Naomi Foner has an impressive set of Hollywood accomplishments. She’s an Oscar nominee for her screenplay for 1989’s Running on Empty; she has written several other critically praised features, including 1993’s A Dangerous Woman and 1995’s Losing Isaiah; and, on top of all that, she’s given birth to two Academy Award-nominated actors: Jake and Maggie Gyllenhaal.
On Friday, Very Good Girls, which she wrote and directed, hits theaters. The film stars Dakota Fanning and Elizabeth Olsen as best friends from New York City who make a pact to lose their virginity by the end of the first summer after they graduate high school—a plan that is complicated when they both fall for the same guy.
After screening at the Sundance Film Festival, the film garnered its fair share of fans, among them Hollywood legend Jamie Lee Curtis, who also happens to be Foner’s best friend. Ahead of Very Good Girls’ release, Curtis interviewed Foner about her film, friendship, and what it means to be a Very Good Girl.
Curtis: Very Good Girl One to Very Good Girl Two: were you? I met you as an adult, and at that time you a Very Good Mom and a Very Good Wife and a Very Good Writer. But were you a Very Good Girl? Was this you?
Foner: Yes. I was sort of terrified into it. I was mostly like Lilly [Fanning's character]. My friend, Eleanor, who actually was also the impetus for my writing Running on Empty, was not a Very Good Girl. So I was very drawn to her because she did all kinds of exciting things, like join Weather Underground. She was much more adventurous than I was. But I was definitely a Very Good Girl.
Well I was such a Very Good Girl that in my high school yearbook that they allowed us to gather together for photographs in our little cliques—today that would be called “bullying,” but then it was called “fine.” And the drama girls all did their little drama picture with their hats and their costumes and the jocks all stood there with their lacrosse sticks. And I was in the Very Good Girls group. We sat in a semi-circle with our legs crossed, smiling, and our heads were tilted to the left and right.
But there were four girls, and I have actually run into one since then and told her how important her picture was to me. The rule at this school was you do not leave campus. That was just the rule. And these four girls took their high school junior year picture walking away from the camera out the gate of the school. I thought they were James Dean! I thought they were the coolest thing you could ever be: a rule-breaker. So I completely identify, Naomi.
And I was very drawn to everything about the ’60s and the ’70s as a result, because they broke all the rules. I remember when I was an adult pulling my car over to the side of the highway when I heard that [director Francois] Truffaut had died. I wept, because Jules and Jim was my introduction to the fact that it didn’t have to be that way. There were girls and women and circumstances that were very different from what I knew, and it was like a door opened and I decided that I could walk through. But not before I graduated high school.
But your movie is about sort of a sexual door opening and walking through. This is the sort of mark of—I guess—adulthood. Sadly, I’m assuming it’s happening younger and younger now. You wrote the script about your experience in high school? Was this your experience with you and your girlfriends?
This was not an actual experience that happened to us, but all of the characters are based on real people.
But did you know two girls who made a pact?
No, I didn’t.
So this all came out of your head?
I knew the people on whom the characters were based. Initially, the impetus of this came from a photograph that had been taken by my friend Richard Kalvar, who is a Magnum photographer in Paris, of a man he encountered on a bridge when he was out very late into the sunrise one morning his last year of high school when he had had a terrible fight with his parents. He was leaning on the railing of the Brooklyn Bridge, and he looked over and a man on a bicycle came riding towards him, leaned his bike on his railing, took off all his clothes, and danced. And Richard, who always carried a camera, took a picture of this naked man dancing on the Brooklyn Bridge. Then the man got dressed, got back on his bicycle and rode off from whence he came.
Maybe we’ll find him from this article. Maybe he’ll write in and say, “That was me!”
Maybe! But that picture, for me, is symbolic of what we were all looking for at that time: the freedom to do things like that, the release of it, all the baggage we were carrying thrown away.
“They make everybody beautiful, everybody clever, everybody knows exactly what to say when you meet the guy. And then you look at the guy you went to the movies with and you think, ‘What am I doing with him?’”
