You might not know her name or face quite yet, but writer-director-actress Lena Dunham has been having a helluva year. Her newest film, 'Tiny Furniture,' a disarmingly honest indie comedy (read Jette's review here) about a recent college grad struggling with what to do with herself, had its world premiere at the SXSW film festival back in March and, as cliched as it sounds, Miss Dunham has been on a roller coaster ever since. Not only did the critical praise out of SXSW net her semi-autobiographical movie a distribution deal with IFC Films, but it paved the way for her to helm a new HBO series executive produced by Judd Apatow, as well as write and direct an adaptation of 'Dash and Lily's Book of Dares,' the newest novel from the duo behind 'Nick & Nora's Infinite Playlist.'
On November 26th, 'Tiny Furniture' hits VOD, which gave us the opportunity to chat with Dunham about her film, her Apatow-produced show, 'Girls,' where she's at with 'Dash and Lily's,' and, most importantly, her love for 'House of the Devil' director Ti West.
Obviously 'Tiny Furniture' takes a lot of overtones from your real life, but how specifically autobiographical is it?
There are complete incidents from my life and complete incidents not from my life, so it's definitely only semi-autobiographical. It's taken from my world and the things that happened to me, but also has things that didn't happen to me that enhanced the narrative. It's so funny, because at this point I've almost forgotten what's what. It's melded to the point where I'm like, "What was my life? What was the movie?" It's gotten confusing.
It was partially autobiographical, but definitely the cast of characters is taken from my real life experiences.
Since it's about dealing with not finding your station in life immediately out of college and the expectations that you should, did you make the film as a retaliation to any specific tipping-point event where you said, "Screw it, I'm going to make it, this is what I need to do!"?
It's interesting. Unlike the character in the movie... she's sort of the full embodiment of just one part of me. I always knew I wanted to be a filmmaker and be a writer, so it's almost as though I've been one step ahead of her because I knew what I wanted to do, even if I hadn't exactly figured out how I was going to do it. It had been sort of percolating in my mind for months and then one day I realized it had been a year and a half since I shot my previous feature and so I sort of thought the time had come. That happens to me a lot with writing, I think about it until it sort of boils over and then I go, "I have to write this now."
It was also a feeling of having gotten just enough distance from that immediate feeling of post-collegiate panic while still being close enough that it felt easy to access emotionally. It was finding that perfect moment where you're in it, but not too in it.
Since there are a growing number of filmmakers addressing their post-collegiate panic and many of them struggle in that haze, was there any particular focus you took to separate 'Tiny Furniture' from the crowd?
There are so many movies that I love and so many movies that excite me, but when I'm making movies my real goal is to just write what I feel. Even though I love different films and love different filmmakers and there's a lot of different things I've learned from reading about film and watching film, when it actually comes to making movies I put all of that out of my brain and just try to do what feels the most truthful to me and hope that's going to be resonant.
There's almost part of me that wants to just forget what I've learned in class and from being a student of film myself. Hopefully that stuff is just in me enough that I don't have to focus on it and can really focus on whether the story feels genuine. I also surround myself with people like the producers, like my DP Jody Lee Lipes, who are focusing on the craftsmanship of it while I worry about keeping it honest. That's sort of my on-set approach to the whole thing.
I'm just trying to tell a story and my hope is that though what I went through is very personal, that it's also universal.
Did you instantly know you'd cast your mother and sister or did you debate about approaching other actors for those roles?
I wrote this movie with every actor in mind. The only actor who was in it that I didn't write for was Jemima Kirke, who plays my best friend, Charlotte. It's strange now since she gives such a beautiful and audacious performance that I didn't write it just for her, but she just came at it and ate it alive in a really great way. But I always knew that was the conceit of the movie; that it was real mom, real sister, real Lena. And then if it was a complete disaster, at least we could say we did a weird thing here.
Considering how quickly it exploded from the festival circuit, catching the eye of not just a distributor, but producers like Judd Apatow, what has been the most unexpected door 'Tiny Furniture' opened for you?
I've had a bunch of moments where I've been like, if this little film that no one has seen had just been enough for me to go to SXSW, to meet other filmmakers, it would have been enough for me. But I'd say the moment where I realized this movie has taken me farther than I ever imagined was when we had our international premiere at a film festival in Israel. My best friend and I took a break after the movie and were standing in what's reported to be the Virgin Mary's tomb and being like, "I cannot believe that making this movie has made it possible for me to travel to this unbelievable place that I would never have gone to otherwise."
