“It Came Out of Me Almost Fully Born”: Writer/Director Lena Dunham on Her New Feature, Sharp Stick
It’s been 13 years since Lena Dunham emerged: first with 2009’s web series, Delusional Downtown Divas and the feature Creative Nonfiction, then, a year later, with breakthrough Tiny Furniture, an intensely personal, incredibly low-budget film that follows a recent college grad named Aura (Dunham) struggling to find her place in her hometown of New York City post-Oberlin. Supported by a cast of Dunham’s real-life friends and family, Tiny Furniture was a critical success that directly sprouted the quintessential Girls, the HBO series that depicts millennial mania, malaise and, at times, loathsome mediocrity.
Five years after Girls’s final season, Dunham’s work is less focused on self-reflection and auto-parody. With Sharp Stick, the Sundance-premiering film that marks her return to features, Dunham attempts to parse the limitations of her body, her sexuality and her own understanding of the world. As opposed to recreating her own anxieties and experiences, the writer/director embodies a character who is navigating what she cannot have. Four years ago, Dunham had an elective hysterectomy in response to severe endometriosis symptoms, and in Sharp Stick, she plays Heather, a married woman with a young son and another baby on the way. But one of Sharp Stick‘s staunch observations is that pregnancy alone does not make a mother. (Adoption, in vitro fertilization and other alternative routes of reproduction are explored in the film.).
More broadly, the film’s protagonist is not Dunham’s character but Sarah Jo (Kristen Froseth), a 26-year-old woman who had a radical hysterectomy at the age of 17. Though her medical history parallels Dunham’s, Sarah Jo is by no means an avatar for the filmmaker. In Sharp Stick, she’s the nanny who works for Heather and her husband Josh (Jon Bernthal)—a gig that results in a romantic tryst between father and babysitter behind the overworked, exhausted back of a heavily pregnant Heather. Of course, the affair is incredibly short-lived, and Sarah Jo becomes profoundly self-conscious over her sexual inexperience. In response, she scours the depths of internet porn searches and crafts an alphabet of sexual acts that she plans to conquer. Her revenge for Josh’s heartbreak is that she will become the perfect sexual plaything—emulating aspects of her adopted influencer sister Treina’s (Taylour Paige) thirst traps and her mother Marilyn’s (Jennifer Jason-Leigh) unflinching sexual nonchalance.
Sharp Stick opens in theaters today from Utopia while another feature, an adaptation of Karen Kushman’s young-adult novel Catherine, Called Birdy, will premiere at TIFF in September. The director spoke to Filmmaker via Zoom, discussing the staggered production and release of her forthcoming films, the influence of Kevin Smith’s Mallrats and her self-described status as a “film nerd.”
Filmmaker: Take me back to the development of Sharp Stick. I understand that you were in production on Catherine, Called Birdy when COVID first surged, right?
Dunham: Yep, that’s right. [We were] six weeks out from shooting, and my whole being had been going into that. I mean, I was not the only person whose life just shut down at that moment. We thought it was going to be a two-week shutdown, then suddenly realized it was a big old life shutdown. I think we all had to take a moment and figure out what was important to us and what we wanted to think about and do. I knew I really, really wanted to be back on set, and I wanted to be directing a feature. I think that [having that] time alone—reflecting on that and watching certain films that had kind of sent me down this path in the first place—resulted in writing this movie and trying to figure out how I could do it in the most sustainable way.
Filmmaker: Can you go into some of those films that you were watching?
Dunham: It was a lot of ‘70s movies that I started watching in college. Mickey and Nicky, the Elaine May movie; Cassavetes movies, A Woman Under the Influence; [Luis Buñuel’s] Belle de Jour. I rewatched Wanda by Barbara Loden. I rewatched this amazing movie with Geraldine Chaplin called Remember My Name. I watched Looking for Mr. Goodbar with Diane Keaton. Paul Mazursky, I rewatched Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice and An Unmarried Woman. I was really interested in how wild, prickly and complex those female characters were allowed to be. I was also thinking a lot about how punished anyone who seemed to be on a sexual path also seemed to be. I was thinking about how I could find a safe, interesting middle ground between the way that those [’70s] movies were constructed and a movie that might have a more modern—and sort of holistic and healthy—sexual politics. After all of that theory [-based] thinking, suddenly the movie is just fully birthed. Then you let go of all of that theory, and just tell the story that you feel is inside of you.
