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Pulitzer-winning playwright Annie Baker on her directorial debut with 'Janet Planet'

DANIELLE KURTZLEBEN, HOST:

Summer for a kid is a time for playing outside, making friends and learning more about yourself. For Lacy, an 11-year-old living in Western Massachusetts in the early 1990s, the summer is languid and rather confusing as she observes her mother move from one lover to another and reconnect with a friend.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "JANET PLANET")

ZOE ZIEGLER: (As Lacy) You know what's funny?

JULIANNE NICHOLSON: (As Janet) What?

ZIEGLER: (As Lacy) Every moment of my life is hell.

NICHOLSON: (As Janet) You actually seem very happy to me a lot of the time.

ZIEGLER: (As Lacy) It's hell. I don't think it'll last, though.

NICHOLSON: (As Janet) I'm actually pretty unhappy too.

KURTZLEBEN: "Janet Planet" is the directing debut of the playwright, Annie Baker, who won the Pulitzer Prize for writing "The Flick." And when I asked her how much of the story was inspired by her own childhood, she bristled a bit at the question.

ANNIE BAKER: I have realized since making the movie, that if you're a woman and you make a movie about a little girl in the town where you grew up, you get asked this question a lot, which, for some reason, I didn't anticipate.

KURTZLEBEN: Huh.

BAKER: It is really no more autobiographical than anything I've ever written. I just don't think about my life when I'm writing, if that makes sense.

KURTZLEBEN: Sure.

BAKER: It's, like, when I'm making art, that's when I don't have to think in a literal way.

KURTZLEBEN: This movie has such a specific feel of place and time. It's Western Massachusetts. It's the early '90s. It's summer. What details about those places and times did you want to fit into this film?

BAKER: There's something so liberating and open about summer and hot weather. And then there's also something a little oppressive and scary and distended, I think, about the way time moves in the summer. And I remember when I was a kid, summer was really, really long. It was a really epic amount of time. But it was also - right when it started, I was scared about it ending. There was a kind of dread built into it.

KURTZLEBEN: Now, the movie is centered on a preteen girl named Lacy. She's played by Zoe Ziegler, who is great in this. I'm wondering, what were you looking for in casting Lacy?

BAKER: That was a huge challenge. And I'd never done anything like it before. When I'm working on plays, I usually write for actors I know. And we had a ticking clock. And what I was looking for was really specific.

I mean, I knew what I wasn't looking for. We got so many tapes from both non-actors and professional actors that were incredible - like, really smart, interesting kids. I knew I had to hold out for something, and I just crossed my fingers, and I finally met her. Like, it was a real act of faith.

KURTZLEBEN: Well, you said in there that you knew what you didn't want. What specifically were you trying to avoid?

BAKER: Yeah. I was this way as a kid. I was, like, a huge people pleaser, so - and I loved doing theater. So a lot of the kids I met were totally adorable, wanted to give me what they thought I wanted. And it's really interesting, too, I think, by age 10 or 11, like, how, like, cultural ideas of little girl cuteness seep into child behavior. And I think a lot of movies I'd seen about little girls were kind of about gaining the audience's sympathy really quickly.

And I wanted somebody a little more prickly. And I wanted somebody with a really rich interior life that we didn't totally understand or have access to. And I wanted somebody who - yeah, you just didn't totally know what she was thinking and someone who didn't seem like a kid who wanted to be an actor or who would ever be an actor. And then, of course, the really hard thing of a kid who just sounds like a real person talking.

KURTZLEBEN: I was wondering a lot as I was watching this about the difference between writing for the theater, directing for the theater versus for a film because it seems like in the theater, you kind of just got to let go and let God. The actors are going to do what they do. But in a movie, you can do bajillions of takes. I'm curious about how those two different levels of control played out while you were making this film.

BAKER: Well, first of all, in a low-budget movie, you can't do bajillions of takes...

KURTZLEBEN: OK. You know what?

BAKER: ...I learned very...

KURTZLEBEN: That's fair.

BAKER: ...Quickly. So sometimes you have three takes or four takes. That said, that's an amazing thing to be able to do, and to be able to then put a bunch of different takes together - like, being able to sculpt those performances and have that kind of control and also to be able to preserve accidents. You know, it's just that incredible thing where an actor will, like, tuck a stray strand of hair behind their ear, and you can keep it and you don't have to ask them to do it again or contrive something.

The thing that you don't have control over while shooting a movie, that you do in theater, is kind of a chance to see the assembly while you're still working in it. Like, the fourth week of theater rehearsal, you can do rewrites. You can - you know, you can sort of, like, reconceive certain design elements. And you don't get to do that in a movie until you're done shooting.

KURTZLEBEN: I'm wondering, when did you know you wanted to be a playwright?

BAKER: I don't quite understand or know when I wanted to do anything. I feel very compelled to make my work. I don't understand fully how it happened or how it happens. I think it's maybe a kind of amnesia that I suffer from. But I think maybe I've also kind of gifted myself with it because I try not to think too hard about my work. I sort of pretend to myself that none of it ever happened, and it's just about the next project.

KURTZLEBEN: Well, with that amnesia in mind, this might be a fool's errand to ask you, when did you decide you wanted to take a run at a movie?

BAKER: I always was drawn to the idea of making a movie, even as a kid. It actually, I think, was sort of the first thing I wanted to do because I didn't have a lot of access to theater in my small town, and I rented just a ton of movies.

They also seemed like a completely inaccessible medium. It seemed like something - I don't know, a rich kid would do. It just didn't - I didn't quite understand how anybody would start making movies. And I think theater was something I kind of fell into and then totally fell in love with and, in a way, kind of had more naivete about when I started making it.

KURTZLEBEN: In this movie, Lacy - she's 10 or 11. She might be too young for this to be considered a coming-of-age movie, but is it a coming-of-age movie, do you think?

BAKER: Yeah. What is a coming-of-age movie?

KURTZLEBEN: Often, I feel like it deals with people who are, you know, 16, 17, 18...

BAKER: Right.

KURTZLEBEN: ...Learning how - I don't know...

BAKER: Like, becoming an adult.

KURTZLEBEN: ...Falling in love, something like that. Yeah, I guess.

BAKER: I don't think it's a coming-of-age movie, maybe because I don't know what coming-of-age means. But I do think it's a movie about a shift in perception over the course of two months and about something inside of a child shifting.

I mean, that happens for our whole lives. Just - you look back on a summer, winter, a year, and you can just, like, see some sort of tectonic shift, in retrospect. But to me, it's more spiritual or interior, maybe, more than coming-of-age, which I think might be more about being sort of launched into the world. Whatever the epiphany is in "Janet Planet," it's very private.

KURTZLEBEN: Annie Baker, the writer and director of the new movie "Janet Planet," thank you so much for being with us.

BAKER: Thank you for your great questions.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Danielle Kurtzleben is a political correspondent assigned to NPR's Washington Desk. She appears on NPR shows, writes for the web, and is a regular on The NPR Politics Podcast. She is covering the 2020 presidential election, with particular focuses on on economic policy and gender politics.