Interview: Lena Dunham (Tiny Furniture)
Source: IONCINEMA.com Exclusive
Ever since Lena Dunham’s feature debut Creative Nonfiction won for Best Narrative at SXSW ’09, her career has rapidly ascended in the indiewood ranks with her break-thru year being topped by her sophomore year and comedy-drama about the pitfalls of post-graduation life. Recently nominated for a pair of Gotham Awards (Breakthrough Director and Best Ensemble Performance), Tiny Furniture went under the knife in November of 2009, and was conceived at the same Austin-set festival where she once again walked away with top honors.
Tiny Furniture tracks the misadventures of Aura (Dunham) as she comes home after graduation and is trying to figure out what to do with her life. Hanging with old friends, enduring family conflicts, working a low-paying job, trying to get her art/film career off the ground, and having trysts with the wrong kind of guys, Aura is at both sympathetic in her relatability and frustratingly self-centered and immature. It’s an introspective kind of film, with embarrassing moments as well as a darkly comic sensibility, and a blending of truth and fiction, as Dunham cast her family and friends to play their own roles.
Since Tiny Furniture, Dunham has spent a portion of her summer with Ry Russo-Young hitting the Screenwriters Lab in Sundance for Nobody Walks (Russo-Young will direct next year), inked an HBO deal with Judd Apatow, and was just named as helmer for the Scott Rudin produced Dash and Lily's Book of Dares. I sat down with the very busy Dunham this month in New York City, a week before Tiny Furniture receives it's theatrical release at the IFC Center.
Melissa Silvestri: Audiences can relate to the depiction of post-college life, coming back home and not immediately starting on their dream career, and still being financially dependent on parents, hanging out with high school friends, and working low-paying jobs while figuring out their next step. Have you found this to be a major theme with college grads?
Lena Dunham: Well, that’s certainly what I did, and it still feels really surreal for me, doing the thing that I want to be doing with my life right now, because when I first got out of college, I worked in a restaurant, I was a babysitter, and I worked in a clothing store. I had all these educational experiences, but they all felt empty to me in the world that I wanted to be inhabiting. So I think especially now, graduating in the recession era, it’s more likely that you’re not going to be doing a job that’s not necessarily in the world that you dreamed of.
Silvestri: It’s difficult when you’re trying to get into your career post-college, and your degree isn’t enough to get you in, or that your career doesn’t immediately start as a full-time, well-paying position...
Dunham: No, no, I think that’s a really crazy reality that you face when you get out of college. Like “Hey, I’ve been thinking professionally for four years, I’m perfectly up for any job,” and then you quickly realize that it’s not the case. I think for me, the film was about the disappointments of life as you imagined it versus life as it actually is.
Silvestri: How did you decide to both be a filmmaker and the lead in your films?
Dunham: For me, it’s funny. I don’t consider myself an actor, but there keep being roles that are appealing to me, so I keep constantly end up inhabiting. Like this character, she’s like me, in an inappropriate way, so I’ll just inhabit it. I kind of use that as an excuse, like “Oh, there aren’t any other actors to play!” But I’ve only recently felt that I do enjoy the acting part of it, there’s an immediacy to it that doesn’t exist as a director or writer. It just brings me a distinct kind of pleasure. So it’s been this sort of natural urge for me, like directing the same things that I write and act in, wanting to own every part of the process. But the other thing that I love about making movies is that it’s so collaborative. The other actors direct you in a certain way, you’re directed by the on-set experience, so once you’re on set, a certain amount of that responsibility is yours, and a certain amount of it suddenly becomes this amazing group thing, and I think that tells you what to do with it.
Silvestri: Speaking of collaborators, I was really impressed by the cinematography work by Jody Lee Lipes, having seen his gorgeous work on NY Export: Opus Jazz, bare minimalist wide-screen shots that captured so much with a lot of simplicity.
Dunham: He’s amazing. I love the way he works because his camera work is so gorgeous, but so unobtrusive, so it really lets the characters live and breathe. But it’s also incredibly sensitively done; it keeps you feeling close to people’s experiences, but also gives them enough space to do what they need to do. So I found working with Jody, who I still work with to this day, to be a total revelatory experience.
