Though she’d made another feature and numerous short films, writer-director Lena Dunham became more widely known to filmgoers when her comedy Tiny Furniture rose out of the South By Southwest film festival to considerable acclaim. Numerous feature stories followed. Some focused on the fact that Dunham had cast her family members—including her artist mother Laurie Simmons—in the film and used her family home as a location. Others tried to puzzle out where Dunham fit into the worlds of contemporary comedy and independent filmmaking. From there, Dunham connected with Judd Apatow, who agreed to produce a show she subsequently sold to HBO. That show, Girls, debuts in April, while Tiny Furniture is newly out on DVD from the Criterion Collection. Dunham talked with The A.V. Club about the process of becoming a Criterion Collection film, how to depict using computers in a cinematic fashion, and the perils of dressing up as Louis C.K. for Halloween. Note: Though the show is not terribly plot-heavy, this interview does contain some minor spoilers for Girls.
The A.V. Club: How does the whole Criterion thing happen?
Lena Dunham: It really does kind of feel like I’m joining the Skull and Bones club. You get a call, like, “Criterion may be interested,” and then I went to Criterion and there was an interview process, and they asked me who my favorite directors were. And I was so sure that I had flunked whatever the test was because they’re so smart and their references are amazing. Criterion’s amazing because you go to the offices, and it’s like cool film nerds with perfect references and good shoes. There’s just no way I could have gotten that right.
And then, once we had sort of had a conversation whether it would fit at the label and what other materials I could provide—which is my first feature, which is on the DVD, and some of my shorts—they kind of gave it the go-ahead. And then there was a kerfuffle last year because someone blogged that it was going to come out and everyone online went insane. A lot of people have opinions about what is and isn’t Criterion-worthy, so I feel like I’ve gotten more hate-tweets about Criterion than anything else. But I feel so lucky that it’s on the label.
AVC: I feel like if The Rock is Criterion-worthy, anything is Criterion-worthy.
LD: I kind of wanted to tweet that, but I felt like it couldn’t come from me. I wanted to basically pay a friend to ghost-tweet, “Hey guys, they did put out…” I think they also did Armageddon, which is an awesome movie, but…
AVC: You have absolutely no fear of appearing unflattering on screen. Where do you think that comes from?
LD: It’s weird, it’s almost like this thing I’ve had since I was little where I have the reverse reaction, where I’m like, “If you’re going to judge me, then I’m going to wear the worst thing and be up in your face.” My mom always tells a story about a time when I didn’t like anything that I had packed on the trip, so I wore weird, hot pink spandex pants to the Vatican. It was like, “I don’t have any clothes I like, so up yours, I’m going to wear these pink spandex pants.” [Laughs.] It’s just not one of my big anxieties. I sometimes have embarrassment about it in hindsight, but then I do it again.
AVC: Was there a time in any of your films or in the show where you were like, “I don’t know if I’m ready for this”?
LD: Yeah, you know it’s funny, there’s a scene in Girls that comes later in the season that is really—I don’t want to give away a spoiler—but Hannah sort of tries to seduce somebody who she shouldn’t try to seduce. It wasn’t nude. It wasn’t sexual, but it was just emotional content that was new for me and was sort of an idea we had come up with in the writers’ room, and I was really glad that I had done it, but it felt raw and strange enough that I was trying desperately to think of an excuse on the set why we did not need the scene. [Laughs.] I could really feel myself rebelling, but it’s a little bit like, sometimes the thing you’re scared of is the thing you need to do the most.
AVC: Your films and the show are very much about sort of aimless 20-somethings, and yet you are obviously anything but. How do you tap into that aimlessness?
LD: I think I definitely feel it. And even if it doesn’t exactly manifest itself in my professional life right now, I definitely feel just that confusion, that, “What am I supposed to be doing, and how am I supposed to be behaving? What is my place in all of this?” I definitely—when I first got out of college—was, “Should I be trying to write for a magazine?” And of course, all of my career plans were completely things that are extinct, and I was like, “Should I try to write for magazines? Should I be a novelist? Should I try to join a band?” Of course, there was no “Should I go to med school?” And I’m still, in the show, kind of processing an earlier experience of confusion. With the movie—it was very immediate—I made the movie after probably the least focused, most searching year of my life.
