Q&A with Writer/Director Lena Dunham
Q: Lena, you are best known for making autobiographical work that draws on some version of your lived experience that you’re starring in, writing and directing. The two feature films that you made this year one can say are a radical departure from what you normally do. But from my point of view, they are so connected to who you are and what you care about. How did you find yourself in the material of this book, and then what did you find out about yourself when making it as a movie?
LD: That’s a wonderful question — I knew you would ask wonderful questions. We are often in a dialogue about making movies and that being the main thrust of our lives.
I read this book for the first time when I was ten, in 1996 –some of you, I am sure, have been to the Union Square Barnes & Noble, which is where I discovered this book. I found it on the “new releases” children’s paperback shelf. It was one of those things where, if you’re a kid and you just see the title of something and you know that you have a weird sort of feeling about it, a sort of intuition of what is going to interest you or excite you or feel new to you.
It was one of those things where I had started reading the book and literally had finished it by dinner. My dad had to guide me home because I was reading in the street, and it became my favorite and most-read book throughout my teenage years.
It has all of the ingredients that could excite a specific kind of weird pre-teen which is like, adventure to a foreign place, and feels adult but not too adult, and mostly it was her voice. I’d read a lot of narrators who felt a lot more aspirational to me, like the lovely girls in “Little Women” or Frances Hodgson Burnett books. But this was the first one that felt weird and wild and out of control. So when I started to think about making movies, I started to think about making this movie.
I got the rights to it ten years ago, and it was a process of finding the right collaborators, but also starting to understand on a deeper level why the book had impacted me so much when I was young. I think the answer that I kept coming back to was her feelings of outrage at being thrust into the body of a woman, the life of a woman, the expectations that come with that. I had never read anything that so closely mirrored my own experience of coming of age no matter when it was set.
Q: You loved Nineties YA movies — “Clueless”, “The Craft”, “Me Without You”, a British YA movie —
LD: You and I connected over a passion for “Me Without You”.
Q: — I loved that movie — and for anyone who is a Lena Dunham-head here, she curated this amazing series at BAM when “Tiny Furniture” came out.
LD: So it was in 2010.
Q: It was called “Hey Girlfriends”. I tried to look on the BAM website, but it was not archived. But it was all of Lena’s favorite inspirations for tiny furniture and it was such a good film series, many of which were old-school YA movies, you could say. So I’m curious why you loved those kinds of movies.
LD: Well, thank you for being the only truly committed attendee of “Hey Girlfriends”. I think the thing that I loved about that era of movies that were designed for teenaged girls — teenaged people, marketed towards them — was that there was a real honoring of the intelligence of young people.
Listen, I too watched and enjoyed “Twilight” and “The Hunger Games” with deep enthusiasm. But teenagers aren’t always virtuous or heroic, or engaged in a passionate relationship with a vampire. There’s just a messiness and a vastness to the interior life of teenagers. When movies honor that, and also allow young people to feel like they’re peeking at something that feels like they’re punching at something a little bit above their weight, that really excites me.
I also love when there’s space for weirdness and for a little bit of comedic body horror, because that’s what coming into your body is. That’s why “Freaky Friday” is so delightful, because really what “Freaky Friday” is — as a book and a movie — is like a metaphor for puberty, in a way, like waking up in a body that you don’t know.
But the thing that I wanted to try and harken back to was a little bit of that playfulness, where the teenager at the center didn’t have to have special powers or special skills, but that the intensity of their inner life and the comedy of that was enough to power the film.
Q: I think one of the things that’s so special about the film is the tone, which I really struggled to define but it’s so cool. I cried during the movie, I smiled throughout it. Her circumstances are horrifying, but also her form of resilience is so impish. It’s not bleak, but it’s not sweet. What would you say the tone of the film is, and how did you go about crafting that?
LD: Thank you for that review. It’s my dream review from my dream audience.
You were very, very helpful in letting me release myself from the idea that it needed to hit a preconceived tone. I think one of the reasons it took ten years to get made from the time that I got the rights was because it was very hard to pitch to people in a room. Like, “Oh, it’s a movie about a teenager who is [about] to enter into a forced marriage with a 55-year-old man. But it’s a comedy and it’s sweet and it’s cozy.”
