Over the past decade, SXSW has turned into one of the country’s most exciting showcases for feature films and shorts as well as the programs for music and interactive media. So consider this something of a milestone that one of the most exciting premieres to take place at the Paramount Theatre this year was not a film at all but the first three episodes of a new HBO series. The event was the first time the cable juggernaut had utilized the festival as a showcase for one of its shows and though one might have guessed a sneak peek of the new season of their fantasy epic “Game of Thrones” would be an easy lay for the geek-centric crowd, instead the network decided to put their big promotional push towards “Girls,” a new comedy from writer/director/star Lena Dunham. This actually makes sense because Dunham premiered her first two features at the fest which included her breakout, “Tiny Furniture,” which won the prize for Best Narrative Feature. “Girls” revolves around the relationships between 4 college friends — Hannah (Dunham), her best friend Marnie (Allison Williams), hipster princess Jessa (Jemimi Kirke), virgin Shoshanna (Zosia Mamet) — and their trials and tribulations working, dating and living in NYC.
The series isn’t a change of direction, instead just a refinement of Dunham’s skills which have been pushed further by producers Judd Apatow and Jenni Konner (“Undeclared”). Naturalistic and effortlessly funny, “Girls” shares more in common with previous Apatow productions like “Freaks & Geeks” — whose balance of comedy and painfully autobiographical touches have won it legions of fans over the years — than it does with “Sex And The City.” Whether this show is merely a cult hit or cultural phenomenon remains to be seen but during the fest, HBO did their best to get the show in front of people with sponsored events, screenings and a panel entitled “Girls Revealed” which featured Dunham, Apatow and Konner alongside assorted members of the production team discussing the ins-and-outs of making the series. During the panel the Dunham and co. discussed the origins of the show, what it’s like working in television and how Apatow became involved in producing a show about 20-something girls in New York.
The creative team behind the show spoke about how the project came together and how a filmmaker behind a $50,000 film suddenly gets handed her own HBO series.
“I made this film, ‘Tiny Furniture,’ which was about this sort of moment immediately after college which I had experienced as extremely confusing,” Dunham said. “There was stuff I wanted to continue to explore and when I had this meeting with HBO. I was like, ‘Here’s a show I’d like to watch.’ I didn’t give a real serious pitch, I just gave them a sense of a world and a kind of girl that I felt like hadn’t been represented before. Then Judd got involved and we sort of started to build [the show]. These characters were sort of different archetypes in a way, but also these really specific girls figuring out their way through the city.” Dunham was paired with producer Jenni Konner, who had worked with Apatow on their earlier series “Undeclared” and had been a huge fan of her film. “For me, a friend gave me a copy of ‘Tiny Furniture’ and I became completely obsessed with it and carried it with me everywhere,” Konner said. “So then when [HBO] made a deal to do the show with Lena they called me because I had literally just been talking about ‘Tiny Furniture’ to anyone who would listen and everyone know I was an obsessive fan.”
As far as how Apatow became involved he said he too had been passed a copy of the film and fell in love with it before he knew anything about it. “Well I saw [‘Tiny Furniture’] and I didn’t know Lena wrote it, directed it, starred in it, I didn’t even know her name,” Apatow said. “In the end I was looking at the credits and her name kept coming up and I realized, ‘Oh my god, that’s her family [co-starring in the film]?’ I like personal movies where people have their families star in them. I felt very much a kindred spirit with what she was trying to do. It did remind me of aspects of stories that I like: underdog stories, coming of age stories, which is why I liked working with Paul Feig on ‘Freaks & Geeks.’ It felt like that moment [of excitement]. I remember when Paul gave me ‘Freaks & Geeks.’ I read it and I just couldn’t believe how good it was and it just captured a world which I wanted to talk about and I felt the same way about this [project].”
For all the impressive work Apatow has done in film, his TV resume stands as perhaps an even more impressive accomplishment with ‘The Larry Sanders Show,’ ‘Freaks & Geeks,’ and ‘Undeclared’ his best work in either medium. Apatow and co. discussed how “Girls” fits into the lineage of previous Apatow programs.
