Creative Nonfiction’s Lena Dunham By Alicia Van Couvering
There is an actual college Creative Nonfiction class in Lena Dunham’s Creative Nonfiction, which premieres in the Emerging Visions section at SXSW this week. There is also the actual Dunham, who plays both Ella, a college student trying to get a grip on an ambiguous non-starter romance, as well as the heroine in the 16mm-filmed representation of the John Waters/fairy-tale screenplay Ella is writing. Dunham wrote the script, about her own real-life ill fated dorm-room non-romance when she couldn’t concentrate on her own fairy tale/John Waters script, which she was completing for writing class. In Creative Nonfiction we meet this boy when he claims that mold in his room has compelled him to sleep in Lena’s bed; he’s bewildered when Ella thinks this is an invitation to make out. Unfortunately for girls everywhere, you couldn’t make this stuff up. Reality, thy name is fiction. Or vice versa.
The DV-reality portion was shot at Oberlin College in Ohio over one semester; the 16mm film-within-a-film uses sound stage sets and New Hampshire wilderness for a backdrop. Creative Nonfiction employed several members of the team that brought you The Pleasure of Being Robbed, including d.p. Brett Jutkiewicz. Eleanore Hendricks stars as a fictional punk-rock drifter in the movie-within-a-movie, and so does producer Sam Lisenco, who also served as Dunham’s art director. Just 22 years old, Dunham has made dozens of short films as well as Tight Shots, a web series for Nerve.com and Delusional Downtown Divas, a web series on index.com concerning the deluded misadventures of three absurd New York art-world hangers on. Dunham comes by her knowledge of such divas naturally, having been raised by art star parents in downtown New York. From them or elsewhere she also picked up a raucous vocabulary, preternatural self-awareness and tack-sharp wit. This is important to mention because Dunham’s work floats on her infectious personality, turning everything you might expect to be deadly (a college girl making a movie about her non-romance??) into insight and charm (a college girl making a movie about her non-romance!!)
Below, she speaks with Filmmaker about the funny-naked vs. scary-naked, feeding her crew money sandwiches, the fine line between filming your friends making out with you and making a porno, and the sad but inevitable truth that boys are dumb.
FILMMAKER: Was this the first time you’d ever starred in your own film?
DUNHAM: I’d been in other things that I’ve done, but nothing so long or so personal. In my web show for Nerve, I had even taken my shirt off — but it was, like, funny getting naked; not scary, emotional getting naked. I think I just decided to be in it because I couldn’t think of anybody else. My big worry for the audience was: how are people going to feel about watching this annoying, confused girl move around for an hour.
FILMMAKER: But there are great depths to her confusion. You think she’s going to find true love and then she has this meaningless encounter with someone she doesn’t like and afterwards doesn’t at all disguise how disgusted she is.
DUNHAM:I wish that I could say that I just thought that up, but it was just my experience. You’re waiting for it to happen and you’re waiting for it to happen, and then you’re like, “What? I asked for that!? That was horrible!!”
FILMMAKER: Were the scenes scripted or improvised? Like that virginity-loss scene, for example?
DUNHAM:It was scripted, but I figured if you’re dealing with non-actors they should be allowed to play with the dialogue. That scene, he said some of my lines wrong and it was just amazing — like he added the word “yo” a bunch of times and it was just perfect. But, speaking of that scene, I really wanted to die the whole time. It was just one camera person, me, and my friend Jeff [who plays the love non-interest] naked in Jeff’s room. I was like, “This is just like making somebody do porn with you! What makes this okay? Why have I organized this? What have I done?”
FILMMAKER: Well it’s definitely not shot in a particularly flattering or porno-sexy way. How did you approach the cinematography?
DUNHAM: The whole movie is as “not” shot as it could be. Like, “I’m just gonna put the camera here and we’ll do it a few times and if we get it, we get it.” Part of that was style — I definitely wanted to establish a dissonance between the two parts of the film. Part of it was just inexperience and desperation to get the thing done.
FILMMAKER:What’s interesting is that even though it’s your story, it’s not actually shot from your point of view – there are no POV shots.