AVC: How did you land on scriptwriting?
LD: I had always written. I had written stories and poems. Then I started writing plays. I love writing and I want to make stories that people can act out, but with plays, I was sort of—well, you only do them once, and then you have to do it again. There’s a permanence to this and a craft that I’m excited about. So, I started making shorts. I made my first short when I was 19, and then after that, I became kind of addicted to the process.
AVC: Have you talked to other people who make online shorts?
LD: I haven’t. You know, when I first started making online videos, there were a lot of filmmakers I befriended who were doing it too. I watched Joe Swanberg’s webseries, Young American Bodies, and really loved what he was doing and emailed him. My friend, Josh Safdie, who’s part of the Red Bucket Films collective, he and I made online videos together. It wasn’t like we were necessarily looking for insane viral success. We were looking for some kind of audience. So yeah, I don’t know anyone else—I mean, there are people, but I don’t know anyone else intimately who sort of started out just making weird little YouTube shorts. It’s a very sort of modern way to begin your film career. Richard Shepard, he did an episode of Girls, [he] talks about making Super 8 videos in high school and projecting them at friends’ houses. It almost feels like that is the precursor to doing that.
AVC: You seem both fascinated and repulsed by 20-somethings being really interested in themselves. Do you think that’s stretched back for as long as people have been in their 20s?
LD: [Laughs.] I think that people in the phase between being someone’s kid and being someone’s parent have always been uniquely narcissistic, but that social media and Twitter and LiveJournal make it really easy to navel-gaze in a way that you’ve never been able to before. People taking pictures of what they eat and showing them on their Facebook. People assume that people have a level of interest in what they’re doing that’s maybe far greater than it is, although there is an audience for all that stuff. I totally read the US Weekly where they tell you what Kim Kardashian has for every single meal and I purchased it specifically to read that. [Laughs.]
AVC: Do you subscribe to personal blogs and Twitter feeds?
LD: I was definitely into personal blogs when I was younger. I never had a LiveJournal, but I was obsessed with reading other people’s LiveJournals. I didn’t really have the boldness to have a LiveJournal and think there would be an audience for it. But Twitter feeds, I subscribe to lots of them, and my favorite ones are not the Deadline Hollywood Twitter feed or a New York Times feed. My favorite ones are the ones where people are telling me what they’re watching and the most intimate habits of their day. And that’s sort of what I use my Twitter feed for, too.
AVC: You’ve resisted Tiny Furniture being labeled as mumblecore. Why is that?
LD: I was excited by that label when I first heard it. Seeing those movies, I was excited by the idea of a collective of—we’re all making movies in similar ways and using each other. And Tiny Furniture was definitely influenced by some of that, but I think the term “mumblecore” implies unscripted, un-shotlisted, a sort of anti-filmmaking aesthetic that we were trying to go directly against with Tiny Furniture. My cinematographer Jody Lee Lipes, who I work with on Girls as well, we were incredibly precise about the way it was shot, and so I felt like in some ways, calling it mumblecore maybe did a disservice to the work that he had done, the idea of doing something scripted. That being said, I love those movies, so if I’m lumped in with them, it doesn’t bum me out.
AVC: What were some movies and directors you looked at before you were making the film?
LD: There’s so many films I love. It’s weird. The first film I saw that made me understand that there were people who made movies was A League Of Their Own. It was the first movie where I was like, “Oh, this movie is awesome, and somebody made it.” And then Clueless, and then This Is My Life, a Nora Ephron movie. I kind of look at these touchstone movies as I grew up. I remember [seeing] The Graduate and thinking, “Oh, there’s a production designer.”