There’s a lot of disparate elements there that don’t sound like they’re going to live together. Not to mention all of the tonal stuff that has to do with marrying in this kind of medieval world where in reality we would be speaking Chaucerite English and also wanting to bring in flourishes, with the music being lightly anachronistic but not overly anachronistic.
I had to allow myself to be okay with the idea that whatever my instincts were here were going to be right. There were many, many moments during the making of the movie — like what I said to the actors “You know what? If the words don’t feel right in your mouth, just loosen it up. You can say “hey” and “yeah” and “what””. Or what I said to the costume designers, “I want it to be totally historically accurate but also feel a little bit like they’re at Coachella.” These historical inconsistencies with the tone.
And then also really finding that emotional space where we were acknowledging the complete abject terror of being this child — because she is a child at this time in history — while also acknowledging that even people who are in the most dire circumstances experience the vast comedy of life. I just had to tell myself, Okay, all these things are going to go into the pot, and hopefully there will be soup at the end.
Q: There is. I think the big ingredient of the anachronism is the music, I think it’s perfectly calibrated, because if it was too anachronistic it would be heavy-handed. But Carter Burwell’s score and executive music producer-slash-husband Lu [Luis] Felber;s imagination of pop songs all strike that balance. Was music in fact the real ingredient to balance out historical accuracy?
LD: That’s what it felt was the most important way to make sure that we were creating a sort of even ground for the whole thing to live on. I’d wanted to work with Carter Burwell forever and I’m not alone in that. It’s not a particularly unique thing: I’d love to work with many-time Oscar nominee Carter Burwell.
But I had bugged him about a few projects, all of which he very politely declined, after I got his email address in a way where you want no one to get your email address and continually use it like that. Then when I told him about this, I think I said “It’s a period piece about getting your period” and he said, so then “I should make period period music”. That really tickled me.
It turned out he had wanted to do an all-female choral vocal score for a long time. He’d been trying to find, what would be the place where that could live? And this was the exactly right place for that to live.
Then the question was how I could also sneak in this idea of some of the pop music that had given me my biggest, grandest teenage feelings. So when I started talking to Luis executive-music- producer-slash-husband and his partner, Matt Allchin, about it I said “Is there a way for us to bring in lightly medieval instrumentation without it sounding like a joke?” Without it sounding like we have a Ren Faire band playing “Girl on Fire”. I feel like they really found that sweet spot where — I didn’t want it to sound like it was gimmick music.
He did this amazing stuff. They found this instrument, that — I would mangle it: an “Ondinet Citron.” It’s a truly medieval instrument that involves blowing through a long tube. They found actual wooden lutes. They really went for it in terms of trying to use the tools of the time. But then there’s also siths.
Q: What’s the song when they are riding the horse? That’s like the peak song.
LD: Mazzy Star — unless you mean when he comes in on the horse —
Q: No, when he’s riding through the forest —
LD: Yeah — Mazzy Star. Mazzy Star is like peak teenage emotion music to me. I once made out with someone in a graveyard at Mazzy Star, and I still think about it.
Q: Bella [Ramsey] is a revelation. I imagine you have to be a weirdo to have that kind of confident goofiness. Does she identify as a weirdo, did you recognize her as a weirdo, or did you have to coax out her freak flag for the part?
LD: It’s interesting. Bella is this fascinating mix of being this young consummate professional, because they had been working since they were eleven — literally working since eleven on the set of “Game of Thrones”. First job was a new lead on the biggest, most audacious series ever, and so is deeply professional and yet also still a teenager — and also a weirdo.
The minute I saw Bella’s picture — I felt like weirdos see each other, and I felt emanations of weirdo coming from her. Then when I actually sat down across from Bella, it was very, very clear to me that this was a person who was extremely connected to their inner life, extremely complicated in the right ways, and also really identified as a person who was working to find their place in the world.
I think the thing that we bonded over was that both of us feel we love what we do and feel incredibly safe in the context of a set and all the people around there. And then we can find ourselves in a group of five people and just melt down. (As you know, because I have cancelled three birthday parties you were planning to throw for me.)