DUNHAM: There is one POV shot in the movie; it’s the shot where I discover the boy and my neighbor in bed together. I was really stressed about that; I kept thinking, “Consistency! We cannot have just one POV shot!” But I decided if there was ever going to be a moment for a POV shot, that was it.
FILMMAKER: What were some early reactions to the project?
DUNHAM:I showed it to my teacher at Oberlin, and he said, “Well, I guess if I had to compare this to some style of cinema, I’d say, low-budget porn. Like the kind you would see on YouTube if YouTube let you have porn.” I was really upset, crying.
FILMMAKER: What was the budget of the movie?
DUNHAM: It was initially $10,000 and it ended up, as it always does, costing a bit more than that. To me it feels like way too much money, because when you look at it you must think, what was she doing, peeing onto money?
FILMMAKER: What are you talking about! That’s nothing to spend on a movie.
DUNHAM:Yes, some people are like, “Are you an idiot, that’s no money at all.” But other people, such as my parents, are like, “What did you do with all the money?! It looks so cheap! Were you feeding your crew money sandwiches?” And I say, “Yes, we had the best shoot, we ate money salad every day for lunch.”
FILMMAKER: You can kind of tell that there’s another college student in the room, behind the camera.
DUNHAM: I’ve realized that despite the fact that those choices were mainly made out of ignorance. I also like to think that the camera mimics the weird surveillance feeling of college and that time of your life. The camera is acting as an observer. I think that ultimately [the camera work] is a good thing because [it reflects the fact that] there is no privacy. No privacy in the whole movie, or in their lives. I was used to having all this time to think and dream and read and like suddenly that’s just gone. At the beginning of school I thought, “I’ve never been so far away from myself my whole life.” I hope that the camera style does that, and that the studied-ness of all the 16mm footage (shot by Brett Jutkiewicz) makes the DV-shot scenes feel more intentional.
FILMMAKER: That’s an excellent segue to the film-within-a-film aspect. Can you talk about that?
DUNHAM: The embarrassing thing is that I had actually been writing that screenplay, the one about the girl and her teacher-rapist [shot in 16mm and intercut with the main storyline] — but it was going terribly, because that screenplay was just NOT good. Meanwhile I was obsessed with this ill-fated “romance” I had just had and couldn’t stop thinking about all my rage and pain. Then I had a light-bulb moment, and [the 16mm story] became a really good framework from which to hang my actual story.
FILMMAKER: The two stories don’t juxtapose as perfect metaphorical parallels – how did you figure out that balance?
DUNHAM: I thought that direct mirroring would be too cute. In fact, I hoped that the character wouldn’t even be aware that the two things were mimicking each other. I’m glad that people have laughed at it, because I was worried it would be too girly and emo. When I shot those things with the wigs and everything, I was thinking about John Waters and all the weird campy gay movies I like.
FILMMAKER: What other films and artists were you influenced by?
DUNHAM: For the 16mm story, I was thinking about the movie Party Girl for some reason, because it’s such a weird urban fairytale. I really love girl coming-of-age movies like My Summer of Love. Those were some things that were in my brain. Also, I had picked up Funny Ha-Ha at the video store when I was sick with mono. I had never heard of Andrew Bujalski. I wasn’t, like, up on film-festival stuff, and I watched it and it really rocked my world off its hinges. I didn’t want to make that movie, but there was like a good mix of humor and sadness and an immediacy in that movie that I wanted not to replicate but to tap into.
FILMMAKER: You were raised by artists, correct?
DUNHAM: I was. I was raised by artists [Laurie Simmons and Carroll Dunham.] So, oh, I thought about Cindy Sherman, when I did the stuff with the wigs. I used to borrow Halloween costumes from her when I was little. It was the thing that I lived for. My mom’s a photographer too, and lady photographers all know each other. [Cindy Sherman] gave me wigs and fake boobs and stuff for Halloween so I think I was, like, getting back in touch with that dress-up. I love her work.
FILMMAKER: So you grew up in New York.
DUNHAM: A Soho child.