Filmmaker: How long did the writing process itself take? I know that the shoot was relatively speedy.
Dunham: The shoot was really speedy, and it’s interesting because I hadn’t written something that quickly since I wrote Tiny Furniture. It was, like, a week-long process of writing the script. I mean, of course it went through revisions and shifts and more revisions once the actors were involved. But the first iteration came out really quickly, it came out of me almost fully born and then it grew and changed. But that was the start of it.
Filmmaker: I read that filming took about two weeks. I wanted to know, what were some of the challenges—or conversely, the benefits—of shooting on such a tight schedule alongside the pressures of the pandemic?
Dunham: I think the thing that’s amazing is that we had to go quickly, both [in terms of] budget and for COVID reasons. I think if we hadn’t gone so quickly, there would’ve been an inevitable COVID shutdown [on set]. I mean, it was by the grace of God that we got 14 days [to shoot] without [a positive COVID test]. There was one day where I got on set and wasn’t feeling so well. It wasn’t COVID, but until we got my results back, I had to direct from a desk 200 feet away from the set. But I think the benefit of moving that quickly is just the immediacy of it. The fact that you don’t have time to question and question and question, and what comes out, for better or worse, is a pretty direct reflection of the thing that you were dreaming of. What I loved was that it was a reminder to me—it took me back to a time when making movies was just something that I did with my friends, something I did with a small group of like-minded people. I think it was a reminder that I needed—especially before going into a bigger production—of why I do this and how I do this. Then I could take some of that with me into making Birdy, which is the biggest production I’ve ever been involved in. So being able to then go into a big, complex medieval production during COVID with that instinctive feeling was amazing.
Filmmaker: I actually did want to touch on that a bit more. What was it like going from a project with a much bigger budget and development process to a smaller-scale, more intimate production?
Dunham: What was amazing is that Birdy was a bigger production, but still kept some of that smaller-scale energy. Even though it was a big, sweeping medieval film with much more background—obviously every set had to be meticulously dressed—we were dealing with making sure that it really reflected [the year] 1290, which is a considerably more challenging period to accurately reflect than the present [day] during the pandemic. What I loved was that the movie is also, at its core, a very intimate, emotional story, and everyone came to it with that energy, even though they were also trying to keep these loftier ideas afloat. Just being reminded by Sharp Stick of the way that I like to work with my actors, the way that I like to create an emotional reality that everybody can draw from. That was still the core when I made Birdy, even if we had these bigger and harder jobs to do. I think the beauty of moving back and forth between smaller scale and bigger productions is being reminded of why you do [make films] and how you like to do it. Of course, there will always be changes in your approach, but you can kind of hold onto that kernel.
Filmmaker: Going off of that a bit, I actually love that our new COVID reality is present in Sharp Stick. A lot of productions intentionally avoid depicting or addressing the pandemic. What led to your decision to subtly incorporate COVID into the fabric of the film?
Dunham: You know, I think it’s because the film was written during COVID and reflected a reality where people were stuck at home. People were spending more time with their loved ones than they might have usually. People were having to really grapple with what it means to be part of a family—part of a familial structure, part of a household. Those were the [film’s] themes, and I thought, “Okay, I don’t know how long this will last, but if this can become a time capsule for the moment, great.” If masks become the new reality of our world, then that will also make sense. Because the story was emotionally impacted by COVID, I just felt like there was no reason for us not to [incorporate it into the film]. It was always a fun debate: In which scenes are the characters going to be wearing a mask? When are they going to be down? When are they going to be up? It was sort of like we were trying to figure out our own relationship to the pandemic [on set], which was really kind of fun and compelling. My hope was that even if we didn’t talk about it too much [in the film], you could just feel that it was there—which is sort of what all of our lives really became like.
