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All Eyes on Me

LENA DUNHAM and CAVEH ZAHEDI are among a surprisingly small group of filmmakers who make themselves the subjects of their own films. Whether it’s a man dealing with his sexual urges (Zahedi’s I Am A Sex Addict) or a girl searching for her place in a post-collegiate world (Dunham’s Tiny Furniture), their sometimes painful honesty makes audiences both laugh and cringe. We had them sit down to talk about the joys, frustrations and creative rewards of making autobiographical films.

For all the interest in autobiography in our culture, there are surprisingly few filmmakers who make overtly autobiographical works. Autobiography and non-fiction memoirs reign on the bookstore shelves, but when it comes to film, personal stories tend to shapeshift once producers, d.p.’s and lead actors or actresses enter the mix. But for a small group of filmmakers, the personal is not something to camouflage but to embrace with attitudes ranging from the sincere to the provocative to the playful.

With last year’s Creative Nonfiction, debuting New York City filmmaker Lena Dunham wrote, directed and starred in a film that mined her own relationships as well as her experience as a college writing student, constructing a humorously self-deprecating voice that elided what may have been real from what must have been invention. She returns this fall with Tiny Furniture, winner of the Grand Jury Prize at the 2010 SXSW Film Festival. Once more, the storyline tracks Dunham’s life, with her fictional protagonist, Aura, played again by her, returning from college and moving back home (her real apartment) and negotiating a new postcollege/preadult relationship with her sister (Grace Dunham, her sister) and artist mother (the artist Laurie Simmons, her mother). Dunham gives the directionlessness of early adulthood a tart, screwball spin in a comedy about work, family and relationships that never sacrifices honest emotional messiness for a one-liner — although it’s usually able to deliver both. Dunham will continue exploring this territory in a recently-announced HBO comedy pilot she’s written, will direct and star in, and will co-executive produce with Judd Apatow.

Ever since his first feature, A Little Stiff (co-directed with Greg Watkins), Caveh Zahedi has been mining his own neuroses, obsessions and intellectual curiosities to make movies that can be hilarious as well as purposefully cringe-inducing. While Dunham fictionalizes her own recent past, Zahedi always plays “Caveh,” whether as a neurotic film school student (A Little Stiff), an earnest son trying to reconnect with his estranged father (I Don’t Hate Las Vegas Anymore), or a grown-up sex addict trying to reconcile the romantic promise of his future with all the prostitutes of his past (I Am a Sex Addict). Zahedi’s films aren’t documentaries but they aren’t quite fiction either, and those blurred lines are part of his work’s consistent originality.

As Tiny Furniture heads to theaters via IFC Films, we asked Dunham and Zahedi to discuss the benefits, challenges and unexpected consequences of making yourself your subject.

Dunham: So, Filmmaker came up with these questions for us because we both write, direct and act in our own movies, and our characters are based on ourselves. The first question is, “What are some of the psychic challenges of self-confidence and self-awareness in our filmmaking, and what are the hardest things and the easiest things about this approach?” Well, the easiest thing is that the camera knows who you are even if you don’t. You can’t really lie to the camera. It just captures whatever complicated thing is going on beneath whatever you’re attempting to do. I think the hardest thing for me is to direct and act at the sametime because I’m usually also trying to gauge the performance of the person I’m acting with. It’s hard to truly respond to them in character and [critique their performance] at the same time.

Do you ever not trust your own judgment? Do you ever think, “How am I supposed to know whether they’re doing the job while I’m acting?” No, I trust my judgment about them. I don’t trust my judgment about myself. Sometimes I mouth their lines as they say them.

I did that too. My sister told me I was doing it, and I thought it was impossible, but it was confirmed by two other people. Yeah, I’m never aware of it, but they also tell me that I do that when I watch my movies in the theater.

Do you think it’s because you’re trying to be one step ahead of them as they’re working? I’m kind of trying to get them to say it right — magically trying to get the performance by incantation or something. I mean, it’s completely unconscious. I have a question for you. I don’t embroider much in my film. The events in my films are what really happened. In your films, how much is what really happened, and how much is altered for the sake of the story?

Well, most of it is exactly what happened, but then sometimes I want to make it feel more like a movie, so I just make it happen more than it happened. I always kind of feel like my life is like a movie in my head, so I try to make the movie match up with that. Do you ever do that? Not really. I mean, yes in the sense that it’s my memory, but no in the sense that I’m not trying to make it more intense or dramatic or anything.

Sometimes I’ll imagine that it had all gone one step further, that I said the wittiest comeback or funniest thing.
Yeah, I don’t do that.

And sometimes I’ll just change the details, because I want to distance it from life a little bit. I want to feel like I’m a writer or something, because sometimes it can feel like it’s cheating a little bit to take it all from life. Why not just make a documentary? It is cheating!

