Maggie Carey directing Aubrey Plaza in The To Do List
When writer-director Maggie Carey chose to set her coming-of-age sex comedy The To Do List in 1993 — the year she graduated from high school — she was so intimately familiar with that era that she didn’t consider the fact that she was making a period movie. It wasn’t until she sat down with the film’s line producer, who is in charge of breaking down the script into a workable budget, that she began to understand what she’d gotten herself into.
“I have a lot of specifics in the movie, like the Ford Festiva,” she says. “And the line producer was like, ‘You don’t understand. You can’t just go get that car.’”
The decision to set the film 20 years ago — yes, 1993 was 20 years ago, let’s all deal with it and move on — wasn’t just borne out of Carey’s own nostalgia for that time in her life, however. The film follows straight-laced high school valedictorian Brandy Klark (Aubrey Plaza) as she spends the summer after graduation in a crazed-yet-highly-organized quest for sexual experience before starting college in the fall. And it is much more plausible that an intelligent and resourceful 18-year-old girl would not know what, say, “motor boating” was in the pre-internet era. “It actually kind of fit the idea that she’s slow to get information, as we all were in the ’90s,” says Carey.
But with a budget just under $2 million — a nearly impossible sum for a period movie — Carey and her production team also had to be quite resourceful to nail all the right details of the early 1990s. Especially since the film’s setting — Carey’s home state of Idaho — made pin-pointing the early 1990s a little trickier. “1993 in Idaho is more like 1988 in the rest of the country,” says Carey. “We used my high school yearbook to really pick the looks. It really does look like 1988.”
Here are nine examples of how Carey brought her film back to the time of Bill and Hillary Clinton and highly questionable fashion and hair.
1. Ford Festiva
Finding this staple “first car” for early ’90s kids was surprisingly difficult, says Carey, since it’s not exactly an in-demand item for vintage car collectors. “We had to buy it — we couldn’t rent it,” says Carey. “I think it was $150. It was actually incredibly expensive for us, but worth it.”
2. Trapper Keeper
“That was something that I had always wanted myself in high school,” says Carey. “I really like things organized, and the Trapper Keeper has all the folders and special places for things. It was too expensive. I’m one of four kids, so you would just get the school supplies from the older kids. I just had to have a plain three-ring binder.”
Some things never change: Carey says finding a Trapper Keeper that looked relatively new cost the production around $20 on eBay — “which was really a lot of money for our movie, so I have kept it.”
3. Swatch Phone
“In the ’90s, that was such an incredible invention,” says Carey of the phone where both the receiver and the cradle were working phones. “So your friend can listen in on your phone call or you can both talk on the phone call,” says Carey. “That was so high-tech for us. Just being on the phone and phone calls were such a big deal in high school.” Carey ended up cutting the scene that used the phone, but she was so proud of finding one that she slipped it into the film’s opening titles instead.
“I had a fantastic costume designer, Trayce Gigi Field,” says Carey. “We didn’t want to go too broad because we are not parodying the ’90s. It just needed to feel real, and the skorts she found were so perfect. They’re this great wash of denim, and they have that zipper. That was just such an incredible find.”
5. High-Waisted Jeans
“Can I complain?” says Carey when the topic of all the high-waisted jeans in her film is raised. “OK, when I was in high school, I was really athletic. I had great abs, but we had high-waisted jeans that covered that. Now that I’m in my 30s, everything is low-rise, and I would like to say, ‘No thank you.’ I hit the wrong side of the fashion trends in terms of jeans, and it’s actually very upsetting. I wish that high-waisted jeans with some pleats would come back into fashion.”
6. Oversize Shirts
“The size we wore clothes in the ’90s were so much bigger,” says Carey. “When she went in for her first fitting, Aubrey liked the clothes, but she kept asking the costume designer to take them in and to have them a little more tailored. I literally took my high school yearbook and showed her all these photos of my friends and I from high school, and I was like, ‘Aubrey, we shopped at the boys’ section of the GAP in the ’90s. Even if you bought a small, it fit like a men’s XL.’ That was the look. Another favorite was the tank top with these giant armholes. You would wear it with a sports bra, so if you were already flat, the sports bra just made you even flatter. So that was fun.”
7. Loud and Colorful Men’s Print Silk Shirts
“Here’s the thing: It didn’t really dawn on me how terrible some of the fashion was,” says Carey. “Once they came out of their trailer in wardrobe — trailer meaning cardboard boxes that we had on set for them — I was like, ‘Ohhhh.’”
Carey was especially fond of the bright yellow overalls worn by Donald Glover in the film, since they brought back a potent high school memory. “The week before school starts is when the Western Idaho Fair happens, and that’s where you see all the people you didn’t see all summer, mostly the boys,” she says. “Everyone wears their back-to-school clothes. Even though it’s about 110 degrees, super hot, I still would wear my Esprit sweater. There was a guy I had a crush on, and he was wearing white overalls with the strap unhooked. That was high fashion for us. It does have a little bit of the Fresh Prince kind of feel to it. Donald wore those perfectly.”
8. Half-naked Scott Porter
You may think Scott Porter’s constant shirtlessness as Brandy’s lust object Rusty Waters would be completely unrelated to the film’s period details. And you would be wrong.
“It’s absolutely related!” says Carey. “The movie’s from a female point of view. People have asked, like, ‘It’s a rated-R comedy, but there’s no nudity?’ And I was like, ‘There clearly is!’ Poor Scott Porter had to keep his shirt off for half the movie. To me, that was the equivalent of when you see the cheerleader in Sixteen Candles, and she’s showering, and the girls are wishing that they had a chest of any size. That was the first nudity I ever saw. And I was like, ‘[Scott Porter] is my nudity.’ I guess it’s the female gaze. But poor Scott Porter. He was a trooper.”
9. Early ’90s Slang
While Donald Glover handled saying “Boo-ya” with style, Carey says that Aubrey Plaza found it tricky naturally speaking some other ’90s slang — especially the words “No doy.”
“I was like, ‘It’s just being sarcastic. Like, no doy,’” says Carey. “No duh is kind of [what we meant], but we would say ‘no doy.’”
Any other words from that bygone time that Carey slipped into the film? “We said ‘scam’ a lot, but for us, scamming meant hooking up. It would be like ‘Did you scam last night?’ or ‘Did you get bonus last night?’ But that did not mean ‘have sex.’ That meant ‘did you make out?’ But that’s a regional difference, because I had other friends who grew up in California, and they would say ‘scam’ or ‘bonus,’ but that meant ‘have sex.’ But in Boise, Idaho, it kinda meant ‘Did you hold hands?’”
Since Plaza was still in grade school in 1993, she had to take a leap of faith that Carey wasn’t making her sound ridiculous. “I would be like, ‘Just trust me,’” says Carey. And it all paid off earlier this week at the film’s premiere in Los Angeles. “I had my three best high school girlfriends there, and five of my former [college] soccer teammates came, too. We all sat in a row, and Aubrey sat right behind us, and they laughed at every little specific detail — which, honestly, that’s the whole reason I made the movie, so my friends would laugh. Aubrey afterwards was like, ‘Maggie, I know you told me, but I had no idea, and it was so fun to sit behind them and just hear them get every single reference. It all makes sense now.’”