In terms of making this movie, the thing that made me think, “Oh, I could make a movie, and I might have something to say that’s worthy,” and that made me make my first feature, which is on the DVD, is Andrew Bujalski’s movie Funny Ha Ha, which I just loved. I was so amazed he was getting away with what he was getting away with. After that, the movies that I looked at for Tiny Furniture were… Party Girl was a movie that I thought about a lot. It’s just this girl who realizes that she can’t just fritter her life away. She has to figure something out. Manhattan and Annie Hall, Jody and I looked at a lot because of the Gordon Willis cinematography and the way they depicted New York. Elaine May movies, Whit Stillman movies, Noah Baumbach’s Kicking And Screaming. It’s funny, I watch a lot of movies, but when it’s time to be in production, I tend to start consuming Grey’s Anatomy and other media that has nothing to do with what I’m doing. Although last year, when I was writing Girls, I watched too much Grey’s Anatomy, and that creepy voiceover started to come in, so I had to quit.
AVC: I’ve heard a lot, especially women under 35, who list A League Of Their Own as a touchstone for them. What is awesome about A League Of Their Own?
LD: That feeling that this is a baseball team of women getting to do something women have never done before is really… They captured it perfectly in that movie, and so it can kind of give you that feeling of, “I have this feeling after seeing A League Of Their Own, women can do anything.” My mom would always sort of preach that to me, and this made me understand. I think the other way it’s awesome is it’s a really amazing ensemble where you’re with each character, and it’s complicated female friendships, and then there’s also just enough sex and just enough cursing. I also love any movie where you see the characters and then the characters when they’re, like, 70. I was just obsessed with, “Wait, that’s Rosie O’Donnell grown up?” And, Madonna’s beautiful song at the end, “This Used To Be My Playground.”
AVC: A lot of the stories when Tiny Furniture was released really focused on the fact that you had family members in the film. Did you ever get sick of hearing that repeated over and over?
LD: Well, I kind of thought to myself when I was doing it, “Okay, this is either going to be great and people aren’t even going to notice they’re my family members, or at the very least, this will be a big part of the story—the fact that they’re my family members.” And, I was sort of okay with either result. And you know, I’m very proud of the fact that they’re my family. What I’m really proud of is that people watch the movie, and they say, “I didn’t know. I loved it. I found out later that they were your mom and sister,” because you kind of don’t need to know that family relationship to appreciate the dynamic that’s happening on screen. And neither of them are actors. They really kind of turned it out.
AVC: Does that help in the independent film world, to have that sort of hook?
LD: When you’re taking a movie to festivals, and there’s so much… It’s kind of the same with YouTube. When you’re putting a movie on YouTube, there’s so much noise to get through to find your audience. I think it’s the same at film festivals. There’s a lot of incredible movies at South By Southwest every year with really impressive stories about how they were made behind all of them, and I do think having that little weird hook of like, “Hey guys, that’s my real mom,” is helpful. I think once people see the movie, they’ll evaluate it on its own, but it is helpful to get people into the theater.
And I always love a movie with a backstory. I’m always really into it. I always loved those disastrous movies where a couple really met and fell in love on set. That’s totally why I went to the theaters and saw Gigli despite everybody warning me not to.
AVC: You make movies and shows about a generation that’s very interested in technology and expressing itself through technology. How are you working through ways to depict that? It’s such an inherently un-cinematic thing, typing at a computer.
LD: We talk about that a lot. It’s really about trying to show the emotional impact of waiting for a text or sending out a tweet that makes you self-conscious, or getting a really mean email. It’s about showing the implications of that in your life, rather than the moment of delivery. When I was writing it, I was definitely trying to think of cute visual ways to express texting and to express those modes of communication, and then I realized there’s actually no need for that, because if we’re doing our job right, people will just kind of feel it. It’s inherently un-cinematic and I hate nothing more than an insert shot of a phone, although it’s necessary sometimes. And so just trying to figure out how could we really make the way this affects their lives felt rather than the act itself.
AVC: There’s a scene in the third episode of Girls where Hannah is sitting there and trying to compose a tweet and keeps deleting it because she’s not happy with what it says. It’s almost like voiceover or a musical number, where you can express emotions more directly and people will buy what’s going on.
LD: That’s such a great analogy, because it is. It’s like the moment in episode three, when Hannah tweets out her feelings about her gay boyfriend, her HPV. That was a moment when her Twitter allows her to really state her perspective on what’s just happened in the way that a facial expression would be more ambiguous. You’re totally right. That is its function. Also, the function is to kind of obscure people’s connections. The fact that Hannah can only reach her significant other via text message is almost a metaphor for the fact that they can’t really figure out how to connect with each other.