But ultimately virginity is the bridge into adulthood for women. And we live in a time and a country where you get to make that choice on your own and it’s not forced on you—which sadly it is all over the world. Since this was a choice, a very clear, conscious choice, to enter the adult world when they started college, is that how it happened for you?
In my generation, if you slept with somebody before you graduated from high school you were a bad girl. If you graduated and got that diploma, it was OK. College was the time to explore. So that summer between the two lives of being a girl and being some sort of a woman was really an important summer. I know that’s changed, and it happens earlier. But I thought there were always girls like that. And the more I talk to people who have seen the movie, it seems there’s still people for whom that timing works. It often happens younger, but it often doesn’t. It’s really a symbolic moment.
But for me the movie is less about losing your virginity…
Oh, I know! Of course it is. But I’m saying that the opening kind of thrust—excuse the pun—of the story is these two girls making that commitment.
Yeah, and the first thing they do is challenge each other to run nude into the water at Brighton Beach, which is a very sexual thing to do.
And brave, and again breaking out of the Good Girls thing. Do you think you stay a Good Girl your whole life? You said you had all these people showing you another door, another way of thinking and of looking at the world. But do you think, ultimately, as I think, many people still stay frozen in that generation that they first came up in? Do you think people break out of that, or do you stay a Very Good Girl your whole life?
I actually think, if you’re lucky, you redefine what it means to be a Very Good Girl, and it has a whole different connotation. But, yes, I think something about you gets formed very early. I think how you think of yourself and what your parameters are as a human being really come into focus at that period of time. For a while you’re protected by your parents. A lot of people reject everything your parents give them. But I hope there’s a way of being a Very Good Girl that doesn’t involve being predictable and boring and following somebody else’s rules. That you can come up with your own and stick by those.
The audience for this movie is the generation of young women who are right now living in a time of really trying to figure out how to navigate love in the—God, I’m about to say it—the “hookup generation.” It’s different. It’s a different version of what we all did. So you have this younger generation, and the primary focus is these two Very Good Girls. And you have these two actresses in the movie, who are both in the moment in the world of show business and they seem to be great examples of both sides of that coin and all the difficulties of this industry. And they basically carry the movie for you, and I just wanted to you talk about them a little.
They are full of integrity. They’re great girls and wonderful actresses. They signed on because they cared about the same things I cared about, which is let’s see some women up there on the screen that seem like human beings who deal with real things that we have to deal with. Dakota, especially, was 18 when she did this. It was the first movie she made alone without a parent coming along with her, so she was doing what the character was doing. And she and Lizzie were friends. They knew each other, they went to the same high school, and they had a lot of friends in common.
But I think we were all concerned with the fact that there aren’t a lot of women on the screen that feel like the women we know in our personal lives. And we were all anxious to show that sexuality, despite the fact that the movie is about on some level losing your virginity, that it’s a very awkward, complicated moment. It doesn’t look like it often looks in a lot of movies. I don’t remember seeing it from the point of the view of the young women. There are no greased bodies with good lighting. This is the actual awkwardness of what that feels like. And if I had been allowed to I would have gone even further in that direction, because each one of us has that experience the first time. It takes a while to get good at, just like everything else. Crossing that line is a big deal and women need to be told the truth there also, what things are like.
Movies play a funny role in our culture. They make everybody beautiful, everybody clever, everybody knows exactly what to say when you meet the guy. And then you look at the guy you went to the movies with and you think, “What am I doing with him?” That’s not a good thing in our culture, and I think we need to see more of what, again, the truth is like. People aren’t always that clever or that beautiful or that smooth. The girls very much wanted to conspire with me to make that happen.
And I knew that I was much older than they were, and that my experiences with all of these things was from another cultural era. So they were empowered always to tell me when it wasn’t correct to this moment.
They were the technical advisers.
Exactly right! And they did. And they were so natural and wonderful all the time.
This interview has been edited for length.