’s my point of view, but I think Aubrey gets that.

AVC: Any truth to the rumors that you and your writing partner Liz Cackowski are working on a Jeannie Tate movie?

MC: Yes—that’s in the very early stages. We’ve been developing a Jeannie Tate TV show—our dream right now is to have Jeannie Tate be on Oprah’s new network. We’re diehard Oprah fans. So maybe down the road, a Jeannie Tate movie. Liz and I also have a script at Universal with Isla Fischer attached. Again, it’s in the early stages, but it’s called My Life Coach. It sort of like a Single White Female comedy. A girl who’s life is a little messy goes to a life coach to get some help, and the life coach ends up taking her life.

AVC: Plenty of people have read the script by now—how do you feel about it being read out loud, in front of an audience?

MC: I’m really excited. The hardest thing about writing a script is you finish it, but it doesn’t mean anything. It’s not like a novel or short story—a script is meant to be made into a movie. So this is the next step. With comedy, it’s really hard to tell if something’s working on the page—you really need the actors to bring it alive. The scariest part is if people will laugh or not. I’m always constantly surprised at where I think the laugh is, and what actually ends up being where the laughs are. But that’s what I love about comedy—it’s so personal. I try and write what I think is funny, and leave it at that. What’s great about having an audience is they can let you know what they don’t think is funny, and you can just cut that out and keep trying. 

AVC: Is your husband a good audience?

MC: Bill is a great audience. He’s really truthful. He’s a hard audience, too. And he’s so passionate. He’s so studied in film—[Laughs] I’m making him sound like a terrible husband. But he’s a harder laugh. In film, he likes things to be very grounded, and to let the humor come from that. Sketch, obviously, is very different. Our conversations are about story and character, and then when I’m writing, I have to think, “Well, what’s the game—what is funny about that?”