Back in 2010, Lena Dunham came to Austin's SXSW Film Festival as a relative uknown with her semi-autobiographical comedy, "Tiny Furniture." Two years later, Dunham is returning to the festival to premiere her new HBO show, "Girls," in addition to debuting "Tiny Furniture" today on DVD/Blu-ray via the Criterion Collection. Talk about a great kickoff to 2012.
Upon its SXSW bow, "Tiny Furniture" was met with a wealth of praise, which culminated in it winning Best Narrative Feature and distribution with IFC Films. Some critics even went so far as to annoint her as our generation's answer to Woody Allen. Despite all the love, Criterion's choice to include "Tiny Furniture" in their acclaimed roster was a move that caught many by surprise (have a look at the torrent of comments on The Playlist's report of the news for an idea). "Dunham has a long way to go before she makes a masterpiece," wrote Eric Kohn in his review, echoing the opinion of many.
Dunham took some time out of her packed schedule to talk with Indiewire about delivering on the hype, why Criterion approached her and what fans should expect when "Girls" debuts on April 10.
You have a better excuse than most for taking so long to release this film on DVD and Blu-ray. Those folks over at the Criterion Collection take a famously long time to get their packages together. How did this all come about?
Criterion came about on a very basic business level, because they have a relationship with IFC, my distributor, so they have a direct channel for them to see the films directly. And of course, I knew about that relationship but I never even imagined that my movie would be considered. So when I heard that was going on, I was shocked and excited.
And there's a process where you go meet with Criterion and talk about what your package would include. It really felt like I had to sell my movie all over again, but to a much more intellectual marketplace. It kind of felt like a college interview. And when I found out it was happening, I was really surprised.
On the flipside of that, how did they sell their proposal to you? It marks a different kind of release for them.
They were really clear with me. They definitely said this wouldn't be a very orthodox choice for our label, but also, this is really what Criterion is about: unexpected choices. And it's a label that can release the best of the French New Wave and it can release "The Rock." They're interested in the ways that different kinds of films can be valued and inform the current cinematic dialogue. They were clear that this isn't a clear choice for them, but there was something in my film that reflects what's happening in digital filmmaking and it's something they wanted to be a part of. So, I told them that whatever the reason they were picking me, I'm happy.
How big has your head grown? You came to SXSW with a film that you made yourself; you got picked up by IFC, HBO came to you soon after and now Criterion is releasing your second film.
It's been fairly surreal and I'd say that in my own nature as a typically neurotic anxious New York girl, it's hard for my head to get too big. It's a series of events that I don't expect to replicate again in my life. It's been incredible and I'm also so excited that the DVD and the show are coming out at the same time, because there's a lot of continuity of ideas between the show and the movie for anyone who wants to analyze them side by side.
"Girls" sounds like an extension of "Tiny Furniture." Would that be correct?
I'm definitely playing a different character. She's similar because I'm playing her, and they have commonalities. The character on the show is two years out of college, so she's further into life and it's not in that moment of complete paralysis. With the characters on the show -- and this is something that might be a pathetically small distinction to someone else -- it was important for me to explore girls coming to New York, seeking their fortune as a cultural phenomenon. But there's definitely the thematic ground of life before you have a life.
Part of what I enjoyed so much about "Tiny Furniture" was that I never knew where it was going, much like a TV show. Was there a big change in your writing process in going from fiction filmmaking to writing a series?
You know, less than I would have thought. I think I felt that I'd be writing for a half-hour format, so I'm gonna have to really get it together structurally and really figure out how to create a different thing episodically. So, I definitely had anxiety about that, but as soon as I started working on it -- it may just be a matter of working with HBO and Judd Apatow and working with supportive entities -- but I was never asked to change my procedure that much. So, I think the show has some of those long, rangy scenes with weird twists. For me, it's the same writing style as "Tiny Furniture."
"I think you're always aware when there's gonna be backlash. Even before I took the film to SXSW, I just had a feeling that it was either going to be someone's thing or not be their thing."
What does it mean to be bringing to it SXSW, given your history with the festival?
I was just talking this morning about how excited I am to be there again. It's a very reassuring and comforting place for me. I love SXSW as a festival and I'm a huge fan of and I'm grateful to Janet Pierson, who was the first person who had a thought that my work was something worth looking at. It's very meaningful. It's such a cool festival and the culture surrounding moviemaking in Austin is just so enthusiastic. There is industry there, but it's really just civilians who love watching movies.
My favorite special feature on the Criterion release has Paul Schrader discussing your rise to fame.
That was amazing. The first time I watched it I was amazed that he wanted to do it. I loved his take, which was kind of skeptical but kind. I really love that it asked the questions "Why should this movie receive this kind of attention?" Because a lot of people ask me that, so I think it's great to have this kind of voice on the DVD. I think it's really witty of Criterion, and I'm in full support.
