If it’s become easy to forget the extent of Lena Dunham’s talent it is, maybe, in direct proportion to how purely inescapable she was not even ten years ago. “She” encompassing both the work—Tiny Furniture as tempest in a teapot, then Girls as full-blown lightning rod—and person, which most struggled to separate; the writer-director-star-subject combo had a way of blurring distinction. Sharp Stick arrives, then, as it should: not as declaration of intent or screed against those who obsessed over her every step, but far more simply an expression of talent that’s lain dormant. It’s also plainly funny, much in that microscopic, oddball-observational way a character on Girls calling Norman Reedus their favorite actor was funny.
Whether or not it helps that I liked Sharp Stick a good deal, Dunham is an immensely generous interview subject. Our conversation below spans particulars of Sharp Stick‘s production, the legacy of Girls as cultural document, and—in the spirit of her generosity—a certain project this writer has been developing in their free time.
As I turned on my recorder our conversation was already in gear:
Lena Dunham: I, too, was shocked to realize I’ve been doing this for a decade.
The Film Stage: I tend to think of art and culture in certain increments—five years, ten years. So earlier this year I ask, “What’s ten years old? Well, Girls is.” So I revisited the show.
Yeah. I watched every episode when it aired but never again. So going back was quite a wonderful experience.
Oh, my God. That’s amazing. When I realized it was ten years old I did not rewatch it, but my husband has never seen it and he’s always threatening to watch it. So I feel like a rewatch may be… an accidental rewatch may be in my future. So I’m glad to hear the rewatching was not a horrific experience! [Laughs]
I like that this is a threat.
I know. I’m so about moving ahead that the rewatching feels like a vague terror to me. I’m like, “Oh, God. What is this going to teach? What terrible things am I going to find out about my previous artistic attempts that stop me from doing what I do now?” But a few people have told me that they’re rewatching and they’re like… if it’s holding up on its terms and it doesn’t feel like when you’re rewatching a cartoon you loved as a kid and you’re suddenly realizing that everything about it is off — great.
It holds up very well. Believe me.
Thank you, Nick.
Rewatching the show and watching Sharp Stick clarified something I’ve always found very effective about your work, Tiny Furniture to now: it never lacks for distinct, memorable interiors. Every place someone lives in actually feels like a place they would live in, and it connects to how they behave, how they react to situations. Your and Jon Bernthal’s home here is as if a camera were just plopped down, much as Marnie and Hannah’s apartment in season 1 of Girls is very much where you’d live at that time in your life. I’d like to know about your process for location-scouting and set-dressing. Are you actively thinking about it while writing material, or is it at a later stage in hiring crew?
That’s such a cool question, by the way, and that means so much to me. I think that exists for two reasons. I think one is that when I started and was making independent film, I was basically always shooting things in the real locations where they would have happened. So, for example, Tiny Furniture was shot in the apartment that I lived in with my mom and my sibling. So each of the sets was dressed to perfection because it just was the place that we lived. I became addicted to that sort of immediacy. Because I’ve always been chronically ill and, also, a total—in many ways total—introvert, the place where I’ve lived has taken on such primacy for me. Maybe for some people it’s just where they go and lay their head down at night. But for me it becomes this kind of morning, noon, and night. I think, being a writer, some people go to coffee shops to write. But for me the place where I live becomes the home of everything. It becomes the home where I work; it becomes the social home.
And when I went from Tiny Furniture to Girls and our pilot was designed by an incredible production designer, Judy Becker, I said to her: the most important thing to me is it didn’t have that feeling that so many TV apartments have, where they’re six times as big as the one that two people would actually live in. I didn’t want you to go, “How are these two interns affording a 6,000-foot loft?” So we were really careful—even though it’s less convenient for shooting, because of cameras and stuff like that—to shoot to create spaces that were the accurate size, as cramped as they would be. And a lot of that stuff—a lot of what is in their homes, a lot of the props—is all in the script as I’m writing, just because I have to create an interior for them to live in.
In this film, on Sharp Stick, I was working with an amazing production designer, Margaux Rust, she really took all of that that I’d written into the script and became really obsessed with finding places that reflected that, and then dressing them to reflect it even further. And because it was a pandemic movie, we were spending an extra-special amount of time inside. So those places had to feel really right.
