The Rumpus Interview with Lena Dunham

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cnf_16m1Lena Dunham is a 22-year-old filmmaker born and raised in Manhattan under the wing of parents who are both artists and who support her endeavors like they are their own (Dunhan his currently co-writing a screenplay with her mother). Last year, while she was still a senior at Oberlin College, we spoke for the first time; then, she was in the midst of a comedy web TV series called Tight Shots that details the trials of young movie-making (and sex-having) sprung forth in eager collaboration with the adult world.  As 2008 progressed, Dunham graduated and began work on getting her first feature film, Creative Nonfiction, out on the festival circuit; it premiered at SXSW in March, and Dunham has also created web TV series, about a hipster art school brat pack of Manhattanites, called Delusional Downtown Divas. We talked again recently about the torture of day jobs, the reality of creative output, and her crush on filmmaker Andrew Bujalski.


The Rumpus:
What are you up to?  Do you have a day job now, or have you been able to keep up without one?

Dunham: I feel like I have two day jobs.  Because I end up doing videos and movie stuff and it pays occasionally, but never enough.  So I also do a lot of random crap.  I do some writing for The Onion AV Club and other film culture blogging, and as you know, if and when that stuff pays it never pays enough; so I also baby-sit and work in a children’s clothing store.  Which is actually a lot of fun!  I love it—my two best friends work there also.  So I kind of cobble it all together that way.  I feel like I’m lucky.  I rent an office where I do all my work, but I live with my family.  Having an apartment to live in New York that remains rent-free—my parents have not even conceived of charging me rent—is amazing.

Rumpus: How did Delusional Downtown Divas come together?  Was it something you were thinking about while you were still in school, or is this a totally post-college project?

Dunham: It was a totally post-college project.  I got back from school and I started spending a lot of time with my friends—the one who plays Joana—and another, who are girls that I’ve known since preschool and who both went to art school.  They had sort of forgotten what it was like to be at Oberlin for me, which is a wonderful, but granola place; but their characters are, I guess you would say, more flamboyant than what I was used to.  So I came up with this concept, just really loose, about these girls who want to become part of the art world.  The girls I know are very cool, so it wasn’t funny to base it on them strictly.  I realized the premise wasn’t funny if they were actually cool girls, they would have to be ridiculous.  I told them, “I’m not making fun of you, it’s just that the characters have to be ridiculous if we’re going to get anything out of this.”  Anyway, I pitched this idea to them thinking it would just be a fun thing to play around with and shoot a couple skits, but they ended up being receptive.  So I wrote up an outline, we met up and discussed it, I got Sara [Rossein] on board—the cinematographer—and it totally took off from there.  It took on a life of its own and ended up being a lengthier project than expected.

Rumpus: How did the screening go?  When was it again that it premiered, I want to say last fall?

Dunham: We premiered it on January 9, 2009. That was one of the crazier nights of my life because we finished editing at 5 ‘o clock that morning—we had all of these tech issues.  We finally finished the DVD transfer and, I’m not kidding, the show was opening at 6:00 p.m. and I dropped it off at 5:55 p.m.  I just prayed it would work!  I pressed “play” on the DVD player and left to go home and take a shower.  I probably shouldn’t say this, but I hadn’t showered in seven days, because I had been just trying to finish it under this absurdly quick deadline; I wanted to just throw on a dress and not take a shower and my dad was like, “Lena, you, for various reasons, cannot do that.  You smell bad.”  So I went back having taken a shower, and I guess I got there at 6:45 p.m. and it was just packed.  Like, like—like, people were spilling onto the streets, and I could not believe it.  People were so nice and receptive, it felt like being queen for a day.  I probably won’t have a better experience than that again!  Anyway, it was really great.  People came in throughout the week and we just chilled on this couch, ate snacks, and waited for people to come around and watch the show.

Rumpus: Teen Vogue put up a piece on it, right?

Dunham: So I think that’s where the girls come from.  One girl who was like 14, named Hazel, wrote and said something like, “I hate high school.  I watch your show and it makes me feel better.”

Rumpus: Aww.

Dunham: I was like, you’re probably a creepy 40-year-old man but you’re making me so happy right now!

Rumpus: How do you know the guest characters on Divas, like Isaac Mizrahi, for instance?

Dunham: He is someone my mom has known for a long time because she was close friends with a business partner of his.  My mom did some fashion photography stuff with him, so she got to know him because he’s very much around the art world.  I met him a few times when I was a kid, and I sent him an email and he was totally receptive—like, incredibly receptive to doing the show.  We shot his part in maybe 15 minutes because he had, just, no time.  He would have liked to give us more, but he just couldn’t.

Rumpus: Did you have to wear his Target line in the show?

Dunham: I would have loved to!  When we were there Isabel, the girl who plays Agnes, kept grabbing stuff and saying, “I could borrow this and we could put it in one of our episodes,” and I was like, “Nice try.”  But I am a huge fan of his Target line.  I actually told him, “Look, you have single-handedly revolutionized my work wardrobe.”

People are shockingly open to little cameos like this.  Everyone we asked, I was petrified to ask, and nobody said no.  We had a few not respond, but nobody said no.  People were nice and responded and were open.

Rumpus: What is it like working with your mother?

