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Lena Dunham Talks Typecasting, Tacos and Twitter at SXSW

By Sarah Carlson | Miscellaneous | March 12, 2014 | Comments ()


Lena_SXSW_2.jpg

Lena Dunham’s keynote address Monday at the South by Southwest Film Festival in Austin, Texas, was a homecoming celebration of sorts — a speech at a class reunion where the graduated voted as having Luckiest Career Trajectory took a bow with gratefulness, humility, and a few words about her goal of changing the way women are so often typecast in the entertainment business. It was only four years ago that Dunham’s second film, Tiny Furniture, won the SXSW Grand Jury prize for Narrative Feature, and she recognized up front that her story and the fact she is living her dream in her 20s isn’t typical. Attendees ranging from high school and college students to parents lined up for a Q&A after her speech — which she wrote the night before high on the “quaalude known as cheeseburger” after having spent time reading reviews of her Saturday Night Live performance — all seeking advice on where to start or how to be encouraging to their teenage daughters aspiring to follow in her footsteps. Dunham’s key message: “Don’t wait around for someone else to tell your story. Do it yourself by whatever means necessary.”

Dunham began her talk by recounting her rise to fame via SXSW. Her first film, Creative Nonfiction, made from $5,000 of her own babysitting money, debuted at SXSW in 2009 after first being rejected the previous year. Her trip to Austin that year was life-changing, she said. “Soutby proved to be the greatest week of my life,” Dunham said. “I ate tacos. I drank milkshakes. I swam in Barton Springs. I drank a beer at a backyard rock show and talked to cute guys who never would have given me the time of day in New York because everything is bigger in Texas.” She went back to New York and along with collaborators she met at SXSW (including Girls’ Alex Karpovsky, made Tiny Furniture for $20,000, again culled from babysitting money and loans from her and a friend’s parents. The film was edited in time to meet the SXSW deadline, and on the night of the awards in March 2010, Dunham was one of five girls in one room at a La Quinta who learned they had won the Narrative Feature award thanks to an embargoed press release one of them received. They worried about appearing surprised at the awards ceremony, she said, but the practicing of shocked faces wasn’t necessary. They were still surprised when it was official — “It remains the most thrilling and least complicated point of my career.”

She told the audience at the Austin Convention Center that she considers that win the start of her film career, and within weeks she was on a “couch and water bottle tour” of Los Angeles, meeting with various executives to find a project. One of those meetings was with HBO and Kathleen McCaffrey, and “[her] total ignorance allowed me the audacity to pitch a show right in the room, and that was the show that would become Girls.” She was paired with producer Jenni Konner, and later Judd Apatow was brought on board, and the next two years were spent shooting the Girls pilot, then its first season, and with Dunham learning things such as how to work with actors who aren’t family members, that it is illegal to ask someone how old they are in an audition room, and that writing for a show with a budget of millions and in a writer’s room was quite a different dynamic than going to her room when inspiration struck and handling the stories herself. “You’re not allowed to say to HBO, ‘I’m going to figure it out in private, just trust me guys. I’m 25, I’m wearing ill-advised shorts, and I’ve got it.’ ” In 2012, she returned to SXSW with the cast and crew of Girls to premiere the first three episodes, and as the crowd laughed and reacted positively, “Austin continued to be home to [her] happiest moments.”

In addition to providing background on her start as a filmmaker, and listing of things she doesn’t care about — ratings, Republicans, Deadline Hollywood, wrinkles — or only sometimes cares about — Twitter replies, fashion blogs, reviews, calories — Dunham spent much of her speech offering encouragement to others working creatively on the importance of maintaining her individuality. She was inspired recently by getting to meet Agnès Varda, a Greek-French filmmaker. Dunham presented an offering of an orange-haired Troll doll and a set of colored pencils, and the two talked on a patio at a Los Angeles hotel. “The person I met was dynamic, lascivious and alert. She stole a stranger’s lemonade from table next to us.” From Varda’s purple bowl haircut to the fist bump she gave to the “sexy Mexican filmmaker at least 50 years her junior who seemed completely entranced by her,” here was a woman who wasn’t afraid to live life, Dunham said. “The vitality of her spirit, the laughter she doled out so generously … It’s far too easy to become passive, to believe the narrative that other people create for you and to wait for permission to make your work. Meeting people like Agnes was a reminder that the best revenge is truly living well, and a life lived well is one full of creative challenges, unexpected connections, and many stolen beverages.”

