Fall 2013

The It Girl

As the star of her HBO series Girls, Lena Dunham has become a lightning rod for all sorts of cultural issues. But behind the camera she’s a director learning her craft.


ACTION: Dunham says she is unfazed by her sudden fame. “I haven’t really thought about it much, because I’m always so engaged in what I’m doing.”

Lena Dunham, the 27-year-old auteur and star of HBO’s acclaimed and ceaselessly talked-about series Girls, majored in creative writing at Oberlin College and never planned to go into film or television, but always “planned to go into storytelling of some kind.” She happily admits to being a self-taught director, but in terms of influences she considers herself “easily inspired.”

When Dunham won the DGA Award in 2013 for Outstanding Comedy Series for Girls, she may have seemed like the quintessential wunderkind, but she was not a total novice. She had two shorts and a full-length feature (Tiny Furniture [2010]) under her belt and had been developing her skills in stage productions since her high school days at the notoriously artsy Saint Ann’s School in Brooklyn. She acknowledges that adding a camera to the mix was a puzzle at first.

“I started with the assumption that I wanted to see what was going on, so I put the camera where I could do that,” she recalls with a self-aware smile. “I just made sure you could see all the characters.” She confesses outright that she considers real-life experience “the best film school there is.”

But Dunham doesn’t see directors as all-powerful figures that know everything, describing the filmmaking process as “insanely collaborative. It’s OK to be clear on the set that there are things you don’t know,” says Dunham. She recalls being afraid the first time she set foot on a DGA set as the director, for the first episode of Girls, but quickly realized that it was “the same deal, more people.”

“It’s about learning to hear these people,” she says. “You have to rely on the expertise of your dolly grip or your focus puller.” But without film school, how does a newcomer even know what a dolly grip or a focus puller is? “I didn’t,” she says with a laugh. “I interviewed ADs by asking what an AD does.”

She knows now. To stage impressively believable crowd reaction shots in a scene during the second season of Girls in which Marnie (Allison Williams) makes an ill-advised decision to get up and sing in front of strangers, Dunham said, “You have to talk to [the extras] through your AD. You cannot give them hyper-specific notes.”

LUNCHTIME: Dunham, directing Rita Wilson (left) and Allison Williams, says if you’ve cast the right people, half your job is done.

Dunham was also behind the camera for the second season episode “On All Fours,” which was criticized by some (and praised by others) because of its graphic images on the theme of sexual objectification and the question of coercion. Where do you put the camera when a man (Adam Driver) is forcing a woman (Shiri Appleby) to crawl to his bedroom? Dunham says: “I really tried to be a neutral observer in that scene.” Still, some shots went unused because Dunham decided they could have been interpreted as fetishistic. “It was just a different perspective on her, falling on the floor.”

Dunham has also had her share of nudity and sex scenes in front of the camera, many of them in episodes she has directed. “It’s sort of counterintuitive,” she says of directing herself. “There are days when it’s easier and days when it’s harder to maintain that double focus. I really trust the people I work with who are sitting at the monitors.”

Jesse Peretz, who has directed multiple episodes of Girls, observed in an interview that on the set Dunham seems to know exactly what she wants. “It’s very important that everything on the directing front remain true to what she sees in her head.”

Dunham would never claim, however, that she is not still learning. She gives credit to Richard Shepard, Jody Lee Lipes and Peretz, the other directors she brought onto the series, and calls them “radically helpful” because of their different approaches.

But Dunham has her own style.

“I try to make a camera choice that will be powerful but won’t dictate,” she said. “I don’t want my actors to have to do intense choreography,” or cater to the camera. “‘I want you to be more frame left’ is a note I would never give,” Dunham adds. She says she does not launch into “a whole spiel” before a scene, agreeing with some of her distinguished colleagues that if you’ve cast the right people, at least half your job is done. “I try to give notes that are clear. And I just try to give emotional reasons for what’s happening on screen,” she says. “Great things can come from people having fun.”

Speaking of having fun, she recalls something that James L. Brooks once told her about work satisfaction. “He said, ‘When a TV show is running, it’s the best job you’re ever going to have [because] so much of being a director is the uncertainty of ‘when is my next project going to go,’ and ‘when can I get the high of being on a set again?’ So rather than living with those anxieties, on a series there’s a constant influx of that kind of pleasure.”

Brooks made one of Dunham’s favorite films, Broadcast News (1987), which she loves because it has “the grandeur of a romcom without the message of a romcom.” Her taste, though, is quite eclectic. Among her favorite films are Terrence Malick’s elegiac Days of Heaven (1978), Sam Peckinpah’s blood-soaked Straw Dogs (1971) and Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s commentary on post-World War II Germany The Marriage of Maria Braun (1979). The directors she admires most include Agnès Varda, David Lynch and Mike Leigh.

Her reasons almost always have to do with the strong, complex women’s roles they present.

Reared in an artistic household (her mother is the photographer Laurie Simmons, and her father the painter Carroll Dunham), Dunham burst onto the scene with the simultaneous burden and privilege of instant celebrity. “I haven’t really thought about it much, because I’m always so engaged in what I’m doing,” but she admits there are moments when she realizes “things are a little different.”

Dunham takes both the blame and the credit for Girls’ very specific tone, which she says is unlikely to be affected by any comings and goings of characters. That tone was developed in her Web series, Delusional Downtown Divas, which began in 2009 and was, she says, vital to honing her craft. She refers to it as “a crazy exercise in absurdism,” but because of it, certainly no one ever has to remind her that her work may end up being viewed on a screen the size of a breath mint.

Tiny Furniture, which was another big step forward, was one part feature and one part home movie. Her mother played her mother and her younger sister Grace played her sister. Grace also appeared in Dunham’s early short films, Dealing (2006) and Creative Nonfiction (2009). Much of Tiny Furniture, a story about a listless recent college graduate (Dunham) coming home to New York to almost nonexistent emotional support, was shot at her parents’ home. When asked if she wants to direct more features, Dunham does not hesitate.

“Yes, desperately, the minute that it is possible time-wise” she says. “And if no one’s funding it, I’ll make it on my iPhone.”

Independent Voice

Profiles of independent directors sharing their visions and methods of making movies.

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