Lena Dunham‘s new HBO show, Girls, fits right into producer Judd Apatow‘s wheelhouse: it’s funny, awkward, honest, and never afraid to show characters at their ugliest. The lead, Hannah (Dunham), is a young 20-something looking for direction, similar to plenty of Apatow’s characters in TV and film. Hannah and her friends aren’t the nicest or the most admirable of characters, but they’re about as real as a group of friends can get.
Hannah is one of those phases that plenty of artists — such as Dunham and Apatow — could relate to: being young and struggling. In usual HBO fashion, Girls is a show that pushes the pain, never letting its characters off easy. That, amongst other topics, were discussed between Apatow, Dunham, and I the day after its terrific premiere at SXSW.
Here’s what Lena Dunham and Judd Apatow had to say about the movie-like structure of the show, writing vomit drafts, and personal comedy:
The first three episodes are somewhat painful to watch. Do you find it cathartic exploring these pretty uncomfortable — and possibly personal — situations?
Dunham: It’s incredibly satisfying to be able to tell stories like that and then also give it the ending that you couldn’t give it in real life because it was real life and you didn’t know what to do because everything terrible is happening at once. So yeah, I find it incredibly cathartic. And then you also have to sort of remove yourself from it a little bit and think about it as a story and not just your own personal demon exercising session.
So you do come up with a fantasy ending, like, “This is how it should have been”?
Dunham: I wish there was more, like, “This is how it should have ended.” I would have been taken in a carriage to a beautiful destination.” Just like, “This is how it should have been.” But it would have been even worse.
[Laughs] It’s interesting how the first three episodes play as standalone pieces. Is the whole structure of the first season like that?
Dunham: We sort of talked about it where we wanted each episode to almost feel like a little movie.
Apatow: Well, with a television show, you never know when people are going to see it for the first time, so you don’t want people to feel alienated by it if they happen to watch the third episode first. People always say the first few need to all feel like the first episode so you can catch up.
I remember I didn’t watch The Wire until years after it was off the air. But as I would turn on an episode, and I had never seen it before, and instantly I would go, “Oh, this is too complicated. I gotta start from the beginning. I don’t have enough time to catch up!” So we’re trying to avoid that trap a little bit, at least until Omar returns.
[Laughs] Did you go about Freaks and Geeks and Undeclared that way?
Apatow: Yeah. I remember the people at the network used to say even hardcore fans of the show only see one and four. [Laughs] I don’t know if that’s true anymore because people TiVo everything. But back then they used to say that.
I talked to Paul Feig a while ago. He said one of the complaints that he heard was that the show was too painful. Being on HBO, is there no limit to that? They really push pain on that network.
Apatow: They want more pain! They just want you to go deeper emotionally. With the network, they want it to be fantasy fulfillment, at least back then. That was 1999.
Dunham: They want it to be something that you could never imagine having happened on any other network.
Apatow: It also was the era of a lot of soap opera type shows with really good looking kids. So just to try to do a show about normal looking kids, real problems, and marijuana addictions, or Star Wars memorabilia addictions didn’t seem that sexy… [Laughs]
Dunham: Was Freaks and Geeks coming out like right around The O.C.?
Apatow: No, it was Dawson’s Creek. A little bit after Dawson’s Creek. There were a lot of shows like that at the time. So Paul just thought, “I’d like to see a show about what me and my friends were like.” That seemed like a shocking idea at the time. Now it doesn’t seem that way because I think he knocked on the door for a lot of types of TV shows. Also, there wasn’t much single camera television back then. Other than The Wonder Years, there was almost nothing on network television in terms of single camera comedy.
Would you ever hear on Freaks and Geeks, “Make this more like that one episode of Dawson’s Creek”?
Apatow: No, but it would say, “We’d like more eye candy,” things like that. Or, “Why can’t they win more? They need more victories.”
It’s all about failure.
Apatow: Yeah, that’s what we said. The show is about how you handle failure and how it bonds you with your friends.
Dunham: I was re-watching Dawson’s Creek for some reason and I just noticed that Dawson, who is supposed to be 15, literally…I know he was not old, but he literally looked 35. It was just like a 35-year-old…
Apatow: By the end, yeah. That happened on Freaks and Geeks where I started realizing what everyone’s true ages were, because a lot of people lied about how old they were to get the job. And I thought, “Wow. Five years in they are all going to be 30 years old. And are they still in high school…?” I guess Glee is contending with that at this point.
Dunham: Yeah, seriously.
[Laughs] Mr. Apatow, was the personal storytelling side of the show what appealed to you?