It’s been over a decade since Apatow’s last narrative show “Undeclared” left the airwaves so to see him return with “Girls” is a pretty big deal. “I had all of these terrible network experiences where I tried to make Seth Rogen and Jason Segel the leads of ‘Undeclared’ and [Fox] just laughed at me like it was the dumbest thought ever that anyone would want to watch a Seth Rogen television show. And it was very frustrating,” Apatow explained. “So when I stopped doing television, in the back of my head I did actually pitch a couple of shows for actors [I’d worked with] for HBO shows that they said no to. But I always thought the only way to television is at HBO with that kind of freedom and freedom of expression. So when I heard that Lena and Jenny were set up there I thought, ‘Oh this could heal me’ and it has been really remarkable and they’ve just stood by me in every possible way and have just loved her work so much and wanted her to succeed and wanted her to be true to herself, which is not a value other people put in the process.”
Dunham said she wasn’t sure what initially appealed to Judd about the experiences of a group of 20-something girls in New York but Apatow said he was interested in the challenge. Apatow said, “I worked on a show about college, about high school and [a film about] marriage, but I’d never worked on anything that was the in-between time, between college and life. So that was exciting.” Apatow then revealed a secret he learned earlier in his career as a TV writer which has helped him write for all types of characters: “I have a trick I play which is a lot of what I’ve learned about writing was by being a writer at ‘The Larry Sanders Show.’ So whenever I’m working on something I think to myself, ‘You won’t screw this up if you just pretend that this is an episode of ‘The Larry Sanders Show’ about a young woman in New York and Hank [Kingsley, Jeffrey Tambor‘s character] is just not in this one.”
Apatow went on to praise his experiences working with Dunham and Konner on the show. “This has really been the most fun experience I’ve ever had.” Apatow said. “Lena is so great and Lena and Jenni [Konner] work together so well that it allows me to come in and pitch with them when they feel like they need help. Or to read scripts with a fresh head and then I won’t feel burnt out, the way that they might feel at certain times, because I’m mainly at home getting a massage most of the time. So for me it’s been low stress, I’m like, ‘It’s Lena’s show, she fucks it up it’s her fault.’ So very early on I said, ‘Lena, every choice is yours, I’ll just tell you what I would do in that situation or pitch to help you out.’ So for me it’s been very freeing and it’s always 100 times better then I would ever have imagined, how she would execute it. You know because there have been a few times in my career where there’s been something good but when they do it it’s like even way better. ‘Anchorman’ was like that, it was funny but then when they did it you’re like, ‘Oh my god it’s amazing’ and this has been like that.”
Another striking thing about the show is how many remarkable performances they’ve gotten from a cast of virtual unknowns. The actors here, many of whom are returning from “Tiny Furniture,” are portraying characters mostly based on real people in Dunham’s life.
“As I often do, I wrote based on life.” Dunham said. “So I think I started out, like for example Allison Williams character Marnie was very based on my best friend Audrey [Gelman] and obviously is very close to me in certain ways. All of the characters were tightly linked to real life counterparts.” Dunham said she was initially casting for the closest resemblance to their real life counterpart but learned from Apatow and Konner to allow the actors to help evolve the character. “We had a hard time casting Marnie because I was so committed to someone who basically looked and acted like my real life best friend,” Dunham continued. “People would come in and I’d say, ‘She’s not small enough, she’s not Jewish enough, she’s not looking at me with enough disdain.’ Then when Allison came in it was a completely different thing then we expected but somehow [she fit]. I remember showing Judd the video in his office and he looking at literally two seconds of it and going, ‘Okay yeah, that works,’ and then just going back to whatever he was doing at his desk. Instead of me having to hold so tightly to this character that I’d created or hadn’t been created.”
Dunham said that the characters became “hybrids between certain kind of female archetypes we wanted to represent and the people who were playing them. Now it’s so inextricably linked that it’s hard to even imagine that they existed in our minds before.” Like Apatow and Feig’s landmark 1999 series,”Girls” is cast with mostly unfamiliar faces, or unfamiliar to anyone who hasn’t seen “Tiny Furniture” since many of Dunham’s costars reappear here. Apatow was incredibly enthusiastic about his new cast, beaming, “Every once in a while a magical cast comes together and you feel like you really nailed every part. Not since ‘Freaks & Geeks’ has this felt like something special happened.”
