Q&A with ‘Girls’ creator Lena Dunham: The Ick Girl

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Lena Dunham’s series ‘Girls’ premieres this Sunday on HBO, and preliminary hype is so intense that if you haven’t heard about it by now, you probably aren’t spending much time on the Internet. Or reading magazines. Or wandering around L.A. or New York, where billboards of the young stars of the show -- Dunham, Allison Williams, Jemima Kirke and Zosia Mamet -- are plastered around town.

‘Girls’ is a half-hour comedy about the messy friendships, ambitions and sexual misadventures of four twentysomething women in New York, written and directed by 25-year-old Dunham, who also stars as aspiring writer Hannah Horvath. There’s no doubt the show will be polarizing: fans who have seen it (SXSW screened the first three episodes last month) love it for portraying young women in a realistic, ambivalent way, but detractors complain about the graphic, unsexy sex and the narcissism and privilege of the characters.


I interviewed Dunham several times for last Sunday’s Calendar feature -- once by phone last fall while she was on the set of Judd Apatow’s upcoming movie ‘This is Forty,’ in which she plays a small part; once in person in Los Angeles; and again by phone after she had returned to New York, where she called from the bathroom of a restaurant. (‘I’m standing in the bathroom not because I’m going to the bathroom, but because I’m organizing things in my bags,’ she reassured me at the start of the conversation.) Here’s a megamix of our conversations about sex, being the daughter of artists, and Jordan Catalano.

What was the original pitch for ‘Girls’?

I went into a meeting at HBO and my ignorance was helpful. I said, ‘Here’s the kind of show I haven’t seen on TV.’ And I went on a tirade about my friends and the kinds of problems they were dealing with as twentysomething women, trying to navigate the social landscape that was totally reliant on texting and Facebook. I overshared about my own relationship foibles and I was like: which of my friends hasn’t been on Ritalin since they were 12? The one time I took Ritalin I punched an animal! And I hit on something for them. And then Judd [Apatow] got involved and helped me figure out where to take these girls.

You have a very strong voice. Were you worried that having Judd Apatow as a producer might dilute it?

One of my criticisms of my own work is that I write five girls who sound like me all talking to each other, so it was helpful to have people say, ‘Not everyone peppers every sentence with a reference to their favorite early teen soap opera.’

There have been so few shows about young female experience on TV, and yet suddenly all these network shows appeared [‘The New Girl,’ ‘Two Broke Girls,’ etc]. Did you know about them?

We called the show ‘Girls’ and within two months, we heard of four other shows with the word ‘girl’ in the title.... I know some of these female creators and every one of them has a very different perspective on what it feels like to be female right now. We haven’t had any of that, so to have a glut is a gift! I don’t want it to be a zero-sum game where there’s one girl show so there can’t be another one.

Being on HBO allows you to use more graphic sex and language than a network would.

That’s one reason I knew that what I do at this point in my life couldn’t be on network. Frank depictions of sex and sexuality are such an integral part of my experience as a twentysomething woman that to have to hide bodies, it would be challenging to tell this story. The pilot I handed HBO -- the first draft -- opened with an aggressive sex scene. It was essential to understand: There is going to be sex and it’s not going to be sexy. A lot of the time girls are allowed to be a mess in an adorable way, and this is girls being a mess in a not adorable way.

Do young women raised with the oversharing world of blogs expect a more honest approach?

I am constantly tweeting things and going, why did I just say that to the world? I wanted to capture that feeling of there being no clear boundary anymore between public and private. And also, my characters will choose to keep really strange things private. They will share some sexual humiliation but refuse to tell their friends they lost their job. It’s an interesting thing in this culture what we choose to keep secret.

‘Sex and the City’ is bound to be a reference point. Is that why you reference it in your pilot? We decided we needed to tackle it head-on because we’re on HBO, it’s four women in the city. But for me the blueprint is more ‘Mary Tyler Moore’ and ‘My So Called Life’ had a baby and it was this show. The amount I think about Jordan Catalano in my day-to-day life is nuts. If I’m sad I’ll just go YouTube to that moment where he and Angela finally hold hands. And my desktop is a pic of Mary Tyler Moore’s apartment.

