The impressive and incredibly articulate Lena Dunham took some time to talk about her film and her new life as Hollywood’s “it girl” of the moment.
Women And Hollywood: Why do you think this film has resonated so much? I saw it in August at a screening room and everyone was like, “Holy crap.”
Lena Dunham: That’s amazing for me to hear. My hope is that it makes sense to people because of this very specific time we’re living in, this recession era time. Graduating college has always been a challenge but it’s more of a challenge than ever. Also, the fact that my desire is that it sheds some kind of light on familial relationships in a different way than people have seen before and the life-meet-arts aspect of it. But also, I felt like part of the reason I made it, although I didn’t know it when I was doing it, I felt like there was time to see a certain kind of female character that we hadn’t met before. And it’s funny, so I hoped that women would respond to it. But its been really interesting with men also being responsive to seeing a girl more real, than I ever thought that they would be.
WaH: Why do you think we haven’t seen a character like this before? And what is the character? Is it that she is real?
LD: She’s real but she’s also really frustrating in a lot of ways. She’s not constantly endearing. She’s real and complicated, and weird and annoying, and all of those things. And for me, my hope is that the reason she resonates with people is because she feels like a multi-dimensional woman, she looks like people they might know, and she is behaving in ways we can all certainly relate to even if you haven’t committed her specific sins. It’s a way of behaving that makes sense to people. And I’ve seen a lot of complex male characters over the years, and there have been some women, but it’s probably because there are fewer women making movies. And there are more and more of them now. In some ways people have been more willing to forgive a male character’s flaws. And that’s probably something I’ll be unpacking for most of my career and trying to understand why that is and where you can take female characters that people try to not let you take them…trying to push those audience boundaries.
WaH: Explain the title to people.
LD: My mom is a professional photographer and this is a theme in her work, tiny furniture, although that’s never how she explains it. She works with miniatures and dollhouse furniture. I think my mom’s work deals with ideals of femininity. My mom grew up in the suburbs in the 1950’s and 1960’s in a very kind of idealized Jewish community on Long Island. She grew up in tudor style houses and country clubs and she’s always been sort of unpacking those ideas in her work and working with dollhouse furniture is a way to look at that on a smaller and bigger scale. For me it had this very literal meaning and it’s interesting to hear people’s metaphorical interpretation of it. I just heard one I liked a lot. Someone said that you come home from college and you’ve outgrown your single bed and your little chair and whatever ridiculous desk your parents bought for you when you were eleven… all sort of those ideas. You’re trying to make a life for yourself, it’s like your parents but different… There are lots of ways of reading it but it started out in this very literal piece of what my mom does.
WaH: There’s not a lot of women that do the writing, directing and acting. I’m thinking of you as a Woody Allen and Barbra Streisand.
LD: I read Barbra’s Streisand’s biography when I was in the fifth grade. She’s utterly inspiring and beautiful.
WaH: What makes you want to do all three of those pieces?
LD: For me it all comes from the writing. Then the desire to direct is the desire to have that kind of control over what I’ve written and to take my vision all the way to the end point. In terms of performing, I kind of felt like there has thus far been a space for me in my own work and the way that I understand these characters is a shorthand that I have with myself that another actress couldn’t bring to it. Acting is something I’ve always sort of enjoyed but I never wanted to consider myself an actress. I never got parts in school plays, I was never cast as a lead anything. I don’t fit into a specific Hollywood type. I’m not going to play someone’s most sassy best friend. I’m not going to be the leading lady in the romantic comedy. The kinds of parts that I even want to play, the parts that I enjoy playing, aren’t really available to me so I have to write them. I don’t think I’ll be acting forever but it’s really been amazing for me as a director and as a writer to get the chance to act. It gives you a unique understanding of the process.
WaH: Now that you’ve gone Hollywood. Have you felt any different kinds of pressure to step back from the acting? Any pressures about lookism and stuff like that out there?
LD: You know it’s interesting. Tiny Furniture isn’t my first film but it’s the first film that people I’ve been working with professionally and engaged with, they have a real understanding… in Tiny Furniture I look sloppier and more slovenly than I do in real life. I’m doing the full on thing. I made a choice there. So people saw me at my least glam and right out of the gate so anyone that wants to work with me understands what I’m going for. I like to look and feel pretty just as much as the next girl. When I go to a meeting I like to dress-up. Right now I want to look like a professional because I’m supporting something that I’ve done. But when it comes to characters, I want them to be honest depictions and I’ve been really lucky. They know that if they want a glamorous lead woman they have no reason to cast me.
WaH: I apologize for even asking that question. It’s like why do I even have to ask something like that?
LD: I completely understand. And in terms of pressures about the acting. I haven’t felt it because I’m working on this TV pilot and I’m in it and it’s sort of an extension of the stuff I’ve done before so they were expecting a similar character. But I also have a desire to step back form the acting because there are a lot of stories I want to tell that aren’t about me. I’d love to explore characters who are really far away from me and I’m not an actress who would stretch to plays those roles.
WaH: What has surprised you the most about this Hollywood experience?
LD: I’ve been working “professionally” for eight months. I’ve been shocked by how wonderfully open people have been and how much I’m allowed to be myself. I think I’m spoiled by the people that I’m working with.