Dunham recently started a production company with Konner, A Casual Romance, and too often, she said, she comes across scripts that are clearly a writer’s attempt to fit into a currently marketable genre, and that needs to change. “I think if I’ve learned anything from my time in a writer’s room, and from hearing so many people talk about their stories every day, it’s that all of us are total freakshows and our lives have been unfathomably weird if you get into the details, and therefore totally universal. Because the personal is universal, and everybody feels like they were, you know, launched into life on a rocket alone. So to hear other people’s stories is the most soothing thing that can happen to us. … Tell the story only you know because it makes the world feel smaller, it draws people to you, and I think if connects people to you in kind of mystical ways.

“Ultimately, if you make work that you are proud of and you believe in, you’ll always feel confident and strong and you’ll have armor around you. You’re only going to be embarrassed or angry by people’s reactions if you feel you’ve made concessions or you’ve betrayed yourself.” She then used Twitter as a metaphor, saying that if she tweets about something she strongly believes in, such as reproductive rights, no negative reply can bring her down. On the other hand, if she tweets a “dumb molestation joke,” every reply is like “a dagger to [her] heart and torture. Stand up for your voice. No one else will do it as well as you can.”

She closed her speech with a look at the state of television, a medium she feels lucky to be a part of because it has historically given women room to play, she said. “Right now, Mindy Kaling, Amy Poehler, Claire Danes, Elisabeth Moss, Julia Louis-Dreyfus and so many more are doing the best work of their remarkable careers on television. I know that there’s not a place for the story I’m telling in studio-funded movies right now. I know that. … I hope people heard Cate Blanchett at the Academy Awards when she bemoaned women being treated like a niche market. But it’s rough scene. It’s hard to always offer comforting words on that topic.” It reminds her of the cast of her show. Adam Driver is receiving numerous offers for film — deservedly, she added, calling him a “ferocious genius with an incredible work ethic” — but her Girls costars continue to wait patiently for parts that “are going to honor their intelligence and their ability.”

“The world is ready to see Adam as a million different men, playing good guys and bad guys, and sweet guys and scary guys. … It’s not ready to see Allison Williams, or Zosia Mamet or Jemima Kirke stretch their legs in the same variety of diverse roles. Allison is relegated to all-American sweetheart; Zosia is asked to play more flighty nook-nicks. And even though both are capable of so much, they’re not asked to do it. This is not a knock on Adam’s talent … It’s a knock on a world where women are typecast and men can play villains, Lotharios and nerds in one calendar year. And something has to change, and I’m trying.”

Sarah Carlson is a TV Critic for Pajiba. She lives in San Antonio. You can find her on Twitter.




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Comments Are Welcome, Bigots and Trolls Are Not


  • Jezzer

    I think I found her secret blog:

    http://thoughtcatalog.com/isla...

  • Amy Love

    Having lived in Austin for most of my life, and experiencing its huge surge in popularity, I will say one thing I can still kind of feel special about is my knowledge of the greatness of this city's tacos. I've never been to ACL, or SXSW (most locals don't actually go to those things unless their actually in the industry). But I have loved the tacos.

  • Davis

    Booo republicans

    Also it's just a joke tweet calm down and if women were to start getting offered roles like Javier Bardam in No country for old men, most blogs would cry misogyny.

    "why are all the sociopaths being offered to the women' Will be a blog on jezebel and people will make witty gif posts on buzzfeed

  • BarbadoSlim

    http://www.biography.com/peopl...

    And oh yeah, a fucking liar too. Another down in her luck by her bootstraps Manhattanite.

  • BarbadoSlim

    Babysitting money...riiiight..the uplifting story of another 1%er that went from lesser riches to higher ones. You people should not encourage this.

  • Yossarian

    What the fuck are you even talking about? What standard are you applying here?