Initially worried about having to make compromises to her work that could sacrifice the piece’s integrity, Dunham managed to retain a remarkable level of creative control over her series which made the leap from features to television not as different as Dunham had expected.
“I think I was prepared for writing a film and for writing television to be massively different.” Dunham said. “I was expecting someone to try to force me to learn a science and that kind of never happened. I thought there was going to be a moment where Judd and Jenni were going to be like. ‘Listen kid, this is how it goes and you need to have [these things]: there needs to be an emotional change here and a shift here [etc.]’ But the whole thing was much more organic then that.”
Dunham said that she loved being able to create a world and spend more time getting to know her characters. She continued, “It’s a real luxury to be able to follow these characters for a longer period of time. When you make a film there’s a feeling that you have 90 minutes to spend with these people and then your time with them is over, it’s sort of a sad goodbye. I love the fact that [in television] there’s just a whole journey that you can take. In terms of thinking about a season, I went in really determined to plot everything and Jenni and Judd were like, ‘You can relax and let ideas come to you as [they] happen and you can be flexible.’ We did a lot of plotting but it was also really exciting when we were shooting to see new weird relationships and conflicts that were emerging that we hadn’t even known would happen that were incredibly fun to add in.”
As a writer/director/actress who had previously enjoyed complete autonomy in her features she was initially worried about moving into the more collaborative medium of television. “I think I came into it really terrified, only knowing ‘Barton Fink‘ horror stories about Hollywood and [being] totally afraid. Both of my parents are visual artists so in that world there’s a real romance to going to your studio and kind of fighting it out all alone,” Dunham said. “I remember my Dad saying really snarky things about artists who let their assistants paint on their paintings. I just thought that like if you let anybody else in somehow you have not done the work and it’s felt completely the opposite to me. Any episode that has any input, any episode that is co-written just comes so alive.” In summary, she said that working in television “feels exactly the same as writing always has except there is more collaboration and I think that’s a real blessing.” But Dunham’s voice has been anything but diluted. She has the sole writing credit on at least the first three episodes and directed five of the ten episodes in season 1 which is practically unheard of in television unless your name is Louie C.K.
Dunham said that while having her own television series wasn’t originally an ambition of hers, she’s happy to be working in the thriving medium where she’s able to tell stories that might not find a home in even medium budgeted films.
Dunham said, “Well it was amazing because before Judd was even involved two shows had been really influential to me, ‘Freaks & Geeks’ and ‘Undeclared.’ So those were TV reference points for me before he was even a collaborator, which was pretty surreal. And then there’s a lot of shows we love, there’s a lot of shows we talk about, everything from ‘My So Called Life’ to ‘Mary Tyler Moore’ references. There’s lots of ‘Friends’ talk in the writers room. And I think about, I like to think about females in shows that inspired me. I think about ‘Strangers with Candy’ all of the time. Not because there’s anything tonally similar, but just because I like the lack of vanity of Amy Sedaris’ character and their relationship to taboo topics but once we’re making the show it doesn’t feel like there’s an equivalent structurally or content wise. We’re sort of in some ways referencing ourselves. We often go what was the format of the pilot? We think about ourselves a lot.”
Dunham said that though she wasn’t sure what she would be doing next, when the opportunity arose for her to make a show at HBO she jumped at the chance. “I didn’t have a clear career game plan.” Dunham said. “When ‘Tiny Furniture’ happened and these new opportunities opened up. I knew that playwrights and independent filmmakers make money writing for TV and so literally I was like, ‘I’m going to write a spec episode of ‘How I Met Your Mother’ ‘ …So I was sort of doing nothing, had general meetings in Los Angeles [until I had a] meeting HBO it was just an immediate creative connection. I also realized pretty quickly that the kinds of stories that I’m interested in telling are not really being funded in the feature film world right now. Cable, and specifically HBO, was a place where issues I wanted to explore could be explored. I feel like the movie version of this that actually gets paid for would be me running through New York, I’d have to be thirty pounds heavier, someone’s best friend, tripping over a chair and the entire thing would just be so different. So I feel really lucky to be working in TV.”
“Girls” Premieres on HBO on April 15th.