I think there’s so much about people’s homes that don’t just let you know about who they are, but who they think they are to themselves. The stuff you put on your window ledge and the way that you decorate your kitchen—it says so much about who you think you are in the world and how you think you operate. So I love the idea, for example, that Heather and Josh had this house that was so beautifully put together and looked like a CB2 catalogue—which was, in some ways, to hide the fact that their marriage was in a perpetual state of disrepair, and that their lives were in a perpetual state of disrepair.
Sarah Jo’s bedroom becomes this playspace for her where it’s, like, half-painted and full of craft supplies and full of stickers because she has a much more immediate thing where she’s not trying to reflect who she is to anyone. She just has a space that reflects her brain. Her mom and sister live in this space that is much more about her mom’s history, and all the stuff her mom has accumulated through multiple marriages into an era of being a model into an era where she thinks of herself as a mini-real estate tycoon. That relationship with my production designer is always hugely, obsessively important, and the relationship to the interiors. That’s also where I start to understand the characters in a lot of ways.
I sort of knew what Sharp Stick was about—I think I read a synopsis six-ish months ago. But I forgot that, largely, and so while watching I’m thinking “I have no idea where this movie is going, and even what it’s striving towards could change in a second.” Which of course made the experience exciting.
I’m so glad. Because I think, for some people, when something doesn’t follow what they perceive to be a traditional, three-act structure or they don’t feel like they understand those traditional screenwriting ideas of “the character’s wants or needs,” the movie becomes this sort of unwieldy thing. They feel like they need to trust a movie in a certain way. I know people have different responses to the meandering path that this movie takes.
But for me it was really exciting, and I think this is one of the joys of making certain kinds of movies. I mean, I also love trying to meet the expectations of a three-act structure and trying to write characters in a more traditional way and still find what makes sense to me, but it’s really thrilling for me when I’m just allowed to surprise myself. Maybe I have an outline but then, when I’ve finished so many aspects of it, I just zig where I thought I was going to zag. On the last page, the best feeling to me is if I feel surprised by where I’ve ended up.
Well I’m wondering about distinctions between what’s in an outline and… I mean, could you look at Sharp Stick and still identify, after seeing it so many times, things that were you just wanting to try it, putting it down on the page, and it’s a good enough idea that it endured from then to now?
There were certain ideas that I knew. I mean, this character of Sarah Jo and all the characters around her kind of came from my head, in some way, fully birthed until the actors come in and bring their entire other perspective to it. But a few things that sort of came at me and surprised me… one was the baby shower that Jennifer Jason Leigh throws for her child’s abortion. That was one of those ideas where I was like: can she do that and we still believe that she’s doing it and believes that it’s the work of a loving mother? It was one of those things where, at each stage, I kept going “is this going to disappear?” And then it was like the idea had held just enough for me to be excited. Then, when I wrote the scene, it held just enough for me to be excited. When they acted the scene and brought things to it I couldn’t have even imagined. Then it suddenly became a building block of the movie.
Another thing I didn’t know was going to happen was that Luka Sabbat’s character, Arvin, was going to come back and represent this really important moment towards the end of the movie. There was initially a different conclusion to the film that ultimately felt a little too political and pessimistic. Suddenly that relationship had been compelling enough, both to me and other people in the script, that his coming back and having this pivotal role in, at least, the conclusion of her sexual development within the movie—because it will continue long after that movie ends—became something that we wanted to hold onto. I think, often, those ideas that you either don’t know if you can pull off or you feel resistant to at first become the ones that are most important.
And at the very end you have Scott Speedman in a kind of “bozo affirmation” scene.
His “bozo who owns” energy is such a nice lynchpin on the movie.
That’s such a great way of putting it, and I said to Scott when we had our first meeting is that the important thing is that, in a lot of ways, your character becomes the hero of the movie. Even though we can dismiss him easily because he holds all these contradictions—he’s a porn star who also believes he’s empowering women—he also becomes the person who ultimately tells her the thing that she needs to hear. The other night I got to see the movie in a theater for the first time, and I don’t particularly have emotional responses to my own work after having seen it many, many times, and I was crying after Scott Speedman’s video. As pathetic as it is to cry at your own movie, I think that’s ultimately a testament to how totally he believed it and how he pulled it off.
