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Lena Dunham in Conversation with Nora Ephron

Lena Dunham in Conversation with Nora Ephron

I am very impressed with Lena Dunham.  Have been since I saw Tiny Furniture.  As the launch of her HBO show Girls approaches on the 15th of April (which I will write about next week), Lena is curating a program at BAM this week Hey, Girlfriend a program of 8 films about female relationships onscreen.

On Monday night the series opened with a screening of This is My Life (which is sadly not on DVD) the first film directed by Nora Ephron.  The film was written by Nora and her sister Delia and is based on the book by Meg Wolitzer.

Nora Ephron joined Lena for a discussion following the film.  It was so great to see two female directors onstage talking about directing and also embracing that they are interested in directing and writing about women.  Being from different generations they of course have different experiences and it was heartening to hear and see Lena who has just exploded in the last year still remain really true to her voice even while embracing the larger canvas she has to put her stories onto now. 

The think I love about Lena is that she knows the stories she wants to tell and because her voice is unique and honest and fucking real she is being allowed to tell those stories.  Her stories are about women or in her world – almost women – struggling with life and that is so refreshing.

I got some great nuggets from the conversation to share.  My take away – things have not changed much for women directors in the last 20 years since Ephron made her first film.

On how Nora Ephron got into directing: FYI- she was 50 when she started directing.  How fucking cool is that?

When Harry Met Sally became a hit I was a person that someone came to and asked if I wanted to direct.  That person happened to have been a woman named named Dawn Steel who was running Columbia and she said I’m going to ask Lynda Obst to find you something and about a week later she said there is novel by Meg Wolitzer and you should look at it.  It was so clearly a movie that not only did I want to make, it was clear that no one else would want to make because it’s about women and there were so few women directors.  It is very hard to get someone to direct a movie about women if they are not a women and it was about sisters and about a woman with kids who was trying to balance her career…  So we did the script and we entered a kind of hell because Dawn Steel was fired.

There was not only no one who wanted to do this but Jon Peters was now running Columbia and I had to have a meeting with him and his girlfriend at the time who was a swedish model named Vendela and he told me very proudly at the meeting that he had made 65 movies and had never once read a script and he wasn’t going to start now but could I tell him about my movie.  It was a total nightmare and I walked out of the meeting and thought my life was in the hands of this person.

The project got made when Sam Cohn her agent (who was famous for eating paper) gave the film to Joe Roth at Fox and he gave them $9 million to make it. 

Nora on being a director:

I don’t think I even knew how stupid I was until I made my second movie.  I thought I watched all these people direct so I thought I knew how to direct.  I thought I had learned something from watching Mike Nichols and how he talked to actors.  That was like going to film school.  I really didn’t know much about the camera and where it should go and until I did Sleepless in Seattle and worked with Sven Nykvist.  

If you don’t want it, if you don’t really want it it’s not going to happen.  That’s true for men too because the movie business is really horrible.  It’s really hard to get a movie made but it’s especially hard for women and I think it’s interesting how many women make a couple of movies and then it gets harder and harder for them.  It’s not just the business, it’s that it is a really difficult and soul sucking business.  When I directed this movie I thought it was the best job ever.  Now when I think of making a movie I think about that test screening in Agoura, CA where you find out that your beloved child, that the love for it is not shared by a group of strangers in the valley and it’s tough.

Nora on the difficulties of being a working mom:

There is this line in the movie “you give your kids a choice suicide in the next room or ecstasy in hawaii” — that is the horrible truth about having a career and having children and there is just no question of it.  My kids were 11 and 12 when I went to Toronto to do this movie and because I had been a writer they basically thought of me as barbara bush- I was never away.  My career had never inconvenienced them in any way but for years they talked about how I had left them.

I don’t think this is anything that’s anything that is solvable I don’t think it’s ever going to be easy to have a career and children.  You just have to know it’s going to be hard and if anyone ever said no one ever said it’s going to be so hard you must remind them that at least I said so.  There is not some solution to this because your children mean more to you than anything except what you do also means more to you than anything so it’s very difficult and confusing and I don’t think there is any solution except to accept that it is very complicated.

Lena on being a woman director and the challenges:

One of my favorite things Nora has written is Things I will miss when I die and Things I won’t miss and one of the things she won’t miss  is panels on women in film… I was on a panel recently that had 10 young directors and I was the only female on the panel and there was this amazing moment where someone in the audience raised their hand and asked why do you think there are so few women directing movies and one of the guys down the line from me said I’ve got something to say about that and I was so shocked by that.  Everyone had a perspective and my answer which might scandalize people but the traits that you are taught which are appropriate to be a woman in some way run counter to the activity of like manning a crew and running a film set. There is more emotional anxiety and maternal anxiety that you have for everyone around you.  I’m always jealous when I see someone who can soldier forth without worrying about who got a sandwich. 

Putting that whole issue aside I am frustrated about articles I have read in the process of putting my show out where people have asked me over and over asking me to lampoon Sex and the City or lampoon the other shows about women that are network TV as if there is some zero sum game.  It’s as if f I have a show then there are 11 women who no longer can.  I’ve had these conversations where people have said, we have enough programming for women 18-34, but you are never going to hear anyone say we’ve done our 3 dude shows so we are done with that for now.

Other pearls:

  • She fired her first cinematographer on This is My Life after he had humiliated her in front of the crew. 
  • One of the reasons I wanted to direct so much was so I could go on writing because it is so hard to find a director and you can be pushed out of the business – you can direct more than you can write in most cases so I really felt like I’ve got to make this movie
  • It is always a shock to people at studios that women do go see movies.  I had thought when I saw Bridesmaids which I loved – I thought this would be the last time they said women don’t go see movies but I promise you they are still saying it.  It’s still frightening to them to not make something that is tent pole with a possible sequel with a video game.
  • Advice for other directors: Always have a plan.  You can change your mind but you will scare people to death if you don’t have a plan.  Everyone wants to know that you know what you are doing.

If you can make it to BAM this week you can see Amy Heckerling in person and watch Clueless and her new film Vamps.


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