Lena Dunham talks ‘Girls’ and sticks up for girls at SXSW
Lena Dunham had planned to get an earlier start on writing the keynote speech she delivered Monday morning at South by Southwest.
“The underprepared high school student in me thought it was a chance to make up for past bad doings,” she said.
But, as these things go, she ended up writing the speech on Sunday night. “I still had glue and glitter on my head from hosting ‘Saturday Night Live,’” she said. She might have been distracted by blogs reviewing her performance on the NBC variety show, most of which, she noted, debated her likability.
The speech, which she said she would be “reading aloud with occasional pauses for emphasis,” would be part motivational tool, part rant, and probably more for her than it was for the crowd. But the crowd — the Vimeo Theater at the Austin Convention Center was packed and the crowd overflowed into a video simulcast hall three flood up — ate it up anyway.
Dunham spoke about her beginnings in the industry, including being on set for films her mother made, referring to that experience as “summer camp for grownups.” Eventually, Dunham purchased a Sony “prosumer” camera and began making short films with her friends. “They were as watchable as public access television, minus the fancy graphics,” she said.
After discovery of the mumblecore subgenre of filmmaking (low budget production, amateur actors, naturalistic dialogue) Dunham used $5000 of babysitting money on her first feature, “Creative Nonfiction.” Shot on digital and Super 16 film, she sent the finished product, “full of bad wigs and edited with college software,” to SXSW, where it was rejected.
The following year, she sent a reworked “Creative Non-fiction” to SXSW, where it was accepted.
“I almost fainted,” she recalled, experiencing “one of those very rare and exciting first day of the rest of your life feelings.”
Her trip to SXSW proved to be the greatest week of her life, and she met the people here who would eventually become her collaborators.
Dunham spoke about her breakthrough feature “Tiny Furniture,” which would win the Best Narrative Feature award in 2010. She and “the SXSW gang” shot the film in her parent’s house, much to her father’s inconvenience, she said. Dunham made the film for $20,000 — the ever-present babysitting money, $5000 borrowed from her parents and the rest from an angel investor, one of her collaborator’s parents.
“We edited like fiends to make the SXSW deadline,” she said. “I wanted to be back there and feel that same energy again.”
She and her collaborators accidentally learned that they were going to win the SXSW award and practiced making surprised faces in the car on the way to the ceremony. A week later, Dunham left for California, where she engaged in a series of what she called “couch and water bottle meetings” where Hollywood attempted to classify her.
“It’s ‘this meets that’ — Rikki Lake meets Tina Fey or Kathy Bates had a baby with Rodney Dangerfield,” she recalled. It was in one such meeting with HBO that, she said, she had “the audacity” to pitch what would become “Girls.”
She called the show “a learning experience.” For instance, she was uncomfortable being in the writers’ room.
When you’re asked about a future plot point for example, you can’t just say “Trust me. I’m 25, wearing ill-advised shorts and I’ve got it,” she explained. You have to collaborate.
Dunham shared a couple of lists.
What she cares about:
- Making people laugh, lightening their loads
- Being an agent of positive change, especially for women and girls
- Challenging herself creatively to grow and evolve as an artist
What she doesn’t care about:
- Commenters on Deadline Hollywood
- Male comedians saying women aren’t funny
What she sometimes cares about:
- Twitter replies
- Fashion blogs
Dunham wound down her speech with advice for aspiring creators.
“Dont wait for someone else to tell your story; do it yourself by whatever means necessary,” she said. “Tell a story nobody else can tell.” Work that you believe in can provide armor against negativity, she noted.
“Saying no can be an amazing tool, but it’s also important to say yes,” Dunham added.
She concluded with a push for equality in the industry by noting that “Girls” co-star Adam Driver, a “ferocious genius” who has had an amazing year and” deserves it all,” has been allowed to be an action hero and host of other archetypes in film that are separate and distinct from his role on the show.
Meanwhile, Hollywood is not willing to see her female co-stars in the same variety of roles.
“That’s not a knock on Adam’s talent,” she said. “It’s a knock on a world where women are typecast. Something has to change.”