Filmmaker: You’re incredibly well-known for playing characters that contain kernels of your own experiences in your work. Here, your character Heather appears to be more removed from your everyday experiences. For one, she’s a pregnant mother—an experience you can’t inhabit in the future due to your hysterectomy, which you’ve spoken about publicly. However, undergoing a radical hysterectomy is an enormous part of Sarah Jo’s identity. Can you talk about the process of crafting the character of Heather for yourself, while spreading facets of your own identity to the film’s other characters?
Dunham: That’s a great question. I think every time that I write a group of women, it’s this thing [that happens] where parts of me splinter off and enter each of them. It may not be as direct, but there are real parts of me inside of Marilyn, inside of Treina, inside of Sarah Jo, inside of Heather. I think that Heather was an interesting character for me to play, because it was this part of me that can sometimes feel like every day of my life is just trying to keep it together under tremendous pressure and struggle. I could relate to her through this idea of having a sort of complex life where you’re trying to do your best, but your best doesn’t necessarily feel like good enough. I think it’s an experience that so many people probably have, but particularly so with women, mothers and people who are trying to keep families together. Even though my family life doesn’t look like that [of my character’s in the film], there are aspects of my inner life that do look like that. There’s also the idea of a character who is dealing with feeling either unappreciated or vilified within her family structure, so I was just really interested in her. When I wrote her, I didn’t necessarily know if I would play her, but then it just started to make more and more sense that maybe I was the person for the job. What I really loved was shooting those scenes. I got to be in scenes with Kristine and Jon, and therefore get even more of a sense of what their process is. I feel like when I get to act in a scene with the actors that I’m directing, it gives me an even better handle on how best to approach them and their process. On a technical level, it’s actually really helpful, in addition to it being emotionally gratifying and fun to play those scenes.
Filmmaker: This is more of a side note, but I also have to say, as someone with endometriosis who felt crazy for a lot of my life about the severity of my period pain, it’s super refreshing to finally see narratives where this excruciating uterus-having experience is actually talked about.
Dunham: I love what you call it: a uterus-having experience. Because I know lots of different people with uteruses, and they’re not all female. Even under the best of circumstances, it’s a very complicated organ to contain in your body. It’s not just complicated physically. There’s so much expectation around it. From the time that you’re born, there’s an expectation of what this organ’s job is and what it’s going to do. Then when it malfunctions and can’t do the job, there’s this sense you have of somehow not living correctly, or not being enough, or being too much, and that becomes all-encompassing. I didn’t figure out that I had endometriosis until I was 26, 27. So I was interested in the idea of a character for whom that had been a more formative experience. Because it was formative for me, I just didn’t know what was going on. So I’m glad it resonated for you. If I can leave any mark on this planet, it’s to be able to create more noisy conversation around those things, or be able to normalize those experiences. That would mean everything to me, because I did not have that model, and I felt scared all the time.
Filmmaker: I had a very similar experience to you, as well. I was just told this was what my life was going to be like, until I shopped around for a doctor to listen to my concerns and give me the diagnosis that I knew in my head was right. It’s also interesting because I read that Taylour Paige also has endometriosis, and working on a set where that was understood was a positive experience for her.
Dunham: We definitely had a set where if you wanted to talk about your period, it was a safe thing to do. We talked a lot about the experience of having a body that was assigned female at birth. We were really interested in dialogue about that stuff, because it impacts every single person in the movie differently, whether it’s Treina having an unplanned pregnancy, or the way her mother dealt with building her own family and then dealt with her children’s experiences. Being on a set with that many women—because all of our department heads were women, too—who had different experiences and a different understanding of what they wanted out of their bodies. That was really gratifying, too, because I’ve definitely had experiences where I’ve worked on predominantly male sets and felt extremely self-conscious of being open about what I was going through. To have a set where I could look around and go, “Hey guys, I’m having kind of a tough day with my body. If I need to sit down for a second, I need you to support me,” and just have people see you and go, “Yep, got it,” is amazing.