You've no doubt heard about the controversy surrounding Criterion's choice to include "Tiny Furniture" in their roster. You have your fare share of detractors.
I try not to read too much blogroll. I'm on Twitter all the time, and I'm very aware of what people are saying about me on there, so when Criterion announced the DVD, a small but ardent group of people said, "This will not happen." People were really pissed. I was like, "You don't have to buy it! Calm down!" But I do understand that to them, Criterion is about classics and nothing could be less classic than a digital film by a 24-year-old girl. I understood them, but I'm really grateful that Criterion has stood by the movie.
Did you see that coming? Were you at all wary that this kind of backlash could indeed happen?
Yeah, you know, I think you're always aware when there's gonna be backlash. Even before I took the film to SXSW, I just had a feeling that it was either going to be someone's thing or not be their thing; and because I'm so involved with it, and I'm the main character, that I would either be their thing or not be their thing.
I think because I'm so close to high school, I almost haven't separated shitty high school behavior from the blog stuff. It's something that hasn't panicked me too much. But with the Criterion thing, there was something that I said about the films of Nicholas Ray in Village Voice two years ago, that incited the most intense criticism I ever had from all these ardent Nicholas Ray fans. And it was one of the least insightful things I ever said, like I said the words "yawn, bring a book" about a Nicholas Ray movie, but I was sort of being cheeky and I realize that that doesn't totally fly. But I guess people who disagree with my opinions about Nicholas Ray are not going to be into the release of this movie, and I'm totally okay with that.
Do you use the hate to fuel you or do you just try to not follow it?
It's a combo of not trying to follow it and if I think it warrants a goofy Twitter response, I will. Just like I want to be allowed to have my opinion, other people should be allowed to have theirs. And I completely recognize why the work wouldn't be for everyone and this is how my personality wouldn't be for everyone. It's never the best, but it's never the worst.
Having Nora Ephron interview you for a special feature on the release was a genius move. Whose idea was that?
That was one of the Criterion ideas. After I released the movie, I got the chance to meet some amazing people, and she's become a friend of mine. And the conversations I've had with her over lunch about making movies and life in New York have all been so informative and wonderful. I was so pleased that she said yes. And she took the job of interviewing me so seriously. I would've been happy if she had just rolled in and talked about her experieces for two hours. That's all I wanted and I was really grateful for her approach. She is a really, really funny lady, among other things.
Given your upbringing, you've always been around artistic individuals. But how has your creative circle changed/evolved since "Tiny Furniture" got distribution?
I think about this a lot. I was raised in the art world, which, by its very nature, is a different scene than Hollywood moviemaking. Before I made "Tiny Furniture," I had a really strong network of New York independent filmmaker friends, just like a lot of people doing low-budget productions. I still have a lot of friends working on a microbudget level, which is what I was doing and what I hope to do more of in my future. And I also now have a lot of friends who have navigated the Hollywood systems. It's been really interesting to see the different ways that people make this their life.
HBO signifies a big jump in your career, but with these new connections you've made, can we expect even bigger things from you on a feature level?
I've been thinking a lot about this also. For me, working with HBO is almost indistinguishable from making a feature because you're just allowed to be cinematic in your choices and there's support for specific voices. Features are my first love and I want to make another. I want to make a feature on a much bigger scale, but I'm also really excited about making more movies the tiny way. I just saw "Haywire" last night and I'm thinking a lot about the Steven Soderbergh career model, which I know a lot of people refer to, but to vary it up with scale is something really appealing.
Do you see yourself sticking to the personal and keeping your work close to your experiences?
For now, I do. "Tiny Furniture" was so hyperspecific to my life, and that's kind of the only way I know how to write. I don't, at this point, have a space movie in me, but I'm not ruling it out. I just don't have a way to make anything like that feel like my own.
THIS ARTICLE IS RELATED TO: Interviews, Tiny Furniture, Lena Dunham, The Criterion Collection, DVD / Blu-Ray, On Blu-Ray, Television
COMMENTSBRADYFEB 14, 2012 1:41PM
PR rules... !
CYNICFEB 14, 2012 2:11PM
Okay everyone who hates this article - and I'm one of them - let's just agree we're jealous of these things: - Her parents - Her wealth - Her high school - Her being buddies with Jeff Deutchman and Karina Longworth (see above three items, see also SXSW) And let's also remember that if we had made the exact same film, and sent it to exactly the same people, they would have thrown it in the garbage can. And low let's realize that we hate the field in which we work and wish we had chosen to stay at home and work as office secretaries like our mothers.
RIDICULOCITYFEB 14, 2012 2:53PM
Well, it is all about access, isn't it?
