'What I Do'
by DURGA CHEW-BOSE
“Mark my words,” twenty-three year old filmmaker Lena Dunham points to the recorder and vows heartily. “Early 2010, I’m going to move out from my parents' place.” Immediately following her pledge, a group of New School students sitting beside us at Benny’s Burritos on Greenwich raise their frozen margaritas to the entire restaurant and cheer in a sing-song slur, “Haaappy Thaaanksssgiving!” Admittedly, the moment is rich with the sort of quips someone older might use to parody young twenty-somethings living in New York. But for Dunham, who speaks unashamedly about almost anything ("I clearly project oversharing, it's what I do!") and whose wit lends itself to immediate yet original repartee, moments of youthful admittance from the school of 'write what you know' are both satirized and expressed discerningly, and often hysterically, in her work.
With her web series Delusional Downtown Divas in its second season, and having recently hosted The Art Awards at the Guggenheim alongside co-stars Joana D'Avillez and Isabel Halley, and in production on her second feature Tiny Furniture Dunham shows no signs of slowing down. She's found her passion and is not pressed to stray from it. "They [Dunham’s parents] gave me this delusional idea that it’s okay to make a living doing something like this...You just pick a job that’s totally impractical and then you make a living!" she says facetiously, attributing some of her filmmaking flare to being the daughter of artist parents. For now, Dunham confesses, "There's nothing else. There’s not another job for me."
Performing the trinity of writer, director, and producer on most of her projects, as well as starring in both of her features, one might presume a lot of about the downtown New York native. But those sorts of conjectures are palpable inspiration for Dunham's work. She might not entirely deviate from certain clichés, but those of the affected young New Yorker artist with dreams of lo-fi grandeur are used as writing material, rather than assumed in her person: "The show is a parody of a lot of people where you're like 'I know you're doing a lot...I'm just not sure what it is...'" With Dunham, the ‘what it is,’ registers as completed and future collaborations: two co-written scripts, one with Mom, and one with Ry Russo-Young.
In her web series we follow three young women and their hilarious escapades in navigating the city's art scene, all the while misstepping and sometimes overstepping. In a mock Proust questionnaire on the show's website, Dunham's character, Oona, ‘the budding novelist,’ is asked how she would like to die. Oona’s answers in Diva-speak—both laconic and fantastically unflinching—“Young. Of old age.” In good parody form, Diva aphorisms like this pick up on a specific downtown scene, without necessarily picking on it. Dunham’s writing focuses on the DDD’s abstract theories and schemes for making it without doing it. Their exploits are further inflated with two or three, and sometimes six ridiculous and conceptual costumes changes per episode, and occasional appearances from New York’s real life art scene; Nate Lowman, Clarissa Dalrymple, and Cory Kennedy to name a few.
Running its course of This is What We Talk About When We Talk About Film, our conversation veered to Mumblecore. Despite knowing many of the genre/movement's key players, Dunham remained earnest and tentative in wondering about its future direction. Admitting there was a shift towards more adult concerns in Andrew Bujalski’s latest, Beeswax, she illustrated the roles of adults thus far in Mumblecore as “...the Muppet Babies and the adults going 'meh-meh-meh-meeeeehhhhh-meeehhh-meh...” By no means was this an attack on the genre. Rather, Dunham’s interest in its sustainability and its innovation speaks to her fidelity to film and enthusiasm for learning about as well as being a part of what comes next. In her newest feature, a young woman returns home to live with her mother and younger sister after graduating from college. Dunham admits there is nothing revolutionary about the story’s main themes, but notes the parent role in a script whose tone has otherwise Mumblecore tendencies: unsuccessful romantic exploits and awkward, hesitant conversations among old friends.
A third of Tiny Furniture is filmed in Dunham’s actual home. Joking about the inevitability of life imitating art and vice versa, she recounts the less than great state she left their home in after one week of shooting. “I’m always doing shit like this,” referring to another time where she poured sand all over her father’s studio. “My movie’s about being a bad daughter, and about living in your parents’ house and not respecting it properly. And then my mom comes home [who stars as the mother in the film] and was like I can’t believe you wrote a movie about this and look what you’re doing!” The floors were entirely scuffed and scratched. Dunham shakes her head and laughs, “It’s too meta...too meta.”
Grateful for the opportunities she’s had, Dunham acknowledges the improbabilities that arise with filmmaking. “It’s so terrifying…Things don’t work the way they used to,” she says, alluding to today’s obstacles of making a film and then selling it. Doubts come in waves but are never lasting. “Every time there’s a room full of people wondering what I should do right now, or when I’m in a situation when someone asks, ‘How do you think we should block this scene?’ and I don’t have an idea…I wonder why am I doing this?” Dunham mentions specific moments of hesitation, of wondering when the crew might crack, of questioning the self-involved nature of the job; the all encompassing energy and commitment it requires. However, she bears in mind the nearness she feels to her work. “But then I remember...oh, it’s what I love to do.”
Despite the familial attitude on set — “I’ve never had a crew that I’ve liked so much. It’s been so smooth" — Dunham expects some resistance from the team during a twelve-hour night shoot in a Greenpoint parking lot. “Everyone’s going to want to kill me,” she says. “It’s a sex scene that takes place in a sewage pipe.” She elaborates on the equation quickly as if expecting scrutiny. “We are having the pipe built and fork lifted into the parking lot. It’s an expense. It’s money being taken away from more important parts of the budget." Acknowledging perhaps, a small propensity for diva impulses, she jokes, “I had to have this pipe. I just had to!” But it’s Dunham’s occasional caprice, like the sewer pipe, that offsets the self-referential, “too meta” material. Seemingly, her filmmaking ethos, though always in flux, pairs the stories she is compelled to tell with impulses and ideas she cannot deny.
Durga Chew-Bose is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in New York. She tumbls here.
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