Culture, — March 25, 2012 11:15 — 5 Comments
It’s lean-back Sunday so here is something out of the box …
Hot on the heels of her prize-winning debut, Tiny Furniture, comes a show about the ’assorted humiliations’ of twentysomethings in New York. Lena Dunham’s family are big fans – but will her father watch her sex scenes?
“I think breakfast is the one meal when you don’t have to eat animal, maybe,” says Lena Dunham as we sit down at a vegan cafe in LA. It is 8.30am. She has arrived lugging a gym bag, hair wet from what she describes as a ”sleepover” at a friend’s house, and she is not being euphemistic. Dunham is 25. She still has what she calls her “college body”. When she’s in New York, her home town, she lives with her parents. She is in most respects a standard-issue young American, right down to the ironic verbosity (“Isn’t this an intense beverage?”) and slouchy posture, except in one crucial aspect – next month, a new series airs on HBO that Dunham has written, directed, produced and stars in, and that, judging by the first three episodes, is going to be a huge hit.
“It is an insane thing to undertake,” she says, though on paper at least the insanity would seem to be HBO’s: resting a large slice of their spring schedule on the shoulders of one small 25-year-old. “What in God’s name…” Dunham says, and trails off. On her first day on set, she didn’t know what most of the people under her direction even did.
As it turns out, the risk was slighter than it might have been, because Dunham is very, very good. At an age when most film studies graduates are still capturing the sky in a puddle and calling it art, she has two feature films under her belt, one of which, Tiny Furniture, won best narrative feature at South By Southwest two years ago. It was made for around $25,000, shot in her parents’ loft and used her own family as cast members. Dunham played herself, a recent graduate returning home and trying to figure out what to do with her life, Benjamin Braddock-style, except without the Mrs Robinson figure. Anything transgressive in the film rests on its naturalism – externally, at least, nothing much happens – and the fact that Dunham spends most of it wandering around the loft in her knickers and T-shirt, while scandalously failing to show the symptoms of an eating disorder.
Now here she is in LA, drinking a green smoothie and about to go home for a writing sabbatical. “I just want to be able to take the subway. Eat where I like to eat. And I’m close to my family – I try not to be a baby about it, but I get really homesick.”
Dunham’s relationship with her parents underscores everything. They are successful artists – her mother, Laurie Simmons, is a photographer; Carroll Dunham, her father, a painter – and Dunham grew up with her sister in an environment of such achingly “sharey” liberalism that, she says wryly, they could have done with a little more repression. Nowhere is this more in evidence than in the movie. Dunham is among the first film-makers to have emerged from the YouTube generation. (One of the characters in the film, a guy she meets at a party, is super-famous in her circle for his YouTube sketches, The Nietzschean Cowboy and The Sceptical Gynaecologist, which will give you an idea of the angle of her humour.)
It was while studying at Oberlin college in Ohio that Dunham experienced her own moment of YouTube fame. She filmed herself climbing into the college fountain in a bikini, pretending to shower and clean her teeth, before being asked to move along by a security guard. When she put it on YouTube for her friends in New York to laugh at, it went unexpectedly viral. Dunham, who was on holiday with her parents in Sweden, woke up to 50,000 emails linking to the discussion on the site, where a lively debate was taking place about the size of her thighs and just how shit she was.
“The worst thing was not the debate about whether I was fat; it was that I didn’t think it was a good video. It was like, this is not how I want to emerge to the world. This was just for my friends.”
It is here that Dunham diverges from flakier talents. Rather than hiding in a hole for six months, she hustled to incorporate the video and its fall-out into a feature-length movie, in which her character, Aura, just back from Oberlin, wonders at the wisdom of having put her fountain video online, whether she has a future as a video artist, whether the chef she fancies fancies her back, and how much she should worry about the size of her thighs. It is a brilliant piece of reclamation, not least because Dunham doesn’t turn it into a hand-wringing essay on women and body shape, but incorporates the issue, with a sly kind of knowingness, into a much broader piece about sexual and emotional maturity. At the end of the film, she shags the chef (there is no other way of putting it, given the shortness and grimness of the scene) on a building site in the freezing cold, then goes home and crawls into bed with her mother. Bear in mind it’s her real mother in the scene with her:
Aura: I met up with that chef from work
Mother: What happened?
Aura: We had sex
Mother: Where? In this house?
Mother: In his house?
