The latest prodigy indie cinema has to offer, Lena Dunham doesn't have it all figured out by age 24—but she's getting there.
We all know that independent film is in a bit of a tricky state right now: Aimless. Lost. Confused. Trying to figure it all out. New methods of distribution! Cheaper tools for production! How to make sense of it all? Plenty of films being made right now are being constructed with these concerns in mind. However, few of them fit as nicely into the paradigm as Lena Dunham’s Tiny Furniture, a film centered around a recent college graduate whose frustrations and doubts about her future serve as an apt metaphor for the industry itself.
This metaphor becomes all the more apparent when one realizes that Tiny Furniture (from IFC Films) was written to be made within a certain set of production confines. The locations are basically exteriors and apartments, the most commonly used of which is Dunham’s own parents’ Tribeca loft. The cast and crew are comprised of friends, albeit some very, very talented friends. And the storyline—a young woman recently out of college, trying to “figure it all out,” hints of—dare I say it?—mumblecore. And yet, Dunham’s feature (her second, after 2008’s Creative Nonfiction) is far more studied in its understanding of character, and polished in its dialogue witticisms, to be grouped in with that now-defunct style of filmmaking.
Clearly somewhat autobiographical, Dunham also stars as protagonist Aura, who moves back in with her mom and younger sister (played by Dunham’s real-life relations) upon graduating from a college in Ohio (Dunham went to Oberlin), and begins trying to figure out what’s next. Men come and go, deliciously sent up by Alex Karpovsky and David Call, and old friends of questionable repute re-emerge in Aura’s life. Amidst Dunham’s crackling-sharp dialogue (which certainly helped secure her a Judd Apatow-produced pilot for HBO), a more poignant portrait emerges of a lost young woman beginning to sift through the morass we know as life.
Dunham is currently setting the world abuzz (mentions in Entertainment Weekly and New York magazine, a profile in The New York Times, and one this week in The New Yorker) between Tiny Furniture, the HBO pilot and news of a book she’ll be adapting and directing for Scott Rudin. (And did I mention she’s just a touch on the young side for all this—24 years old?) We were lucky enough to sit down with her recently to discuss everything going on in her career.
Tribeca: You’ve got a lot of buzz surrounding you at the moment: the Will Ferrell mention, an upcoming New Yorker profile, and more. You’re 24 years old. Is it getting to you? Do you feel like you’re able to keep yourself in check?
Lena Dunham: In terms of keeping myself in check—I live with my parents and spend most of my time in my pajamas, and still trip when I walk down the street. It’s not like there’s been this major drastic change in my life, it’s just that I’ve been given the opportunity to do the thing that I love all the time, which I view as a responsibility and I take very seriously. Things like the Will Ferrell shout-out in Entertainment Weekly—that’s amazing, I’m a huge fan of his, that’s unbelievable. TheNew Yorker profile—that’s amazing, that’s an honor, although it’s a little scary, because who can write 5,000 words of good things? At the same time, I grew up reading those profiles and find it to be a totally iconic publication.
But my biggest thing is that I just try to keep working, keep making work that feels honest to me, and try to stay engaged in a creative process that feels exciting. I feel very lucky to be working on something else as the movie comes out, because I feel a little useless once the movie is finished and out in the world. I feel like my reason for being is to make the work. So the buzz factor is lovely in that it makes doing that easier, but I recognize that that comes and goes; there’s backlash associated with that. I think having two parents who are in creative professions, who have dealt with that in a different way, but dealt with ebbs and flows of the art market, that helps.
Tribeca: It’s kind of the sentiment that, this is all nice, but it’s a bonus—the work is what’s important.
Lena Dunham: Yeah. I enjoy all of this, but at the same time, I think that fully inhabiting and enjoying praise is kind of counterintuitive to getting stuff done. So it’s sort of that balance of enjoying the praise, but also knowing that I want to make a lot of things in my life, and I’ll make things people like, I’ll make things people don’t like, but it’s all part of just doing what you love to do.
