‘Janet Planet’ Director Annie Baker on Transitioning from Stage to Cinema

When Annie Baker opens a new play, it’s an event. Over the past 15 years, the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright has become one of the most vital voices in that medium, enticing audiences with deft studies of human nature. Her work often defies the convention of the stage, dealing in silence and small gestures.

Now, Baker has made her mark on cinema with the A24 feature Janet Planet, and it’s every bit as extraordinary as one would hope. The film, which is currently playing in theaters, is a keenly observed story of an 11-year-old girl named Lacy (Zoe Ziegler) in 1991 Western Massachusetts as she watches her mother, Janet (Julianne Nicholson), cycle through a series of relationships. While Janet Planet is not Baker’s exact life story, there’s an element of autobiography: it takes place in the region and time period where she grew up, a hippie-ish enclave of New England where antibiotics are distrusted, “Free Tibet” bumper stickers abound, and puppet shows in green fields are de rigueur.

As a child, Baker never considered that she might make theater or film professionally, but she was drawn to both mediums. “I was always making theater and watching movies, so I came to them from really different directions,” she says on a recent Zoom call. “They are totally a part of me and have been for most of my life.” That’s evident in her Pulitzer-winning play The Flick, set in a movie theater, inspired by going to see films in her 20s and being captivated by the moment the lights would go up and the employees would start to clean. “The moviegoing space became a real-life theatergoing space,” she says.

Baker on the set of Janet Planet

Courtesy of A24

In her youth, she absorbed film as a spectator, loving the likes of Steve Martin’s Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, even if her current inspirations run more along the lines of Ingmar Bergman. Theater she could participate in even as a youngster. When she was eight, she performed a scene from Waiting for Godot at her public library, part of a “random kids theater class.” In middle school, she cast herself in a production of Edward Albee’s 1958 one-act drama The Zoo Story with her best friend. A hysterical laughing fit interrupted the performance.

It’s hard to imagine her heroine in Janet Planet, Lacy, ever bursting into giggles like that. Ziegler, a newcomer, plays the character with an entrancing deadpan. (In the opening moments of the movie, she calmly tells her mom that she’s going to kill herself if she isn’t picked up immediately from camp.) And yet, it’s easy to see how a woman who was doing existential theater before she entered high school created a character whose mind seems to whirl even when she doesn’t say much. Baker conceived of Lacy, she says, in contrast to how she had seen other girls of that age represented on screen.

“We project a lot onto the idea of ‘the little girl,'” Baker says. “And it doesn’t quite get at what it was like for me or a lot of people I know.”

And she’s right: Lacy feels more real than most portrayals of childhood I have seen on screen, with her weirdness, her oversized shirt smudged with chocolate ice cream, and her desire to smear her hair on the shower wall.

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The film is largely seen through Lacy’s eyes as she observes her mother. Lacy clings to Janet, asking to sleep in the same bed and resenting any other adult that comes into their life. Baker used Lacy’s perspective to capture Julianne Nicholson’s Janet, the title role, a woman who knows her allure is her superpower but also finds it limiting. “It’s really interesting and mysterious,” Baker says, “how a child looks at and encounters adult bodies. The way you might look at your parents’ bodies, or the bodies of your parents’ friends, who you’re entranced or repulsed by. The tactility of adult bodies when you’re a kid is something I really wanted to explore.”

Ziegler and Julianne Nicholson

Courtesy of A24

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That vision and the way Baker executes it, for instance, lingering on a shot of Janet’s freckled legs as Lacy lies under a table, is hard to imagine portraying on stage. Part of Baker’s journey to film involved figuring out how to crack the notion of writing for the screen. “Only now do I feel like I know how to write a screenplay, and by ‘know how to write a screenplay,’ I don’t mean like some sort of conventions-of-the-form way,” she says. “Only now do I know how to write a screenplay for myself, and might [be able to] give other people some clue about what I’m thinking about.”

Baker is not alone in making the leap from playwright to director, especially in the world of A24, which recently produced playwright Celine Song’s award-winning feature debut Past Lives and has an ongoing collaboration with Jeremy O. Harris. Still, entering that role for the first time, Baker’s mantra was, “Don’t fake it.” She adds, as if speaking to her students at the University of Texas at Austin: “Like, don’t fake knowledge you don’t have, and don’t pretend you don’t know things that you do know. That’s just a good rule for life—that we’re all learning every day, and directing in a new medium just puts that right in front of you.”

Baker relished the prep process, especially working with her costume designer, Lizzie Donelan who used paper doll versions of Janet and Lacy to determine which thrifted items they should wear. “We spent a day together moving the t-shirts and Umbro shorts around,” she says. “And that’s the costume design for the movie.” It’s an activity you could see Lacy herself liking. She keeps a shelf full of trinkets, which she hides behind a curtain and adorns with Lindt wrappers fashioned into hats.

Just as Janet Planet was premiering at Telluride last year, Baker was also premiering a new critically acclaimed play, Infinite Life, about a group of people fasting at a wellness retreat. Now, Baker is already at work on a new film. “My guess is the future will be play, movie, play, movie,” she says. (Though, for the record, she wrote Infinite Life before Janet.)

For those of us drawn into the wonder of her worlds, each will be eagerly anticipated.

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