FILMMAKER:So you were probably raised with the expectation of sparkling creativity and great accomplishment.
DUNHAM:Sometimes when I was little I would say, “What if I want to run a gas station when I grow up?” I felt like, of course, I could do whatever I wanted, but it did place a certain amount of pressure to produce some kind of creative output, which I’m now recognizing. That combined with going to private school where there was a glass case displaying the accomplishments of students and alumni, like, “Look at [student], she’s on the cover of New York Times Magazine!” The Glass Case Culture.
FILMMAKER: This brings up the common criticism of movies by and about white liberal arts college students. The navel-gazing issue.
DUNHAM:For a second I thought you said, “Men Abusing” and I thought, Yes! There are some issues of Men Abuse in there. Emotional abuse, domination… But, no, I have certainly had moments where I thought, okay, definitely some people are going to say, “Why does she think I want to see this?”
FILMMAKER: But any artist must feel that way. Why would anyone want to see anything anyone made?
DUNHAM: Yes. There’s a level of assumption that your worry is unwarranted. To share something feels like you’re assuming something. I don’t think I’m so interesting or that people want to see me naked. But it’s like what my dad says about his paintings, “If I could not do this, I would not do it. It’s embarrassing to me and it gives me anxiety.”
FILMMAKER: What kind of artists are your parents?
DUNHAM:My mom’s a photographer, and she’s made a film too, a short called The Music of Regret, which is a crazy puppet-musical starring Meryl Streep. My dad’s a painter, he makes kind of figurative, sort of abstract, semi-comic paintings. My dad watched the movie and he said, “I was such an idiot.”
DUNHAM:He said it reminded him of all the crap he pulled on girls. He said, “I’m a pretty nice guy, but even I did stuff like that.”
FILMMAKER: A favorite line of mine is when the guy says, after you confront him about his confusing behavior, “You assume that I think.” It totally elucidates the havoc wrought by boys setting up these ambiguous relationships with girls as self-aware and articulate as your character.
DUNHAM:Yeah, I mean I have this experience still with guys that I date, which is that I torture myself over his behavior, and then I realize that it is all simply non-behavior. Someone actually said that to me, “You assume that I think,” and I couldn’t believe it — it made so much sense. I had been thinking really hard, and they hadn’t been thinking at all.
FILMMAKER: It makes you feel crazy.
DUNHAM: It’s funny because the guy that this is about, he heard that the movie was about him and asked to see it, so I sent it to him. He wrote this really nice email like, “Lena, I’m so sorry, I was such a jerk!” It was just the best, nicest review ever. It’s on my website now.
FILMMAKER: Did making the movie actually help you process the experience?
DUNHAM: Well, now I’ll get into a relationship that has that same weird nebulousness, you know — “Does he want to kiss me or just be my friend?” And I’ll think, “I can’t have this issue anymore, I already made a movie about this!” You can’t do things that you already made a movie about. So yes, I think it has helped me.
FILMMAKER: What else do you have to contend with making such autobiographical movies?
DUNHAM: People judging you. If people don’t like this movie, then it’s possibly because they don’t like ME. That had never occurred to me before. I was thinking about I Am A Sex Addict by Caveh Zahedi, and that movie’s amazing because even though he does such hate-able things in it I still find him pretty charming. And he doesn’t even change his name, so he’s really going balls to the wall with that one. I hope that there’s something universal about this. Like I was hoping it went beyond just my experience. Finding love, losing your virginity. I felt that [her having sex] had to be the big climax — but also the anti-climax, because it kind of turns out to be, just, nothing. She’s learned nothing from it. She felt nothing.
FILMMAKER: Her quest to lose her virginity is so frustrating for your character, because it’s something she has no control over. It’s not a decision that she is allowed to make for herself, and people are so patronizing about it.
DUNHAM: Yes, exactly. Like, “it should be special, it should be with someone you’ve dated for six months and you should maybe even love them.” Well, great, where do I find them? Like you can’t be a waitress without experience but without experience no one will hire you as a waitress without experience. Boys are so dumb.
View the trailer below: