Karen Maine is a screenwriter best known for co-writing Obvious Child (2014), a critically acclaimed rom-com that was praised and nominated for several awards. Yes, God, Yes is her debut feature film.
A charming and wholesome coming-of-age film that explores sexual pleasure from a female perspective, Yes, God, Yes follows Alice, a Catholic high schooler, who quickly seeks redemption and becomes guilt-ridden after an AOL chat turns racy.
I spoke to Karen after its theatrical and digital release, and talked about her experience directing for the first time, the inspiration that drew upon the sex comedy, and its lead star Natalia Dyer.
So Yes, God, Yes is a charming and wholesome debut that I think really captures adolescence and religion in a really fresh and endearing lens. Could you tell me a little bit about what you were doing before Yes, God, Yes, and how you came about writing and directing your first feature film?
I was working as a book editor in London, and working in book publishing for about ten years and doing film writing on the side. I co-wrote Obvious Child, the short and the feature, whilst being an editorial assistant at HarperCollins. When I moved to London with my husband, I started writing Yes, God, Yes the feature, and the original plan was to just have someone else direct it because I’d never directed something before. And I hadn’t gone to film school, and I’d always loved movies and writing, but I never thought directing was for me – until one of the directors I approached to direct Yes, God, Yes, was like “You should direct it because it’s your film! It’s your story, it’s very personal.” And I hadn’t really considered it, until that moment, and thankfully my producers were on board to have me direct and we decided to make a short version first as kind of a proof of concept. So we did that, all while I was working at book publishing! Then a year or so after we made that, we got financing for the feature and then I was able to quit my job and focus more on filmmaking, and writing 100%.
The film is rather bold and daring but it still manages to find its funny moments and manages to turn complications into something short and sweet. Tell me, what was it like to balance and emerge comedy and religion into one?
Well, I really think the two go hand-in-hand, once you get to a certain point. I think there are plenty of criticisms on Catholicism and organised religion in general, and that’s not what this movie is. Instead, it’s picking one sort of aspect of it and one kind of approach which is this need for the teachers and the leaders to pass along these rules and these lessons that they aren’t even holding themselves accountable to. I think if they’re setting rules such as “don’t masturbate”, I mean they’re setting their congregation up for failure – which I think is a cyclical Catholicism does. But, yeah I think we’re just scratching the surface there. I didn’t want to dive deep into the bigger issues, so I wanted to keep it light and funny.
And it is a sex comedy, and I think a lot of people bristled at that due to the fact that it’s a lot gentler, more nuanced than average sex comedies. It’s not like American Pie, it’s very raunchy and I think female sexuality can be that but also a little more delicate. There’s a certain scene with the mop stick, but I think it’s just the way we approach it and the tone is that it’s not raunchy or sexy. It’s funny, and it’s weird and awkward, and that to me just felt really natural for what it felt like to be a teenager discovering your body.
I think that’s what makes the film so special. It’s also really rare for coming-of-age films to focus on a female perspective on body discovery. And I think Yes, God, Yes really shines in that light and makes it super relatable, which brings me to my next question: what would you like to see presented more in coming-of-age films in the near future?
I think generally they’re moving in a good direction; we’re getting a lot more female-focus coming-of-age stories that I think are realistic. Like Booksmart and Lady Bird, I really love The Edge of Seventeen because it does a really good job at showing Hailee Steinfeld’s character as a likeable but not morally upright teen, which is what teenagers are, and what people are, and what women are. It’s just complex characters that aren’t always doing the right thing – which is human nature.
So yeah, I think generally coming-of-age films are progressively getting better, I don’t think there’s anything I want to see in particular, but just more stories that resonate with me and something I can relate to as both a former teenager and thirty-five-year-old woman. I really find myself drawn to coming-of-age films as an adult because I still think there was such a hole when I was a girl of these types of films that I just mentioned. They’re normally more male-driven or the female characters are just used sexually or cast aside, so I think as a grown woman I love to see these films because I didn’t get to see them growing up. So I think the reason I see them is because more women are being allowed to make films, and I hope that continues.
Do you think for a first film in particular, it’s useful to have a personal connection to what you’re writing? In your case, Yes, God, Yes, largely reflects on your adolescence growing up as a Catholic. Do you think that’s a useful starting point for your first feature?
I think it is from a directing point of view, as I didn’t have any experience in that area. I didn’t come up with a PA, I didn’t spend a lot of time on film sets, I didn’t go to film school, so as a first-time director there’s a lot that you just don’t know. But thankfully I hired a really good crew that had really good communication and dialogue with me, so if I didn’t understand anything they could explain it to me, and I could ask questions and wouldn’t feel silly.
But the one thing the director has to do on set on their own is to communicate with the actors, and I felt because the story was so personal, I knew these characters really, really well. I started writing them in 2014, so I knew this world very vividly so it made communicating a lot easier. But most of all for me, it was really helpful.
One scene in particular that always comes to mind when I think of Yes, God, Yes is when Alice goes to Gina’s Bar and vents to a past-Catholic about the silly things they both thought they were gonna go to hell for. I think when Alice learns an alternative view on what it means to be a good person, I saw Gina as a guardian angel for her character that she has so desperately been waiting for. And I was just curious: was this scene in any way lifted from your own personal experience? Did you have someone like Gina for Alice that made you understand that you can change and decide for yourself?
