When Lena Dunham’s breakout feature, Tiny Furniture, had its premiere at the South by Southwest (SXSW) Film Festival in 2010, I was one of the many critics present to be utterly floored by this new talent. “Neither glitzy nor gritty nor cynical,” I said of it here at Heeb, “Dunham’s film speaks to those who actually live in the greatest city on earth — capturing that lost, hapless period right after the collegiate years — without alienating those who don’t.” Two years later, after a lengthy touring of the film, a “controversial” (read: haters gonna hate) DVD release on the hallowed Criterion label and even her own New Yorker profile, Dunham is back to explore metropolitan young adulthood with “Girls,” an HBO series that premieres on April 15th.
The key attraction to Tiny Furniture back at its premiere was its raw honesty. Not only was the script tight and smart as a whip, but it showed that Dunham was something of an open book, well aware that to hide herself from the audience would make for another bland work. Though it may have seemed odd to some at the time, it makes perfect sense that Judd Apatow would take note of this new talent. If you look at any work that bears the mega-producer’s fingerprints, from “The Larry Sanders Show” to “Freaks and Geeks” to Funny People and everything in between, you will see that the best moments emerge when we see characters at their most vulnerable, often literally at their most naked.
The first three episodes of “Girls” premiered at SXSW and they are incredible pieces of work. Dunham plays Hannah, a 24 year-old cut off from her parents’ check book while looking for work in New York City. Amidst her own financial struggles, Hannah and her friends navigate the trials of relationships, sex, careers and other sitcom tropes. What sets “Girls” apart is that honesty I spoke of earlier. Imagine if, instead of hearing the main players on “Friends” talk about the oddities of their sex-capades, you actually got to see them acted out and, in so doing, witness how ridiculous our most intimate, most human moments can be. Remember, this is HBO; Dunham has some fun taking advantage of that fact.
The mark of Apatow can be felt, but this is clearly Dunham’s show. She builds on the complex relationships explored in Tiny Furniture (though some of the cast remains the same, the characters are all new) but slips into the episodic form cleanly. Apatow has a knack for finding new talent and bringing out the best in them without watering down their work. That’s what’s happened here.
Shortly after the premiere, I had the opportunity to sit down with Dunham and Apatow to discuss the show. When Judd entered the room, Lena (who I interviewed solo back in 2010) introduced me as a writer for Heeb. Unless he was doing a bit (entirely possible), he claimed to have no idea that she was Jewish. I let the two of them work it out from there.
Judd Apatow: Lena isn’t Jewish. What’s happening?
Lena Dunham: I am Jewish!
JA: I don’t believe you.
LD: My mom’s Jewish.
JA: Oh. Okay.
LD: My mom is from Great Neck, Long Island.
JA: Oooh, okay. I didn’t know that. I actually didn’t know that.
LD: Did you not?
JA: How have we gotten this far without talking about it? This is a big moment. This is the moment where I found out Lena was Jewish, because Dunham sounds so not Jewish.
LD: Well my dad’s family, like, came over on the Mayflower.
LD: Literally, and not the Jewish Mayflower.
Heeb: We’ll get into Judaism eventually. How did you like seeing “Girls” with a live audience?
LD: Judd has such a great laugh that his laugh overpowered all the others.
JA: You don’t hear if there’s silence because I’m loud.
LD: It was so good. That was a comforting cushion to have. It was amazing. we’ve only seen it with, ya know–
JA: Four people.
LD: Yeah. Tiny tiny groups.
JA: And we’ve only watched it with people who have read all of them and seen every cut. We haven’t had any fresh screenings other than for one or two people.
LD: So it was amazing. I just kept looking over and checking and seeing, “They’re laughing, it’s actually happening, it’s going on.” It’s rare, I think, with TV, that you actually get to see it with a live audience.
JA: It usually only happens after you’re cancelled. Some sad tribute to what went wrong.
H: How did you end up at SXSW with the show?
LD: I had a relationship with SXSW because both of my features had played here. Janet Pierson [festival director], who I’m really close with, just mentioned they’d be interested in doing a new kind of screening because they haven’t done a television screening either. They’re obviously huge Judd fans. The combination, to them, was exciting. So I ran it by Judd and ran it by HBO and they seemed excited by the cross-pollination.
JA: We premiered Bridesmaids here and Superbad, so it’s always been a very friendly place to our films.
H: How do you both find working in film versus television; feature work versus episodic work?
JA: When you’re making a movie, you’re very aware that you have this budget, and there’s a lot of discussion of whether or not people will actually go and see this movie, will this movie make money or not make money? And you get one shot at it. With a series, you make a pilot and, if you go, they allow you to make, in this case 10, and then hopefully you get to do another season. So it’s more about slowly discovering these characters and creating more and more story. It’s an evolving piece of creativity, which is very exciting when it works. Because whenever anything works I want to make 100 of them. I just made a kind of sequel to Knocked Up, This is 40, and we liked Forgetting Sarah Marshall so we did Get Him to the Greek. I’m always trying to get everyone to do another one if the first one works. So I love television when it’s rocking.