Tribeca: It’s about self-worth, right? Whether that comes from within or external validation. Which brings me to your character in Tiny Furniture. It seems like one of the issues she has is that she’s trying to peg self-worth to all these external indicators—do I have a job? Am I succeeding like my little sister? What kind of relationships do I have with men? And so on.
Lena Dunham: Yeah, and I think by the end she understands that it’s not going to come from the job she has at the moment, it’s not going to come from men, it’s not going to come from her family. It’s going to come from herself.
Making Tiny Furniture was a turning point in my life, and the reception that it’s gotten was amazing, but the actual making of the film was, in some ways, what brought me out of the life-condition that my character inhabits.
Tribeca: So, to talk about the semi-autobiographical nature of the film—are there any dangers in making a film that hews closely to your own experiences? Do you run a risk regarding critical distance from the character, or a lack thereof?
Lena Dunham: You kind of take the facts of your life and then fashion something that’s totally new out of materials that you understand. There are really autobiographical elements, and things that feel alien to me. There are emotions that I relate to, and emotions I don’t, and so on. I try to not stay too attached to the facts of my life when I’m writing. I try to serve the narrative. So autobiographical is the jumping off point. No one really cares about what’s happened to me, personally—it’s about serving the greater narrative and themes that feel resonant to me, even if that means changing the circumstances in the script. But “write what you know” is a good place to start.
Tribeca: So how did you go about creating the character of Aura, and creating a critical distance?
Lena Dunham: I think that she was me, but she was also people I’d known. She was really a composite. I think a lot more theoretical consideration goes into creating the characters I don’t play. The characters I do play I find a lot as I’m performing them. They become clear to me once I’m doing them, on-camera. That’s different than when I write a role for another actor. When I write a role for someone else, I want to be able to have the language to explain to them who this person is, give them some kind of ownership over it. But with Aura, I just kind of wrote the facts, and then her internal state kind of became clear to me as I was playing her.
Tribeca: That’s sort of a high-wire act, right? You’re just going to figure it out when you’re on set.
Lena Dunham: There’s challenges but—I mean, I don’t consider myself an actor, I’m not really method-y or theoretical—I kind of just do it and hope it feels good and natural, and hope that as I keep doing it, a character emerges from that.
Tribeca: In terms of directing yourself, then—how do you go about splitting your mind like that? Directing yourself?
Lena Dunham: I think it’s about staying in the scene. For me, being in the scene really gives me a great barometer for what’s happening, because I really feel it. I’m in an experience with another actor, and I can understand the energy of the scene. Also, just going to the monitor every few takes and seeing what’s going on, making sure what the audience is seeing and what you’re feeling are matching up. I have a really great relationship with my DP, with the producers, and I take their opinions seriously, too.
Tribeca: One of the things that’s interesting about the tone of the film—and you mentioned this at a screening I was at—has to do with the editor, Lance Edmands, and how he likes to let the beats linger; he doesn’t like to end on a button. It was interesting because the script itself is very bada-bing, bada boom.
Lena Dunham: It’s very quippy, very quippy. But [cinematographer] Jody [Lee Lipes] doesn’t shoot that way, Lance doesn’t edit that way, so those elements are kind of fighting each other a bit, and then it comes to this place in the middle. I appreciate a slower scene. It doesn’t need to have that kind of sitcom speed, which, if you read it on the page, might be what jumped out at you.
Tribeca: That’s what’s so interesting about the film. It’s a comedy, and it’s not paced like an art film, exactly, but between there’s something like that.
Lena Dunham: There’s something almost European about the way Jody and Lance want to work. Those are the movies that interest them. I’m sort of in the middle—I love those movies, but I’m also a lover of big-budget comedies and pop culture in general. So my love of Terrence Malick and Will Ferrell, for example, they’re meeting and having some kind of baby.