One-On-One Q&A with Lena Dunham
Writer/Director, Tiny Furniture
Interview by Erin Scherer
This interview has been a long time coming. I’ve been wanting to interview Lena since I met her at SXSW 2009, when her first feature, Creative Nonfiction, played at the festival. We had initially tried to do the interview this past March, while she was doing sound sync with Tiny Furniture. I’d used my digital recorder, and Lena had to cut out after thirty minutes. When I went to play it back, I could barely hear what I recorded.
A few days later, Lena took Tiny Furniture to SXSW, where she took home two awards: the Emerging Director Chicken & Egg Award, and the Jury Prize for Best Narrative Feature. Since then, Tiny Furniture has taken home the Indie Visions award at the Sarasota Film Festival. Meanwhile, after more than a year of looking for work, I finally landed a full-time job. Late last month, IFC Films picked up Tiny for distribution, and will play at BAM! CinemaFest in June. Lena is one busy lady these days, and we here at TFPN are very grateful to nab an interview with her!
Erin: Your degree from Oberlin is in Creative Writing. A Google search reveals you once published a literary magazine called The Dead Horse Review . How did you become interested in making movies?
Lena: I’ve always written, since I was a small child. I had lots of poetess fantasies, which was where my literary magazine dabblings factored in. But when I made my first short, it became clear this was the medium for me. I had been exposed by seeing my mother at work on her first film, The Music of Regret, and the process moved and excited me.
Erin: Your first endeavor into film production was a short called “Dealing”. You followed that with your first web series, Tight Shots. How did that come about?
Lena: I had seen Joe Swanberg’s web-soap, Young American Bodies, on Nerve and wondered if perhaps I could make a web sitcom. I approached Nerve and was lucky enough to get a response about my concept. The budget was tiny but there was a budget nonetheless and I worked with people I adore to this day, the Red Bucket Films crew.
Erin: In Tight Shots, I noticed similarities between that show and Curb Your Enthusiasm. For example, most of the characters on both shows have the same names in real life, and often are putting themselves in questionable situations. What is your familiarity with that show, and was Tight Shots influenced by Curb in any way? The first time we tried to do this interview, you mentioned Living In Oblivion, and now having seen that film, I see similarities there as well.
Lena: I loved Curb Your Enthusiasm. I wasn’t consciously summoning it, but it does fit nicely into my interest in the life/art divide. I did think about Living In Oblivion more consciously—like, let’s see that movie in/about the digital age.
Tight Shots: Episode 1
Erin: There are two stories in Creative Nonfiction. First, there is your character Ella’s real life, and then there’s a dramatization of the screenplay she’s writing. Was the fictional story something you had written first, and then you built the story around it? Or did you write that script from scratch?
Lena: I’m embarrassed to say that the fictional story is a script I started and abandoned. It was just awful, and deserved mocking in the form of the meta-narrative.
Erin: Are there any plans to put Creative Nonfiction on DVD?
Lena: I hope to make it a special feature on a DVD release of Tiny Furniture, so we’ll see!
Scene from Creative NonfictionErin: How did Delusional Downtown Divas happen? You already had a venue with Index Magazine, which is run by your co-star’s Isabel’s father, Peter Halley. What was the impetus?
Lena: Isabel and Joana and I grew up together downtown and share a certain comic sensibility—we literally sit around just making ourselves crack up. I wanted to capture this unity for posterity and use it to lambaste a topic each of us has a unique perspective on—the New York City art world.
Delusional Downtown Divas, Season 1, Episode 2
Erin: How much “truth” is in Delusional Downtown Divas? Are the characters based on anyone you know? Are certain aspects of the characters based on things that you don’t like about yourself?
Lena: I always write from life, but to varying degrees—these characters are the most absurd and cartoonish parts of us, in the most decadent situations. It’s very sitcom.
Lena: Our editor and DP is a friend of Cory’s and they happened to be in Miami together for an art fair (I didn’t direct that scene!)
Erin: You were also working on a script with Ry Russo-Young, whom we interviewed before last year’s SXSW. Also, you worked on a script with your mother that made the first round of the Sundance Lab. What’s the current status of both projects?
Lena: My mother and I wrote a script that was a real pleasure to create but it’s been put on hold as we each work on other things. Ry and my project, Nobody Walks, was selected for this summer’s Sundance screenwriter’s lab and Ry hopes to direct it soon.
Erin: What was it like to be chosen as the “25 New Faces” by Filmmaker magazine?
Lena: It was exciting! An honor. I’d always read that list with great fervor so it was surreal to be on it.
Erin: For those of us who haven’t already seen it, tell us a little bit about your new movie, Tiny Furniture.
