Film

Rebecca Miller: "Embrace the mystery of the universe to stay sane"

Maggie's Plan director Rebecca Miller on how relationships survive - and why the humourless are the most dangerous

Better together or on our own?

It seems like we can talk about little else since the UK chucked the EU: political unions are hitting the rocks right and left, and our European bedfellows are coolly showing us the door after 43 years of marriage. But while countries and continents dive into acrimonious divorce proceedings, our own interpersonal groupings are undergoing a seismic domestic revolution at an ever-faster pace.

In the last decade cohabitation (or living in sin, as it used to be known) has increased by 30 per cent, and more than doubled since the 1990s. Marriage in England and Wales decreased by nine per cent, according to latest figures, while gay marriage was made legal in 2014. In the space of a couple of decades, the notion of the nuclear family has been all but wiped out.

For film director Rebecca Miller, the question of family comes up a lot; she’s the daughter of Pulitzer-winning playwright Arthur Miller and acclaimed Magnum photographer Inge Morath, famed for her shots on the set of The Misfits, where she met Miller. A close, loving family, both parents’ careers inspired young Rebecca, who is a respected photographer in her own right in addition to her directorial work.

And Miller is now matriarch of her own dynasty: she is married to Oscar accumulator Daniel Day-Lewis (whose eldest son Gabriel-Kane is an actor), with whom she has two sons, Cashel and Ronan.

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Her latest film, Maggie’s Plan, is, on the surface, a screwball farce centred on quirky New York intellectuals – starring Greta Gerwig, Ethan Hawke and Julianne Moore [the first couple pictured above]. But dig in, and it is actually a romcom Trojan horse for Miller to explore the increasingly complex issues of modern family life.

Has the concept of family now passed a tipping point? “The idea of interdependence is very important,” Miller says. “That’s the beautiful thing about being a human being. Very often you find that when one person fails, people tend to stand in for each other.

“This obsession with two people, it works sometimes but often doesn’t and then it’s seen as a failure. The reality is that these structures are malleable, and a larger group – friends and so on – is probably a stronger structure. Anyway, the short answer is yes.”

In Maggie’s Plan, protagonist Maggie knows she wants a child but isn’t so sure about having a husband. That is until Ethan Hawke’s character John Harding, a ‘ficto-critical anthropologist’, shows up. Several years later, with life not quite reaching the happily-ever-after stage, Maggie schemes to reunite Harding with his first wife in an effort to preserve their fracturing families.

This year Miller celebrates 20 years of marriage to Day-Lewis. She recognises she has walked the old-fashioned path. If you want to know her secret to a happy marriage, it involves bubbles.

“You know when bubbles come together they sometimes form a bigger bubble?” Miller asks. “People glom onto each other then you’re suddenly inside the same bubble but you can’t always be in the same bubble with people, you just can’t. In order for a relationship to survive you have to acknowledge your separateness.

This obsession with two people, it works sometimes but often doesn’t and then it’s seen as a failure

“I think we need structures as human beings but this is a period where we’re figuring out there are other ways of living and having families,” Miller continues. “With freedom comes a heavy responsibility to figure things out by yourself.”

Are increased freedoms responsible for the instability around us, both on a global and personal level?

“The way we live is so much more up to us than it ever has been,” Miller says. “Freedoms are being injected into our lives – real freedoms where the rulebook is thrown away. We live in a time of chaos and the desire to plan and have control over our lives is more acute than it has been, yet we can’t because we’re living through a social upheaval and all the norms and structures are being remodelled and called into question.”

At this point of revolution, a paradigm shift in the nature of human co-existence, the romcom might seem a rather flippant vehicle for exploration.

“There are different ways of getting your ideas past the threshold of someone’s mind,” she laughs. “The more the darkness is visible, the more lightness is necessary. Wit is a civilising force. All the most dangerous people right now have no sense of humour.”

She adds: “I love language – it make you think and laugh at the same time. People can talk to each other in a witty way, they can be intelligent but they don’t have to be alienating. We’ve come to a point where sometimes we mistrust anybody who seems too smart.”


While writing the screenplay for Maggie’s Plan, Miller had to hand another romantic comedy; a well-thumbed copy of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

“Part of what I was trying to do was that idea,” she says. “The humans running around feeling like they were controlling their destiny; meanwhile, there’s another cast of characters sprinkling fairy dust all over the place. It’s just a cocktail of actions and decisions that create a destiny. You have to embrace the mystery of the universe to stay sane.”

Maggie’s Plan is out now in cinemas

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