Interview: Director Lena Dunham Arranges Her ‘Tiny Furniture’

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CHICAGO – The coming-of-age film has evolved over the years, from Andy Hardy to “Splendor in the Grass” to “The Graduate,” up through “American Pie.” Filmmaker Lena Dunham offers her own post-collegiate transition narrative, in the archly realistic and perversely funny “Tiny Furniture.”

Dunham wrote and directed the film, and also stars as Aura, a newly minted film theory degree holder. She comes back to New York City and her mother’s Tribeca art studio, where the specialty is notable photo imagery of yes, tiny furniture, set against larger objects like the high-heeled feet of Aura’s sister. Aimless and clueless, Aura begins a series of relationships which includes a slightly warped childhood friend, a homeless comedy writer that she allows to stay at the studio and a co-worker at the small restaurant where she temporarily is employed as a hostess.

Lena Dunham as Aura Among the Title Items in ‘Tiny Furniture’
Lena Dunham as Aura Among the Title Decor in ‘Tiny Furniture’
Photo credit: IFC Films

All the circumstantial miscues of that difficult time in life are specifically portrayed through Aura’s unusual perspective, and got to talk to Lena Dunham via phone about the issues and particulars of Tiny Furniture. Aura has guy problems, friend problems, money problems and family problems. What strength did you want to emphasize about her that has her rise above all these situations, and conversely what weaknesses caused them?

Lena Dunham: I didn’t go into it with any specific idea of what her strengths and weaknesses were, I have a really organic relationship to the character, so I was really just thinking here is this person and what would she do, what wouldn’t she do. I never set out to make any statements about a specific character, I just set out to tell what feels like is a truthful story, a person that you and I might truly encounter. I wouldn’t describe Aura as having weaknesses, I’d just describe her as being young, confused and lost.

When we first see her, she is at incredibly loose ends, that is a very important distinction. As far as the strengths that allow her to rise above it, my hope for her is that she’s doing the best she can because she’s a smart girl, an educated girl. Although she makes some foolish mistakes, she’s never trying to hurt anybody. She’s not a malicious character, just a confused one. Aura lives in an all female household with a strong and wealthy matriarch. What advantages did you foresee with this sisterhood that went underneath the surface of the narrative? What do you feel were the disadvantages?

Dunham: I don’t come from an all-female household, I do have a father who is very involved in my life. I was just interested to see what would happen when the testosterone goes away and the women take over. I think the advantage that Aura has is that she was raised by a mother who is a role model, who showed her that she can do it herself, and a male presence is not necessary in order to get what you’re looking for. What she has not received is the sense of desperation that pushes you forward because she’s been handed everything by her mother, so there is not a sense of urgency or desire to be independent. The two main male characters are portrayed as an ineffectual creep and the other as irresponsibly closeted, yet Aura seems to desire to sleep with each one. What character flaw in her allows that capitulation and how were you illustrating it?

Dunham: In terms of character flaw, I think about it more of where she is in her life, cut to a year from now and she might not want to sleep with either of these guys. She’s at a place where she’s defining her worth, she can’t define it through school anymore and she’s not anybody’s girlfriend, she even barely feels like her mother’s daughter. Even though both of these guys by all accounts not savory characters, each of them feels they have a sense of purpose that she finds attractive, and validation from them seems like it would give her a clearer sense of her own value.

She’s also curious, she’s looking for life experience and she’s not yet sure what is inappropriate behavior from other people. She’s learning and the guys are like the tool for her, and she’s not able to fight them off at that moment. You did both nudity and simulated lovemaking on screen, what type of experience was that for you?

Dunham: The nudity part comes fairly naturally to me and it’s not something that gives me a tremendous amount of anxiety to reveal myself in that way. That being said, it doesn’t make sense for everybody to reveal themselves, I’m very aware of that. In terms of nudity, it’s easier for mewhen it’s non-sexual, but I don’t go into it thinking that I’m going to show what a real woman’s body looks like, but thinking this is what the character would do.

In terms of the simulated sex I have a love and trust of my co-star David Call, and it was a really choreographed experience. For anyone that has ever done a sex scene, it takes on the feeling of learning a ridiculous dance, like the electric slide. [laughs] It’s not a sexy experience. Understanding that it’s a choreographed thing to create the discomforted effect of bad sex, that helped me to get through it. In the male character representation, the film was making a telling statement. What is your opinion about the gender, in relationship to attitudes and character in the twentysomething men you were portraying?

