Molly McGlynn on the Out-of-Body Experience of “Fitting In”

As soon as Molly McGlynn learned of when her second feature “Fitting In” (originally called “Bloody Hell”) would premiere, she set about creating the perfect outfit to wear that would be in the spirit of the film she made, a suit that would give the red carpet a run for its money when it came to blazing a trail into the theater.

“I thought if I’m going to go down, I’m going to go down in a flaming fuchsia embroidered suit,” McGlynn had told me the morning after the premiere at SXSW in Austin. “I wanted to use the color palettes of the film — the pinks and reds, and I worked with a stylist to do it, but we got the base suit, then we got custom chain stitch embroidery with the film’s title and a butterfly and the rose and thorns [all symbols that can be seen in the movie]. And we’re in Texas, so it’s like, yeehaw, bitches, you know?”

Should she have wanted to add an accessory, McGlynn might as well have been handed one of those title belts that they award at rodeos after successfully bringing the crowd to bow with her winning comedy, a bracingly personal recounting of her teenage years after being diagnosed with the exceedingly rare MRKH syndrome. Although it would be devastating news under any circumstances to learn that pregnancy would never be an option with no uterus and an abnormal vagina, the diagnosis is particularly cruel for Lindy (Maddie Ziegler) as she’s caught in the throes of puberty and unsure of her sexuality as is. While the character understandably sees the condition as akin to a death sentence, McGlynn, who so thoughtfully explored mental health and alcoholism in her tender debut “Mary Goes Round,” uses Lindy’s dysphoria as an opportunity to consider the bodies we’re born into and how they align with people who come to wear them.

Beyond being assigned the task of dilating her vagina with an array of brightly colored instruments that she can’t help but find ridiculous, Lindy can start to find the whole idea of being defined by her physical form absurd as she sees the debilitating impact that a brutal bout of breast cancer had on her mom Rita (Emily Hampshire) and she’s increasingly drawn to Jax (Ki Griffin), an intersex classmate whose confidence inspires. While McGlynn has an extraordinary ability to identify personal inhibitions that come to create a skewed self-perspective, she shows none herself and “Fitting In” is glorious for how bold it is when clearly the writer/director didn’t censor herself when it came to either the film’s humor or her own heartache, but also its sheer exuberance as all the big emotions that Lindy feels manifest themselves into the world that surrounds her in vibrant pastels and irresistible music cues. Pushed to get personal in a writing exercise, McGlynn has done something truly generous with her second film, which elicited a rare standing ovation at SXSW and is bound to help prop up others who have been dealt a bad hand beyond making them laugh, and she spoke about how the film took shape, being honest with herself to make it so powerful and finding a creative soulmate in the film’s star Ziegler.

You’ve said this started out as a writing exercise, but was the idea to tell this story something in your mind beforehand?

There’s actually another workshop that was really formative in this. I had done “Mary Goes Round” and I was still in Canada, but dipping my toe with spending time in L.A. and someone from TIFF said, “You’ve been invited to apply to the screenwriting lab in Greece called Oxbelly for second-time feature filmmakers.” It used to be Sundance Mediterranean, and I looked at the deadline, and I think it was a month away, so I [thought], “Well, I guess this is my deadline to write ‘Bloody Hell,’” which was always in my gut, but I didn’t have the courage to do it. So I wrote the first draft in less than a month and it was very unpolished, but I got into the lab and went to Greece for a week.

That program was really the kick in my ass to get going, but there were all these filmmakers from around the world [at the same program], and we had to go around and pitch the story and I was Googling flights, Athens to LA [because] I wanted to get the hell out of there. I’d rather get on a plane than talk about this. Athina Tsangari, an incredible Greek filmmaker, was the head of the selection committee and program at that time, and she could see I was freaking out and pulled me aside — I even have goosebumps thinking about it now. She [said], “I believe in this script. I believe in you, and It’s scary, but you have to do it now.” And I sat my ass back in the seat and I pitched it to the room of filmmakers. I even have goosebumps thinking about it. So Athina saw something special in me and she gave me that tough love to stay there.

