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Lena Dunham on Why Criterion Came Knocking at Her Door and What We Can Expect From ‘Girls’

Lena Dunham on Why Criterion Came Knocking at Her Door and What We Can Expect From 'Girls'

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.”

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.

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