Aura: No, he has a girlfriend
Mother: At a hotel?
Aura: No. I wish
Mother: In the street?
Aura: No, worse than that
Mother: What is worse than the street?
Aura: A pipe in the street
Mother: Didn’t you get cold?
Even the most liberal parent might struggle with this, and the same goes for almost everything in the film, in which Dunham plays out her rivalry with her younger sister, her fights with her mother, her disappointment in herself – all the things most families don’t talk about among themselves, let alone in front of an audience. When she handed them the script, wasn’t she terrified they’d read it and say are you kidding me?
“It’s funny. It was all on the table, albeit not in a very direct way. It was based on a period when my dad – I have a dad and my parents are still together – was away, and my mom and sister and me were living together, and it was not a very harmonious period. And when I wrote the script, I think they were almost glad to see I had some self-awareness about my own part in it. And I was a little worried there’d be some, ‘That’s how you see me?’ But there wasn’t. So the only rehearsal we did was the three of us sat on the couch and did a reading.”
Dunham’s father respectfully declined to be in the film, although he was supportive. Unlike her mother, who hears about her daughter’s life practically in real-time and was unshocked by revelations about her sex life, her dad – thank God! – had several kittens. (There’s worse to come for him in the new HBO series, Girls, in which Dunham continues to have fraught twentysomething sex in extremely funny, harsh and graphic detail.)
“He didn’t read the script before we shot,” she says. “He watched a cut and I think it amused him to see his family through this weird filter.”
“He found the sex scenes painful. My dad’s an artist – his work has sexual content – so I think I’ve always thought he can handle it, he knows life. Instead, he said to me, ‘I’m proud of you, I love what you do, but it goes against the natural order of things to ever see your daughter having sex. It just goes against nature. That’s not a context in which I ever expected to have to look at you.’” She pauses. “But he’s such a sport.”
I’ll say. Did she, as a child, feel equal squeamishness about the sexual content of his art? “I never did until… I remember being in fourth grade and taking a friend to an opening of his, and she was completely grossed out, like, ‘Your dad paints penises!’ I mean, there was a moment when I wondered, should I be embarrassed by this? But I never truly was. His assertion that who you are and what you make are not the same thing makes sense. I mean, the fact that you can make perverse work and be a healthy person in your own life, that was part of the reason I felt OK with that.”
Her mother, meanwhile, loved the acting gig so much that Dunham says, smiling, “I think I created a monster.”
The sex scenes in Girls are pretty rough and, watching them, I assume that the fact she controls every element of the script/performance/direction helped her to film them. “I think so. The kind of sex scenes I do, I would not do if I was not directing and producing them. If there was a 50-year-old male director who was saying come in, take your clothes off, do a doggy-style sex scene, I would be the most annoying actress in the world. I would have a lot of fucking questions.”
The scenes will also reignite the debate that kicked off around Tiny Furniture, about Dunham’s daringness in exposing a body that is not swimwear catalogue trim. She has a lot of tattoos, which her character in the show explains is about “owning” her body, and accords with her feelings in real life. But it’s a peripheral issue. In Girls, as in Tiny Furniture, she never intended to make a political statement.
“I appreciate anything that can bring focus to the fact that the female norm in film and television is not the norm in real life, and that ultimately it’s a destructive ideal to aspire to. I’m glad if my work can make a difference. But when I’m making it, there’s never a kind of fuck-you, look-at-my-body moment. It’s not where I’m coming from. My characters are self-conscious about their bodies, but – I don’t know how to phrase this without sounding like a gender-women’s-studies disaster – I think women in this culture are reduced to their bodies in a way that can feel very imprisoning.”
And when the focus is that narrow and reductive, that goes for positive as well as negative feedback. Dunham says: “What I think about my characters in Girls is that they have a lot of issues. But none of those issues really comes from being 10 pounds overweight.”
The worst reactions she’s had have come from women, too, in particular one review “by a female film critic who I really respect and I was so shocked. It went something like, ‘Dunham parades around forcing us to look at her ass and thighs.’ The way she phrased it – the idea that I was making people look at something that was unsightly, to teach them a lesson. And also the use of the words ‘ass and thighs’. I was like, really? ‘Ass and thighs’ is one step away from how you order meat at the butcher. That was so shocking. And most of the guy reactions were like, it’s not necessarily what I’m attracted to, but go for it, it’s never a bad thing when a woman’s naked.”
