What’s phase one for you both? Do you outline heavily or do you just get an idea and let it flow out?
Dunham: It depends. If it’s an episode another writer is doing, we’ll outline. If it’s an episode I’m doing, we’ll just kinda kick around ideas and then I’ll go off and play and then send them the vomit pass. I’ll write a scene…when I write with somebody else, I’ll write a scene, he’ll write a scene, we’ll see what happens when we put it all together. It’s a free process and there isn’t like a crazy stringent set of rules about how we get it done, as long as it gets done.
What about, say, after you get to the vomit pass and you’re just stuck at a scene where you have writer’s block and you don’t know how to approach it? Do you just ask other people or what do you do?
Apatow: Yeah, then we give the drafts to everybody on the staff and we all just do…sometimes we give it the network and see what they think, and take a deep breath and start on page one again.
What about for theme? The show is covering that interesting phase of being a young and broke artist. I’m sure both of you probably had that phase. Does that just come out naturally while writing?
Dunham: I think we just thought about this specific time of life and the themes of it are sort of really clear, because your whole life you are dealing with change, and you are dealing with transition and uncertainty. But this is a moment where it is particularly vivid. So I think the themes emerge pretty naturally from the period of time that we’re dealing with.
Apatow: If you don’t think about the themes at all and just write about what you are thinking about, you can always figure out the theme later. It’s always going to be there whether you like it or not, it might just be a different theme.
Dunham: It’s true.
Apatow: It might be the “I hate myself theme” or the “about to murder my parents” theme.
Dunham: I know! “When you thought what you were doing was the height of an artist” theme.
Well, say, for like Funny People. That movie is a lot about failure and success. I’m sure you think about that when you get older and obtain commercial success. Does it just come from what you are thinking about at the moment?
Apatow: Yeah. Because at the time I was working on that, there were a lot of people that were sick in my world, and you just start thinking, “What’s the point of any of it? What’s the point of this work? What’s the point of the sacrifices we make for approval?” When you are really wounded and something traumatic happens, like someone getting sick happens, you are forced to assess all your theories about your life.
Not that I’m in that mode now. [Laughs] You know, why do we want to get a laugh so badly? What does it do for us? Is it just some really sick narcissistic thing? Or is there a way to be creative and giving, and is there a way to share your life with people that makes people, you know, feel, as Lena said before, the world is a smaller place and we’re all together. So there is a way positive way to create and then a really selfish, crazy way to create. You might get a good movie or a good record out of either of them.
Dunham: I just like that you did you that instead of having that experience and crawling into bed and not coming out for a year and going, “What’s the point of even eating food?” Like, to me that’s what’s inspiring. One of the reasons I loved Funny People is it clearly came out of a place of…I mean not to project, but it clearly came out of a painful place. And a comedy made from that perspective, to me, is the most interesting thing, and the most generous thing that a person can do.
That’s a good point. Like your films, the show isn’t afraid of showing characters in an unfavorable and honest light. How far do you always try to push that?
Apatow: That’s why HBO is great, because you don’t have to clean it up for anybody. You don’t have to resolve any storyline. It is why the end of The Sopranos is so great, because life does just go on. And with movies a lot of the time, it so desperately wants to be told that everything is going to be OK. And when you make a movie that says everything is going to be like it always is, or maybe it will be a little better but it’s still hard, sometimes you get disappointment. They just want everything to work out and end on “the kiss”.
With television, you can just end on the worst moment of someone’s entire life and people are so excited, and they say, “That was a great episode! I loved it! Did you see what happened? Everything in his life is falling apart!”
Working on TV, which is something I wasn’t looking to do at all, when it’s coming together and people like it and you are allowed to do it on a continuous basis, there’s nothing better than that. I mean this situation [xx 20:45] to make this show for a while with a lot of creative freedom, it’s the best case scenario for a writer.
I remember when Garry Shandling was doing The Larry Sanders show. It just felt like he could do anything. Any week he has a notion and it’s like, “Hey, Warren Beatty is on the show this week with this weird thing he thought of the other day!” It’s just the most fun thing in the world.
Dunham: It’s interesting, because I watched two shows Judd’s been involved…I’ve watched all the TV that Judd’s been involved with before I even met Judd. But particularly, Larry Sanders and Undeclared that I, like, watched really quickly during specifically challenging periods in my life. Like, I watched Larry Sanders when I was away at like a weird poetry summer program in Boulder, Colorado.
I was so homesick. I was so…I was literally like crying all night every night, and I bought Larry Sanders at the used video store and I watched all of it. Even though it wasn’t like sunny TV, it gave me that “everything is going to be OK” feeling. I watched Undeclared my first week of college.
So I sort of felt like the medicinal power of TV in a certain way, and that was so exciting to me. And so, when I found out I was going to be working with Judd on a show that I hoped might have that affect on girls, or even people, in this place in their life, I was excited.
You mentioned that sense of approval you always want to get when you tell a joke. Being very personal storytellers, how much does that matter to you? Like, say last night it was just crickets.
Apatow: It used to bother me a lot more. I’ve just been through every variation of it. I’ve had things go well, and sometimes that’s surprising because you think, “Well, that couldn’t have gone better. I guess that’s as happy as I get.” Like, I met the president and he had just seen Funny People and was very complimentary, and was talking about specific ideas. And I thought, “Well, there’s no more approval I could get from anyone on the planet. This is my level of happiness.” And then that’s, like, “Well this is as happy as I get. When the president likes my movie, I actually can’t get more happy than a 7 ½.” [Laughs]
And it’s the same thing with the opposite. I’ve been destroyed in certain reviews or articles, and I realize, “Oh, that’s my bottom. That’s as depressed as I’ll get if someone hates me.” And then, when you’ve been around for a long time, it starts to amuse you because you think to yourself, “It’s happening again! This is what bottom feels like! I’ve been here! You’re OK!”
Dunham: Yeah, totally! I remember I found it comforting when after I made Tiny Furniture and I started to read good reviews, or read bad reviews, or have somebody whose work I admire tell me that they admired my work, it’s sort of like mostly like the fact that good reviews and photo shoots and stuff didn’t put me in a great mood. I was like, “I’m kind of relieved to know that this isn’t the reason that I do this.” Like I’m sort of relieved to find out that I’m not…I think there was always the quiet fear that I was just a demented narcissist. If somebody took my photo I’d be totally satisfied and could just go home and sleep soundly. So it was good to realize, “Oh, I actually do this because I love this job and I’m not happy if I’m not working.” That was a relief to me to know that.
To wrap up, obviously the show is dealing with that period of being a struggling artist in your early 20s. When you were in that period of your lives, how’d you get through it?
Apatow: I just never for a second thought I wouldn’t find a way to make a living. I started trying to work…when I was 14 I was a dishwasher at a comedy club. And in my head I thought, “In 20 years I’ll be 34.” I always thought how many years it would take. So when I started doing standup I thought, “If I start at 16, in seven years I’m going to be 24 years old.” As long as you are always open to getting better and never thinking there’s nothing left to learn, I think you can do good work. I mean if you have some talent, I guess.
There’s very hard working untalented people out there. I think everybody has something to offer if you are committed to it and really give up yourself to the work and reveal yourself. Sometimes people say, “I like this actor more than that actor.” I always think, “I kinda think any actor could be incredibly interesting to watch. Any human being could be the lead of a movie.”
Girls premieres this Sunday (4/15) on HBO.