Dunham: You know, it’s weird because the issues—like her creative brain is really appealing to me, so that part of it is great; and the fights we have are so silly, they are about one of us saying, “You said you were going to work and now you’re sitting here watching TV with a towel around your head!  How am I supposed to take you seriously?”—so the issues arise from feeling so casual with each other that it’s hard to find conflict.  There’s something about having a collaborator who is not your mom that you feel some responsibility to them, and you have to keep the schedule you set.  But if it’s my mom then it can get a little lax.  As far as a creative relationship, I am so into her and what she does, and she’s very respectful of the things I make.  So that part of it is great, once we can get ourselves to sit down with it.

Rumpus: There are plenty of people, myself included, who don’t have a relationship with their parents where they can have intellectual exchanges, let alone creative ones.  To me, your relationship is really profound.  Do you think it’s because of your parents’ own art background, that both of them being in that industry makes them automatically interested in your work and curious about what you’re working on?

Dunham: I think that’s part of it.  I am realizing more and more that the things I make are either with my parents or about my parents, and I am definitely trying to expand.  My dad said, “I love what you do but I don’t need to be a part of it all the time.”  He is much more comfortable observing it than being thrust into it.  They have an understanding of whatever the process of trying to get something made is.  That’s helpful to me because even when they’re not contributing directly they’re always advising, and that’s really excellent.  There are so many people who find the artistic process to be so mysterious, a lot of people are afraid of, say, creative block or something, so it’s been interesting for me to see people who have been making work for a long time, pretty consistently, and see what issues they come up against.

Rumpus: What issues do they meet?

Dunham: Well, for example, both of my parents have had long phases where they’re intensely productive and phases where it feels like months and months of “getting ready to work.”  It’s too scary to say “I’m not working,” but “getting ready” softens things.  Seeing the ebbs and flows and just the output is one of the biggest things I’ve noticed.  Also, the issues my mom comes up against come from being a small business owner; it’s something I didn’t realize until recently, and a part of work that I’m starting to manage more of on my own.  There are times when I feel like my job is just addressing envelopes and mailing out screeners.

Rumpus: What are some other influences on your movie making these days?  Do you watch a lot of Mumblecore?  I ask about the latter specifically because I’ve noticed certain similarities between your work and that movement, though there are distinct differences.

Dunham: It’s interesting because one of my favorite filmmakers is Andrew Bujalski who I just met for the first time when I was at SXSW in a total, doofy fan-girl moment; but that was a huge thing for me.  Creative Nonfiction was the thing that got written right after I saw an Andrew Bujalski movie.  He’s a big part of the “Mumblecore” moment, or whatever people want to refer to that as, but I think if I’ve been informed by so-called Mumblecore movies then that’s because those are the filmmakers who have dared to make movies for nothing; I’ve talked to Barry [Jenkins] about this, which is that, it’s good if for no other reason than it got made, and the people who didn’t have the money to make a movie made a movie.  I also think it appeals to me because of those subtle depictions of human relations that this kind of movie making allows.  But I’m also interested in comedy; I’m interested in broad comedy, and I’m also interested in satire and other elements that maybe wouldn’t be the first thing you think of when you think of a Mumblecore movie.

Rumpus: I think that’s the thing about your movies that separates it from Mumblecore.  I agree with you that the process of a movie getting made at all is something incredible; but the difference for me with your movies is that there are actually people in them who are trying to, or who are articulating something.  Your characters complete their thoughts.  And in terms of comedy, the timing in your films is really sharp; with Mumblecore the comedy is muddied to the point that, as the name suggests, the characters are mumbling.

Dunham: I really love writing and I love writers.  For example, Andrew Bujalski really writes, his movies are written.  And there are some, like Joe Swanberg movies, many of which I like, are not written in the same way.  They’re more written in the editing room.  That’s something I respect; it’s a way of working that I’ve tried, but I have realized that the script is a really valuable thing to me.  I really like the idea of what Mumblecore is giving birth to, I like the debate that its started, I like some of the movies that have come out of it and it’s getting more and more interesting as more people take things from it; but also, I diverge and apply it to something like a genre film and things like that.

It’s a major jumping off point when we think about how digital cinema is defined.  Digital is something so much more financially accessible to people, and maybe more eco-friendly too.

I think Mumblecore is recession friendly, and that’s appealing.  I think it’s like a perfect media storm: a few filmmakers hit the big time, and then there’s all the backlash that automatically accompanies a movement.  Hmm.  I just can’t say enough about how much I like Andrew Bujalski.  I really am a little obsessed.

He actually came to see my movie and the whole time I was peering between the seats to see “Is he laughing?  Is he smiling?” When I met him I tried to play it pretty cool and I said to my friend [editor, Nat Sanders] that I had this really doofy fan-girl moment and I was just mortified, and he said, “Well, at least you can feel a little original.  I don’t know how many insane fan-girls that Andrew Bujalski really has.”  He told me I shouldn’t feel too embarrassed about it.

Rumpus: He’s all yours.

Dunham: Yeah, I know.  It’s not like following John Mayer!

Rumpus: And how did the screening at SXSW go then?

Dunham: It was great actually.  I went to the festival not expecting to sell my movie, which is good because I didn’t.  There weren’t that many sales that happened at the festival, but I also know that mine was a weird movie and was a weird length, so I wasn’t expecting to sell it or get an agent out of it.  My biggest hope was just to meet interesting people who I might want to work with in the future, see a lot of movies, get a few reviews, and all of those things happened.


Pamela Kerpius is a freelance writer and copywriter in New York City. More from this author →