(The critic in question was Amy Taubin on Artforum’s website, where she complained that Dunham “court[ed] our rejection” by ”walking around the house in nothing more than a T-shirt, flaunting her ass and thighs”.)
Looking around, there is no one Dunham sees who has quite the career she wants, combining “independent film and directing and weird naturalistic acting”, although she admires Tina Fey for her balancing act. “Just the fact she’s doing what she’s doing is mind-blowing.” Among the TV shows she looked to when she was writing Girls were Mary Tyler Moore, My So-Called Life and Felicity. The striking thing about her own show, though, is its modernity; it makes Sex And The City look very old-fashioned, a comparison that Dunham incorporated into the script. She thought HBO would find that element “too cheeky” but in fact it’s one of the things that won them over – “They really needed to understand that I was in on the joke.” (So, for example, at the end of one episode there’s a Carrie Bradshaw moment when Dunham is shown at her laptop tweeting.) The show, which revolves around twentysomethings finding their way in New York, presumes sympathy for the tribulations of college-educated young women with generous parents funding their identity crises. It is solipsistic, but rescued from self-indulgence by the satirical edge of the writing. (Dunham’s character, Hannah, is working on a book of essays called Midnight Snack which, when she hands it to her parents as proof that they should carry on funding her, appears to be two pages long.) It also catches the generational shift of the new slacker, those post-adolescents clinging on to a semi-child status for as long as they’re able.
The main thing about Girls, however, is that it is quietly very funny. Judd Apatow, who co-produced, was very helpful here, Dunham says. “He has a really good sense of how much people need to be laughing in order to stay engaged – he’s almost scientific about it. ‘Let’s find five places where people are definitely going to be laughing, that’s going to buy us all this stuff that isn’t necessarily humorous.’”
What’s extraordinary is the responsibility she was given, mainly, she says, because the show grew out of the film, which she had also written, directed and starred in. Being on the set of a professional TV show, however, was a big leap. When she turned up at the studios in New Jersey, next door to the ones where 30 Rock films, she was terrified. “Like, not having a sense of what all the equipment was. And I didn’t know who everyone was. I really needed a lesson, like: this is what a grip does, this is what a gaffer does.”
You can imagine older crew members may have bristled at taking orders from a 25-year-old, and Dunham expected it. “To have someone say to me, ‘I’ve been around the block, honey.’” It had happened once before, when she was making a short film and hired an actor from Craigslist who, when she asked him to improvise, “freaked out on me – a you-don’t-know-what-you’re-doing freak-out. And it was totally soul-crushing, even though he was a weirdo I found on the internet. It was actually a valuable experience, because it prepared me.”
It didn’t happen. So preposterous was her skills gap, she says, that everyone rallied around and tried to help. “I have this image of someone swimming the English Channel with all these little boats around, cheering them on and making sure that, if they get tired, someone’s there.”
Despite warnings from her father, Dunham says it was only a few days ago that she actually realised that, if the show is successful, she will become famous, something that makes her giggle because “I kind of look like every other girl, walking around.” (She said to her dad, “It’s funny, I never considered that people are going to see me on the show and maybe stop me on the subway.” And he said, “Really? Because I’ve been talking about it for a year and a half.”)
She is aware that any fluctuations in her weight now will be read as meaningful. “If I lose five pounds, it’ll be commented on, so last week I was stressed and when I came back to work, someone said, ‘You look skinny!’ Like it was this terrifying thing, like I’d drunk the Hollywood Kool-Aid.” She says, “The crazy thing is, I’m 25, and so I’m still coming out of my college eating habits. I feel my body changes, like, once a month.”
Dunham is working on another film script, and waiting to see what happens to the adaptation of a young adult novel she did for Apatow. And she is starting to write the second season of Girls – it hasn’t been green-lit yet, but there is money for development. The thing she took away from that first taste of fame on YouTube was “the discomfort that comes from being seen. Which is all we want, and yet, we want to be seen the way we want to be seen.” It summarises everything about the fame that is just about to happen to her, and is what personas were invented for.
Dunham’s parents are away, and when she gets home tonight she will pick up the dog and settle into her childhood bedroom. “I mean, I’m always saying, ‘Well, in Japanese cultures, people never move out!’” She smiles. It is a well-honed routine.
• Tiny Furniture opens in cinemas nationwide on Friday
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