    If the purity test for privilege in film making is upper middle class artsy parents and a self-financed $20K mumblecore festival film then what the fuck is left that we should be encouraging?

    Paul Thomas Anderson's dad did national tv announcing work for ABC and hosted a late night movie program. He was supported and encouraged to pursue writing and film making. He also had a $20,000 festival film, Cigarettes & Coffee, that led to financing for Hard Eight.

    Spike Jonze's dad was a founding partner of a consulting firm. His mom was an artist. They sent him to the San Francisco Art Institute he got to dick around making skate videos and parley that into a film career.

    Joss Whedon's dad was a tv writer, he had an inside track and plenty of support.

    Alfonso Cuarón's dad was a nuclear physicist who worked for the United Nations' International Atomic Energy Agency. He had the freedom and resources to pursue film school and bankroll early short films.

    Pretty much anyone making movies or television has benefited from having the luxury and resources to pursue that career path. And we're not necessarily talking "Paris Hilton rich" here, we're talking "Parent's paid for college" rich. So what's you'r point?

    Don't couch your petty internet outrage in some kind of bullshit appeal to class and inequality when all it boils down to is wanting to shit on something you don't like because you resent the attention it gets and/or you want to look cool in front of your friends. You don't have a point, you just have internet outrage and butthurt which is worth fuck all.

    And when you take offense to people claiming that the negativity directed at Lena Dunham is sexist and unjustified this is what they're talking about. The extra scrutiny placed on an outspoken female creative. The implication that she couldn't have succeeded on her own. The impossibly high standards used to tear down people who try to do something progressive because they're not progressive enough.

    If you don't like the show, that's fine. You don't have to like it. But how about just shutting the fuck up and letting it pass by unremarked on? Why do you feel the need to discourage one of the few female-created shows on television? Why is the privilege on display here so much more offensive than everywhere else? Let me guess, she's asking for it, right? Uppity bitch standing on a stage talking about herself and her show, who does she think she is?

  • Jezzer

    Or, you know, it could be a reaction to the sheer amount of hyperbolic praise and attention Lena gets every time she farts. "Girls" is a middling sitcom about horrible people that's only noteworthy for its constant nudity and the fact that the primary cast are a bunch of self-important, 20-something, white children of privilege playing (hopefully) exaggerated versions of themselves. It brings absolutely nothing new to the table other than hipstery awfulness, and the constant attention and praise it gets is baffling,

  • Yossarian

    Yeah, it's a petulant, petty reaction to any new instance of attention or praise toward Lena Dunham or Girls because of the perceived assumption that they've already been given too much of both. And so any time anyone writes anything about this show that is currently airing or this person who is actively working and participating in film & television we get a rash of shitty comments about how awful and undeserving and over-hyped it is and how you're sick of hearing about it.

    And there's really nothing substantive or meaningful or objective about it. There's some appeal to this loose grab-bag of justifications (too white, too privileged, unlikable characters, over-praised, undeserving, not a good show, gets too much attention, gets a free pass, liked for the wrong reasons, the people who defend it do something else I don't like too, it's just because she's naked a lot and unattractive, no one listens to me. they just keep paying attention to Lena, Lena, Lena)

    But there's never an attempt to engage or discuss anything. It's just emoting and complaining. It's boring. It's just negativity and resentment and insecurity and bile that says more about the person commenting then the thing they are commenting about. It's like hearing conservatives talk about Obama, just reaction and noise and nonsense, an effort to cram as many rhetorical fallacies into as few poorly strung together words as possible so that you can share your self-righteousness and persecution complex with everyone unlucky enough to hear it.

    "She is a child of privilege looking for her 15 mins to put next to her piles of money."
    "the uplifting story of another 1%er that went from lesser riches to higher ones."
    "And oh yeah, a fucking liar too. Another down in her luck by her bootstraps Manhattanite."

    Stupid, shallow, hypocritical, angry, dishonest, and ultimately pathetic. And maybe it's best to just ignore it but like most ignorant, hateful rhetoric it has a deleterious effect on the community. It's worth it, to me, to stop and point out how full of shit that line of reasoning was. Just because you have a reaction doesn't mean it's good, or worth sharing. It might just be because you're an asshole.