Filmmaker: I’m personally an enormous admirer of the way that you capture female sexuality within your work, particularly the less glamorous and ecstatic encounters that aren’t necessarily traumatizing, but they’re still certainly unpleasant. What feels important to you about depicting sexual shame and discomfort alongside pleasure and joy?
Dunham: I’m happy you see it that way. I think it just came out of [the fact that] I was sort of a late bloomer. I didn’t really start engaging as a sexual being until I was in my very late teens, early 20s. I just remember going like, “This is what everyone is talking about?” It didn’t feel like either of the polarities that I had seen on screen. It didn’t feel like an after-school special, but it also didn’t feel beautiful and sexy and glamorous and fun. So there’s clearly something happening that we’re not talking about. But it’s also interesting, because then I look back on Girls and I see how the sex was sort of uniformly embarrassing and bordering on degrading, and that doesn’t depict my entire experience. So this was a way to even further this conversation with myself, because even into my 30s I was asking myself all of these questions. So Sarah Jo became a repository for all of these concerns and misunderstandings that had sort of followed me through my 20s and 30s. It’s always healing, I think, when you can sort of take your shame and your anxiety and find a way to project it honestly, and then have other people affirm that. This movie was certainly another instance of that [experience].
Filmmaker: You just mentioned being a late bloomer, and I have to ask, how did you develop Sarah Jo’s sexual alphabet? Were these porn searches and sexual acts that you personally remember being curious about during your sexual development?
Dunham: It was definitely more technical. I came up with the idea of the sexual alphabet, and then I was like, “I can only think of three.” I was no expert, I did a lot of Googling. I had a producer help me kind of generate a list, and then certain letters had no entries while certain [others] had four. Then we kind of honed in and it was really fun to look at it and say, “Okay, how would [Sarah Jo] respond to all of these?” Like under “lesbianism,” she writes “not needed,” which is so funny to me because the idea that she would think that she needs to try all of these super male-centric things, but then she’s like, “Lesbianism’s not needed, it’s not going to teach me anything.” Or, “Necrophilia is too much!” Her own little notes to herself made me laugh. Of course, the fact that she could even generate an alphabet like that speaks to the prevalence of porn and sexual content on the internet. But I also liked the idea that the internet wasn’t the thing that was traumatizing her. It actually was giving her an outlet to understand herself, and ultimately through the character of Vance Leroy experience this kind of liberation and affirmation that really changes her life. So she finds out that the sexual alphabet is not actually the thing that’s gonna free her, but it’s an internet porn discovery that ultimately helps her feel a deeper sense of agency.
Filmmaker: I also found the alphabet perplexing in a way, but also really funny. It’s like, okay, “A is for anal,” then “B is for bukkake.” I’m like, “Girl, why not try a blow job first?” But I also think that when you’re negotiating these things as a young person, sometimes the more extreme act is what really ignites curiosity.
Dunham: Yeah, and I think she’s also making the alphabet out of this sense of duty. Then during the process, I like that she takes this almost academic stance. Like, if you remember in Mallrats, there’s that girl who’s doing the sex study. I remember seeing that as a kid and being like, “I don’t really understand what I’m watching,” but there’s also something oddly empowering about the fact that this woman is pranking all of these guys. They don’t understand that they’re just tools. So Mallrats had more to do with my understanding of female sexual agency than I ever really thought.
Filmmaker: As a fellow young—probably too young—fan of Kevin Smith movies, that hits. People rag on Mallrats all the time, but it’s important to some of us.
Dunham: I think it’s important, too.