Laughs] Then what do you think about that? Do you ever wish that your work was farther away from yourself? Yeah, totally. Mostly it’s because I feel there’s a limited amount of interest in autobiographical truth in our culture. I think I’ve cheated my way through my career, and I do feel like it’s no longer viable either artistically or financially. I need to do something different, and I’m trying to do that now.

Do you think it’s less rigorous? I mean, isn’t there a way that probably everybody is working autobiographically but only certain people are being honest about it? Well, some people don’t want to be honest, so for those people it’s harder. But I think it’s harder to write a fictional story that works. There are things that a fictional story is supposed to do other than to just take reality and reproduce it. It seems to me to be a harder thing to master.

Here’s the next question: “How do you contend with accusations of your work being narcissistic or indulgent or exhibitionist? Do accusations like that bother you?” Well, I do get that a lot. I’m always a little baffled by it because my understanding of narcissism is that it’s when you love yourself and you think you’re great. I think a narcissistic film is a film where you make yourself look good, and I never do that. I don’t think you do that in your films either. So to me, it seems like [our films are] very self-critical. Perhaps one could argue that there’s some self-hatred [laughs] at work, some lack of self-esteem, but it doesn’t seem like they are boastful the way that narcissism would seem to imply.Interesting. I mean, I think what’s interesting is the gaze that one brings to something, not the thing itself.

When somebody asks me why I get naked in a lot in my movies, I always think that the only reason you can get annoyed with someone getting naked publicly is if they’re really, really skinny or beautiful. I’m a little bit fat, so how can this be such a big problem? I would be offended by seeing someone very beautiful swan around in their underwear. I think you make a very radical gesture in your film by not having a mainstream body type and by being naked anyway. It makes everyone feel okay about themselves. It’s like the most healing thing anybody could do.

Well, that’s one of the reasons that I love Mike Leigh movies. You’ll see one character who’s attracted to another character who has saggy breasts or a sticking-out stomach. Yeah, I agree. The movie that really strikes me is Career Girls, where [the main character] had really bad skin.

Yeah, that movie’s amazing. Also, what I like in Mike Leigh’s movies is that sometimes things are funny because of the very shape of the person, what their body looks like, and what it can do, not because they’re falling down in a hilarious way. I’ve seen that same quality in your movies. In A Little Stiff, the scene that’s just a long take of you dancing and listening to your Walkman — to me is a moment that is so exposed. It’s a moment I imagined you’ve had privately many times — dancing by yourself, listening to music. But the fact that you made that private moment public resonated with me. Right, right, right. That scene is actually inspired by the dancing scene in [Godard’s] Vivre sa vie. That’s another dance scene where you really get inside [the character]. It’s different because it’s not comedic and poignant and pathetic the way mine is, [laughs] but it’s very much a whole other side of a person revealed in just one moment through dance. I’ve always been struck by how much is communicated through body language.

Have you had any fallout in your life from real people who have been unhappy with their portrayals in your movies? Yeah, I’ve had lots of problems with that. It’s always very upsetting to me when someone tries to get me to take something out of my movie because they don’t like the way they’re portrayed. I find it an outrage, personally. But sometimes they’re legally in the right, and I’ve had to do that several times. I Don’t Hate Vegas Anymore had 10 minutes cut out of it because of that. There was also a scene in I Am a Sex Addict where an ex-girlfriend’s husband threatened to sue me if I didn’t take out the footage of my then-girlfriend, and I had to reshoot the scene with an actress because of the lawsuit, which was very, very painful to me. Everything in that movie is completely true except for that one moment.

In I Am a Sex Addict, you had several actresses portraying women who you’d actually been in relationships with. Did you ask permission from all of those women to have actresses play them, or did you just do it? I just did it.

Did you change their names? I did change their names.

In Tiny Furniture, I based a few characters on boys I had been — well, “dating” is too polite a word for it — on guys with whom I had pseudo-relationships. I changed all the names and added lots of writerly details. I didn’t take lines from their mouths, but I did base scenarios on them. I told one of these guys about his character in Tiny Furniture. I didn’t really feel like he was listening, and I kind of don’t think he really believed that I made movies. I don’t think he cares very much about what I do with my life. But once I realized that people might actually see the movie in some capacity, I got really scared that he would see it and sue me for libel, because even with the liberties I had taken anybody who sees it who knows both of us will absolutely know that the character is him, and it doesn’t make him look very good. I felt sort of bad about it, like it was a selfish thing to do. He’s not like a jerk. He was a jerk in this one instance, but he doesn’t deserve to have all our shared co-workers watch this at the place where we used to work and think “x, x, and y” about his sex life and his attitude. But even with those thoughts, I did it anyway. I didn’t care. I don’t care either. I mean, there’s so much fictionalizing in the world that nobody would know for sure how much of it was real and how much of it wasn’t. And you’re making no claims about it being real in your movie.

