It’s been over a year since I first saw Yes, God, Yes at SXSW, and it remained one of my favorite films of 2019. I found it to be sweet, hilarious, and honest in its subject matter of sexual discovery in an environment of strict organized religion. Based largely on her own adolescence, writer/director Karen Maine gave a warm gentle direction to this story, in addition to a fantastic lead performance from Natalia Dyer (Stranger Things).
For many months, not only did I tell my peers to look out for Yes, God, Yes, but I must have also bugged Maine on Twitter many times to find out when the film will see theatrical distribution. Now that the film is available on digital, VOD, virtual cinemas, and drive-ins, I am incredibly happy to see the same kind of warm critical reception to it that I felt a year ago.
Now imagine my excitement when I finally got the opportunity to speak to Maine over the phone! The following is the interview I had with Maine, where we talked about sexual education, her personal experiences in Catholic school, how that guided her direction in the film, and how the film resonates even with non-religious people.
Kevin L. Lee for Film Inquiry: Hi Karen! It’s so good to finally meet you over the phone!
Karen Maine: I know! How are you?
I’m good! How are you?
Karen Maine: I’m good! I feel like you were one of the first people who reviewed and liked Yes, God, Yes, so this is really exciting. You saw it at SXSW, right?
Yes, I did. I can’t believe it’s been over a year already.
Karen Maine: I know.
Were you at the premiere?
Karen Maine: Yeah.
Ah okay, then I missed you because I went to a later screening of the film and I was hoping you would be there because there was so much I wanted to ask you about when the film was over!
Karen Maine: Yeah, I only went to the first two because the last screening was really late, and I couldn’t afford to stay there for that long. [laughs]
Yeah gotcha. Well thank you so much for taking some extra time to talk with me today, and to prepare for this conversation, I rewatched your short and I rewatched the film and I like to say that it is still such a warm, sweet, gentle film. It’s still one of my favorites that I saw at SXSW, absolutely.
Karen Maine: Thank you. Thank you.
So, you’ve made it clear and very comfortably open in your production notes that this film is based on your own personal experience, growing up in a Catholic school environment. I’m curious to know just how much of the film is completely accurate and how much of it was more exaggerated, whether it was for style or entertainment purposes.
Karen Maine: A lot of it is accurate! If you would’ve seen one of my screenings that I was at, I said before in my introduction that around 80% of it actually happened to me. I was born and raised Catholic, went to Catholic school from kindergarten to 12th Grade. I went to a Catholic school much like the one depicted in the film. The microwave oven and conventional oven lesson were literally said to us.
Karen Maine: We’d get in trouble if our shirts weren’t tucked in. When we get detention, we would get this thing called “JUGs” which stood for “Justice Under God.”
Karen Maine: And I went on a retreat much like the one Alice goes on in the film called, which was a very prevalent retreat. A lot what you see in the retreat actually happened, like with the Peter Gabriel hug circle thing. All that kind of stuff. And yeah, I used AOL to learn a lot about sex. I didn’t sort of have the confidence in high school that Alice has by the end of the film; that came much much later for me, but we needed to clear some things up for her.
So, when you finished the script for the film, were there any scenes that you felt anxious to get right on camera, just the way you wanted?
Karen Maine: I think everyone! I think the one when we were going to shoot that I was probably most anxious about because it was so vital, was the scene at the bar with Gina. The location was a simple one, so it wasn’t that, it was more of just getting the right performances and casting Gina. It took a while for us to cast, but we ended up getting someone amazing (Susan Blackwell). But the tone had to be just right, I didn’t want it to come across too convenient or too hackneyed or too cliché. I wanted it to feel really genuine and grounded, and I’m really impressed with how it turned out. I think that scene worked really well.
I feel like we’re forming a new territory tonally. In general, everything I was really nervous about, getting it to feel genuine and real but also a little ridiculous, because let’s be honest, it is a little ridiculous! I never wanted to veer too far into like a lampoon-y style of things. And it’s interesting to see how people are reacting to it! Some people get it, but other people are expecting a raunchy thing or a Spotlight thing, and it’s just neither of those, and people sometimes are like “What is this?”