LD: I had never worked in television before. I was expecting to feel more of a great divide between features and TV than I did. This was also a big budget leap. It was a medium leap and a big budget leap for me. Now I think the challenge would be thinking about making a feature on a larger scale because I’ve had all this tiny indie film experience and now I’m getting all this TV practice. I really like the opportunity, obviously, to stay with characters, the opportunity to kick things around, the opportunity to kind of plan a storyline and go, “That’s not good for right now but imagine if we had a season four, what an amusing thing that would be.”
JA: Lena was just happy to not have to be responsible to feed the crew herself.
LD: It truly was. The amount of anxiety I had during takes about whether there had been enough pizza…I didn’t realize how much it was taking away from my ability to express myself artistically.
H: Judd, how did you come to Lena’s work?
JA: I don’t remember who gave me the DVD [of Tiny Furniture]. It was probably a manager, an agent or [executive producer] Jenni Konner. I’m not sure. I don’t think it was Jenni because she seemed surprised when I saw it. But, someone just gave me the DVD. A lot of people try to get you to watch movies of up and coming talent. Usually I don’t watch them because between “The Bachelor” and “Celebrity Apprentice” and “Real Housewives” I don’t have a lot of TV time. So, I don’t watch that many things that are slipped to me, but I happened to sit down and watch this and just loved it. I didn’t realize Lena wrote it and directed it and starred in it. I didn’t realize it [the cast in the film] was her family. I didn’t even know her name. I just watched a movie. I found out all the interesting information afterwards so I e-mailed Lena and said it was great and she thought I was an impostor.
LD: I did because he titled his email “From Judd Apatow.” I thought if it was really Judd Apatow he would just say, “Hi.” I just didn’t believe it. My friend had software that allowed you to email from a secret email address, so I thought it was her.
JA: It’s like if you met Barack Obama and he said, “Hi, I’m Barack.” I’m very similar to him in that respect. I know that she knows my name and it’s a sign of arrogance to say it.
H: Had you always intended on going to HBO where you can be uncensored?
JA: Girls could only really work at a place like HBO. That’s what’s fun about it. It’s completely uncensored; it’s truthful. On network television you just can’t show what life is like. People just don’t talk like that. People don’t always shut off the lights before they have sex and then cut to a Campbell’s soup commercial when the good stuff starts happening.
LD: Is this the most boobs that you’ve ever had in a project?
LD: I was trying to think…You’ve had some strip scenes, but…
JA: It is the most, uh, boobs, and it’s awkward that they’re your boobs for the most part. In a lot of ways I feel like I’m the protector of the boobs. I try to tell her, “You know what? Scale back on the boobs. You’re showing too much boobs this week.”
LD: My dad’s very grateful.
JA: But I’ll also say “What about that actor? Why doesn’t she show boobs?”
LD: That’s the best. He pushes me to ask other people to show their boobs.
JA: Because you don’t want to be the only person on a show showing their boobs. Then it seems like a weird reality where only one person on this particular planet–
LD: –Even has boobs.
JA: Everyone has to show boobs if you’re gonna show boobs. That’s all I’m saying.
LD: I like that then I turn into the sleazy 70 year-old producer who’s like, “Honey, if you’re gonna make it in this town ya gotta show some boobs!”
Heeb: You make reference to “Sex and the City” in the series. Girls is a show on HBO about four women in New York City. Is that an influence?
Judd Apatow: We should have made it eleven women.
Lena Dunham: Well we tried to make the show about only three women and then Zosia [Mamet] was so good that we had to make it four women.
JA: Yeah, that’s right.
LD: By the way, today a guy came up to me and he said he thought it was like “Sex and the City” meets Bridesmaids.
JA: I think of it as Heavyweights meets Celtic Pride.
LD: (laughs) I like that one more. I mean, “Sex and the City” is definitely…How I always describe it is, it’s not necessarily an influence on the show but it’s an influence on the girls in the show and we know the show couldn’t exist without it because these girls wouldn’t exist without it. They wouldn’t have necessarily had the drive to move to New York and try to live this specific life if they hadn’t watched “Sex and the City” marathons behind their parents’ backs.
JA: The one reason why you can’t think about “Sex and the City” too much when you’re making a show like this is that show was so successful and on for so long that if you actually try to recall every story they did you would realize there are no stories left.