Were there other TV shows in between those two that spoke to you?

I was really into ‘Felicity,’ ‘Veronica Mars,’ ‘Popular.’ My favorite show of all time is ‘Prime Suspect’ with Helen Mirren -- one of the strongest female characters I’ve ever seen on TV.

You brought an interesting group of women (and some men) into the writers’ room. Did you think, we need to cover all the things we’ve never seen on TV before?

A lot of it was from our lives. This happened to me, ohmigod this happened to you? Why have we never seen this on television, these common female experiences? Some of them sexual but also about friendship or trying to do well at your job or humiliations.…

Going back to the start -- you started out making Web series?

The first thing I did was this series ‘Tight Shots,’ about sex and dating among young filmmakers, for Nerve magazine.... I’d seen a Web series Joe Swanberg had done for Nerve and I just pitched myself to them. When I was younger … I had no qualms about emailing a director I admired and saying, ‘What boom mike do you use?’ And then I did the thing for Index magazine [‘Downtown Delusional Divas’], which came out of time with my two best friends from preschool hanging out after graduation and saying … ‘Our parents are going to more fun parties than we are, how can we skewer that?’

Your parents are artists -- did you always feel you had to do something artsy?

My uncle’s a lawyer and I remember going to see him in court and thinking, That’s cool, too bad I could never be a lawyer. It never occurred to me it was possible to have another kind of job. I thought I wanted to be a journalist or a novelist. I wanted to distance myself from my parents by thinking, ‘I’m words, they’re pictures’ … It wasn’t until I met the DP of ‘Tiny Furniture’ [and ‘Girls’], Jody Lee Lipes, that I embraced that I was someone who cared about how things looked.I look at [‘Tight Shots’] and it was purposely super jangly camerawork. There was one shot I really planned … a pan shot across five bedrooms. At the time I was like, I am Kubrick, this is amazing!

Sex has been central to your stories from the start. Did you deliberately use unpleasant sex in ‘Girls’ as a way to push your character to uncomfortable places?

That’s my natural inclination, is to put characters I play through heinous tests, and I’m never sure why I’m doing it until later when I see what it’s explaining about the character or the world. I never want it to feel like I’m punishing her. I do think she courts it, but we also live in a world that’s tough for a 24- or 25-year-old woman to navigate. There are things you’re going to face that are totally debasing. Friends always say, ‘That would only happen to you.’ But I don’t know if it would only happen to me -- I just think I’m the only one talking about it. I think we are all having mortifying experiences constantly that we compartmentalize, and my way of feeling better happens to be saying, omigod guys, did you hear what happened to me today?

Some people I know are grossed out by the sex scenes. Are you getting that reaction?

There are so many reactions to art that make sense to me -- but ‘ick’ means something. It either means you’re offended politically or you think something was morally compromised, or you find someone unattractive. So why don’t we articulate this ‘ick’ a little?

Maybe we’d be well-served by seeing shows with men grappling with the anxiety that accompanies sexuality. There’s a movie I love called ‘I Am a Sex Addict’ and it’s the most pained depiction of a man dealing with sexual urges. It’s so brave because men are trained to say sex is easy for me. That’s not what it’s like for anyone.

The guys come off as pretty creepy in early episodes, particularly Hannah’s boyfriend Adam. What were you looking for when casting them?

I wanted someone for Adam who wasn’t afraid to make it unsexy. I think you can divide the world into two kinds of women, those who are attracted to this character and those who are not. Chris, I wanted him to be hot, I want it to be clear this girl is sick of her boyfriend not because he’s not cute or smart enough but because she has an ambivalent relationship to being loved.

‘Girls’ suggests the old cliché that women like bad boys.

I was talking to my mom about this -- I said, Dad’s really nice and you liked him. And she’s like, ‘He wasn’t that nice. The first two years of us going out was kind of frustrating and me chasing him.’

