The meteoric ascent of Lena Dunham from precocious indie filmmaker to, well, still-precocious TV series creator and star can be tracked over iterations of SXSW. In 2009, her debut "Creative Nonfiction" played in the Emerging Visions category. In 2010, her sophomore film "Tiny Furniture" won the narrative competition, was picked up by IFC Films and eventually released on DVD by the Criterion Collection. And this year her terrific new show "Girls," about four young women trying to carve out lives in New York, was all over the festival, with HBO touting its April premiere via posters, bicycle shares and free coffee, and with three episodes screening at the 1300-seat Paramount Theatre.
[Editor's Note: This interview originally ran during the 2012 SXSW Film Festival, where the first three episodes of "Girls" world premiered. The show premieres on HBO this Sunday, April 15.]
It's a heady amount of success for someone who's only 25, but Dunham seems to be handling it with aplomb. It certainly doesn't hurt to have the support of Judd Apatow, who serves as the series' executive producer and who's worked in both the worlds of television and film. I caught up with the pair in Austin to talk about the benefits of collaboration, the challenge of making sex scenes funny and a certain other HBO show about female friends in the city.
Lena, you've gone from indie film to television, and Judd, you started in TV and then moved into film. What's that transition like?
Judd Apatow: I remember after our shows were canceled, there was an article in the LA Weekly that Robert Lloyd wrote — he said that "Freaks and Geeks" felt like an indie film, and that's why it doesn't work on television, because there's no place for that indie sensibility on network television. And I thought, that's exactly right!
But we didn't think about that when we were making it. It was a show that was lead by Paul Feig's vision. And because we always thought we were going to get canceled, we never changed anything to please anybody — if we got notes we usually didn't take them, because we thought "we're going to be gone in six months anyway, so why bother ruining the show when it won't even buy us another season?" This experience feels a lot like that, except in the most positive way — HBO really believes in the show and in Lena's singular voice.
Lena Dunham: Part of the reason they trust me is that they know Judd is around making sure nothing goes too out of bounds. [laughs] For me, it was much more about a transition of scale than it was about a transition of medium. I'd worked with a crew of — on a good day — six people, and to go from six to 65 crew members, that felt intimidating. But because of who I was working with, the actual process didn't change that much.
I was still allowed to cast friends, to have a weird, rangy scene that didn't necessarily feed the narrative but gave a sense of tone, to do all these things that felt like an important part of my process. I had infinitely more support, which I'd always equated with less control, but in this situation that didn't turn out to be the case.
How was the experience of working with other writers?
LD: When we did our first table read, people laughed, but I said to Judd "Is that how a table read's supposed to go?" He said "Yeah, it's good… People could have laughed a little bit more." We all went into a room and talked for three days.
I'd thought my script was done, but what we came out with was something that was infinitely funnier and more alive. My favorite moments in the pilot come from those three days. I finally understood the benefits of doing something in a collaborative way — that really taught me how to use the writers room.
JA: Also, a staff is a good resource for crazy life experiences. At some point, you run out of dumb things you've done.
LD: Especially when you're making a TV show — you don't have much time to do dumb things.
JA: So it's eight people with an enormous amount of stories. When we hired the staff, we talked a lot about hiring people who've lived and who have a lot of tales to tell, because we felt that's what the show was about.
LD: I literally talked to a writer I thought was great, but then afterwards was like, "I don't think she's slutty enough…" [laughs] "She's so smart and such a good writer, she feels too on track!"
"Sex in the City" gets name-checked right in the pilot episode. How do you see the relationship between "Girls" and that show? "Sex in the City" is so aspirational, while "Girls" seems more about have no idea what you're even aspiring to yet.
LD: Part of it was to call it out straight on — it'd be one thing if we were on a different network… As we were writing, I'd wonder, "Do we have to set this in Boston, just to make it different?"
JA: "Should we make one of the girls a guy? It could be 'Girls,' but there's one guy."
LD: Totally! They're girls, but there's one guy, and they're in Boston, they're eating beans — it's a totally different situation!
JA: They never wear shoes.
LD: Then we realized there was no way to make the show and not have that comparison, and we decided to call it out and let the audience know that we were aware and that these characters were aware, that they wouldn't have moved to New York without the influence of the show — that's how the character of Shoshanna [played by Zosia Mamet] was born. She was the "Sex and the City" girl.
I wonder if the comparison to "Sex and the City" will stop once the show's out in the world and people have seen and felt the difference.
JA: And it's also about women in New York making a lot of terrible mistakes on their way to finding happiness, so we were well aware that they covered not a lot of ground but all the ground, and did it brilliantly for a really long time.