  • Jezzer

    Or, I counter, it could be that it's a horrible, hipstery piece of shit show that really appeals to horrible, hipstery douchebags. The world may never know.

  • AM

    Do I have your permission to quote you? This is so spot-on and says all the things I have been trying to articulate about Lena Dunham but haven't been able to. You should be on Jezebel with this, too. It's frightening that supposedly progressive people can't see the hypocricy of their criticism of her. You fucking nailed it. I hope Dustin reads her statements and yours and really lets it all soak in.

  • Jezzer

    It's frightening to me that supposedly progressive people can't see the hypocrisy when they rush to defend her vision of the All-White Manhattan.

  • AM

    Whatever, dude. So you don't like her sitcom. Let's not pretend that's why people feel justified in calling her a "sloppy ho" with a "nasty ass." The comments in this article are about some of the obstacles facing female directors and producers, and by extension, many women in all professional arenas. And your comments and those of others just illustrate exactly what she said at sxsw. What else explains the rage you seem to feel towards this particular director and actor, other than that she's a woman, perhaps one you do not find to be sexually attractive, who dares put her voice and vision across in a public media. Don't like that vision? Great! Who cares? Is she under some obligation to fulfill quotas of minority characters to suit your sensibilities? Nope! What are you, the diversity police? And what makes anyone think that it would be realistic or believable fpr the neurotic and self-centered messes on her show to have friends of other races anyway? Do you scrutinize reruns of Seinfeld looking for minority characters? Cause good luck with that. And yet where is the vitriol and hatred that ought to have been poured on Jerry Seinfeld all these years. I guess there were only white folks in Manhattan back then. Or I guess, having a dick gives you special privileges in this world and God forbid you go through life, doing your best and succeeding pretty well without one. Cause people will be sure to call you a sloppy ho and pretend it's a valid criticism of your work.

  • Jezzer

    How about you speak for yourself and your inexplicable appreciation for this terrible show, and not attempt to speak for me and my motivations, m'kay?

  • BRANDOR

    I'm glad someone more eloquent than me felt the same way that I do.

  • Jezzer

    Or more verbose.

  • BRANDOR

    Or maybe both! Who knows?!

  • JustOP

    I think the real problem with casting women in more diverse roles is the inevitable bad-reactions. It just seems a situation where it's impossible to win as there are now so many different ways characters can be simply nullified to 'trope' status that most people don't even bother looking at characters through more complex lense.

    For example nudity. There's no 'right' way to show it; if it's being argued as a good thing you get the retort that it's 'graitutious, for the eyes of dirty men and another example of objectification', which then leads to accusations of 'slut shaming' or 'body shaming'.

  • Jezzer

    "I know that there’s not a place for the story I’m telling in studio-funded movies right now."

    When, oh WHEN, will the world be ready to learn life lessons imparted by sheltered white trust fund babies? *sob*

  • BarbadoSlim

    Up voted for truth. This sloppy ho isn't the voice of any generation, she aint a crusader for any liberal cause. She is a child of privilege looking for her 15 mins to put next to her piles of money. And like all children of the upper class she wouldn't piss on you if you were on fire. If we had any class awareness we would tell her to cover that nasty ass and get the fuck out of any visual media.

  • Danar the Barbarian

    What does class awareness have to do with the shape of her ass?

  • AM

    How are you even allowed to comment on this sight? What the fuck is wrong with you? I'm incoherent right now. YOU CAN SAY THIS AND NOT SEE THAT WOMEN ARE SUBJECTED TO CRITICISM IN A WAY THAT SIMPLY DOES NOT OBTAIN FOR MEN IN OUR SOCIETY? At all class levels, all races, in every way? You are the problem. YOU AND ALL PEOPLE LIKE YOU ARE THE PROBLEM.

  • BRANDOR

    This is some spectacularly hostile, insanely speculative bullshit right here. Let's also not forget hateful, misogynistic, and stereotyping.

  • Michelle

    The more I hear about her, the more I like her.

  • Michelle

    Which I realize is the opposite for most people.

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