She needed him to neg her a little?

I’m so responsive to that, it’s tragic. I wish it wasn’t so, but it is so. I’m working on it. And so is Hannah.

How did you end up with a main cast made up of the kids of artists?

I love the way you’re saying it, because everyone else is really blunt, like, ‘Why did you only cast famous people’s kids?’ I didn’t think about it at the time. The only thing I could point to that would make it not a coincidence is that they came in with a preternatural willingness to play and understanding of the creative process that probably comes from being raised around it.

Allison [daughter of Brian Williams] has a poise that is in the best way very newscaster’s daughter. Allison’s manners are like a robot made by Miss Emily Post but she’s also funny, smart and sexy. And Zosia [daughter of David Mamet], her character Shoshanna was a bit of a caricature, and she brought all this nuance. It comes from her talent and also a lifetime of watching people make interesting things.... And [Jemima] was my best friend in high school and she was always the apotheosis of the coolest girl. To be able to capture that but also the flipside -- the struggle of the cool girl, not being able to express her fears because her whole self-defense is carefreeness and nonchalance, that was an interesting thing to explore with her.

You told me that you wanted to show elements of women’s lives you hadn’t seen on-screen before. Did you have specific things you wanted to cover, like abortion?

I do want to see that moment where you’re splayed on the gynecologist’s table and scared about what you’re going to find out. I do want to see that moment where your friend comes home and it’s been a long day but you dance together because you don’t know what else to do. Abortion is a huge political issue in our country right now but also a really personal issue -- a pregnancy scare brings up so much for the friends of the person having it because it makes you think about the future in the way you’re not ready for. You’re raised to think being a mother is an inevitable step in your development but you start to ask yourself questions, because not every woman does want to have children....

‘Girls’ is unusual in looking at abortion from the point of view of young women who are scared and flippant and a little selfish.

When you ask for support from your friends, they can support you to a degree but it brings up a lot of their fears and it turns everyone inward in a way that can be kind of grotesque…. I remember when a friend had an abortion and a mutual friend called me and told me, ‘I just wanted to let you know that I feel you haven’t been around enough during this process.’ I was like, it’s so crazy that this is the dialogue we are having about this!

The series opens with Hannah demanding that her parents support her financially. She calls herself the voice of a generation but also thinks of herself as a loser.

She is a combo of extreme self confidence that allowed her to think her parents should be supporting her coupled with extreme self-deprecation.... It’s not new -- it’s the trademark of many Jewish comedians but it is a new thing to see in a girl that age.

It’s as if you took Richard Lewis and...

Put him in a 24-year-old girl’s body? I felt a chill as you said that. Yeah … I think over the years she’s been told to assert herself, so she does -- but not at the right moments or in the right ways. That’s part of her journey is learning lessons from mistakes.

‘Sex and the City’ really underplayed work as a topic, which bugged me. The workplace isn’t a big part of ‘Girls’ either, is it?

I wanted to make it clear that these are girls who … take the idea of being satisfied at work life seriously as one of their goals. But we have to find a way to incorporate work stuff while keeping it personal and intense. Hannah doesn’t want a job. She has the conviction that she wants to be a writer but she doesn’t even know what that entails.

Hannah calls herself the voice of a generation – did you realize you were opening yourself up to criticism?

As we were cutting trailers I realized: Oh wow, that’s dangerous. It’s like calling your movie the best thing ever, so critics can say, ‘It’s the worst thing ever!’ I hope that because Hannah said it on drugs, the context would shine…. I’m not sure I even believe in the concept of the voice of a generation, like -- people my age think and breathe together?

Obviously there is huge diversity within a generation, but there’s not a lot of diversity in the characters. Was that something you thought about?

I became aware of it as I was editing. You cast this world and you don’t know until you watch it if it reflects what you see around you. And if I have the chance to do this again -- and not because of some mandate -- I’d like to have more variety in the show, because that’s what reflects the world I know. That’s how I want to populate this world in the future.


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-- Joy Press