Karen Maine: I guess that’s just the nature of filmmaking and people are allowed to incur what they want.
There were definitely many details in the film where I wondered if they were exaggerated or hmm I could totally believe if that actually did happen. Like when Alice is told she doesn’t need her watch because she’s on Jesus’ time.
Karen Maine: Real.
Karen Maine: Yes. Real. And I know! I know! And there’s so much more that could’ve been in there that we had to pull back because it was too much!
So, one of the many things I loved about this film is of course Natalia’s performance. There’s so much emotion in her eyes, they’re so expressive. What was it like working with her and sharing your personal experiences for her to help bring some of that out onto the big screen?
Karen Maine: Yeah, she’s just the best. We were so lucky to have Natalia be the lead because she was so perfect and such a dream to work with. It was a really difficult role because the protagonist’s conflict is mostly internal and she was really mature to do a V.O. narration, which I really didn’t want. It was difficult to portray on screen, and you need to come up with interesting shots to frame her so you feel like you’re in her head but also the actor has to be here to be acting without speaking. And I do thankfully because we’ve done the short with her that she was capable of it. I got to see it first-hand, so I got kind of lucky there. So, I knew totally, confidently, going into shooting, that she could knock it out of the park.
Karen Maine: But yeah, in terms of a director, and since it was such a personal story, I was really open with Natalia and a lot of the times, I would just talk to her about my own personal experiences and anecdotes from my own high school years to sort of get her in character. But yeah, she’s just so good at doing varied performances and different takes and one of the most important things about her – she’s really funny!
Karen Maine: Her comedic timing is really good, without just an expression. I hope she gets to do more comedy because I think she’s really funny and she’s got a real talent for it.
Well, I think you also have a talent for just letting the performance speak for itself. It could’ve easily been underwhelmed by too much extra dialogue or over-editing in a way, but you let a lot of scenes just play out by themselves. You let the audience just be there and watch Alice do a bunch of tasks and we get to just spend time with her, really. There’s like this motherly or caring-friend way where the film follows Alice around that I really appreciate.
Karen Maine: Yeah, I show her alone a lot and I also find ways to show her seemingly being isolated internally while surrounded by other people. I think when you’re a teen and you’re going through these things, especially back then when the Internet and the phone – you couldn’t communicate with people all the time. You’d feel really alone, and especially with Alice having these thoughts and feelings about these new desires she’s discovering about herself. Being alone a lot only amplifies the guilt and the “Oh my god, am I weird?” kind of aspect around those discoveries.
Oh yeah absolutely. There was a moment in the film that stuck out to me where Alice goes on AOL and asks random strangers what tossing someone’s salad means and she gets a wrong answer. The immediate answer she gets is not what it means. It just reminds me of how misleading the Internet can be when you’re alone figuring this stuff out. I feel like… parents should have a bigger role in offering some guidance, because often times teenagers just don’t know where to look. Someone needs to be like the Gina character for every teenager out there, right? Wouldn’t you agree?
Karen Maine: Yeah, I mean God, the world would be a much better place if that were the case. But yeah, I still remember having my mom telling me what sex was and that was the last time we ever talked about it. It was like very perfunctory, like this is what happens, like a 3-second conversation. There was no way. First of all, she didn’t even know what tossing a salad was until I told her when I was making my movie [laughs]
Karen Maine: Never would’ve been able to tell me, but you bring up a good point about the Internet. Today, obviously it’s much easier to figure things out on the Internet. But back then, you know, when I was coming of age, the Internet just existed, it’s like a fissure into a new world, but it was not like a vast gaping hole – sorry that just sounds really unnecessarily sexual and gross, I didn’t mean that!
Karen Maine: But you know what I mean! It’s not like a vast cavern that it is today, where you could find similar people to identify with and that kind of thing. I think the Internet expands her ideas, but it also really limits them too.
