There aren’t many chances that you get to watch an artist progress in front of your eyes. How many of us would love to see David Fincher’s first productions in a festival? We get that chance with Lena Dunham‘s Creative NonFiction, which was selected for screening at SXSW as part of the fest’s Emerging Visions category.
The 22-year-old Dunham wrote, directed and starred in her first feature film as Ella, a liberal arts student writing a screenplay about a mysterious wanderer trying to escape from her relentless professor. At the same time Ella is struggling to find her way through the relationships around her. We sat down with Dunham, who is definitely a talent to look out for, and she was nice enough to walk us through the process of her selection to SXSW, as well as her future ambitions.
FSR: Lena, tell us a little about how you got Creative NonFiction into SXSW.
Lena Dunham: Well I made the movie. It was a long process and something I basically did on my own. It wasn’t like we had a tight crew and an editor. We shot for about four weeks and did post-production for six months. It was very touch and go because I was doing it on my own, so it was a two year process. I shot and then edited for year because I was at school. So I edited and then I took a little break, then I went back and did more changes. I actually applied last year to SXSW with a rough cut that did not get in, because a friend had seen it and said I should give it a shot. That was tough just because getting rejected is disheartening. But from that I learned that submitting a rough cut is something you only do if you feel that the ultimate product is evident in the rough cut that you’re sending. For me, I didn’t feel that the project was done yet, so maybe I shouldn’t have exposed such a young child to a cruel world. A year later, I had a really fine cut and I submitted it. I’m glad I did because Janet Pierson was so supportive. I found out when I was babysitting. One of the things I do is babysit to make money. Believe it or not, making low-budget sixty minute films is not the most lucrative thing.
Really? Because I thought you were big balling.
I know! Aren’t you shocked! But I was babysitting when I got the call and I was almost hyperventilating. A lot of my favorite movies premiered at SXSW so I was really jazzed. The little boy I was babysitting was like, ‘What’s wrong,’ and I was like, ‘Nothing. Nothing!’ Then he stabbed me with a pencil. So if I even had a moment where I was getting a big head, getting stabbed by a seven-year-old with a pencil took me out of that.
(Laughs) I think you could make a short film out of the acceptance. Just have the kid stab you Mike Myers style.
Right, except I was crying for a different reason then, mainly because I had lead in my arm and the kid was a little jerk.
I think it’s cool that you submitted it again. There are some filmmakers that if they had been rejected would have said, ‘To Hell with this,’ and give up the dream.
Well I went to Oberlin College and transferred there because I was originally rejected. So I’ve always had this attitude of, ‘Oh ya don’t like me? I’ll be back in a few months and we’ll see how that works.’ It doesn’t always but I try not to be too offended. But I have a few friends who are programmers and they torture themselves because there are so many more worthy movies than you can find slots for. It’s like college admissions. There are so many amazing kids but it’s about making quotas and politics. You have to trust that the rejection wasn’t a flat out dismissal of what you’re doing.
What was the difference between Ella and yourself. Obviously it’s not an autobiography, but you put what you know into it. Without getting too personal, what were some things you went with and what were some that you said, ‘Okay I will keep this for myself?’
That’s a really good point. Sometimes there are things you want to keep and others you want to share. Sometimes I have trouble with that line. I should probably keep more things for myself. I think the character was very much like me but the great thing of film is that you can take the more ridiculous, comical or naive part of you and shed this light on it. She was very much me but it was part of me that was a little bit more naive and anxious. When I wrote the script it was like me looking back on myself six months ago. When I wrote it I didn’t plan to play the character, but the idea of explaining a character that had so much of me in her to another actress, that was going to be a really challenging process. So if I had the desire to do it, why not? I only understood that the character was so much like me in the sense that I didn’t feel like anybody else could play her.
You’re very self-aware to know that six months for a college student is essentially a lifetime. You look at freshman year as a sophomore and you realize how unbelievably naive you were. You had no clue. We see this in reactions and decisions in Creative NonFiction. For me, I thought Ella writing the script was a way to make sense of her world and escape the world around her. Why did you have her do that?
I had actually had a previously frustrating experience writing a script similar, but less stylized, to the one Ella was writing in the movie. So I know it’s hard to leave your own reality and create another one when you’re in college, this nexus of drama. I think it becomes this exercise to get away from your life but your life keeps seeping in. So it was sort of a comment on that but I don’t think the main character understands how much it mirrors her own life. The rest of the characters are like, ‘Are you kidding? You’re writing your own life but in goofier terms.’ So I think for her she’s like, ‘I am writing this total fantasy sequence.’ To me it was funny and echoed the experience of trying to make work in this extreme kind of turbulence in your life.
You see that in Ella. In the script you see her always dying her hair. She’s trying to radically change the effect the world has on her. And you see that in the relationships she has. She goes from really caring about a guy and seems to hold onto something personal in her virginity, but then when her faith is broken you see her lose it. It’s shocking but it’s real.
It’s sad. For lack of a better world, she says fuck it. Her trust has been broken so she doesn’t feel the need to hold on to that.
I think that’s what a lot of college, I won’t say mainly girls, kids do because you can’t take a survey.
I think more girls in college are comfortable admitting it. I think there are a lot of male virgins but they won’t admit it. They’re like, ‘I’ve had sex with twenty, no thirty girls!’
Yeah, I had sex with my entire creative writing class! Didn’t you know? (AS and LD laugh.) Are there any filmmakers that you look to for inspiration?
I don’t consider myself this super-visual director. Some people like Wes Anderson or Michel Gondry are so focused on production design and shot composition that is so much their own, and I don’t think that is really ever going to be me. I am more story and character oriented but I definitely respect and admire it when I see it. I’m a total movie nerd so there is a ton that gets me excited. It’s such a great medium, whether it’s a superhero film or a cheesy comedy. A filmmaker who I admire for his honesty is Andrew Bujalski. He has taught me to believe that i can make good movies in a low-budget way. I like Nicole Holocener. She’s made Walking and Talking and Lovely & Amazing. She makes great character driven comedies that I appreciate. She’s a great writer. So is Noah Baumbach. Then there are the Gods. I love Woody Allen and others.
A lot of the ones you mentioned started out low-budget. I think you have to start out with character. You don’t have money to blow things up and so you can’t forfeit character. The story has to ring true. I think you were able to do that with your film. Where do you want Creative NonFiction to go next?
I didn’t come here expecting my film to sell to a distributor. At sixty minutes, it’s in no man’s land for a distributor. So if I do release it, it will probably be a self-release that I sell on my own, unless someone wants to snatch it up. I’m fine with that. I’m just happy to show it to whoever wants to see it. But now I am working on another feature so I am psyching myself up to do the next process. This has definitely been a blast from the past.
Well thanks for talking to us.
LD: Absolutely. I’ve never applied to film school but I totally feel like I’d belong in the Film School Rejects category.
Well I don’t know if any of us are literal film school rejects (Editor’s Note: Some of us are). Maybe we will be film school successes.
Film School Superstars.
I think we may have to change our website’s name to that. Thanks.
You can check out more of Lena Dunham’s work at www.pistolskillponies.com
Check out the trailer for Creative NonFiction below.