Silvestri: What was it like having your mother [artist Laurie Simmons] and sister [Grace Dunham] play your mother and sister in the film? Were there conflicts of interest or requests for line changes?
Dunham: They were really open and game. They were really conscious of playing developing characters, which was amazing to me, because I just pulled them in to say “Do what you do when I see you around the house,” to keep it feeling natural, and they gave it this actorly consideration that was so awesome and surprising. They didn’t really request line changes in the way like a mom and sister would, like “Oh, I would never say that, that’s not me.” They only really did it the way an actor would, like “This line feels a little unnatural to me, can we work with it a little bit.” So their openness to the process is something that I’m forever grateful for.
Silvestri: Tiny Furniture can be uncomfortable to watch, as Aura can be quite self-centered and embarrass herself, such as at her sister’s party or trying to get Keith, her co-worker, to like her. Those moments are very emotionally raw, was it difficult to shoot those scenes?
Dunham: It’s not difficult to act out. As an actress you would just do what the script requires, try to make it feel honest, or just live it honestly and see what happens. As a writer and director, and in the editing room later, it’s just a high-wire act of making sure that you don’t lose people in your depiction of yourself, and you make sure that your character is sympathetic enough that they can sustain an audience. At the same time, it’s funny, I never critique films in terms of “I liked this person” or “I didn’t like this person,” I tend to think, “Did their journey feel truthful to me?” That’s the base that I judge films on, I know not everyone feels that way.
Silvestri: The character, even if they are unlikable, have to have something redeemable or interesting about them...
Dunham: If you don’t feel any connection to them, or you don’t feel any hope that they’re ever going to change or become better, then there’s a way that their story doesn’t mean anything to you, so you sort of have to become invested in the journey of someone who you think is capable coming out the other side.
Silvestri: Have you had difficulty with basing characters on real-life people or as composites of people?
Dunham: Not in difficulty writing, and even in casting, you can have this really fun cast counter to what you saw in your head or make interesting choices. You really want to make sure that you’re being sensitive in your depiction, because it’s my right to reveal myself in my films, but it’s not my right to reveal the lives of other people. But at the same time, my life intersects with that other person, so for me, I take from life, but I also do a lot of composite characters and creating characters who are amalgamations of many people who I’ve known, and people I haven’t known. But yes, there have been moments where I’ve wondered, “Is this thing I’m writing over the line in some way?” not sensitive to the feelings of somebody who I am close with or have been close with. You really have to ask yourself every time you do that, “Is this worth it, am I making something that is putting ‘good energy’ into the world versus bad energy?” So I definitely think about all of those things.
Silvestri: Ever since Creative Nonfiction won at SXSW, you have gone so far in such a short time span. Magazine features, The New York Times, HBO, and IFC... What has it been like for you?
Dunham: It’s been amazing. Tiny Furniture’s coming out in theaters and On Demand literally a year after we started shooting it. It’s been one of the most unbelievable roller coasters. I think the most incredible thing, besides getting positive attention from many people I admire, [has been] making it easier for me to do my work, which is all I ever really wanted and what the film is about in the first place. So it’s this amazing, beautiful irony that making a movie about that time of my life is sort of what got me out of that time of my life, in a certain way. Of course, I’m still 24, with bumblings and worries and all of the classic anxieties that accompany that age. But I’m getting to do something I really love on a day-to-day basis, and I think that’s the most amazing thing that this year has given me.
Silvestri: What are you working on now?
Dunham: Well, I’m a week and a half away from shooting a pilot for HBO, so that’s a big thing in my life right now. And aside from that, I am readying another script that I am adapting called Dash and Lilly’s Book of Dares, which is a young adult novel that I really adore. And working on taking my baby Tiny Furniture and sending it off to college [laughs]. It does feel like I’ve raised a child for a year and now it’s going off to live its independent life. So that’s what I’m doing, and just continuing to work, which is what I enjoy most.
IFC Films releases Tiny Furniture at the IFC Center this Friday, November 12th. It receives a limited release in more locations in the weeks to come.