Caitlin Moran: “I was the only teenager in the country who had that kind of power”

How to Build a Girl writer Caitlin Moran on about adapting her book, streaming versus cinemas, and finding Beanie Feldstein...

How To Build A Girl
Photo: Lionsgate

In the middle of our conversation with journalist and author Caitlin Moran, she turns around to reveal a storyboard for her next project – a utopian sci-fi described as a cross between Weird Science and The Handmaid’s Tale. Whether that sounds appealing will depend largely on whether you’ve found yourself enraptured by Moran’s unique blend of whimsy and wit before.

“All sci-fi films are dystopian. It’s always about the future and how technology has bombed us and we’re all fucked. I think that’s because generally, men make them, but technology is amazing, particularly for women,” she says.

“Every time we have a piece of technology that allows us to compete on an equal field because it’s just about your brains rather than the physicality or whether we’re looking after children or parents or are a carer that’s a benefit for us and I’ve never seen a positive movie about it.”

Utopia on earth will have to wait a while, but before that comes an adaptation of Moran’s beloved novel How to Build a Girl following a young woman trying to get ahead in a rather unequal field, landing at a time when notable new releases are increasingly hard to come by. 

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The film tells the story of Johanna Morrigan (Beanie Feldstein), a working-class writer from Wolverhampton whose life is somewhat based on Moran’s. When Johanna wins a writing competition by reviewing the Annie soundtrack she ends up being thrown into the world of rock music, reinventing herself as biting, often cruel, critic Dolly Wilde.

The film premiered at the Toronto film festival to a terrific audience reaction, an experience that Moran calls “intense”. “Obviously you’ve worked on it and watched it a million times, so all you’re doing is watching the mistakes,” she says.

“Then it finished and there was this standing ovation that just got louder and louder, and me, Alfie (Allen), the director (Coky Giedroyc) and Beanie went on stage. I could see their hearts beating underneath their shirts and we were all just going ‘Oh my god, it worked!’. 

Unfortunately, the screening in Toronto may be the only chance audiences have to see How to Build a Girl on the big screen, with the Covid-19 crisis meaning the planned theatrical release had to be scrapped. But Moran isn’t worried about the ongoing situation keeping audiences from discovering the film, positing that the intended viewer might be more comfortable with streaming at home anyway.

“This is the most heretical thing to say – and I love the idea of cinema and don’t want them to go out of business – but in my life, I find it so hard to go to the cinema,” she says. “I’ve got to sort out a babysitter or work out what to do with the dog and print out the tickets when I get there. The chair’s never comfortable and I don’t like the smell of stale popcorn. So I always wanted it to be streamed, even though we had all of these amazing plans for it to have a theatrical release.

“I just figured that, generally, the two types of people most likely to see this are women of my age wanting to watch a nostalgic revisit of their teenage years and teenage girls. For both of those groups, I think it’s nice to just be able to sit at home when you’ve got the time. I think it’s a much better experience.”

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Feldstein, an immediate rising star following roles in Lady Bird and Booksmart, is key to making the film work, and her taking the role of Johanna seems to have been a case of the stars aligning at just the right time.

“Every director, writer and producer wants to find an unknown, particularly when your role is for a big girl, because there just aren’t that many roles that have been written,” said Moran. “So here is a part that we can just give to someone and make them a star – just go to town – but we couldn’t find anyone who had the range and experience because big girls don’t get cast in stuff. Then our producer saw an early screening of Lady Bird, and saw that the world had invented Beanie Feldstein.”

“She was amazing. She moved to Wolverhampton for two weeks to study the accent. She’s just sunshine in a bag. I’ve been in rooms where she’s come in and she’s not just an actor, she’s the kind of woman that other women go nuts for when they see her.”

On the young actors’ winning vibe on-screen, Moran adds: “To my knowledge, she’s the first female celebrity who came to us with all of this talent, charisma and amazingness and whose backstory isn’t that she’s been crushed or harassed or destroyed or broken in some way. Although we need to honour all of those women’s stories, protect them and love them, I think it’s good for women’s souls that we can see a girl who’s succeeding and isn’t being punished. She’s just there and she’s a beautiful thing.”

How to Build a Girl is a throwback in more ways than one, transporting audiences back to a time in the ’90s when print journalism was at the height of its powers, and when writers were still the gatekeepers of music and the arts.

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“Back before streaming, you needed people who would basically describe music to you, whose opinions you trusted so that you could wisely invest your £14 on a CD,” she remembers. “But it also meant that you had this incredible power… I was the only teenager in the country who had that kind of power. But of course, now every 16-year-old in the world has that power in social media and everybody goes through the exact same journey.”

And just as finding the right actor for the central role was important, Moran says that having a female director on board was a huge time saver.

“Although I don’t believe that men can’t shoot films with women and that they won’t listen to what you’re saying and help you achieve your vision, it just saves so much time if you’ve got a woman for a scene like the one where she’s walking into the offices for the first time and she’s the only girl in the room,” says Moran.

“With a male director, I probably would have had to sit down and talk for 10-minutes about how it feels to change your personality to fit in. If you’ve got a female director then she’s been the only woman in the room a million times. She gets it. She knows it in her bones.”

In addition to her in-the-works sci-fi project, Moran is excited about the possibility of adapting How to be Famous – the second book in the series – at some point in the future.

“When I was writing the sequel I was so staggered by how timely it was because I was writing about sexual harassment… and the solution I came up with in the book – that you have to tell your story – was the solution that everybody was coming up with worldwide with Me Too. So I’d love to make that movie.”

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How To Build A Girl will be released on Amazon Prime Video on July 24