BOBFEB 14, 2012 3:05PM
Actually, Cynic, I will disagree with one statement. If anyone had made the exact same film, meaning the tone and filmmaking style would've remained the same, it'd still have gone somewhere. Not knowing Lena at all, I watched the film on a DVD screener for a film festival I was working at as a house manager a mere month after its SXSW debut, and the sheer originality and classic style of the film and dry humor knocked me for a loop, and I totally see why it made her career. You have a point that someone of privilege has a leg up on those who don't, but if anyone made "Tiny Furniture", it still would have been the cream that rose to the top of the indie film world.
SEE ALL COMMENTS
""""One of the most mortifying moments I experienced in my theatrical career was when I was asked to bring the entirely African-American cast of a new musical we were workshopping, a new piece by an African-American librettist and composer, across the street to the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion and up into the plush boardroom so they could perform a song or two for the board of directors. I wanted to say something, but I didn't. For one thing, it would take an invaluable 45 minutes to an hour out of the creative team's limited time together. But... every year we had to do the same old song and dance for the board to remind them that yes, we did do new plays and musicals, so yes, it was sometimes a good idea to expose the board to new voices, to the vibrancy of an exciting work in progress.
You all know where this is going, don't you? I led the team in. The talent in that team! The writer/composer himself and the cast, lauded veterans of the stage and the most promising members of the next generation of acting giants. And there was our board. White, as white as can be, white white white white. And very comfortable. They'd just been served lunch, I believe. My theater spared no expense in pleasing our board and catering to their demands (oh my god, I'm feeling such rage right now! I'm pretty sure we had a staff member who was mostly dedicated to help our richest board members get house seats to shows on Broadway and the West End. But I digress...)
The only black face in the audience seated at the conference table? The only person of color? The head of our education department, of course. My heart went out to her.
The cast sang a song from the show. They did it. And they brought it. Because they were and are professionals. And the very pillars of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion reverberated down to the parking lot. It was breathtaking.
And I had just been complicit in the remaking of a scene for the millionth time: black bodies and voices entertaining white audiences, an institution raising money on the backs and voices of black bodies.
I was too mortified to apologize to our writer and to our cast, none of whom, I should add, expressed even an iota of discomfort. They were professionals, and they shone. And come to think of it, they'd probably all become accustomed to this scene. "It's just how theater works," they might have thought with a shrug of their shoulders. Or maybe they seethed inside, for the millionth time, when all they were trying to do is workshop a new musical.
Well, I apologize sincerely now to our writer and those actors. I wish I had had the courage to put my foot down. It is not how theater should work.
I quit the American theater on Valentine's Day 2016, so I've been out more than four years now. And honestly I don't plan to return, which is why I can write with such candor.
The heart of the problem, my friends, is with the non-profit structure, which is capitalism on steroids. Who are the bosses ultimately in an American institutional theater? The board of directors. Who are the board of directors? For the most part, those members of the community not with the strongest attachment to the art form but those with the deepest pockets. Often they're really not members of the community. They often just drop in. They are sometimes mere tourists.
It's no wonder that that board meeting was held in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. The theater, like most American theaters, had built its board of directors on the old opera model: You get the richest folks together, offer them galas and house seats and receptions and private recitals and showings (for which artists often don't get paid extra, mind you), you pamper them and make them feel more special and entitled than they already do, and then they'll write you big checks to support the kind of art they like, the kind of art they can bring their kids and grandkids to. AND they--not the artists, not the community--get to hire the institution's leadership.
It is a rotten model. Rotten to the core. How can any artistic institution claim to be working for and in the community with that model?
It's got to be torn down. It's got to be reinvented. And I have no idea what the next model will be. I really don't. And no, honestly I don't think government is the solution frankly. Some of the most bloated, self-satisfied, decadent theater I've ever seen was in Germany, where it was almost fully government-funded. Lots of bells and whistles and provocations and completely soul-dead.
I see amazing and galvanizing lists of demands recently being made and posted by theater artists of color. These are vital demands. But they don't address the central issue. As long as the ultimate bosses of an artistic institution remain the community's deepest pockets, nothing will change. Nothing. You'll be putting band-aids on a gaping wound. Sorry, but it's true.
So please figure something else out. Maybe for a few years you just avoid the institutions. You've already started. In the pandemic, so many of you are making amazing art without an institution. Find those who truly adore your work and ask them to fund it. Screw non-profit. Form a corporation and value your art art-making as a resource that profits you, your viewers/audience and your community. I have no idea.
But please don't return to a new version of the old. After the virus, after he's out of office, after police reform and nationwide conversations about race, after, after, after, begin something new. I can't wait to see what it is!”
Words: Pier Carlo Talenti
Video: Griffin Matthews
April Yvette Thompson