He is a written character, played by an actor. He’s very much made into someone different than he is. But people who know him might not understand how much of it is real, and would think, “God, he was more of a jerk than I thought.” But it’s not that he’s more of a jerk. It’s that I am a writer, so I wrote that he was more of a jerk because that was more interesting. You’re not responsible for their inferences. That’s between them and their consciousness. You can’t control what they’re going to think about him. I think the whole way people think about privacy is wrong. It’s based on a misperception that one can actually control one’s image. I think we’re in such freefall in terms of how people see us. We’re so not in control. I think to try to control those things is a way to misperceive that people are judging you all the time, anyway. It just seems like it’s a misunderstanding of our culture, and the way media works. It seems like a very antiquated notion to me.

In my research on libel, I came to understand that he would have had grounds to sue me. Right. And that’s not going to happen.

Yeah, it can’t. [laughs] But also, my producer, Alicia Van Couvering, pointed out that that’s also a fantasy because it would imply that he cares enough to sue me. She said, “Basically, in your fantasy life, he cares enough to level a lawsuit against you,” which is probably right. Although she had me get him to sign a life-rights agreement anyway, which turned into another awkward situation as it may have appeared to him to be an excuse for me to see him again.  I almost wish that he would sue me because it would mean that he was really paying attention. One of my best friends knows there is a character who is slightly based on her in my movie. It’s a composite character, but it has a couple of “her” elements. She said, “Well, I’ll watch it and tell you if there are any lines that bother me, and if you should take them out.” That was just scandalous to me. It would be a friendship dealbreaker, but also, it was amazing to me that the same people who are so comfortable with Facebook, Twitter and living their life publicly feel like they can mediate it if it’s someone else’s art. Right. I mean, it’s none of their business. They can make as many films as they want about you if they want, but it seems crazy to stop someone else’s creative energy.

No one who is writing a story comes up with a character that is completely from their imagination. That would be impossible, you have to base [characters] on people that you’ve met before. That’s just how it works. But then of course there’s the part of me who is extremely jealous of the people who write completely from a composite character and nobody ever catches them. I guess that’s impressive maybe at the level of craft, but I think the things that are always the most truly amazing are the things that are real but nobody would have ever thought of. One of the limitations of fiction is you’re always limited by your imagination, whereas in reality there is no limit to imagination. It’s like, God’s the imagination.

That’s interesting, because I feel a lot of people would have the opposite reading, where they say that in life you’re as limited as what your life is, but that your imagination can run as wild as you dream. If you think about narratives, they’re all almost exactly the same. The amount of “sameness” in fiction is staggering versus in documentary.

Here’s the next question: “Do you feel catharsis by making work about your humiliations and addictions? How does it change how you feel about the actual experiences?” And I would expand it to ask if you feel you can only make movies once you’ve come out the other side of these experiences, or are you still working through these things while you make the movies? I don’t focus on catharsis when I make a movie. I find the process of filmmaking so technical and complex and aesthetic that it’s really not at all about the events portrayed. It’s about the representation of those events. I mean, depending on how recent the events were, I might still have feelings from those events. Do you feel catharsis after making your work?

I always like to think that making a film is like closing the book on a period of my life. Creative Nonfiction was sort of based on this relationship I had in college. Two-and-a-half years later, as I was shooting it, the guy the [male] character was based on knocked on my apartment door one day and said, “You know, I’ve been thinking about you and just really wanted to hang out.” He wanted to know if I could go over to his house some time and have some tea. I thought, “Okay, weird,” because I had hung up on him for a while, and this was sort of a fantasy come true, for him to just appear at my door. So I went over to his house and had some tea. We’d been having tea for about 15 minutes, and then I thought, “I have nothing more to add to the story with this person. I’m done.” So I made up an excuse and left. And I thought that was how it was going to work — you kind of make stories when you are done with things and ready to deal with them as an adult. But making Tiny Furniture, I didn’t have that experience at all. We’d be shooting, and there’d be all these scenes of my mom screaming at me for not taking out the garbage, or screaming at me for not doing the dishes, and between shots, she’d be screaming at me because I hadn’t taken out the garbage. She said, “You’re making a movie about all of this and you still can’t get it together to do these little things.” And that made me think that there was no such thing as moving past something, or not in the way that I felt there was. You can be aware enough of something to make a movie about it and still not be aware enough to change it in your actual life. Yeah, in relation to what you said about your first film, I do recognize that kind of process. Any kind of turning real life into a work of art, whether it’s a painting or a movie or whatever it is, turns it into an aesthetic object. It gives you a different relationship to it, which is always pleasurable, and in that sense, it enables you to move on, or feel that it was all for a purpose.

