Honor Student's Approach To Sex Makes For A Raunchy 'To Do List'

Jul 26, 2013
Originally published on July 26, 2013 9:23 am

There's no shortage of R-rated male buddy comedies, but this summer's raunchy flick — complete with drinking, sex and swimming pools — isn't one of them. The To Do List, written and directed by Maggie Carey and starring Aubrey Plaza, chronicles the coming-of-age, sexual escapades of a teenage girl.

Set in Boise, Idaho, in the 1990s, Plaza plays Brandy Klark, an overachieving valedictorian who excels at all things academic. But she's woefully inexperienced in the extracurriculars that have distracted her classmates for years, and she sets out to change that in the summer before she goes to college.

Brandy consults her older sister, who has much more experience, and makes a list of all the things she wants to do. "She attacks sex, and trying to figure it out like she would if she was studying for an AP exam," Carey tells NPR's Renee Montagne.


Interview Highlights

On drawing on her own experience to create Brandy's character

"The movie is set in 1993 in Boise, Idaho, and I graduated high school in 1993 in Boise, Idaho. So there are definitely some similarities there, and I must admit there are personality traits that are very similar to myself and Brandy when I was in high school. I was in every AP class. I also played a ton of sports, I was in student council.

"... I lost my virginity years later, on my wedding night, if my parents are listening. No, I was nowhere near having sex in high school, but I was incredibly curious. You know, I'm drawn to that classic coming-of-age story where when you're young and you so badly want to know about something, but there are certain things in life, the only way to understand them is to actually experience them."

On making sure the vocabulary stayed true to '90s vocabulary

"I was very conscious on the list [of experiences Brandy wants to have] that all of those were things that we talked about at the time. There's even — I'm not sure what I can say — but there's one term that has the word 'finger' in it, and when I actually had early drafts of the script I had three different friends who all had a different name for it from when they were in high school, and they were correcting me because they were from different regions of the country.

" ... I kept switching back between '93 and '94 because I really wanted to get a Friends joke in there, but Friends hadn't come out. But I really did want it to be before the Internet as we know it existed, and before cellphones were widely used."

On how she was influenced by Pretty in Pink and Sixteen Candles, and other John Hughes' movies

"This is a very low-budget independent movie, and when I was trying to get it financed, I would describe it as 'a dirty Sixteen Candles.' I'm a huge fan of John Hughes' movies, Pretty in Pink, Breakfast Club. I grew up watching those movies, and I really responded obviously to Molly Ringwald, and I loved her various characters she played. But what I loved about his movies, Sixteen Candles, for example, he had very broad moments of comedy, you know, you have the nerds holding up Molly Ringwald's underwear in the bathroom. But then he also had very sweet moments between Molly Ringwald and her father on the couch late at night."

On romantic "firsts" not always being fun

"I think at least on the female side, when you are discovering a lot of these things, it's not as if the first time you have [a] french kiss it's a great kiss. It's usually lousy, and I just sort of played with that idea. You know, that all of these firsts are awkward, they are not romantic, you know, you aren't swept off your feet. They're kind of gross, and I just really wanted to deal with that honestly, and also I just saw it with huge comedic potential."

On making the set really feel like the '90s

"I called my high school girlfriends and asked them if they had any stuff left from the '90s to show as an example, and they sent me boxes of stuff. So we have photos of ourselves in our teenage girls' bedrooms which is definitely apparent in Rachel Bilson, her character Amber's bedroom. And no one will know this, but on the bulletin board there's my ticket stub to the MC Hammer/Vanilla Ice at the Boise State Pavilion, and then Vanilla Ice didn't show. MC Hammer did, and MC Hammer made it into the soundtrack of the movie. So I finally got back at Vanilla."

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Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Let's hear about a movie that has all the makings of the raunchiest of summer comedies - drinking, sex, swimming pools. It's called "The To Do List" and, Renee, you've seen it. Total guy's movie, right?

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

No. Actually, David, "The To Do List" is written and directed by Maggie Carey, a woman.

GREENE: A-ha.

MONTAGNE: And it stars Aubrey Plaza as Brandy Klark, a perfectionist who needs to be in control of everything, including her own high school graduation.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE TO DO LIST")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as principal) This year's valedictorian, Brandy Klark.

(APPLAUSE AND CHEERING)

AUBREY PLAZA: (as Brandy) Please be quiet. Our first lady, Hillary Rodham Clinton, once said you cannot be both young and wise. I say, let's prove her wrong.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: Get off the stage, virgin.

(LAUGHTER)

MONTAGNE: That pretty much kicks it off, David.

GREENE: I guess so. It sounds like she might excel at academics but maybe lacks some experience in extracurriculars?

MONTAGNE: Yeah, extracurriculars. And she hopes to change all that while working at a local pool over the summer. Her coworkers include her dorky lab partner who has a big crush on her and Rusty, the hot blond guitar-strumming lifeguard she set her sights on. When she came into our studio, writer-director Maggie Carey allowed as how her 18th summer was not totally unlike Brandy's.

MAGGIE CAREY: The movie is set in 1993 in Boise, Idaho, and I graduated high school in 1993 in Boise, Idaho. So there are definitely some similarities there, and I must admit there are personality traits that are very similar to myself in Brandy when I was in high school. I was in every AP class. I also played a ton of sports; I was in student council.

