Q&A: Lena Dunham, the Writer, Director, and Star of Tiny Furniture
Lena Dunham’s Tiny Furniture is a minor miracle: a portrait of twenty-something post-collegiate life that engagingly balances the funny, the sad, the awkward and the tender. It’s the sort of movie that’s been a staple of independent American cinema for the past 30 years, but Dunham–who wrote, directs, and stars as Aura, the Oberlin graduate who returns to her family’s Tribeca loft in an effort to figure out what she’s supposed to be doing now–invests it with an intelligent, sometimes devastating honesty. The movie is partly autobiographical, and Dunham cast her mother and sister as Aura’s mother and sister, her friend Jemima Kirke as Aura’s friend Charlotte. She moves through the sort of uncomfortable romantic and job scenarios that we all had to endure in our 20s.
Her trump card in this endeavor is a wonderfully dry sense of humor–for a sample, her Dec. 16, 2010, appearance on The Late, Late Show with Craig Ferguson is a total hoot. Though only 25 now, Dunham–the daughter of visual artists–photographer Laurie Simmons and masterful painter Carroll Dunham–is wise enough to recognize the absurd comic potential in life’s everyday calamities, and has the eye, ear, and writerly touch to mine the funny from the melodramatic. City Paper caught up with Dunham by phone this morning from her Brooklyn apartment to chat about Tiny Furniture, which opens at the Charles Theater Feb. 11, and to check in on Dunham’s new HBO project Girls.
City Paper: Real quick, I just want to say you’re the first person I’ve ever interviewed who I also follow on Twitter. You’re quite witty. I’m not nimble enough to be that witty in 140 characters.
Lena Dunham: Oh nice. Thank you, I think my Twitter’s ridiculous, but I’m so happy when anybody enjoys it. It’s one of my favorite projects in my life, I have a lot of fun doing it.
CP: Briefly tell me about Tiny Furniture‘s origin. Did it start out about a young woman out of college returning home, or did it evolve into that?
LD: It was pretty much what it is. It never changed very much. It was sort of born a little bit fully formed. I wrote it very quickly, I revised it very little before I shot. So it was one thing that kind of just emerged. It’s origins were, it’s fairly autobiographical, but then there’s stuff that’s really not. And it was that kind of weird mix of life experience and things you’ve heard about and things you’ve imagined. It’s funny, different days I answer different ways about how autobiographical it is, depending on my perspective on my own life.
CP: That’s entirely fair.
LD: Good. I’m glad you think so.
CP: Was your family into the idea of co-starring in it?
LD: That was always sort of my plan; that was sort of what I was doing. And they were up for it–I don’t think they sort of understood the full extent of its movie-ness, if you will. Like, I think they kind of thought it was going to be a really fun random project and then suddenly we were actually making a movie. I think they have only recently begun to really understand how much we were actually making a movie.
CP: Knowing New York, did you have locations and settings in mind you wanted to use, to show the New York you know?
LD: I mean, that’s my real house. I just kind of knew this life inspires me, these people inspire me, I want to make something with all of this in it.
CP: I ask because I imagine using New York as a setting can be both good and bad. It’s a very visual place, but it also has to be one of the most photographed places ever.
LD: I know. It’s really hard to do a fresh view on New York. It’s really hard to find a part of New York that hasn’t been shot or dealt with before.
CP: So Tiny Furniture was rooted in your very particular piece of New York?
LD: Exactly. For me, it’s not really hip and downtown but it’s not necessarily stuffy. It’s sort of the weird, specific New York of my childhood, which I had never really seen onscreen before except for maybe bits in Woody Allen movies or bits of Party Girl with Parker Posey. There are different films that had sort of aspects of the New York that I knew, but also a big part of my New York is I’m not always out hitting the streets and being cool. I spend a lot of time in my apartment, so the movie is very claustrophobic and you almost wouldn’t even know that it’s in New York because there’s hardly any street view of things.
CP: How has growing up with visual artists as parents influenced your own approach or sensibilities about images? Or has it?
LD: It totally has. I think the way the movie looks is kind of inspired by my mom’s still photography, and that her aesthetic has been a really influential one for me. I’m a fan of her work beyond just being her daughter. And in my father’s work, I think there’s kind of an interesting body, sexuality thing to it that I think I found sort of liberating and inspiring. But aside from that, I think that also just having parents who do something creative professionally kind of gave me the ridiculous idea that I too could do something creative professionally. It makes you think that that’s an OK thing to do with your life, which is potent in and of itself.
CP: Was film always the medium you were attracted to? Because you studied creative writing as an undergrad, right?
LD: I was writing plays and I liked writing plays, but I also didn’t like the fact that they didn’t last forever. I found that part of writing plays very frustrating. So after that, I kind of thought to myself, “I really enjoy this kind of creative expression but wish that it was something a little more permanent.” And I think that’s where the desire came from.
CP: How was the move from theatrical visual storytelling to cinematic visual storytelling?
LD: There was definitely a moment where I had a friend who was helping me edit something who was like, “You need people walking places. It can’t just be two people sitting against a wall all the time.” That was sort of my first instinct, is to just get lost in the dialogue and the comfort of staying within a room. So it’s been a challenge to push myself and give something that sort of cinematic thrust or momentum.
CP: One of my favorite lines in Tiny Furniture is when Charlotte says something like, “Let’s go to Odeon and order everything on the menu.” Have you ever done that? Because that sounds an incredible amount of fun.
LD: Doesn’t that sound so fun? No, I’ve only ever gone to Odeon and ordered two things on the menu. But it’s my fantasy–because the most indulgent thing you can do is order tons of stuff and then only eat little bits of it. To me, that’s the fantasy of what an indulgent, fabulous woman does. And I am not that indulgent, fabulous woman unfortunately. I wish. I would a) not be able to afford it and b) order everything on the menu and then probably eat it all, which is not the elegant thing to do.
CP: And I think I read in Black Book that Jemima Kirke, who played Charlotte, is co-starring in your current project, Girls, for HBO.
LD: She is. We shot the pilot in November and she was just crazy wonderful. I have so much fun writing for her.
CP: Can you tell me a little bit about that and what’s going on with it?
LD: The pilot’s been shot, the show’s been greenlit, and we start shooting again in late April. So there’s going to be nine more episodes. I’m sort of in the writing phase of things right now.
CP: How’s it going?
LD: It’s going well. Well, whenever I get asked about the writing I say, ‘I don’t know–I guess we’ll find out.’ I’m having a really good time doing it. How it’s going–I don’t know? But I’m having a great time.
CP: Does the writing come easy for you?
LD: It does. There’s a fair amount of pacing around, torturing myself, whatever, that happens. But ultimately I just feel so lucky that this is my job and I love doing it and I try to freaking get it done at the end of the day.