It’s also a testament to the way that Christine, in character as Sarah Jo, responded to it—she believed it was the most important thing that ever happened to her, so we believed it was the most important thing that ever happened to her. I mean, it was really exciting for me because Scott Speedman was such an important part of my personal development of trying to understand who I was as a girl. Being a Ben girl over a Noel girl in the world of Felicity was a huge part of who I was as a 12- and 13-year-old. I remember going to school and being like, “Anyone who likes Noel doesn’t get it, and other people who like Ben are like me.” And those are the things that entertainment can do to define you as a young person. So then to, two decades later, be on a set with Scott and get to have him play that character for someone else was a very wild, full-circle moment for me.
Would you mind if I asked a Girls question?
Of course not!
I think it’s a good one.
Publicists listening, don’t worry—I won’t make this too theory-heavy. I’ll wrap up.
My publicists are all about theory-heavy. I’ve got the right publicists.
The show documented a time that, culturally, maybe hasn’t held up—I don’t think 2012-2017 has such a distinct imprint, and Girls is one of its only real time capsules. Recently I found a quote where you called yourself “a millennial documenter.”
How do you feel, a decade hence, looking back on how you documented?
I mean, it’s interesting. I was just saying the other day: it’s interesting for me making this movie, because these are characters who existed, sort of, in the world of TikTok and YouTube and the kind of, “Hey, guys! It’s just me showing you my makeup palette” energy. And Hannah and her friends existed at this moment where, like, the great hope was that we were going to be important female memoirists, essayists and we thought it was going to change the world. Much like when I was 21 and I made my first web series I was like, “Mom, it’s this thing called a web series. You don’t even know but it’s going to change the world.” And web series didn’t change the world, but now everything is a web series. So I guess, in a way, they did.
And female essayists didn’t change the world, but also now everyone is a woman documenting their experience on the Internet. So in some ways they did. So it’s this weird thing of documenting stuff that’s, like, a stepping stone towards where we find ourselves now, but also seems weirdly random and useless. One of the things that’s the funniest for me, looking back, is what those characters hoped their lives could be and how specific it was to that moment, and how no one’s life turned into the thing that they hoped their lives could be. But also everyone’s life turned into that thing. No one became the most powerful female essayist-blogger, but sort of now everyone has Instagram and considers themselves an essayist-blogger. That is sort of a fascinating part of it, to me, and it’s going to be interesting to see my children, if they ever watch it—will it be ridiculous? The way that certain women in ‘80s power blazers pretending to talk on giant cell phones is? Or will it make sense as, sort of, a precursor to where they find themselves?
Either answer is okay. Because if it did something in the moment that made people feel either… the thing that I’ve realized is, whether people watch the show and feel like they were seeing themselves, or whether they watched the show and felt like they were seeing enemies who they were fighting back against, either one is kind of okay because at least it was allowing them to respond to something that they saw in the world as it was. So I’ve realized that whether you saw the characters as, sort of, erstwhile heroines who represented your own trajectory or assholes who were everything that you were fighting against, either one of those things turns out to be fine.
You’ll be happy to know my friends and I are picking up the baton—we’re working on a series that, I’m not joking, is called Fellas.
That’s the best thing I’ve ever heard. Because people would make jokes all the time about making a show called Boys and I was like, “It’s not quite right.” Fellas is right.
I keep joking it’ll be “a Vimeo original.”
I mean, everything that I made was a YouTube original and now YouTube originals actually exist. So… there we find it. All the first things that I made were these web series that existed in… I thought the biggest thing that ever happened to me was that I had a web series on Nerve, which I thought was the most important sex website. And I would assume, because you’re younger than me, that you don’t even remember Nerve. Then it got me to the place where I could make things that maybe did have some lasting home. So I think the same thing will happen with Fellas.
Thank you. Our two scripts are in good shape; we have the cinematographer ready to go. When I’m doing interviews about it you will get so many Google Alerts as a cited influence.
Oh, I’m so excited. I just want to be considered an antecedent to Fellas.
Sharp Stick is in theaters Friday, July 29 and expands on August 5.