The adults––worse, the other kids––of Karen Maine’s Yes, God, Yes all seem to be in on an elaborate inside joke. It can be tough to talk about sex, and it’s especially tough for Alice (Natalia Dyer), a sixteen-year-old stuck in Iowa catholic school. Rumors fly that she “tossed her classmates’ salad.” No one will tell Alice what that means.
Over the course of her 77-minute debut and an extracurricular Catholic retreat, Maine stages Alice being let-in on the secret. In the hands of the Obvious Child co-writer, Alice’s liberation from her repressive upbringing comes in the form of self-discovery––and in a distinctly awkward way, it’s pretty funny too. The coming-of-age genre has seen a real explosion in the last few years, but nothing quite like this. The Film Stage spoke with Maine about Yes, God, Yes, and her approach to sexuality on-screen.
I’d love to talk about genre: do you see Yes, God, Yes as fitting into the coming-of-age genre? How do you feel about the genre’s current state?
Yeah, I definitely think it’s coming-of-age, and I think there’s been a lot of really good ones recently! They’re becoming more female, I don’t want to say “positive,” but just accurate and realistic. Because it’s not always positive, and I think that’s a good thing, to show characters in different forms of complexities and moral situations.
But yeah, I love Edge of Seventeen, and To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before. I think those are just some really great films that I find myself re-watching, and I really do love that genre. And I would love to keep working in it! I definitely don’t want to just make things that are coming-of-age, but at the same time it’s also kind-of like a universal feeling that can happen at any age, so in a way, every film is like a coming-of-age, because the character goes through some kind of transformation. Yeah, I love that genre.
Yeah, I completely agree, To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before is just great. Do you see any of those films as influences on Yes, God, Yes?
To All The Boys I’ve Loved was out long after we finished shooting, and Edge of Seventeen––I can’t remember if I saw it before or not, but if I had I’m sure it influenced in some way.
There’s this great film, I think it’s a French film, but it’s set in Turkey, in Istanbul, called Mustang, by a filmmaker named Deniz Gamze Ergüven. It came out in 2015, and it’s about five Turkish sisters who live in a quite repressive household. It’s so beautifully shot, and it’s told from the perspective of these five girls, and I just really related to it, personally. Obviously they’re much more repressed than I ever was in Iowa, of course, don’t get me wrong, but it was very beautiful, and it had the same kind of feelings that I wanted to evoke in my film. But [Marianne Heller’s] The Diary of a Teenage Girl was also a big influence as well, I felt like that was one of the more sexually frank young, female coming-of-age stories I’d seen, and I really appreciated that.
But those all––in terms of filmmaking––were influential, but in terms of the story, I started writing in 2014, and it’s autobiographical, so that just came from me.
In a lot of ways, this is such a period piece, with so many loaded objects of the late nineties/early two-thousands. I think about the AOL sounds or Alice’s clunky cell phone. In the two decades since, do you think these very conservative, religious spaces have changed? Or are these environments just as repressive?
That’s a good question. I think there have been improvements in Catholicism. I think obviously this Pope is a little more open-minded than the others have been. But he’s still operating within this very rigid and repressive institution. Like, he said something a few years ago, “Who am I to judge about gay people?” but gay people are still told they’re going to hell, and they’re not allowed to get married, and all these other horrible restrictions that the church places on them. So how progressive really is that?
I think we’re moving in a direction that will slowly, hopefully, relax some of these more ridiculous things that the church imposes on people, like that priests can’t have sex, or masturbate even, which obviously sometimes causes really horrible things. So hopefully, I think we’re moving in that direction. I just think it’s really really slow, like a ship without sails. There’s a good light bulb joke about Catholicism that goes, “How many Catholics does it take to change a light bulb?” and the punchline is “change??” So I think about that––I think a little [change has happened], but not as fast as we’d like it to, or it should.
With that in mind, do you still consider yourself a Catholic? Do you still practice?
No. [laughs]. Not since I was seventeen. I had my awakening about that and no, definitely not.
The film features a lot of discussion of sex, some sex itself, and in many environments that have a very toxic relationship with sex. How do you ensure your practices on set create a healthier environment than the atmosphere at Alice’s retreat?
Right, I mean, it’s so different off camera. It’s not even funny. Everybody got along really well, everyone was really open and communicative. I, obviously, had a chat with Natalia before we started shooting, and was like “tell me anytime you’re uncomfortable,” and obviously that went for all the characters too, there were a few other sexual things that other characters have to do. But hopefully they felt a little more comfortable––at least, Natalia––having a woman direct. Obviously I’m not the only person there when she’s doing these scenes, there are many men on our crew as well, but everybody was very respectful.
Natalia, honestly, she’s had to do more intense sex scenes before. I’m not going to speak for her, but I think one of the things I sought out when making this film was to not make it sexy or raunchy but more, like awkwardly sexual. Almost a little, I don’t want to say gross, but you know like, the Cheetos that she’s eating and then she puts her hand in her pants, I mean like that kind of, sort of, just––I keep saying words in my mind and none of them are right––but that kind of grittiness, I guess maybe.