But when I was writing this script I had my little pink journal, probably from a drugstore that - it had a lock, but it was just made of cardboard. So it was very easy to, like, get inside all of my deep thoughts. But I would mention blah, blah, blah, I'm at whatever soccer camp. But most importantly was: I saw a boy two fields over and did he notice what t-shirt I had on?

MONTAGNE: I'm sort of wondering, does this mean that you also set a goal for yourself for the summer after your senior year to not be such a straight girl?

CAREY: To lose my virginity before college?

MONTAGNE: Yeah.

(LAUGHTER)

CAREY: No. And I lost my virginity years later, on my wedding night, if my parents are listening. No, I was nowhere near having sex in high school, but I was incredibly curious. You know, I'm drawn to that classic coming-of-age story where, when you're young and you so badly want to know about something, but there are certain things in life, the only way to understand them is to actually experience them.

MONTAGNE: So the premise upon which the entire film was based is, she takes out her notebook...

CAREY: Yeah. So she sets out - she attacks sex and trying to figure it out like she would if she was studying for an AP exam. So she talks to her older sister who has much experience and gets all this information and makes a list of all of the - the skills, we'll call them, that you need to be able to do in order to be prepared for when you're ready to have sex. So.

MONTAGNE: There is one thing, though. I mean, any woman born before 1980 would be reliving, you know, in this movie, scrunchies and the VCR and...

CAREY: Floral denim. The Ford Festiva with the automatic seatbelts. You can't find that anymore.

MONTAGNE: Yeah. But something that is key to the movie is this compendium of sex acts that were really not part of the lexicon of the 1990s.

CAREY: Oh, they were. They were. And actually, I was very conscious on the list that all of those were things we talked about in the time. And there's even - I'm not sure what I can say, but there's one term that has the word "finger" in it and when I actually had early drafts of the script I had three different friends who all had a different name for it from when they were in high school and they were correcting me because they were from different regions of the country.

MONTAGNE: Well, then it was completely accurate, because so many of the other elements were just - popped out as being almost within a few years of that moment in time.

CAREY: Yes. I kept switching back between '93 and '94 because I really wanted to get a "Friends" joke in there, but "Friends" hadn't come out. But I really did want it to be before the Internet as we know it existed, and before cell phones were widely used.

MONTAGNE: Well, let's play a clip of tape here just from the movie.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE TO DO LIST")

CONNIE BRITTON: (as Mrs. Klark) You know, it's the '90s, George. You're going to have to get with the times.

CLARK GREGG: (as Judge Klark) Fine. We can get the call waiting.

BRITTON: No, I'm not talking about the call waiting. I'm talking about Brandy. She's clearly curious about sex. I think I should talk to her.

GREGG: No. No talk. Your talks do more harm than good.

(LAUGHTER)

CAREY: There's the lovely Connie Britton who plays Mrs. Klark and then we also heard Clark Gregg as her very conservative father, Judge Klark.

MONTAGNE: It's a real "Leave it to Beaver" set of parents.

CAREY: Sort of. The judge is incredibly conservative and then her mom, who's a nurse, is incredibly liberal and open-minded.

MONTAGNE: Brandy Klark, her awkward adolescent self, does come from another mold, actually slightly earlier than this movie; John Hughes, for instance.

CAREY: Yeah.

MONTAGNE: But raunchy.

CAREY: You know, this is a very low-budget independent movie, and when I was, you know, trying to get it financed, I would describe it as a dirty "Sixteen Candles." I'm a huge fan of John Hughes movies, "Pretty in Pink," "Breakfast Club." I grew up watching those movies, and I really responded obviously to Molly Ringwald and I loved her various characters she's played.

But what I loved about his movies, "Sixteen Candles," for example, he had very broad moments of comedy, you know, you have the nerds, like, holding up Molly Ringwald's underwear in the bathroom. But then he also had very sweet moments between Molly Ringwald and her father on the couch late at night.

And I think at least on the female side, when you are discovering a lot of these things, it's not as if the first time you have a French kiss it's a great kiss. It's usually lousy, and I just sort of played with that idea. You know, that all of these firsts are awkward. They are not romantic.

You know, you aren't swept off your feet. They're kind of gross, and I just really wanted to deal with that honestly, and also I just saw it with huge comedic potential.

MONTAGNE: You know, given that this is set in Boise, Idaho...

CAREY: A very conservative city, too.

MONTAGNE: Do you have any sense of how you think people will receive it? I mean, given that they can only be proud, of course, to have a hometown girl making a film set in Boise. On the other hand...

(LAUGHTER)

CAREY: On the other hand. I hope they like it. But I do know that they'll appreciate the fashion. I called my high school girlfriends and asked them if they had any stuff left from the '90s, from back in the day, to show as examples, and they sent me boxes of stuff. So we have photos of ourselves in our teenage girls' bedrooms, which is definitely apparent in Rachel Bilson, her character Amber's bedroom.

And no one will know this, but on the bulletin board there's my ticket stub to the MC Hammer/Vanilla Ice at the Boise State Pavilion, and then Vanilla Ice didn't show.

MONTAGNE: Ohhh.

CAREY: I know. MC Hammer did, and MC Hammer made it into the soundtrack of the movie. So I finally got back at Vanilla.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CAN'T TOUCH THIS.")

MC HAMMER: (singing) Can't touch this...

MONTAGNE: Thank you very much for joining us and good luck with the film.

CAREY: Oh, thank you. Thank you for having me.

MONTAGNE: Maggie Carey is the writer and director of "The To Do List." It opens today.

GREENE: And this is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. With Renee Montagne, I'm David Greene. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.