It was an amazing experience. I’m jet-lagged and they said, “Okay, one of your mentors is Paul Thomas Anderson, so you’ll meet him tomorrow for breakfast for three hours to go over your script.” I’m walking around this little Greek resort, looking for PTA and I’m thinking, “Oh my God.” But we met and he’s like, “It’s such a personal script” and he was really sensitive about all of that, but he had the script printed and I was like, “Oh my God, did you read this? That was a [rough] submission draft.” I didn’t expect people to be reading it, you know? And he said, “I read your application letter and you were just trashing the script so much that I thought, ‘You know, this person’s probably a half decent writer if they hate themselves that much.’”

And I laughed, but we had a three-hour breakfast in Greece and we went through Billy Wilder’s 10 Rules of Screenwriting, which is still so foundational and incredible, and Paul really pushed me. The first draft was a lot safer. He was really encouraging me to push as far as I could go emotionally and something that he said that really sat with me was “it’s so rare to read something where you [think] I have never heard of this. This is new, and to have that as a filmmaker is like a goldmine.” At the same program, the other mentor was Nick Kroll, which was amazing and it was a totally different conversation about comedy and tone, but he said, “I thought I knew everything about puberty and sex and all of that” — obvious, he [co-created “Big Mouth”] but he said he did not know about this.

There’s a line in the movie that Jax actually says about wanting to tell the story because it would give control over the narrative, and I know with both your films so far, there’s a personal connection to the material. Has that been a driving force for actually putting pen to paper?

When you reference that line that Jax says, “They use the internet to control their narrative,” that’s also myself, too, always trying to protect myself through storytelling. With this one, I am all on the table. “Mary Goes Round,” my first feature film, [was] a very personal film, and was related to alcohol. I am now sober, but I wasn’t sober at that time and I didn’t publicly discuss that. I used the film to work through some things that I was going through, but I hid behind the narrative and I felt like I wasn’t ready personally to even go there. But with this one, it’s different because I’m like, “Here’s the film and it is me,” as opposed to “Here’s the film, it’s not really me.”

The scenes of vaginal dilating and all this stuff, I would have difficulty a couple years ago telling the people closest in my life about because it was so intimate. And when I got on set, it was still a shock [to think], “Oh my God, I have to do this in a way in a way that shows the intensity of that experience, but it’s not sexually explicit.” I also was very protective over Maddie. I did not want to put her in something that would be misinterpreted as being sexual. My therapist said to me, “This was a very expensive exposure therapy for you.” And I cannot explain what it’s like to have someone being Maddie act out things in my life that I have pushed so far down I struggled to even recall, so in that sense, I almost built it from the ground up and I separated myself a little bit. I did further research on this condition and what other people do and it’s my story, but when you bring it to an actor, it’s also their story.

Although Maddie and I have not had the same experience in life, emotionally, she understands it. Her character is kind of a pressure cooker. When you think back, she’s being spoken to the first half of the film. Things are happening at her, things are being said at her, and then that climax towards the end of the film where she finally speaks to everyone, and it’s her and it’s building up, and outside of the very specific nature of what this film is about, MRK syndrome and all of that, this is about a young woman coming to find her voice and to me, it’s less about the physical mechanics and more about the emotion.

What sold you on her to be in the movie?

Maddie was suggested to me by her agent at WME and of course I knew her from the Sia music videos and “The Fallout,” but when I met with her in L.A., she walked in and she had wet hair, untied shoelaces, and no makeup and she ordered a giant cookie the size of her face. In my gut, I loved her immediately, and she’s so grounded and open and brave. This is not like a vanity role for her and it wasn’t easy, but there was just something about Maddie, I would trust her with my life and I literally gave it to her. I get very emotional about it. She’s changed my life.

Something that moved me very deeply was the relationship the character has with her mother, who had breast cancer and I know from a friend I had in high school that saw her mother going through it, it impacted her thoughts about her own body. What was it like developing that connection in the film?

My mom passed away when I was 21, so that character is largely based on my relationship with my mother. I have five sisters, so it wasn’t an only child scenario [as it is in “Fitting In”], but my parents were divorced and my mom was my primary caregiver. When I was 13 and going through puberty, my mom got her mastectomy, and I remember just feeling so alarmed the first time I walked in on her putting that little chicken boob in her bra, and I always say when I was getting breasts, my mom was losing hers. Then a few years later, I was diagnosed with MRKH syndrome, and my mom’s reaction was similar to Rita in the film, which was overwhelming grief, because being a mother was the most incredible role in her life. She understood the grief of not being able to carry a child in a way I was not able to at 16. However, she projected a lot onto me in a way that I wasn’t able to process at 16, so it did create some friction. From my mom’s cancer to my diagnosis, a woman’s body was a landmine. It was going to come one way or the other and I had a very fearful relationship with bodies, and there was some animosity.

