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Dunham returns to SXSW with her latest triumph, 'Girls'

Matthew Odam
modam@statesman.com

Lena Dunham splits her time between New York City and Los Angeles, but Austin served as something of a launch pad for the talented young filmmaker's career.

The 25-year-old first came to South by Southwest in 2009 with her debut feature, "Creative Nonfiction," which made its world premiere in the festival's Emerging Visions category.

She returned a year later with "Tiny Furniture," an autobiographical coming-of-age tale that delivered on the promise of her first feature. The warts-and-all comedy about a recent college graduate navigating the anxiety of the purgatory between adolescence and adulthood marked Dunham as a spectacular and fresh voice. "Tiny Furniture," which Dunham wrote, directed and carried as lead actress, won the jury award for best narrative feature.

Dunham's triumphant SXSW appearances served as a precursor to more honors (the Independent Spirit Award for best first screenplay in 2011) and, more importantly, much more notice among industry executives. The success of "Tiny Furniture" at SXSW led to a deal with HBO for Dunham's new half-hour comedy "Girls," which will begin airing in April.

As with her first two projects, Dunham will raise the curtain on her latest endeavor at the place where her career began to take shape — SXSW.

"It's been an amazing place for me," Dunham said recently by phone. SXSW Film director "Janet Pierson has had such lovely faith in what it is I do. It's been kind of mind-blowing, actually, how committed Janet's been. ‘Creative Nonfiction' was a really weird little movie I never imagined would play anywhere. So the fact that Janet saw it and thought it was something that people might want to watch when they're having their cool, fun festival experience. ... I'm just forever grateful."

"Girls" picks up on some of the same themes Dunham explored with "Tiny Furniture."

But while "Tiny Furniture" explored one character going through a short transitional period of her life in a very specific neighborhood in Brooklyn, "Girls" pulls back to reveal a larger cross-section of female friends wandering into the concrete wilderness of New York City, attempting to find their fortune while dealing with pitiful and predatory men.

The cast of actresses embodies a variety of visions possessed by young women coming to New York to chase their dreams. But these are no gaudy stereotypes like those of "Sex and the City," with established career paths and the perfect bon mot for every occasion. These are girls who fancy themselves women, but are still going through the thrilling and humiliating pangs of growth. They want to feel settled and responsible and on top of things, but their emotions are too raw, and life moves too quickly to get a foothold.

Dunham's character, Hannah, chases acceptance and love from a reluctant hipster artist who craves much less significance from their sporadic sexual encounters. Struggling to move from unpaid publishing intern to full-time, paid employee, Hannah still clings to her parents' purse and apron strings. She feels she will soon emerge as the fully evolved woman and artist she knows herself to be. She just needs a little more time, nurturing and, of course, money.

Hannah expects the world to provide for her and seems genuinely confused and irritated by the universe's unwillingness to play on her terms.

Slowly, she realizes that maybe life will not be easy at every step, that being an adult may be less about coasting and more about maintenance. Riding waves, not flattening them.

Dunham seemingly bears little resemblance to the entitled Hannah character, but the writer-director says writing "Girls" allows her to work through her own feelings.

"Being 25, sometimes my job feels more adult in some ways than I am. So it's great to be writing about this in-between space when it's really what I'm navigating," Dunham said. "I've always been really lucky to get to explore in my work the exact moment I am in. With ‘Girls,' I wanted to continue to explore something really personal. What I've always done with my work is purge my own demons and engage in a conversation about what's getting at me through my work."

Dunham's comedic mind and ear for startlingly realistic dialogue garnered the attention of HBO executives and SXSW jurors as well as comedy kingpin Judd Apatow, who saw a copy of "Tiny Furniture" and agreed to come on board "Girls" as an executive producer.

The producer behind "The 40-Year-Old Virgin" and "Knocked Up" calls working with Dunham his "most pleasant show business experience" and says he is not surprised at the quality of the 10-episode first season.

"I was surprised when I saw ‘Tiny Furniture,' but after spending several months watching her write the pilot and first few episodes by herself, it became very clear that this was a very special person with her own unique vision," Apatow said. "It's really been a pleasure to watch her execute all of these ideas. She's a really nice person. She's as talented as anyone I've ever come across."

Apatow worked with Dunham and "Girls" executive producer Jenni Konner, who had previously worked with the mega-producer on his TV show "Undeclared," to give the show structure and help with punching up the script. Mostly, Apatow says, his job was a support position, offering wisdom along the way and coaxing Dunham's natural talent.

"He's amazing to watch because he really is a producer on every level," Dunham said of Apatow. "He understands what it takes to have a set and run a crew, but he also understands story in a really clear way. He gives incredible notes about every script. He's just kind of mind-blowing in his attention to detail and super supportive."

Dunham and Apatow wrote the sixth episode of "Girls" together, and Dunham says she and the "Funny People" director shared a vision on comedy and making sure that the humor was always character-driven and not simply set-up, punchline, repeat.

The cadre of friends in "Girls" have a sense of humor about their flailing attempts to find emotional maturity, but they are still victims of their own naiveté.

"You want to have characters who you know it's OK to laugh with, and they're not so navel-gazing or completely focused on their own pain that they're exhausting," Dunham said. "But at the same time, they shouldn't be winking at the camera because they're not completely self-aware, because if they were they would have far fewer problems."

Dunham's career has focused on young people, but her perspicacity, vulnerability and honesty as an artist should ensure a long trajectory.

Her material brings to life female characters in a way that has rarely been seen or heard in television or movies, but Dunham's unique voice feels most reminiscent of great male comedic writers such as Louis C.K. and Woody Allen.

As with those artists, Dunham's focus will shift and mature as she ages. But for now she is content to explore her current stage of life.

"Nostalgia is very attractive, too, but at this point I'm really enjoying the experience of exploring where I'm at rather than where I've been," Dunham said. "But we'll see if I turn into a broken record and I'm 85 and still writing about 26-year-olds."

Contact Matthew Odam at 912-5986. Twitter: @odam

'Girls' premiere