Not particularly, that scene definitely didn’t happen to me. But there are reasons for my own life that that scene is in there, which is that when I turned eighteen I would go to a lot of gay bars and I always felt that they had a more welcoming and safer space than just a regular bar – especially as a young woman. So I knew setting the scene there would immediately feel like a womb-like space, especially as it was a lesbian bar. So I knew Alice would feel safe and also the Catholic church hasn’t been kind to gay people, so to make a gay person one of her “guardian angels” as you say, was really important to me.
The Gina character is sort of an amalgamation of several people I met over the course of two or three years while I was the age of 17 to 20, and it was them that started to get me thinking in a critical way – and that wasn’t something that I was taught growing up in a Catholic school, or really in my family. I was told that whatever I was told was the truth, and I was never taught to question things. And that was something I really had to learn as an adult, which was difficult in academic study and college where you’re literally meant to be critical. It was hard for me but I’m glad I did it, I figured it out. But really the Gina character is there as a sort of a symbol and stand in for all those people I met, who I found inspiring and triggered something in me to start thinking differently about the stuff I’d been told and how I’d been educated in an indoctrinated world.
Was there anything on set you learned while directing a coming-of-age film?
Yeah, so much! It’s funny because we shot this like two and a half years ago now so it’s really hard to rack my brain to get back there. But ultimately I think the most important is being able to think on your toes, which can be a bit scary for people like me who always like to plan. Sometimes on set I’d wonder if the props would be different, if things like the weather were going to change? There’s all these variables and you have to be able to turn on a dime and figure out how you’re going to make that work for whatever you need to get.
The actors are going to look to you to make sure they’re doing a good job, so you have to know what you want – which seems simple, but it can sometimes be tricky. I always think the first day on set is the worst because everybody on set is just trying to get into the flow and figure things out, and sometimes it takes a day or two to really get in there.
What made you want to dive deeper into the life of Alice?
Well it’s interesting because the short came later, and I started writing the feature first in 2014 and it was only when I decided to direct that I wrote a short version. So it was always going to be about discovering sexual pleasure as a young girl coming-of-age in a Catholic community and this retreat that she goes on to sort of deal with the guilt and shame when discovering masturbation. I always wanted to tell the story of sexual coming-of-age on your own, and also what it was like to go on this retreat (which is a real retreat I actually went on!) so in terms of delving deeper that doesn’t really apply simply because the short really was pulled out of the feature to make a condensed version of where she doesn’t go on the retreat.
What attracted you to cast Natalia Dyer as Alice? A character that very much resembles your life as a Catholic teen.
Natalia, I didn’t really know much about her when we cast her to be honest. Stranger Things season one had just come out, I hadn’t even watched it yet (I don’t think I even heard of it yet that’s how new it was) and my producer suggested her during the short, so I quickly went and watched the first episode and scrubbed through with just her scenes. I had no idea what the show was about, but I quickly saw that she was very talented and experienced so we sent her an offer with the script and she accepted pretty quickly. She didn’t tape herself or anything, but going into the first scene I was blown away because she just elevated this character to a place I couldn’t even imagine when writing it. So I was just in complete awe of her talent and what she was doing on camera and I immediately knew that I wanted her as Alice for the feature.
I also think the greatest thing about Natalia that made me so fond of her in her other roles is that she has great comedic timing! She’s super funny and super expressive with her face, which is really important for a role like this where her character doesn’t always have dialogue because a lot of what is happening is happening internally. So the fact that she was able to carry these scenes with just one or two words is really remarkable.
In a previous interview, you said “religion always has a curiosity and without it you lose yourself and sometimes life” which I think perfectly sums up how Alice and her peers feel throughout the film. For my last question, I’m curious – if there was one thing you wanted audiences to pick up from Yes, God, Yes, whether it be finding relief in religion or coming-to-terms with what you truly believe, what would it be and why?
I guess I just want people to see this other side of young women. I think a lot of people who aren’t women – men! – don’t really understand what we go through. They’re products of the same things we’re products of, which is a lack of education around female sexuality. So I’m not saying they’re fully at fault, they’re a victim of this as well, but I think everyone needs to learn that women are very sexual and have wants and desires, and can feel pleasure and want to feel pleasure.
I think that’s the main thing from a sexual coming-of-age story that I want people to take away, but from a religious component, it’s just the matter that everyone has a different relationship with what they believe and will come to it in different ways. So I don’t think everyone is going to relate to this experience, but I think a lot of people who were raised in a repressive and sort of religious institution will really click with it. And also for those who have a good relationship with religion will be able to see the other side of the coin, and what it might be like for people who didn’t think it’s very important. In the end, it’s a small slice of someone’s life and I think the more we get of different, varied, diverse stories on screen and on television, the better we’re able to understand each other.
Yes, God, Yes is available to purchase online.
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After an innocent AOL chat turns racy, a Catholic teenager in the early 00s discovers masturbating and struggles to suppress her new urges in the face of eternal damnation.