Dunham: They are indicative of certain generational movements, in terms of how men deal with women. None of these guys is interested in committing, because they are waiting to see every possible option. They understand in our world of social media and connectivity there are more women then they could possibly ever meet, and that’s a luxury they want to take advantage of. I always say they are self-involved and in some ways terrible, but I wouldn’t want to date Aura either. She’s not exactly presented the best image, she’s lost, frustrated, probably depressed, and although the guys’ behavior is cruel they are also reacting to what she is asking for, and she doesn’t love herself enough to ask that anybody else would love her. It’s a complex dance, and it’s not as black and white as they’re terrible and they’re treating this lovely girl in a way that’s completely inappropriate.

As far as generational, the guys definitely represent trends I’ve seen in men I have as friends, but there are probably some very sweet twentysomething boys who would be appalled by what the characters do.

Pipe Dreams: David Call as Keith and Lena Dunham in ‘Tiny Furniture’
Pipe Dreams: David Call as Keith and Lena Dunham in ‘Tiny Furniture’
Photo credit: IFC Films As a fictional journey, did you admire the mother’s artistic expression – the tiny furniture – or were you dismissing it based on the narrative thread?

Dunham: Actually it’s very close to the work my real mother makes. It is work that I really admire, I love what she does, and it’s really beautiful, aesthetically pleasing and has a lot to say about femininity and modes of expression. But I also think that Aura can’t imagine doing any real job because she’s never seen her mother do a ‘real job.’ In your observation, what makes the transition more difficult today for post college, post pubescent adults than previous generations?

Dunham: It’s always been hard, but there are a few things happening now that makes it harder. I think, for example, that social networking makes people more connected, yet more distant, so there are people with less ties to real friend groups and less a sense of self. When I read my mother’s old journals, there was a feeling of an intense core artistic group, and when they wanted to see each other they just walked over to each other’s houses. The world felt smaller.

The current economic climate means getting out of college is no guarantee of getting a job, and no guarantee of a satisfying work life. My Dad feels that this is the first generation of Americans that expects that there children will have a harder time then they did. That’s a fascinating concept. What influenced you in your youth to become a filmmaker? What it a natural extension in your exploration of art in culture?

Dunham: I felt like I was a writer, and I just thought filmmaking was the best way for me to express that, because it allows me to embrace the visual world that I love. It’s allows me to interact with people, to be more social than fiction or poetry, and it felt like the right way for me to tell the stories that felt pressing to me. You had a small part in last year’s ‘The House of the Devil.’ What is your relationship with director Ti West and where did your paths cross?

Dunham: Ti is one of my best friends, we met when we were both extras in an SNL Digital short that a mutual friend was Director of Photography for. We ended up sitting at a table together and chatting for the entire day. Ti is a very smart, fascinating filmmaker dude and so we’ve spent a lot of time together. He’s someone that I care a lot about personally but he’s also a very talented director. Even though horror is a genre I have no connection to, his work has been very influential to me, in the way he sustains tension and he knows when to be economical and when to elaborate on something that’s astounding. When he asked me to come in and do a voice part in The House of the Devil I was very honored. It’s always intriguing when I saw the “Untitled Judd Apatow/Lena Dunham Project” on your imdb page. What was the genesis of that project and what can we expect?

Dunham: It’s an HBO pilot that I was working on, and Judd got involved after he saw my film and got in touch with me, which was incredible. I was such a huge fan of his work and what he has done. It was a huge honor to work with him, even though he hadn’t done television since ‘Undeclared,’ but he’s a master of the form, and an incredibly thoughtful creator and so I knew that working with him was going to raise my game in a way that was exciting as I was moving toward this new medium.

It’s a half hour comedy that looks at the relationship between three post-collegiate girlfriends in New York, and it’s not glamorized. It’s definitely the nitty-gritty of life after college in the city when you don’t have a job you like, don’t have a boyfriend you like, you’re not even sure you like your friends and you’re navigating that path. It’s similarly themed to the film, in a way that’s really exciting. Finally, in your observation of art, what is the biggest fear that the artistic community has, and how does that express itself in particular works or happenings?

Dunham: I don’t know if the community as a whole has a cohesive fear, but artists themselves are neurotic and fearful people, and you can look at their work and figure out what they’re scared of. It’s also exciting when you encounter an artist that works without fear, that’s something really rare. But for me my anxieties are of the more social variety and that gets worked out in what I do.

The biggest fear that everybody has is dying. Not to get too meta on you, but I think every fear that people are trying to work out is really like I’m going to die and no one is going to care, and it doesn’t matter because God might not exist. That’s what people are trying to figure out. I wish we all had one fear so we could think about it together and figure out a solution, but we’re all doing different things.

”Tiny Furniture” continues its limited release in Chicago on December 10th at the Music Box Theater. Featuring Lena Dunham, Laurie Simmons, David Call, Alex Karpovsky and Grace Dunham. Written and directed by Lena Dunham. Rated “R” senior staff writer Patrick McDonald

Senior Staff Writer

© 2010 Patrick McDonald,

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