November 23, 2020

How Caitlin Moran flipped the script on teenage heroines


“Hello darling, you alright?” she says, talking on the phone from her home in Crouch End. I fangirl but her instinct is not to swat it away but to explain how she wants to look after people.

Author Caitlin Moran believes "it's 
really important that we go around telling each other why we love each other".

Author Caitlin Moran believes “it’s
really important that we go around telling each other why we love each other”.
Credit:Alex Lake

“I think maybe cause I was quite badly parented and I had quite an absent mother, I’ve just been very aware that it’s a great thing to be,” she says. “The idea of a mother, a motherly figure where you just go around to people going, ‘You’re cool! It’s OK! You’re dealing with some shit right now. I really admire you.’”

In November, the film adaptation of How to Build a Girl, starring Beanie Feldstein (Lady Bird, Booksmart) and Alfie Allen (Game of Thrones, Jojo Rabbit), is released, six years after Moran began writing the screenplay.

Writing, whether a book, a newspaper column, a magazine feature, a movie or a TV series (Raised By Wolves, co-written with her sister Caroline Moran), pours out of Moran. She has spent three decades writing for newspapers, primarily the Sunday Times, an occupation she began in 1991, aged 16 when she became a music critic for Melody Maker. Two years later she was writing columns, features and TV criticism for the Times, and hosting a Channel 4 music show Naked City.

Life as a ’90s music critic, as she wrote in Stylist Magazine was: “Wake at 1pm, smoke cigarette, go to the cafe round the corner to get take-away spaghetti bolognese for breakfast, write from 3pm-7pm while eating a whole roast chicken from the deli round the corner with my hands, augmented with crisps, pub, gig, aftershow, home at 4am.”

Her ticket out of life in a three-bedroom council house with her parents and seven siblings in 1990s Wolverhampton, in central England, was writing. It is also the backbone of How to Build a Girl, her loosely autobiographical novel and film about self-actualising heroine Johanna Morrigan.

Alfie Allen and Beanie Feldstein in How to Build a Girl.

Alfie Allen and Beanie Feldstein in How to Build a Girl.

Morrigan is a noisy, smart and brave working-class 16-year-old in the 1990s who reinvents herself as “fast-talking, lady sex-adventurer” writer Dolly Wilde after getting a job at a London music magazine. Discovering the wild, cynical lands of fame and posh boy critics, Morrigan relinquishes her joyful, passionate writing style to revel in a self-defeating notoriety fuelled by mean, snarky and cruelly funny music criticism. She learns the hard truths of disrespecting her talent and self-worth.
One of Moran’s aims on turning the book into a screenplay was to surprise people.

“Often movies look like movies, and books look like books, and songs look like songs,” she says. “They copy each other. And I was like, ‘No. Let’s give people the gift of something that’s a bit new.’
She drew up a list of all things she hadn’t seen in female coming-of-age movies, her favourite genre. First, her hero would be working class. Second, the plot would not be about going to the prom or making up with a friend, but about getting some money.

“When you’re teenage girl that is the single biggest question of your life,” Moran says. “Because money will make you free. Unless you get money, you can’t get into your future. You’re stuck in your past forever.”

She made the lead character a big girl, although not the focus of the film, and kept her a lonely teenager who has no friends. “I was so aware that everything about teenage girls is about how you find your gang of gal pals and, as long as you’ve got your pals around you, everything’s going to be fine, cause they’re the ones who will seek you out,” Moran says. “And that is true. If you can find a gang of friends, that’s amazing.

“But I didn’t have the gang of friends when I was a teenage girl. And a lot of teenage girls don’t. You haven’t found your people yet. I wanted to make a teenage film about a girl who doesn’t have any friends. That’s important to me. Show me a lovely girl managing her stuff on her own.”

Moran also reversed what is perhaps the most common component of coming-of-age films – the introduction of a hot boy who the heroine will surely end up with.

“That’s always the reward for a girl finding herself in a film,” she says. “A boy will fall in love with her. She is seen as loveable and she will get a boy. Nope! When we see that hot boy at the start, Alfie Allen, playing musician John Kite, instead of them ending up with each other, he’s going to offer her friendship instead. I’ve never seen that before. Him saying, ‘Let’s be friends’, and that being better for her.”

How To Build a Girl also flips ideas about cultural influences. Morrigan, and Moran’s, worldly knowledge as a teenager came from reading every book at the library and watching movies and musicals on TV. Morrigan’s heroes are the Bronte sisters, Freud, Elizabeth Taylor, Maria von Trapp, Frida Kahlo and Sylvia Plath, who all speak to her from a “god wall” of portraits plastered across her bedroom wall. Production designers on the film used photos of Moran’s own teenage bedroom walls in Wolverhampton as a reference, also covered in pictures, drawings and newspaper cuttings.

Set in an era of local TV, newspapers and magazines, rather than the internet, How To Build a Girl is essentially an allegory about social media. “When I was 16-year-old girl, first of all being joyous, then being cynical and snarky in my writing and then learning that that was not nice, I was the only 16-year-old girl in the country who could write and have an audience of tens of thousands of people,” she says.

“But of course now, in 2020, every 16-year-old in the world has that social platform in social media and they follow exactly the same path as Johanna does. You start off being all cheerful on social media, posting cute pictures of yourself, then someone says that you’re fat or ugly or problematic and you start being snarky. Suddenly, you’re part of this constant exchange of bile, this gyrating system of bile that 90 per cent of social media appears to be at the moment.

“I know I sound like a mad old hippy mum, but, if we’re nice to each other, we can still laugh. We can still have just as much fun. We can just as much excitement, but we’re not seeing people crawling off the back of this field of communication, bleeding from the eyes.”

Beanie Feldstein, cast as Johanna Morrigan after memorable roles in Lady Bird and Booksmart, had never heard of Moran, or read her books, when the role came along.

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“In some ways it was a blessing because, a lot of people that were very familiar with Caitlin were coming in and trying to do an impression of her,” she says. “And I was lucky because I didn’t have that thought in mind. I just saw Johanna as an extension of her, not a replication of her.
“I do wish, for my adolescent self, that I had found her work sooner though.”

To prepare for the role, Feldstein spent a month living in Wolverhampton working in a bookshop where she was not allowed to speak in her Californian accent. One day she went to see the council house where Moran grew up, now no longer the family home. Standing outside she was amazed by the street’s quiet, still pace.

“I remember thinking, ‘I can’t believe Caitlin grew up here’, because her mind works 50 times faster than my own. She’s truly the quickest thinker, the most brilliant, thoughtful, clever thinker,” says Feldstein. “I thought about how Caitlin said of her own childhood that, even with so many mouths to feed, and so many kids under one roof, she would trip on books walking up and down the stairs, that there were always books.

“It was books and writing that helped her escape her day-to-day life, and made her imagination so strong.”

Moran wants How To Build a Girl to underline the “crystalline nuclear energy, the cleverness and potential” of teenage girls.

“We mustn’t shrug off our teenage selves,” she says. “They were so brave and so brilliant They knew a 16th of what you do now, they had a millionth of the resources you have now. But they made you.
“I think what most women my age want to do to their teenage selves is go back and give her a hug and go. ‘You’re so cool. Come into the future with me. You’re extraordinary.’”

And then, after further lashings of my fangirl advocating, she agrees to keep writing. “Oh, you are a darling. I can’t stop, I’ve got mortgage to pay. Thank you sweetie. I love you.”

How to Build a Girl is released on digital on November 4.

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