It’s also just so crazy to me how sex ed could be taught so differently. When I was in middle school, sex ed was taught by our biology teacher. He spent probably a week on it, and he taught human anatomy. He taught what intercourse and masturbation was.
Karen Maine: Oh wow!
And we were shown a pretty graphic birthing video.
Karen Maine: Yeah, I saw that. Actually, they turned it around when the baby came out.
Hah, okay! And then in high school we had a guest teach sex ed to us. It was a nice lady and she rolled a condom down a cucumber and she taught us things like what is a good age to try sex for the first time and most importantly, she taught what consent was.
Karen Maine: Oh my god. That’s unbelievable.
I just feel like… wow… how… in a different school, in a different state, it could be a completely different experience.
Karen Maine: Yeah.
And you know, in some places, it’s not even taught at all because it’s deemed to be so taboo. What do you think about this inconsistency?
Karen Maine: Well, firstly I want to know A. Where you went to school and B. How old you are if you don’t mind because I’m just curious!
Well, like what Gina says in the film… [laughs] I was taught at “the west coast.”
Karen Maine: [Laughs] Okay okay.
Yeah, it’s a completely different world, I know.
Karen Maine: Are you in your mid 30s?
Oh, I turn 26 in September!
Karen Maine: Okay so you’re younger than me. Yeah, that’s great! I hope more people are doing that. I remember like… Bush used to fund – like government fund – abstinence-only sex education in our schools. There was a huge amount of money spent on that when he was president. I’m sure it was more widely taught then than now with you. Hopefully, it’s not like that now, I don’t know.
We were just told not to have sex. I don’t remember being told anything about reproduction in school – it was just my mom who told me about it. I think they voted whether or not the school should tell us, or the parents should, and they decided the parents should. We saw graphic sights of STDs that had no discussion of condoms. Someone came in and told us… wait… a Christian family planning person came in…
Karen Maine: …and told us that condoms aren’t worth it because they don’t protect from everything or something. We also had to watch a partial-birth abortion video, so that was another thing in the film that’s true, and that was so graphic that we had to get permission slips from our parents to watch it. I’m pretty sure, now looking back on it, that that was like a fake film because… [laughs] what happened was they like injected something into the woman’s stomach and like a full baby came out and it was so horrible.
Karen Maine: It was clearly propaganda, is what I mean to say. Just this like dead baby came… it was… anyway! Pam Stenzel, who’s like a famed abstinence speaker, came and talked to the whole school. I learned how a condom works because I had a friend who’s from a public school and she showed me how to roll a condom down the stick shift in her car, otherwise I wouldn’t have known anything. But I do think things are getting better! I’ve discussed this with my mom now as an adult and she’s like “Oh my god, I’m so sorry! I should’ve taught you how to use a condom!”
Karen Maine: I think just generally… hopefully, things are getting better but I think, especially if they’re religious and sexually repressed yourself, you’re not gonna sit down and have these conversations with your children because it’s “awkward” and it’s “taboo.”
Karen Maine: So that’s something I feel should hopefully change and I hope my film might help in some small way to just open the conversation further.
Well, one of the other aspects of the film that I really loved was you struck an amazing balance at showing just how ridiculous and contradictory these teachings can be and yet the film tonally is never anti-Catholic. I’m curious to know how you found that balance and how your outlook on strict organized religion has changed over time.
Karen Maine: *Snickers* Yeah well in terms of the film, I knew from the get-go that I wanted to be careful and not lampoon Catholicism because this isn’t a film about clerical sexual abuse, which if I was making a film about that, I’d be very critical. But that’s not what this is about. This is about sexuality and specifically about self-pleasure and how the Catholic church teaching is wrong, and how I think it’s dangerous and not good for anyone. And I felt the best way to portray that is so that even though you’re a priest, you don’t like lose your libido, and you’re still gonna have these urges and these desires that you need to release in some way, and I think it’s damaging to not release them in some way.