WaH: No offense, but I’ve never seen this happen to a girl before and you didn’t even come out of the Sundance experience. Sometimes they’ll anoint a woman out of Sundance. But the fact that South by Southwest did that, and did it for a woman, this trajectory is fascinating because it does not happen to women.
LD: It’s been amazing. I’m very conscious of the fact that buzz goes away but I feel lucky that it opened the doors for me and just being able to work and be able to continue to do the thing that I love and tell stories that are meaningful to me. But I’ve been lucky because I’m working with amazing people who protected me and my voice.
WaH: Scott Rudin (producer of Dash and Lily’s Book of Dares which she will adapt) said you’re the real deal in an article. I haven’t read him say that very often.
LD: He’s amazing. I’ve been a mega-fan of his. His whole filmography to me is representative of what an amazing career can be – commercial hits, art house films. They have an honesty and integrity to all of them.
WaH: Do you feel pressure going from a small film where you have complete control to the next level? And what are the challenges?
LD: I actually enjoy it. Part of the reason I like making movies and not writing books or plays is that there is a social aspect to it and a political aspect to it that I appreciate. I also recognize that good notes can come from anybody. Judd Apatow told me that a good note can come from anyone and that you should stay open to everyone’s ideas, while also making sure every artistic choice you make you can stand by. It’s a really interesting challenge but I feel up for it. Of course there is pressure but there’s also something really nice about working with people who know what they are doing, have a track record, and can really respond to you as people who have seen a lot of these things go out into the world.
When I was making Tiny Furniture, there was a joy to that kind of freedom but there was also something terrifying by the fact none of us had really done this before. I feel like each of these things is a different year of film school for me.
WaH: HBO doesn’t produce a lot of women centric shows. And Judd Apatow is not known in general for his great female characters. Here you with these two organizations and taking them on the women’s road. How exciting is that?
LD: In terms of HBO, I went to talk to them and I had an idea about the world that I wanted to show and the girls I hadn’t really seen on TV before and they were incredibly open and responsive to that and these ideas that I had. Both girls that I cast are beautiful, complicated women who are multi-faceted and who I would like to watch grow and change for years to come.
As for Judd, I think he has gotten this wrap for this thing that in someway excludes women. But like me, his films, especially the ones he writes and directs, they’re super personal and people aren’t used to seeing that in big budgeted comedies and he’s a man. I think the comic roles that he’s written for his wife, Leslie Mann, are some of my favorite female roles around and I think there is so much beauty and heart and complexity in their collaboration. I feel like sometimes I write the one dimensional man because I make personal movies and I’m a woman and there’s a certain perspective I’m seeing through. Judd makes personal movies and he’s a man. I’m not one of the people who thought that he’d underwritten his female characters. I felt he was making personal movies with women he recognized. That being said, his expertise and understanding of medium of comedy and the medium of television, are things I can benefit from no matter what kind of story I’m writing.
WaH: Do you have any role models in Hollywood?
LD: I have role models all over. Women who I admire really run the gamut. If we’re going back in time, I love the work of Elaine May. If we’re jumping forward a little bit, Amy Heckerling made the first movie that was ever really inspiring to me. I’m a massive Tina Fey fan. I’m a massive Sarah Silverman fan. I’m a massive Kathryn Bigelow fan. There’s so many women whose work I love.
WaH: We had our first woman win an Oscar for directing this year. You’re a young woman entering this field. What does this say to young women that we hadn’t been anywhere close to wining for 82 years? And now that a woman has won, what does it say to young women today?
LD: I think it’s sort of the same thing like once there was a black president. We kind of couldn’t believe there wasn’t one before. That’s at least how I felt, I don’t know about the rest of the country. It was very resonant for me, Kathryn Bigelow winning. For me it was a really amazing thing to win South by Southwest the same year Kathryn Bigelow had won. It was meaningful for me to have that be the year my life as a filmmaker became exciting and active.
As for what it says to women – some women were sort of like she won for making a movie about men. But I was like, it was really fucking cool she won for making a movie that wasn’t about women. She didn’t make a woman’s interest film. She made a complex, interesting, sexy and intense action movie and that’s basically showing that there is no cap on what you can do.
WaH: What do you think you say to young women?
LD: When I work, its super personal, even when I’m not writing directly about myself. So I’m never thinking about is this character a role model? What are the themes of this? I sort of just make it and see what emerges later. I can see it either way. To some young women, they might be like, this girl is a drip. She doesn’t know herself. She’s mean to her friends. She has sex with boys who are jerks. What I hope it says is that there is a lot of navigating to do in your early twenties and really any time in your life when you’re trying to understand your own identity as a woman, as a human. I hope it feels like an accepting portrayal of that rather than just an annoying girl that you wouldn’t want to associate yourself with.
WaH: Is it very New York, do you think? Or is it universal?
I hope it’s universal. I’m from New York. I was born and raised here. To a certain extent that has shaped my aesthetic and sense of humor. I travel a lot with the movie now at this point, and I’ve seen it in different cities and countries, and it hopefully speaks to a range of experiences and that’s what I’ve been picking up on traveling with it. It’s not a love letter to New York but it’s sort of a distinctive New York story.
Tiny Furniture opens today.
Transcribed by Stephanie Webster