Caitlin Moran’s Adventures as a Young Rock Critic Come to Life in Dramatized ‘How to Build a Girl’

The lucky writer finds a platform where they can hone their voice and express their ideas, all the while continuing to grow in this journey called life. “How to Build a Girl” gets this through the rowdy tale of a brilliant young woman who discovers the delicious art of criticism, at a time when a column could slice like a guillotine. Fittingly it is the work of two keen women artists, director Coky Giedroyc and author Caitlin Moran. It all began with Moran’s 2014 novel of the same name, which grabbed readers and critics with its mix of feminism, nostalgia and universal themes of self-discovery. Giedroyc and Moran, both enduring the current lockdown conditions being felt the world over, spoke with Entertainment Voice on the making of “How to Build a Girl.” 

“It’s very quiet here, there are no planes in the sky, it’s very gentle,” shared Giedroyc. “I’m prepping a new film. We’re due to start really soon. I hope it loosens up. Strange days.” For Giedroyc the genesis of this film started with Moran’s writing. “I loved Caitlin’s writing, that was the first thing. I’m a big fan. I set this show up for Hulu called ‘Harlots,’ with [producers] Deborah [Hayward] and Alison [Owen], who were the producers of ‘Harlots’ and they said ‘oh well we’ve got this script knocking around that we really love.” The script handed to Giedroyc introduces us to Johanna (Beanie Feldstein), a bright teenager from a working class English family. She is one of those students to whom writing comes naturally, to the point where her teachers get annoyed at the overly-long essays (“I don’t need ‘War and Peace,’ the unabridged version”). Johanna lives in a crammed home with her siblings and burned out mom Angie (Sarah Solemani) and dad Pat (Paddy Considine), who holds on to dreams of rock stardom. When Johanna bombs on national TV during a poetry contest she decides to change course and sends in a review of the “Annie” soundtrack to D&ME (Disc & Music Echo), a music magazine. Despite a chortling reaction to the review, the editors give Johanna a shot and she goes on a crash course in the early ‘90s British pop-rock scene. After initial heartbreak from meeting and falling for crooner John Kite (Alfie Allen of “Game of Thrones”), Johanna transforms herself into an acidic critic with the pen name Dolly Wilde. Bruising hit columns raise her prestige (and pay) and soon she’s caught in the feverish swirl of sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll.

“I was just a big fan basically and so I jumped with it,” said Giedroyc. “I was cautious over the years about movies. I’ve been doing such great television. The scripts in television have been so phenomenal that I had a kind of groove, really. But I met with [Moran] and we worked together on her script for about a year and we knocked it into shape and it got picked up very quickly.” 

A renowned author for her popular autobiographical romp “How to Be a Woman,” Moran began dabbling in screenwriting only recently. “I’d always wanted to write films, I just didn’t think the kind of stories I wanted to tell were the kind of things you could make into movies,” said Moran. “I started writing books and films really late actually. I was already in my mid-30s and was the mother of two before I finally started doing that. Part of it was I had always thought that a story that would be a movie was a magical teenage boy who’s got some power and bumps into some robot with secret maps and then goes and blows up the Death Star. I didn’t have anything like that. It was only when I wrote my first book, ‘How to Be a Woman,’ which is nonfiction, which was about my life and so many people, including women, connected with it and said ‘wow, you make me feel normal!’ So it got me thinking you can tell stories like this, and maybe as a movie. And it was about the usual things every woman goes through, falling in love, having sex, getting your period, growing breasts, having an abortion. ‘How to Build a Girl’ is about all the stuff that usually doesn’t happen to people. I was homeschooled, I became a journalist when I was 16, I started to present on TV when I was 18.”

“She’s a fireball,” said Geidroyc about Moran. “She’s extraordinary. She’s absolutely full of energy, enthusiasm, incredible kind of huge knowledge of things. My job was to harness all those ideas into a film that would be funny and provocative… I always felt in her books that her comedy fits alongside very serious things as well… she talks about her childhood, she grew up in poverty and was one of eight kids… so we had this funny push me-pull you through the script work where she would say, ‘I just want it to be hilarious,’ and I would say ‘and heartbreaking.’ It’s got to be both.” 

Johanna as Dolly Wilde becomes absorbed by the bunker newsroom world of D&ME with editors who are a mix of camaraderie, low level misogyny and gossip hounds. The more outrageous her columns become, slashing and burning rock stars of all stripes, the more they lavish decadent perks on her (while also making fun of her behind her back). But in the evenings she comes back home to a moody brother (Laurie Kynaston) and a father who now hopes his daughter can get his music to the public.

“I started enthusiastic and hopeful and I loved this music and was excited to write about it and meet these pop stars, but the older, colder male journalists around me were always saying ‘no, no, no, you’ve got to be cynical, you have to destroy these bands! You have to come to the dark side, that’s what real journalists do,’” said Moran. “I made some rock stars cry and felt very bad about that and I had to learn to use my powers for good instead of evil and go back to what I had been before, a fan enthusiastic to write about the things I love.” 

Beanie Feldstein, who last year broke through with her performance as a teacher’s pet desperate for rebellion in Olivia Wilde’s “Booksmart,” struts like the great rock writers of decades past, going from bright teenager to music insider while having sexual adventures along the way. “We got really close, we were really really good friends by the end of it,” said Giedroyc of working with Feldstein. “She’s an amazing woman, she was absolutely our single top choice for the part. No one else came close. We saw a lot of people, we did a lot of casting in the UK. No one set the role alight, no one really made it fly until we met Bean. We met on Skype. I said, ‘you know, it’s Northampton, this obscure little town in the north of England, it’s got a very strange accent. You’re Californian, how’s this gonna work?’ So she said, ‘any actor taking on this part has to face the accent and they’ve got to learn, might as well be me.’ And so I kind of thought ‘good on you.’ She came over, we got her a job at Northampton, she worked in a gift job and she practiced the accent for three weeks. She was just amazing, she worked so hard. She’s one of those life-affirming people.” 

Giedroyc herself had a personal connection to the era depicted in the film and its music where bands like Manic Street Preachers are referenced constantly. “My era’s the ‘80s. I’m older, I’m a fairly old bird so I go right back to the ‘80s. I actually was a groupie for a band for many years and married the saxophonist. I had first-hand experience with this whole thing. I hung around with musicians a lot and I directed a lot of pop promos in the ‘80s and ‘90s. So it all felt very familiar to me, very comfortable to me this whole territory. I love the music, I love musicians.” 

“How to Build a Girl” vibrates with the spirit of a bygone era as well. Johanna writes her material on a typewriter, she actually makes a good salary as a rookie on the beat, and when her columns are published she goes out to buy stacks of print copies. It is a reminder of how much journalism has changed over the last 30 years. For Moran the memories are vivid, the contrasts stark. “The most notable thing about the way journalism has changed in the last thirty years is that back in the 20th century you didn’t have to go to Cambridge or Oxford, or have these connections and stuff. If you were a great writer you just sent your review to a paper and they would print it and pay you for it. And sure at the beginning you might be a fairly crappy writer but you would improve, you would learn on the job while being paid. In the UK most of the writers and even TV presenters that we had came up through the working class, in local outlets and then that’s how it could go into national ones. Now there is no way in, there is no shortcut. You can’t get it in anymore. That for me is the saddest thing about how journalism has changed. There’s a wealth barrier to becoming a writer, because if you want to blog for free then yes, millions of people might see it and your name might get known. But you’re not going to get paid for it, and you can only afford to do it if you’ve got another job which would mean you have less time to write, or you can be supported by your parents.” 

How to Build a Girl” premieres May 8 on VOD.