Karen Maine: And even like… fine, even if the Catholic church still says priests need to be celibate, which I’m not for – obviously – but like at least let them masturbate! They need an outlet!
Karen Maine: I just don’t see what the damage is about masturbating! But for me, that really was the focus of the film. Growing up, when we’re coming of age as a Catholic, there comes a point when you start to realize that these people, these adults in your life who preach one thing, aren’t really doing those things. Like drinking excessively or finding porn on their computer or swearing. All these things are very… it’s not a big deal but we’re told not to do them.
Karen Maine: As a child, you’re like, “This is bad, and I’ve done something wrong and I feel horrible.” But everyone else is doing them anyway, it’s all sort of ridiculous!
Karen Maine: So, I wanted to sort of show similarities between Alice and the priest. What’s really happening is that she is able to overcome it and he’s not, and I think there’s a lot of people in Catholicism like that, who go through this back-and-forth dance of doing these things and then feeling really bad and repenting and then just doing them again, which just sounds exhausting and a horrible way to live.
By the way, Timothy Simons is so great in it as Father Murphy. I loved him.
Karen Maine: Yeah, I know. He’s amazing. Truly, a very fun and hilarious person to work with.
So, let me change the subject a little bit. Sometime around last week, you tweeted about how no one prepares you for the stress around having your first film come out. I was wondering what was it like when you premiered Yes, God, Yes at SXSW, and did that anxiety stay with you when you were helping the film find distribution?
Karen Maine: No, it was more like when it’s being shown to people, it was like a moment of letting go. So yeah, that happened at SXSW, and then we had a couple of other screenings at festivals, and then it happened again with the release. You know, for a director, you’re used to being in control, and letting your film go out for other people to watch and just let people make of it what they want is pretty nerve-wracking. There’s a lot of anxiety in that.
But I mean, I’m a young filmmaker. I’m learning that the most important is you’re proud of what you made and what people think of it doesn’t really matter and you have to just go on and focus on your next project and enjoy the process of filmmaking and not worry so much about what people are saying about it. Sometimes, you could probably make something you don’t like, and people love it. I don’t know. It’s just the way it works, I think. I’m still learning how to turn some of that stuff off, but often times I go on Letterboxd and read every review and only look at the terrible ones that stick with me. I know it’s not healthy, but I definitely do it sometimes! I’m getting better at it.
Was the version shown at SXSW different from the theatrical release? I may be totally remembering this wrong, but I could’ve sworn that some of the music choices in the film were different.
Karen Maine: Yes, they were. Music is very expensive [laughs]
Yeah! When I rewatched the film last night, I could’ve sworn that the shot where Alice imagined touching Chris’ arm, that the music was electric guitar music and it wasn’t “Genie in a Bottle.”
Karen Maine: No, that was always “Genie in a Bottle,” but we did get someone else to cover it instead of the cover that was in there. It might’ve been more guitar-y.
Yeah, I somehow remember it that way. The whole theater had a really good laugh at that.
Karen Maine: Yeah, that was one of everyone’s favorite needle drops, I think. For sure.
It’s so interesting. I’m a guy and my entire life has been nowhere close to religion. My whole life, I would say I grew up agnostic.
Karen Maine: Mhm.
And watching this film, I was so surprised at just how much I was rooting for Alice, how much I really wanted to support her and tell her, “It’s okay, you’ll figure this out! You’ll get over this! You’ll see it!”
Karen Maine: [Laughs]
And I was just wondering… is there something special that you would like boys specifically to get out of this film?
Karen Maine: Yeah! Hopefully, if they, I guess boys, understand just how sexual and pleasure-seeking women can be. Just generally, like a coming-of-age story, I think it’s important to have a varied perspective on them. I don’t think we’ve seen this sort of Catholic female coming-of-age so focused on female self-pleasure, so I hope that just for everyone, it serves as a new point of view, especially for people to go “Oh that’s interesting. People experience that!”
I think it’s great that you had that response to the film, because I feel like a lot of other men [laughs] who weren’t raised Catholic are like, “What the f*** is this?”
