Lena Dunham unveiled the first three episodes of her new HBO series “Girls” (April 15), at SXSW. Safe to say, it played as well for the guys in the room as the women. “This is the most fun experience I’ve ever had,” declared executive producer Judd Apatow during the follow-up Q &A. “It’s Lena’s show, if she fucks it up it’s her fault. Every choice is hers.”
Dunham feels a debt to SXSW, which in 2009 debuted the New York filmmaker’s first microbudget feature “Creative Nonfiction,” which led to Dunham meeting many of her future collaborators, including “Tiny Furniture” cinematographer Jody Lee Lipes, producer Alicia Van Couvering, and actor Alex Karpovsky, who also stars in “Girls.” She shot her 2010 SXSW jury-prize-winning semi-autobiographical film “Tiny Furniture” (IFC) at her family’s Tribeca loft with herself and many non-pros– including her old pal Jemima Kirke, sister Grace and artist mom Laurie Simmons (“The Music of Regret”)– in leading roles. (Here’s my flip cam interview at the time.)
Suddenly, the Oberlin creating writing major, who is now 25, found herself in demand as a Hollywood writer-for-hire, and was promptly adopted by producer Scott Rudin, who hired her to adapt a script based on David Levithan and Rachel Cohn’s “Dash & Lily’s Book of Dares” about two kids who conduct a romance at The Strand bookstore by leaving notes for each other in old books. “She’s a star,” he told me.
And HBO hired her to write, direct and co-executive produce with Apatow and Jennifer Konner (“Undeclared”) the series pilot for “Girls,” in which she co-stars with Kirke and Allison Williams (“The League”) as one of three 20ish New York girlfriends. SPOILERS In the first hilarious and sexually frank episode, Dunham cites HBO series “Sex and the City,” is cut off by her parents who have been supporting her writing for two years, loses her unpaid internship, doesn’t land a job by telling the wrong off-color joke to Mike Birbiglia, and has sex doggy-style with her strapping uncouth boyfriend (Adam Driver).
Dunham surrounds herself with lithely gorgeous co-stars, but unabashedly reveals her pleasingly plump body in candid sex scenes (predictably, this is already raising a ruckus). She pulls this off. (“You dirty little whore,” says her role-playing lover. “That was really good, I almost came,” she replies.) The men sitting near me were applauding enthusiastically. You feel like a fly on the wall in scenes with these authentic 20-somethings.
MORE SPOILERS: The second and third episodes offer more sex, a virgin, an unwanted pregnancy for one girl and an STD for another. HBO has ordered up a season of ten shows, of which Dunham wrote and directed five. She also learned how to take notes, collaborate with other directors and work with Apatow and his writer’s room. “We loved working on the show,” she said at the SXSW Q & A. “Having a staff is an amazing blessing.”
Dunham learned from Apatow how to start with a script but then incorporate improvisation into her scenes: “to not let actors improvise would be kind of a crime,” she admitted.
Added Apatow: “It allows me to pitch when they need help, or look at it with a fresh head. It’s low stress for me.”
Nobody at HBO leaned on Dunham with the abortion episode. “It was not about the experience of having an abortion,” she said, “but the shake-up it caused. Nobody is saying ‘you can’t do this,’ we were free to make that choice as a room full of free choice women. It felt honest to us.”
While Dunham’s career is going full steam ahead, she admits that she by no means has her life together and thus has plenty to draw on. “If one area of your life seems nailed down, there’s so many areas of my life that are confusing to me. I’ve made horrendous other mistakes, that lostness and questioning does not go away when you’re doing something that you want to do.” With two artist parents, she recognizes that she’s “lucky” right now, but that careers “go up and down.”