Lena: I’ll give you the synopsis, as it does a better job than I alone can:
22-year-old Aura returns home to her artist mother’s TriBeCa loft with the following: a useless film theory degree, 357 hits on her YouTube page, a boyfriend who’s left her to find himself at Burning Man, a dying hamster, and her tail between her legs. Luckily, her trainwreck childhood best friend never left home, the restaurant down the block is hiring, and ill-advised romantic possibilities lurk around every corner. Aura quickly throws away her liberal-arts clogs and careens into her old/new life: a dead-end hostess job, parties on chilly East Village fire escapes, stealing twenties out of her mother’s Prada purse, pathetic Brooklyn “art shows,” prison-style tattoos done out of sheer boredom, drinking all the wine in her mother’s neatly organized cabinets, competing with her prodigious teenage sister, and desperate sex in a giant metal pipe. Surrounded on all sides by what she could become, Aura just wants someone to tell her who she is.
Lena Dunham writes, directs and stars as Aura, the girl who really wants you to know that she is having a very, very hard time. Lena’s mother, photographer Laurie Simmons, plays the fictional mother of Aura, and Dunham’s precocious sister Grace Dunham plays Nadine, Aura’s precocious sister. Alex Karpovsky and David Call are two very different but equally humiliating romantic interests; Jemima Kirke and Merritt Wever are Aura’s diametrically opposed friends.
Erin: What inspired you to write Tiny Furniture, aside from sustaining momentum from Creative Nonfiction?
Lena: Well, it’s always pretty ineffable but suddenly I just felt I had a feature-length story to tell, pronto. I had been contemplating for months as I lived my first post-collegiate year and suddenly it felt do or die.
With Alex Karpovsky in Tiny Furniture
Erin: How did you and Alicia Van Couvering hook up?
Lena: I kept meeting people at parties who would say “you’re a friend of Alicia Van Couvering’s, right?” I was like “who the hell is this girl?” Supposedly the same thing kept happening to her—people just thought we should be friends.
Erin: You shot Tiny Furniture on a DSLR, the Canon 7D. How was that decision made, and what was it like working with it?
Lena: That’s really a question for Jody Lee Lipes, my brilliant DP—but I will say the decision was financial. Our editor owned the camera and has been playing around with it in low light, where it does brilliantly and we have a lot of night exteriors. I’m very happy with how it looks, although I do know it was often a challenge to focus it (for that we can thank the incredible focus puller, Joe Anderson.
With Merritt Wever in Tiny Furniture
Erin: Since winning awards at SXSW and Sarasota, you’ve had Tiny Furniture picked up by IFC for distribution. What are their plans for the movie, if they have any right now?
Lena: They plan to release it theatrically in NY and LA, day and date along with VOD, hopefully in the fall. I feel lucky!
Erin: You shot Creative Nonfiction over the course of a year, yet you only shot Tiny Furniture in a few weeks late last fall. Has the success of Tiny Furniture been overwhelming for you?
Lena: I had no idea how people would react to this film, or whether it would really be seen. Therefore, everything that happens is icing on the cake. I feel lucky I’ve had the experience of making a less “successful” feature, and I hope to have a long career doing this and make plenty of other movies that don’t win prizes (and hopefully lots that do.) I’m just so grateful for the opportunities it has afforded, and excited to keep working.
Erin: You don’t seem to be as uncomfortable with the term “mumblecore” as some of your peers are. Are you not as worried about being pushed into a box, as say, Bujalski and Swanberg? Or do you just have too many things to worry about to even think about that term?
Lena: I don’t feel defensive about it. I love those movies, but I also love a lot of other kinds of movies and I think my film displays a pretty wide range of influences. I’m much more concerned with making a good movie than with making a film that defies categorization (especially a category as arbitrary as mumblecore is.)
Erin: I asked Andrew Bujaski this question before. You have said that in the long run, you’d like to be writing Romantic Comedies or for TV. Do you see yourself having a career like John Sayles, writing and re-writing for Hollywood, then going off and making your own films? Or are you using your current work as a springboard for a more mainstream career?
Lena: I don’t see Hollywood as the enemy, but I also want to make work that’s true to myself. So that’s the balance I’ll always have to work on striking—I love mainstream work but don’t always think in a mainstream way. I think (and I’m obviously just getting started learning) that it’s about making choices that liberate you financially so you can make choices that liberate you creatively, but sometimes those things merge and that’s a beautiful thing. I love indie film but I freaking adore a well-made rom-com or a smart TV show with a unique perspective. Those forms are so NOT the enemy.
Erin: Finally, the burning question: Ke$ha, or Lady GaGa?
Lena: I have my different moods, and musically I dig them both, but persona wife? Ke$ha all the way. I relate to that girl in some odd way. She’s a fucking mess.