Karen Maine: “Why is she so shy?” But that’s what they repress you to be, that type of person, and it takes time! But you feeling like you could root for her, I feel very happy.
Yeah, I had such a strong reaction when I saw it at SXSW. My brain must’ve said, “You poor girl!” like a hundred times. I felt so bad for her every time she felt guilty and she felt like she was going to hell!
Karen Maine: Yeah, I mean, that’s what it’s like growing up Catholic! It’s horrible!
Karen Maine: I mean, like, obviously I think there are different ways to develop Catholic, so they’re probably not all like that. But if you’re gonna really commit to the catechism and the teachings of Catholicism, it’s not fun. It’s just really not fun. I think if you’re gonna try to be more liberally Catholic, that’s fine and I support that, but I’m not sure if the Vatican would be like “Okay, you’re Catholic.” I might get in trouble for saying that [Laughs]
So where are you religiously right now?
Karen Maine: I had a very big rejection for organized religion. When I left Iowa, I moved to New York and I was very straight-up atheist. I have since married a Jewish man, and he’s Reform Jewish, not like Orthodox. I find Judaism very interesting, actually, because it’s like the antithesis of Catholicism in the sense that Catholicism is very unchanging and Judaism is very scholarly and intellectual and debating and constantly updating their teachings to reflect a new way of life, which I really like. Like, rabbis are always debating what something means, it’s not just, “We’ve made a decision like hundreds of years ago, and that’s how it still is today.” It’s just more progressive, in an interesting way. But I do still feel like, like sometimes I’ll go to Rosh Hashanah with him, and it’s still hard to get used to the organized religion aspect of it, because I was forced to do so much for so long.
Karen Maine: Just being in a place of worship is kind of strange and flashback-y and PTSD.
And there’s also a difference between some of the teachings from the religion itself vs. the institution.
Karen Maine: Totally, yeah. Completely. That’s very interesting.
So, my final question is: How do you think your high-school self would react if you showed her Yes, God, Yes?
Karen Maine: [Laughs] Oh my god. Well, if it were like pre-17-year-old me, I’d be like, “Eww, that’s disgusting,” at least outwardly. Inwardly, I’d probably be like, “Oh my god. Okay. I’m not alone.” I had like a real shift when I was 17 and 18 – my last year of high school – where I like rebelled, started smoking pot before school and there was like, “Abortion is cool!”
Karen Maine: But yeah, like early Karen, I definitely like… the thing is you have one inner secret life and you live an outward life, and that really sums up Catholicism.
I can imagine this film being as, how Chris would describe in the film, a “side hug,” to a lot of people out there who feel sexually repressed and feel really alone in this journey of figuring themselves out.
Karen Maine: Yeah, I hope so! I’ve gotten some messages from people that were like, “I didn’t wanna post this publicly, but I felt like your film really saw me and some struggles I’ve been dealing with.” I mean, that’s all you can hope for really, as a filmmaker – someone who really connects with your work and that’s something to, in some ways, better someone’s life or society in some way. That makes me really happy.
Yeah, yeah. And I wanna say again… I’ve had none of these experiences, but watching your film, there’s just an honesty about it that I really grabbed on to, and that’s why I love the film so much and that’s why, as you know, I’ve been voicing so much support for it for over a year now. And seriously, congratulations on the film. I really love it.
Karen Maine: Thank you so much for saying that. And thank you for, honestly, one of the best interviews I’ve ever had, and I’ve had a lot lately.
Thank you! Thank you! That means a lot to me! Thank you, Karen!
Karen Maine: Oh yeah, you’re great at this! Any other time, we should do it again. Next film!
Yeah, we should! Thank you! You take care, alright?
Karen Maine: Alright, you take care too!
Thank you so much!
Film Inquiry thanks Karen Maine for taking the time to speak with us.
Yes, God, Yes premiered at SXSW 2019. It was released on virtual cinemas and drive-ins on July 24, 2020 and on digital and VOD on July 28, 2020.
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