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Writer-director Rebecca Miller says her new romantic comedy film Maggie’s Plan is about ‘how difficult it is for modern grownups to know how to be in the world.’

Matt Sayles/The Associated Press

Waiting for financing can be a good thing. Because it took a year to pull together the funds to shoot her new comedy, Maggie's Plan, the writer-director Rebecca Miller was challenged by her cast to sharpen and deepen their characters: Greta Gerwig as Maggie, who's planning to get pregnant on her own, but falls in love with John (Ethan Hawke), who's married to Georgette (Julianne Moore).

Meeting with Miller in coffee shops and around kitchen tables, each actor advocated for his/her character – they had to have their reasons, and they had to be believable.

"That's how you get something real, as opposed to using people as puppets," Miller said in a recent phone interview. As a result, she was able to "turn every screw until the script was airtight." She took that age-old triangle of lover-husband-wife, gave it a dash of 1940s screwball comedy and a dollop of 1970s Woody Allen, and created something fiercely contemporary. (The film premiered at last September's Toronto International Film Festival, and opens in select cities Friday.)

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"I'd been hearing stories about every kind of configuration of marriage and motherhood – people leaving and getting back together; women having babies alone or with friends or exes," says Miller, 53, who previously made The Ballad of Jack and Rose and The Private Lives of Pippa Lee. "No longer do young women feel, 'I'm definitely getting married.' They're thinking in other ways."

Maggie may be a familiar type, the screwball heroine, but she's a layered and nuanced iteration – a modest, sexy university administrator; a principled Quaker free spirit; a vulnerable innocent with two PhDs. Her relationship with John is only half the movie: When she realizes they made a mistake, she contrives to give him back to Georgette. Typical romcoms rely on shortcuts – only brilliant people are multifaceted; sweet people are dimwits. Miller wasn't having that.

"It's possible to be very, very smart, and also a little bit stupid," Miller says. (She has a lovely voice, soft and musical.) "Maggie's enormously capable, yet she does things that are not in keeping with the way other people do things. Her friends are always asking, 'Why can't you behave like any normal human being?' She isn't one. She's herself. Many things she does are not ethical in the moment she does them. Yet she's always doing what she perceives to be the right thing, so something good can result. I think everybody secretly feels like they're just messing up one thing after another. Because Maggie owns that, she makes us feel like it's okay to be us."

Miller starts the movie on the back of Maggie's head, and ends it on a gorgeous close-up of her face, and thanks to Gerwig – a Judy Holliday reincarnation if ever there was one – we're with her every step. "The life in Greta's face is amazing," Miller says. "You can feel everything she feels. Her face and body are so expressive. She has intelligence and approachability. She's affected by other actors, and responds in idiosyncratic, new ways. Watching her is a treat." Miller vividly recalls the day she and Gerwig hatched the idea that Maggie should be a Quaker, though neither can remember who said it first.

Also thanks to Gerwig, we can pinpoint the exact second John falls in love with Maggie. She's telling him about her late mother. Though we sense she's told this story before, out of nowhere a wave of emotion surprises her. "You can feel the temperature change in the room," Miller says. "Her vulnerability is pure, and also erotic, because she's emotionally naked. She's not trying to do that. It just happens."

Miller had scripted, "Tears come to Maggie's eyes," but she was bowled over by Gerwig's power. "Then she immediately leaves that moment, and gets onto something cheerful," Miller says. "That to me is more moving than anything."

Miller is no stranger to emotional moments. The daughter of the Magnum photographer Inge Morath and the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Arthur Miller (both deceased, though his plays are having a moment of their own, with several in revival), she grew up in Roxbury, Conn., surrounded by artists. The choreographer Martha Clarke and the sculptor Alexander Calder were neighbours. She studied painting at Yale – the author Naomi Wolf was her roommate – then moved to New York, where she began making art films (and still lives).

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She's acted in Paul Mazursky and Mike Nichols movies; she's directed plays and written books (her latest is a comic novel, Jacob's Folly). In 1996, she married the British actor Daniel Day-Lewis – they met on the film set of her father's play The Crucible – and they have three sons: Ronan, 18; Cashel, 14; and Miller's stepson Gabriel, 21.

For Miller, Maggie's Plan is about "how difficult it is for modern grownups to know how to be in the world," she says. "We're always encouraged to live truly. But can you be true to yourself, and at the same time ethical?" It's also about "slow-burning humour. It's there for you, if you're listening for it."

Getting that tone right, Miller continues, is like tuning a violin – you have to know how to hear it. It requires risk. Hawke, for example, pushed Miller to loosen up the film's ending, make it less tidy. And Moore takes Georgette, a terrifying Danish academic in outfits of fur and leather, to an edgy extreme. "Julianne really went for it," Miller says. "It's like watching a ballerina executing an enormous leap, and thinking, 'Oh no, she's going to break her ankle!' And then she lands it."

Both risks were dependent upon experience, on instincts that can only be built over time. "Time," Miller says, "is my secret weapon."

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