Filmmaker: Going back to the question of negotiating the role of motherhood, reproduction and sexuality in the film, something that it got me reflecting on was my relationship to my own uterus and agency. Ever since I first started experiencing these horrible, painful periods due to endometriosis, I always thought to myself, “If only I could just take my uterus out, if I could have this removed…” I really think this pain led to my long-held decision not to have children, I just associate uterine experiences with having constant pain. I’m curious to know if the film influenced your own introspection and relationship to those decisions.
Dunham: It was interesting because I sort of went into the film at a further stage of development than Sarah Jo or Treina, but I’m not quite where Marilyn is at in her life, and not quite where Heather is, either. I’ve always known that I wanted to be a parent in some form, and so some of the questions that the film asks about adoption and biology are certainly things that I was thinking about as I went into it. I have such incredible respect for people who make the decision that they don’t want to have children. There are so many reasons to do that. I also knew that I was sort of already at a place in my life where I knew that was something I wanted eventually, and I wanted to ask all of the questions [through the film]. Heather conceived her child via IVF, Marilyn has a child who’s adopted and a child who’s biological, but in some ways she has much more of a connection to her adopted child. So it’s sort of about upending certain cultural expectations. I’ve been doing a lot of reading around adoption and what that looks like, so it was just me further asking some of those questions and trying to show that there’s a rainbow of ways to create a family, and that a family means different things to you at different moments of your life. You have your chosen family, you have the family that you were born into. I was definitely very open with my cast about how in trying to explain who these characters were, those were the questions I was asking. And you know, Jennifer [Jason-Leigh] was the only one of our cast members who is a mother already. So she was able to bring some of that experience to the really beautiful way that she depicts being a mom. She had so much empathy for Marilyn, which I loved. It would be so easy for her to go, “This woman is messy and she’s not being the kind of role model that a mom should be.” Instead, she saw her character as someone who contained infinite love for her children. I love that she came into it with that kind of empathy for the character, because I certainly wrote her with that kind of love.
Filmmaker: We’re running out of time, so I wanted to talk about you were working on Catherine, Called Birdy before even conceiving Sharp Stick, and now Sharp Stick will be hitting theaters a good eight weeks before Birdy. What does it feel to have two films coming to theaters in such close succession, particularly after a more than decade-long hiatus from feature filmmaking?
Dunham: It’s definitely intense. I’ll be totally honest, talking to you is a delight, but I think the part of making movies that’s the most anxiety-inducing for me is promoting them. So having to go back-to-back involves gearing up in a certain way, but I’m really proud of [the films]. I also think that for anyone who chooses to watch both of them, they are certainly in dialogue with each other. I mean, Birdy is about questions of female sexual agency, power, motherhood, marriage. It’s literally a period piece about getting your period. So these two movies are fully in conversation with each other. Sharp Stick would never exist if I hadn’t been trying to make Birdy for 10 years, and Birdy wouldn’t be the movie it is if I hadn’t gotten to make Sharp Stick two and a half months before. I hope in some ways, people will think about—even though there was this huge lapse—Tiny Furniture, Sharp Stick and Birdy as what my dad calls my “coming of age trilogy.” I also hope that Birdy, just on a pure filmmaking level, will show people a different side of my abilities and a different side of my interests. It’s based on a book that totally formed me. I read it for the first time when I was 10, and it became like my personal bible. I’m really excited about the two films to hopefully be in conversation with each other, or for really different audiences to find each of them and have different responses to them. I’m certainly not encouraging 12-year-olds to watch Sharp Stick with their mothers, but I’m definitely encouraging 12-year-olds to watch Birdy with their mothers. I feel so lucky that Bella Ramsey is the only actor who could have played [Birdy], and I’m just so proud of her and so proud of the film. I’ve never been to [TIFF] before—I haven’t been to an in-person film festival since SXSW in 2010 when I made the rounds with Tiny Furniture. It’s going to be really exciting to be back in that space, because I am, at my core, a film nerd. So film festivals are probably the only social space that’s appropriate for me to occupy.