I think Bella really understood that Birdy was not just a woman outside of her time, but was also a weirdo outside of her time. We talked a lot about the fact that if Birdy was around now, Birdy would be questioning sexuality, gender, have a side shave on their head, have a niche meme page that they didn’t want other kids at school to know that they had. We really tried to look at who this person would be now, and what about medieval life prevented them from being that person and what they could still express.
But then when it comes time for Bella to act, it’s just all instinct. It’s like, everybody get out of the f*cking way.
Q: “Tiny Furniture” was very much about a version of you in relation to a version of your mother, played by you and your mother. Everybody noticed and discussed the absence of a father figure in the film.
This film is very much at the heart of it — this relationship between a girl and her father. What did you see and recognize in that relationship from the book and how you brought that out with Andrew Scott?
LD: I have, as you know, an incredibly close relationship with my father. It was interesting, the reason that I didn’t have a father in “Tiny Furniture” was because he didn’t want to be in it. So I thought, well, I can’t have somebody else step in and play him. He’s also so uniquely himself, I don’t really know how to write him.
And then when I made “Sharp Stick” there was also no father, I think because there was this part of me that just didn’t know how. For some reason, it has been easy for me to find all different places, and writing my dad in his infinite specificity has been hard. And there was something about the act of adaptation in this book that already had this father-child relationship in it that freed me up to talk about what it feels like to be a young woman with a father in a way that I couldn’t when I was just shortly authoring something.
In the book, the father is depicted as much more brutish. He’s constantly burping and farting and screaming, and he’s hairy and he’s vitriolic. He’s not who you see when you see Andrew. Andrew and I started very quickly to tease apart what is another interesting version of a man who is making this choice at this time in history.
We started to talk about how patriarchy hurts everyone, including patriarchs, if we want to name it that way. It’s that he is experiencing a lot of discomfort also placing this young woman in this situation even though he is not a brave enough person to stand up and push back against it. And in the book, he doesn’t stand up and push back against it.
So as I worked with Andrew and as we talked, it was almost like these weird therapy sessions in which we just talked about fathers and fatherhood, and more and more about my relationship with my dad, how he thought about fathers came out and into the character, and this entire narrative of them being deeply connected while also deeply frustrated by each other emerged.
It’s a character who is changed the most drastically from the page, really all that remains is his name. But what was so nice was I think the adaptation almost tricked me into being able to talk about having a dad in a way that I never knew how to do before. And so much of that credit goes to Andrew, who is a genius and a beautiful person.
Q: So by moving away from explicit autobiography you’re free to actually examine fatherhood by not having to proximate your dad, who is very complex.
LD: That’s beautifully said. I think what’s exciting about fiction is that you can hide in it in all different ways. It’s what you said about having to find yourself in the subject matter.
I was always skirting the line between biography and fiction, and then when you enter into explicit fiction you get to hide. There’s fragments of my experience in all the characters in the movie, not just the women. That was like feeling infinite that way inside of your work is an exciting new experience that makes you feel like you’re up-leveling in a video. If writing is a video game, you’re making it to new levels.
Q: What would you wish to say, or what do you wish girls to feel when they [see Bella]?
LD: My dream is that young girls, young people, would see it and find some feeling of comfort.
The reason I think I loved historical fiction is I liked feeling like I was part of a lineage of experience. One of the few times that I did mushrooms in my life — in college, I stood there being like “I’m feeling a part of a lineage of powerful women.” Which is such a stupid college-age person. But that’s the reason that I loved historical fiction. And I loved the idea that certain feelings that I had sprung eternal.
And the idea that also maybe some people could feel transported, but also seen, and that if they were to watch the film with somebody who was older than them in their family, that they would be able to start conversations.
I think another interesting thing about YA is that if parts and children and grandparents and grandchildren read it or watch it together, it can make it possible to talk about things that are hard to express to the adults around you.
So those would be my wishes, and what really freaks me out is that a lot of people who were my age when they found the book are probably now parents of kids who are approaching the age of Birdy in this movie. That makes me feel old as hell.
Q: Thank you.
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Here’s the trailer of the film.
It will release in selected theaters on September 23, 2022, by Amazon Studio is streaming on Prime Video on October 7, 2022.