Lena Dunham Talks Typecasting, Tacos and Twitter at SXSW
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.