AVC: So do you watch a lot of TV?
LD: I do. I love TV. And when we’re in production, I get to watch very little, so then the rest of my life I like to OD, and there’s a lot of really good stuff on right now.
AVC: Did you have TV shows you looked to when you were coming up with this show?
LD: I think that we didn’t have a direct role-model, but TV shows that we talked about a lot and TV shows that we loved… I mean, I love Mary Tyler Moore, Rhoda. I love Friends, My So-Called Life, Freaks And Geeks, and Undeclared, both Judd Apatow shows. I’m a huge Aaron Sorkin fan. I just love watching those for structure and his skill with making so much happen within the frame of one episode. I also love more direct, absurd comedy like Strangers With Candy or Gilda Radner on SNL. Even now I’m really inspired watching Louie, and also the way Homeland has a really kind of harsh female lead. Also New Girl for how it feels like this modern version of the daffy sitcom formula, so there’s a lot that’s inspiring to me.
AVC: I was actually going to ask if you were aware of Louie, because this show strikes me as somewhat similar.
AVC: Oh that’s marvelous.
LD: [Laughs.] Thank you. Except that I have to tell you that going to a party where everybody is dressed as a sexy cat and you’re dressed as Louis is not… You feel better in your home than you do when you get to the party.
AVC: Are there other writers on the show besides you and Jenny and Judd?
LD: Yeah, there are. We have other writers. We really use the writers’ room as a place to test ideas and get experiences. I mean, we have three female writers, who are Deb Schoeneman, Lesley Arfin, and Sarah Hayward all of whom—well Deb was on the staff of 90210: The New Class—but besides that, they’re new to television, and really what they have is, they’re amazing writers, but they have a really great perspective on this period of life. So we really kind of rap a lot in the room about what we are going through, what we have been through, and then we also work with Bruce Eric Kaplan, who worked on Six Feet Under, who’s a New Yorker cartoonist known as BEK, and he writes really marvelous children’s books too. Our staff is really a motley crew in a certain way. Our staff is a ragtag gang. [Laughs.]
AVC: Was there a part of you that wanted to do the Louis C.K. thing and write and direct every episode, or was that just physically impossible?
LD: Yeah, I mean, clearly it’s physically possible because Louis does it and he edits them and sometimes composes music—so he’s off on his own tip. And there is a part of me—the control-freak part of me, except I get so much pleasure from the collaboration of the show, and it’s not just an ease thing. I think the show is better because other people are involved and because it doesn’t… For a show about navel-gaze-y people, having a group of people creating it makes it feel less that way. I think that I wouldn’t trade the collaborative experience for all the solo glory in the world. It’s really great.
AVC: Was there a character in the show that that collaborative process helped you find? [Minor spoilers for Girls follow. —ed.]
LD: Yeah. One example is Shoshanna, who’s the Sex And The City-obsessed character who we find out in episode two has not lost her v-card. She is a character who was supposed to be in the pilot and maybe pop in another time. But Zosia Mamet came to us and she had such a fully formed idea of this character that we fell in love with her and couldn’t let her go. That character really came out through Zosia’s improvisations and her feeling of the character. And also the character Adam, who was kind of written as like a sleazy boyfriend Example A, Adam Driver came in and gave him this oddness, and maybe not everyone will agree with this—he’s by no means a good boyfriend—but there’s a sort of weird sweetness to him that definitely came from the actor. Every part, including my own, was adjusted on set based on who we are and what we can do.
AVC: Obviously the show is called Girls, but the male characters are well-defined within the show’s universe. They’re also sort of more interested in a relationship than they’d traditionally be in a show of this type, especially in the case of Charlie. How did that structure come about?
LD: I think that I had had a real-life example of a friend who had a boyfriend who was the greatest, just not the greatest for her. And the more he loved her, the more she pulled away. The more he loved her, the more disgusted she was, and it was sort of this tragic but hilarious dynamic, and meanwhile, at that point, I was involved in a relationship that was pretty one-sided, me being the one side. Then, looking at the experiences of my friend and I, being these really polar-opposite relationships but having this sort of same experience of feeling lonely and misunderstood in love, was really fascinating to me, and the idea sort of took off from there.