LD: There literally aren’t. The only thing we can hope to do is a different version of a “Sex and the City” story. We’ve actually stopped allowing people in in the writer’s room to go, “Actually that’s an episode of ‘Sex and the City.’” It’s the same as going, “Actually that’s an episode of Seinfeld,” because everyone on Seinfeld did everything there is to do in New York City. They’ve had every adventure possible.
JA: Every joke can be traced back to an episode of The Simpsons too.
LD: It’s true. Friends also.
JA: Yeah. We should stop making the show.
LD: Yeah. (laughs)
JA: People are full.
H: Lena, what was the transition like to having a writer’s room and working with Judd?
LD: I was scared of the writers’ room at first. Judd had to sort of give me a little bit of a lecture and an education about how to use it and the fact you can use it and still kind of have your personal private, in quotes, “artistic experience” and then return and get the benefit of these eight great minds weighing in. I think it’s just always a dance figuring out when you need it and when you don’t and using enough of it while still having enough perspective. Judd and I wrote an episode together and that was one of my favorite writing experiences just because I didn’t realize co-writing could be so easy.
JA: That’s because I didn’t do anything.
LD: But he did! He described, basically dictated entire scenes to me and then went back to whatever other job he was on.
JA: I seamlessly convinced her that I did something.
LD: He did. I won’t give it away, but he wrote the scene that, in my career, I have had the most fear and anxiety about directing. I’ll just give you a hint that it has grown-up sex in it, like old-people sex. While I was doing it I was just shaking my fist at the sky, “JUDD!”
JA: Of course I was conveniently not there that day. When we first started working on the show we did a table read of the pilot and it went really well but it felt like, “Oh, there is a way to make this 30% funnier.” So me and Lena and Jenni sat in a room and that was Lena’s first experience with a staff. Just me and Jenni in a room staying up all night just looking for ways to insert a little more humor everywhere.
LD: It was so fun.
JA: After that night it felt like Lena understood how the process can be fun but at the end of the day all the calls are Lena’s calls. It’s okay for people to pitch you one thousand jokes and you just take the ones that work. That’s how I work on a movie even with the actors. “Do you have a better line? Let’s shoot it. Maybe in editing we’ll find it’s better than the one I wrote.”
LD: It was the best. That night, I don’t know if you remember, we took a break to watch some Apatow spoof movie that exists.
LD: It’s like “The 40 Year Old Guy That Got Knocked Up” or something. It was with fake Seth Rogen and fake Jonah Hill and it was the craziest parody.
JA: The fake Seth Rogen was quite good, by the way.
LD: He was good!
JA: He might be touring the country right now like Hal Holbrook doing the Mark Twain Show.
H: Should we talk about Judaism?
JA: No. We don’t want to talk about that at all.
H: When is the show premiering?
LD: April 15th.
JA: Right near Passover. I’m trying to connect it to the Jewish thing.
LD: Yeah, because he was joking when he said he won’t talk about it. In private, all he’ll talk about is Jews.
JA: Oh my god, Purim was unbelievable.
H: What did you do?
JA: It was funny. I went to visit my Grandma who is at a nursing home and all of the people who work there were dressed in weird costumes. I truly did not understand what was happening. I was not up on what day Purim was.
LD: You just thought this was a new thing they do to cheer up elderly people?
JA: Yes. Because elderly people don’t know when Halloween is anymore, so just suddenly the doctor is dressed as Frankenstein. Just confusing a lot of elderly people.
H: What are you working on?
LD: I’m working on the show and then occasionally I’ll write a weird personal essay to satisfy my other urges. I decided that was the best way to get my other artistic urges out at the moment was just to write weird private prose and then…
JA: …And then give it to a character on the show?
LD: Yeah. Later give it to a character on the show to say.
JA: We’re mainly tweeting.
LD: We’re big on tweeting.
JA: We put so much energy that we could be using to make real money tweeting.
LD: The show hasn’t been picked up but we have been allowed to go back into the writers’ room and do some planning for season two. That’s been my focus: getting this thing out into the world and thinking how it might continue. And Judd is making a movie. Or he made a movie.
JA: Yeah, I’m finishing up This is 40 which is the sort of sequel to Knocked Up about Pete and Debbie turning 40. And we have a movie coming out, The Five Year Engagement which Nick Stoller directed that was written by Nick and Jason Segel with Jason and Emily Blunt and that comes out at the end of April.
LD: Was there always a “the” on it or did you guys add a “the?”
JA: Uhhh, well. I think it was always The Five Year Engagement. It’s not like “Led Zepplin,” it’s not “The Led Zepplin.” You’ve got to be careful where you use your “the.” It is “The Who” but it’s not “The Arcade Fire.”
LD: Yeah. So this is “The Five Year Engagement.”
LD: For some reason I always thought it was just “Five Year Engagement.”
JA: That’s so indie of you.