I mean, people in Israel would like to watch this movie about a girl who has post-collegiate fumblings? That was when I looked around and went, "Holy crap!"
Well moving beyond 'Tiny Furniture' to your new project with Judd Apatow, is it officially called just 'Girls'?
It is officially titled 'Girls,' yes. It's funny, we were talking about a bunch of different titles and it was pointed out, "Everything you ever say about this show uses the word girls. Why not just call it 'Girls'?" It was a simple, elegant solution to an impossible problem.
How's the shoot going?
The shoot is going really well. We're two days into a seven-day shoot and it is a real pleasure. I'm working with the same DP that I worked with on 'Tiny Furniture,' and Jemima Kirke, who was one of the lead actresses, is in it as well. So there's enough that's familiar to me but also a lot of incredibly new and exciting faces as well.
And you are directing the pilot, correct?
I am. I'm directing it and acting in it and I wrote it so I'm having a bunch of jobs at one time.
Can you tell me anything about the show at this point?
I can! It's about a girl in New York. I like to sometimes say it's as if 'Tiny Furniture' and 'Sex and the City' had a baby. It's a half-hour comedy, with some drama, about three friends who are about two years out of school and are trying to navigate living in New York. They each have different struggles with the city; they're three very different girls who were all brought together by college and they each have very different approaches to life after school. It's a less-glamorized version of the whole making-it-in-New-York narrative.
And was this your idea or was it a project that Judd Apatow brought to you?
It was actually my idea. I had this deal to write a pilot for HBO and that's when I met Judd. We had some creative commonality and he was really great and responsive to the idea so he came on-board as an executive producer. He's been there at every stage; writing, casting, shooting. He's let me pick his brain and use his skill set and it's really fun because he's not known for female-centric stories, but his aesthetic has worked really well for this really girly story.
And where are you right now on 'Dash and Lily's Book of Dares'?
I'm actively writing it at the moment, but for the seven days that I'm actually shooting 'Girls,' I can't do anything because it's been so all-encompassing. But I love the book and I'm so happy to be the person who gets to make it into a movie. It's a beautiful story and it's got this really sweet ending. It's funny, I always say that I never write stories with happy endings, but I really want to tell them, so this is really exciting.
Are you surprised that you've suddenly gone from unknown indie to Judd Apatow-produced pilot to adapting a novel for the big screen?
I'm definitely surprised. It's been pretty mind blowing. My biggest thing is I just feel lucky that I'm getting to work this much. That was the one thing I've hoped for: just an opportunity to work. I'm getting to do the thing I actually love to do all day, so I'm taking all of the opportunities I can that this movie has afforded me.
I'd actually like to ask you about a few projects you did before 'Tiny Furniture,' that I'm a pretty big fan of. The first is your tiny part doing the voice of the operator in 'The House of the Devil' and the second is playing The Voice in Graham Reznick's 'The Viewer.'
Oh, that's so awesome! Graham is so f**king talented! He is just a superstar. Ti [West] is a good friend of mine, so I met Graham through Ti since he's his sound designer. I had done some voice-over for Ti and so Graham asked if I'd like to do it for him, so I've got this whole side career as a voice-over artist.
And in Ti's new movie, 'The Innkeepers,' I came in and just shot a scene for one day. But it's going to be insane. That movie is going to be off the chain.
I can't wait for it. There are few movies, yet alone horror movies, in recent years that I consider masterpieces, but 'The House of the Devil' is one of them.
It is a masterpiece. Ti is one of my dearest friends. He's one of the most maddening people I know just because he's a brilliant genius and he knows it and will not listen to anyone else. And it works that he won't listen to anyone else, because he is brilliant. The amount of self-confidence he has in his own work... he's the only person I know where that's warranted.
I know that Graham is trying to get a feature version of 'The Viewer' off the ground, so would you come back as The Voice for that?
I would love to if Graham would have me. I don't know if I delivered to him something that would make him want to keep me on, but I would be honored.
I really think you're going to like 'The Innkeepers,' and I'm so glad that you're into Ti's movies!
I know that he hates to be pigeonholed into the genre, but of horror filmmakers, he's one of the sharpest talents out there.
He hates to get pigeonholed, but I also say to him, "They need you there!"
Oh, absolutely. I would love to see him make any movie that he wants to make, but as a horror nut I'd be sad to see him stop making horror movies.
I think he'll keep doing it. I think he has a love-hate relationship with it.