A long time ago I realized that it is true when they say there are only 27 stories. It's all about texture and tone and pitch. Because if you're going to do a show where someone's trying to have sex, the sex is going to be either really good, really bad, or just okay. There are only two or three options. It's the other details that make things come alive.
Can we talk about the sex? The sex scenes in "Girls" are raw and funny and sometimes made me cover my eyes.
JA: Imagine me having to watch them for six months straight, in the room with Lena!
LD: Imagine Judd coming into that sweaty, disgusting room to give me notes between takes!
We tried to show sex that felt like the sex women that age are having. There are probably going to be girls who are like "I have good sex! I don't know what your problem is, but my sex life is fun!" But for me and for a lot of people I know, sex has been this battleground on which you're playing out a lot of identity issues beyond just getting off (or whatever the kids are saying these days). We were really trying to make each sex scene be a real moment of education about that character and what they want, what the two want from each other.
JA: It's unglamorized sex — it's real and strange and some of it seems fun and some of it seems uncomfortable. Some of it, you can't believe what she's tolerating. But it's shocking to me, how funny it is. It's hard to be funny while showing graphic sex.
We watched an episode yesterday in which there's a very graphic scene, and the laughs were so giant — I hadn't ever seen a sex scene get laughs that big. It wasn't a broad teen movie joke, it was just a version of sex. That's a real achievement, to pull that off. When Lena shoots it, she's so comfortable it's weird. It's so comfortable on set. We're almost at the point where there's boredom.
LD: I got offended at the end by how little the crew was interested in looking at my breasts. [laughs] "They are still here and real." That's one of the things I remember loving about "Knocked Up," the pregnancy sex scene. To see the mechanics of pregnancy sex, I was so excited by the fact that someone was doing that. That sex scene was about more than seeing how well they were getting along — it was a pivotal relationship moment. That's what I aspire to in these sex scenes.
JA: It said a lot about Kristen Wiig's character in "Bridesmaids" that the movie starts out with her having this very aggressive sex with Jon Hamm. And afterward, he treats her horribly. But in the aftermath, you realize — she has a low opinion of herself, but she did still get to have sex with Jon Hamm, and she's kind of okay with that trade. There's something demeaning about it, but she got laid. And I think that's a little more accurate than how it's usually portrayed in a lot of movies.
Lena, your character in the show, Hannah, like Aura in "Tiny Furniture," takes some terrible sideways verbal abuse. What's lead to your choice of that as this painful comic device?
LD: It's funny, because everyone in my life is so nice to me.
JA: Yeah, what are you so mad about?
LD: I know! It's not like anyone's being snarky with me at the office. I think I'm still dealing with some high school shit. [laughs] But I also think in some way people are saying the things to Hannah that she's thinking about herself. Other people's snide remarks are a bit of a reflection of her internal monologue — and because it's a TV show, we can do that.
And she puts herself in so many ridiculous situations that people could redress her a little more thoroughly than they even do. People asked me, with "Tiny Furniture," why I put the character in such horrible situations — I like to think of [Hannah] as a willing participant in her own humiliation. She cannot seem to make the right choice. That also makes it exciting when there's a moment when she does. An empowering moment with her is a big deal for me.
JA: I think everybody makes some really awful choices when they're that age. It's the moment where you think to yourself, "It makes perfect sense for me to sleep with the receptionist at the strip club!" [laughs] There's a time in your life where that just seems like a good move. Slowly you realize how awful it is.
LD: That's all "Tiny Furniture" was — it was about a time when I thought it'd be a great idea to move three or four homeless guys into my house with my parents and didn't act like it was weird.
JA: We were walking down the street here [in Austin] and there were thousands of kids out partying. I remember being that age and you're just running around looking to make something happen. You're either going to get in trouble or try to sleep with some somebody or drink or do a drug, just to have an anecdote.
And you have a sense that this is the time when you're supposed to do that kind of stuff, because when you get older you really shouldn't be. And there is that little window of experimentation — for me, that window was eight days. That's what the show is about.
I also like that it's about someone who is, in a lot of ways, trying to be Jonathan Ames — "I'm going to write these essays about my really interesting life!" — but her life isn't that interesting, so when given the choice to do something or not do something she will make the wrong choice and hope that it's interesting enough to write about.
LD: I was thinking about Hannah and how once I broke up with a boyfriend and I said to him, "You are pessimistic! And I expect great things from life, and I want to have a big life where I have tons of experiences and I want to embrace everything!" And he was like, "You never leave your bedroom." [laughs] And that's what Hannah is — she can't quite engage.
"Girls" premieres April 15th at 10:30pm on HBO.