Totally. I found it satisfying. This big waste of emotion becomes fruitful. I want to ask my last question to you. You said earlier you’re trying to do something different now, to write something that’s less autobiographical and further away from yourself. Is that something that you’re doing because it’s your instinct now, or do you feel like it’s what you’re supposed to do? And are you finding that challenging? It’s a combination. One, I’m always drawn to doing things differently. If I repeat myself, there’s no excitement to it. So I feel I want to do something that’s different for me — someone else might do the opposite to be different. And two, I think just financially and culturally, there are certain kinds of things that the system will allow right now, and if one wants to be a part of the culture, one has to give that its due. Someone like Charlie Kaufman, who I admire tremendously, has found a way to give the system what it demands yet be completely innovative at the same time. I think that’s really the way to go, so that’s what I’m trying to do. It is challenging, because it’s not what I’m used to and it’s not what I’ve practiced. It’s not how my mind works naturally, but I do find it exciting.

And of course, it doesn’t mean you have to write a medieval story or a historical epic. I’d like to move farther and farther away from my own [personal material], in baby steps. One of my favorite scenes in Tiny Furniture is the scene at the art gallery with your friend from college who comes to see you. You aren’t very nice to her in the scene. [laughs] It’s totally understandable, but at the same time, it’s reprehensible.

That was a concern to me. I mean, in some ways I don’t care about losing the audience, but in a movie that’s totally based on a single character, you have to care. If they don’t like your character, then you’ve lost them, and you might not get them back. It’s something that I found great about Sex Addict.  I never stopped liking you, and that was important throughout the whole movie and essential to its success. Yeah, I agree. There is a moment where I lose the audience for about five seconds but then I get them back. I may lose some people for good at that moment, but nobody I really care to keep in my corner.

Which moment is that? It’s when I tell my wife that I had sex with a prostitute, and that I was turned on because she said, “Rape me.” And then I say about my wife in voiceover, “She herself had been raped.” And when I say that, often there’s a complete hush in the audience. The energy in the room just becomes icy cold. [laughs] There are a few more lines, then one is kind of funny, then we sort of come back, but really, the blood leaves the body.

It’s information you could have chosen to withhold from your wife. That would have been more sensitive. Or from the audience! [laughs]

Yeah! [laughs] More to the point. But I really like that moment because it goes right to the breaking point of identification and then it barely gets it back. It’s kind of like jumping over a precipice, or between two buildings, and almost falling between them, but just barely grabbing onto the other ledge of the roof. But there’s also a scene that I cut out, because everybody was like, “Ninety-nine percent of the audience will hate you forever if you have the scene in there,” and I could see that they were right.

Did you ever feel bad about removing the scene? Do you feel resentful that you had to do something just to keep people liking you? It seemed more important to have people see the film and appreciate what I was trying to say than make the more radical, hard-thing-to-swallow gesture.

I took a few things that were challenging like that out. My editor tried to make me take out a line in the sex scene.  I say, “Boss me around a little bit,” and then I say, “Pull my hair.” My editor said, “Nobody’s going to feel sorry for you being mistreated by this guy later if you’re basically acting like a slut and telling him to treat you badly here.” I thought about taking it out, but then it became a scene about date rape, which was not the point. Right. What makes the scene bearable is that there’s a certain collusion that makes it not rape. Personally, I love the “pull my hair” line.

That line was improvised! My sound recordist asked for an alternate and that’s what I said. Afterwards I was like, “Oh my… I think it made me feel that in some ways I was secretly pervier than I knew. But then I knew it was the character’s need, and that character was me a year ago. I wasn’t speaking as me, I was speaking as her. I really like that line because it’s actually the most common type of sexual, human thing that one could say.

You mean it’s not that pervy? Yeah, exactly.

[Laughs] I was having this conversation with this guy friend of mine, and he was like, “You know, I don’t really like this girl that I’m dating, but she’ll do all the weird things sexually.” And I’m like, “What kind of weird things?” He was like “I don’t know. Blow jobs, doing it from behind, anal sex.” I was like, “Those are the weird things?” To me, the weird things are like having your boyfriend put on a mask and break into the house. Even that’s probably not that weird. I said, “Were you dating Amish people before her?” I don’t know, maybe this is too much information, but when he said “weird things,” I was expecting, “I always wanted to dress up like a hot dog and other girls would never let me do that.”

[EDITOR’S DISCLOSURE NOTE: Tiny Furniture producer Alicia Van Couvering is a contributing editor for Filmmaker.]


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