As we talked in the writers’ room and as I meet people, it feels like everybody has an Adam in their life. Everybody has a Charlie in their life. I always talk about, coming from My So-Called Life, the Jordan Catalano and Brian Krakow paradigm: the guy who’s bad and you kind of know he’s bad but you want to fix him, and the guy who’s sort of nerdy and too on you and you should probably end up with him when you’re 35. And then in Felicity, it was Ben and Noel. Here, it’s not one girl battling with these two sides of herself. It’s two different girls having these experiences.
AVC: In episode two you deal very frankly with abortion, which is something that even cable networks are often loath to deal with. Was there any pushback from HBO on that?
LD: Their openness about what we wanted to discuss was incredible. I think HBO also understood that with the abortion show, we really weren’t trying to push any kind of agenda. We were just trying to explore an issue that is really present in the lives of girls this age, and to look at the fact that, really, the way that a dramatic situation like this calls them all to make it completely about themselves. That’s been my experience of when friends are called together over a traumatic issue. They’re there for each other, but also become completely obsessed with what it means to them. So no, HBO was really our partner in this. HBO basically said, “Go with God” on the abortion front. It’s pretty amazing.
AVC: So they do have some amount of input in the creative process?
LD: I’d say that they leave us alone, and when they do have input, it’s actually incredibly helpful. You go, “Oh, you’re HBO for a reason. You have all this experience and have made these shows we love, so when you have a note we want to listen.”
AVC: What’s your order for season one?
LD: Our order is 10 episodes. So we finish them and now we’re back—HBO has not picked up the show—but we have been allowed to go back into the writers’ room and start plotting, so we’re doing that.
AVC: What do you see as the arc of season one, without spoiling, obviously?
LD: I think for each of the characters it’s different. I think for all of the girls, they’re getting further away from college and feeling more of a panic about establishing their place in the world. I feel as though it’s Marnie figuring out that she can’t control the world—she needs to loosen up and will be happier in doing so. Shoshanna’s attempt to figure out how to have sex and what that even means, whether that’s going to make her a fully formed person. And Hannah starts out the season with this assumption that the world is just going to provide for her, and is then left grappling with that realization and realizes also that if she doesn’t put in the work as a friend, as a writer, as a girlfriend, she’s not going to get back the results she needs, but of course she’s not self-aware enough to totally see that. And then Jessa, it’s sort of like, what is behind a free spirit? What is behind that person who acts as though they can float through the world comfortably? So there’s those personal character arcs and then all together just the drum of, “Oh, there’s some urgency to us figuring out what we have to do next.”
AVC: Shoshanna’s a virgin, and obviously Judd Apatow has the most famous adult-virgin story…
LD: It’s almost impossible to find a virgin joke that he has not done, and better.
AVC: How did you approach that arc? Because you do approach it with a lot of sensitivity.
LD: I mean, it was a reveal, but it was also just trying to think about why this girl would be a virgin, what her fears relating to sex are, and also the fact that part of why she’s staying a virgin is because she has a standard of how she wants it to happen. She wants to be connected to the person, she wants to let them know that she hasn’t had sex before—the way guys react to that, which is not just like, “Oooh, hot, a virgin,” but their own weird, complicated reaction. So I think that it’s funny, how similar 22-year-old-virgin and 40-year-old-virgin jokes really are.
AVC: You said the arc of season one and the arc of the show is them growing up, and I guess the end would be when they grow up. How do you think people know when they’re grown up?
LD: I’m guessing that it’s impossible, but I think that this show is—I’d like to say that it’s about growing up, but also just about trying to find a comfortable place to rest. I think they all feel like they’re running as fast as they can on a treadmill and don’t really know what the end goal is. I once tweeted a tweet where I was like, “You know you’re grown up if you take your clothes to the tailor’s so that it’ll have a better fit,” and someone was like, “No, you know you’re an annoying white person if you take your clothes to the tailor,” so clearly, I have no clue.