And [in the movie with] the whole chicken boob/breast prosthetic thing, Emily knew that scene for her character was so integral, and we went back and forth for quite a while to get it perfect. Emily is a meticulous prep actor, and she needs to understand the intention and motivation behind every word. We got to a good place in the scene, but we didn’t know how to end it and I kept pitching her lines to leave the scene, and she was like, “No, no.” And I was like, “Man, I’m out of lines here,” and I go, “I don’t know, why doesn’t she just stand up, pull the thing out and say, ‘I have a chicken boob’? And Emily laughed and said, “That’s it. It gets to the point, it says it all, it’s physical comedy.” And that was that, and we shot it.

That’s so great. And it certainly isn’t the biggest ask you make of the props department on this, but what was it like talking things out with them? I’m watching that dilation video, among other things, and thought these might’ve been some pretty interesting conversations with the crew.

Our props department was incredible. We had a guy named Dustin [Hachey] in Canada, who was so sensitive and thoughtful approaching this and it wasn’t a normal props movie. The props are integral and they are loaded, you know? But he was meticulous about it and there were some nerves [generally] about “I have this dilator or this one,” but over time, everyone relaxed and by the end of it, I think between takes, some of the grips threw a dilator at each other and I turned around and they’d go, “Oh my God, we’re so sorry,” as if I was gonna yell at them, but I was like, “Guys, it’s fine.” Even to see the men on the crew at first being like, “What are we shooting?” It was pretty amazing by the end to see the men on the crew learn something watching [us] shoot this. And they were so protective over Maddie, with closed sets, and our camera assistant, who’s in his 20s, was like, “Okay, everyone quiet down.” Even though maybe the script isn’t written exactly for them, they were so tender and I really appreciated that.

Did the color palette of this come to mind pretty quickly? It’s so vibrant.

So the [director of photography] Nina [Djacic], the production designer [Thea Hollatz], and I all worked together very closely to create the palette and you saw “Mary Goes Round.” It’s a very bleak Canadian palette. And I’m a Canadian filmmaker. I’m not knocking on that. I made one that looks like that and it’s beautiful, but with this, the character is 16. I wanted it to feel bright and rich and also a bit exaggerated because everything is heightened at that time. So I just really leaned into the color and Nina has worked in music videos a lot. That opening scene —the fantasy of having sex with Adam, that’s Nina’s music video worlds with all the exaggerated lighting, and then we cut to Lindy masturbating and it’s my palette, which is naturalistic with light coming through the window.

That’s something you actually carry through the music in a really brilliant way – there are two versions of Aqua’s “Barbie Girl,” the original and a slow jam version of it.

The use of “Barbie Girl” is one of my favorite parts of this film. When I was working on the script, I was in traffic in L.A. and the guy next to me was in a open Jeep, just cranking “Barbie Girl” and it was so absurd. I hadn’t heard that song in forever, and I was listening to it [thinking], “That’s the perfect song for this movie.” A few months ago when I knew “Barbie” was coming out, I was like, “Oh, we’re never going to get that song.” And then it was in the news that Greta Gerwig was not using “Barbie Girl” in the “Barbie” movie, so I [thought], “Okay, we might have a chance.” But [that song is about] this packaged or idealized [version] of femininity, and also, it’s a bit of a nod to Maddie and her upbringing in reality television and her presence on social media. It’s people’s expectations of her and the cover totally deconstructs that.

It worked marvelously and you ended up with both the song and this great film on your hands. What was it like seeing it with audiences for the first time at SXSW?

I felt so much love in the room when the film ended and to get a standing ovation was totally unexpected. This is very much my film, and I think people got it really well and I want Maddie to soar. She is so humble and I want people to see the enormous talent that she is and to see the room show so much love for her and to see the look on her face, I’m happy with that.

“Fitting In” opens nationwide on February 2nd. You can find a list of a theater near you here.

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