Yeah, awkward definitely, but something that’s just a little, like, dirty, but I can’t think of the right word because dirty sounds like sexually dirty, and that’s not right at all.
It’s almost like we don’t have a vocabulary to talk about these things.
Totally, totally. Yeah, I wanted it to be awkwardly sexual, and never anything “sexy,” so hopefully, everyone on-set felt the same way. And yeah, I just made sure that anyone could come to me at anytime, with anything at all.
That’s so great. Obvious Child is pretty short, only 84 minutes, and Yes, God, Yes is even shorter at 77 minutes. Are you planning to make really brief movies that get right to the point while you’re writing and conceiving of these projects, or do you have a lot that you cut after you shoot? How do you get such tight runtimes?
Well, I co-wrote Obvious Child, so I didn’t really have a say in the length, and I think it was always around 90 pages when we were writing that, and so was Yes, God, Yes. And with this, yeah, I was a little nervous, because it felt kind-of too short, and not from a viewership perspective, because it felt good. I was just like, “Oh my god, it’s 77 minutes long! Like, that’s short! Are people going to take me seriously?”
But honestly, my editor Jennifer Lee is amazingly talented, and we talked about it a lot. We were like, “Should we throw these scenes back in?” And we were like, “No, they’re not doing anything to really keep the momentum moving.” And I think the final product is really snappy, really chugging along at a nice pace. I felt like that was more important than eighty minutes or whatever. There was no way it was ever going to be very much longer. I’ve heard from a lot of people that they like the brevity of it, so I feel like we made the right choice.
How do you see the relationship between Yes, God, Yes and Obvious Child?
I think they’re both telling a story about women that we really don’t see on-screen very often, Obvious Child with abortion, Yes, God, Yes with a woman coming-of-age discovering herself, for herself, and not through partnered sex. Which, you know, we see a lot films where a woman gets pregnant and she keeps it so that the narrative will sustained, or so that she can date the guy who got her pregnant. And we obviously were like “we can make a movie where she has all those components but she gets an abortion!”
With Yes, God, Yes, I see a lot of coming-of-age narratives featuring women as the protagonist where, if there’s a sexual component, it’s often partnered sex. You know, losing your virginity in a meaningful way. Those are all very valid narratives, but I wanted to show, usually women discover themselves before that happens. And it’s really taboo! To talk about, even outside of religious institutions and communities. So I think they both fill a void, in some way, that help fully represent women.
You mentioned that you started working on this in 2014. Could you talk me through the process of going from the page to the screen?
Yeah, I mean, that’s a long time! I was writing it while working full-time in book publishing, so I think it took a lot longer for that reason, to write it. And then we were originally going to find someone else to direct it, because I didn’t have any experience, and it didn’t occur to me that I could direct. A friend of mine, who I approached to direct it, was like, “You should direct this!” And she also said, “If I direct this I’m going to find some way to make it my own”––that honestly filled me with fear, because it’s such a personal story.
Thankfully, I asked my producers what they thought of that, and they were like, “Yeah, let’s make a short, and see how it goes!” and after that, there was no way I wasn’t going to direct it. I still love writing, and only writing, but I also love directing now, I’m really glad I did it.
I’m really glad it worked out like that! Were there any particular challenges?
Yeah, I mean, every day. They’re not always challenges, like every day you have no idea what’s going to happen. There’s so many variables when you’re on set, and even before and after. I mean, we had a sixteen-day shoot on the feature, so it was really quick, but everyone just worked so hard. And there’s just little things that come up that you have to find a way around. You know sometimes, like, a prop isn’t working or a door – you just always have to adapt. You can’t expect everything to just be what you envisioned or it’ll just all fall apart. You have to be able to adapt pretty quickly.
We shot the short in three days, and then we shot the feature in sixteen days and it was great. Everyone was so high on adrenaline, and we did it! It’s really all down to the team. The crew and the actors, man, like if anyone wasn’t prepared, shit would’ve fallen apart for sure.
Is there anything you wish more people were asking you about this project?
I just feel like the biggest component for me is like the female sexual pleasure component. I’ve always said that this film is the love story between one woman and her vagina.
That’s such a great tagline.
They didn’t want to put it on the poster, I don’t know why! But yeah, I just feel like sexual conversations, and conversations around sexual health are largely (and I hope this is changing), they’re largely focused around reproduction. Which doesn’t involve female pleasure, at all! So it’s often not discussed, and left out of the conversation completely. And often women are sort-of left to find out on their own, or like, a rogue conversation with friends where they’re like “me too!” You know obviously today, it’s a little easier with the internet. But I remember that as a teen, and I’m just hoping if someone sees this, they will have a different experience than I did, and not feel shameful or guilty.