No 31.

Lena Dunham

in conversation with Emmanuel Olunkwa

Lena Dunham is a writer, actor, director, and creator of the hit HBO television show, Girls (2012-17). She entered the ether and general cultural consciousness in 2010 with her first feature film, Tiny Furniture, which debuted at South by Southwest (SXSW) and won an award for Best Narrative Feature. She has authored Not That Kind of Girl, 2014, and has a forthcoming memoir with Penguin Random House. Tiny Furniture details a young woman who graduates from college and is eerily naïve but curious, all while engaging with friends both old and new. It hallmarks the woes of going to college, graduating, and then having your ass handed to you after having thought you figured yourself and your shit out, when you are in fact beginning anew with inherited trauma. On April 15, 2022, Dunham’s Girls turned 10 years old.

Without knowing why, Dunham entered my psyche earlier this year after I decided to spend time with the series. Dunham has long been an inspiration, having voiced the mishaps of a generation that’s still in its very becoming. I was afforded the immense pleasure of talking with her about New York, her time in Los Angeles (then Malibu), her relationship to writing, knowing when to leave the fair (her departure from New York to Ohio), nostalgia, and why getting everything that you want is overrated and sometimes boring. The conversation was conducted in April 2022.

EO

Let’s start. The question I want to open with is: Why do you think people dislike you so much?

LD

What an amazing question—diving right in! My mom always tells that I was a person that people either liked or hated, from the age of 3.

EO

[Laughs.] It was the same for me. There has never been an in-between.

LD

Well, I like you! With me, never was anyone like, “Oh, Lena, yeah, not sure about her. Maybe?” I was either adored or bullied, had teachers who put me on a pedestal or thought I was a total disaster. That was just it. My friend Alyssa always says that in a first-year fashion seminar at the New School, every time I talked the class would be like, “What the fuck is happening? And then she’d think, “Okay, that girl is my best friend.” It’s sort of the same way with how audiences respond to my work, and this isn’t a defense, as much I have people who are allergic to it and have been from day one, I also have people who—with everything that I put out—feel deeply connected to and engaged with it.

I also have people who are allergic to my persona but feel connected to the work that I do. It’s interesting because I’ve been continually given a chance to tell stories, and if people didn’t relate in any way, then I wouldn’t be allowed to keep doing what I’m doing but at the same time there’s a few columns to it. One would be the political, where anytime in history there’s been a noisy woman who talks openly about her own complexity, certain people don’t like it. But noisy women are much more in fashion than they have ever been. I also think that there are people who have not enjoyed the intonation of the work that I’ve done. There are all of the undercurrents of the political moment that we’re in as well and how people responded to the certain aspects of my upbringing. I also really took the brief in my 20s, where they said, “We want to hear what you have to say.” And I went with it.

EO

While I was revisiting your work and doing research on you, I was thinking to myself: Did this person have any strategy? How were you navigating the opportunities that you were presented?

LD

Because of growing up in the New York art world, everything was an experiment for me. I know a lot of people in Hollywood who went after mainstream fame, success, and visibility. Those were not interests of mine, which people often don’t believe because they think you only become famous if it’s your great wish. I wanted to be able to write and make work and was completely fine with the fact that I might be a micro indie filmmaker who was a teacher, I was fine the idea that I might work in theater or that I might write on the side and work with kids as my day job. I could see a lot of ways that my life could go, and then I made an independent film, people responded to it, and I got certain opportunities and I think I suffered in my 20s for having a total lack of strategy. For me it was like, “I’m here and I’m going to make the most of this moment. Beyond that, who knows!”

EO

[Laughs.] It’s clear that vibes were being thrown around.

LD

Vibes is a great way of putting it. Because of the way that I was raised I thought there was something inorganic or sort of uncouth about branding, but now I understand that branding is a form of self-protection. I didn’t understand brand at the time.

EO

To be fair, it’s also not how we understood culture either. It’s something that’s been learned and performed over the last seven or so years.

LD

Now every artist is a brand. I wasn’t raised by artists who had brands. Frankly, I don’t think people knew what to do with me because there hadn’t been one of me before. I’m not a reality tv star so they couldn’t say that she’s totally talentless and ridiculous, but at the same time there was an element of untamed energy that people found “extremely confronting,” to use a term my Australian friends like to use. I think people think that everyone who finds themselves in a position of celebrity has a certain level of calculated regard for that job and I really didn’t. But you mentioned that you don’t really know what I’ve been up to over the last five years and that is no accident. Now when you say strategy, I don’t do a lot of interviews anymore. It’s not that people don’t reach out, it’s more that I have a publicist largely to say no to everyone. I wanted to talk to you because I think you’re an interesting person and what you’re doing is cool. The only interviews I do now are if I want to engage that person, culturally, emotionally, personally. I don’t have a super public facing life because I don’t like it.

I think people go, “Oh did she become some kind of pariah and disappear?” but I could have been doing public facing stuff forever, it’s easy to stay in the people’s minds if you want, but I don’t want to. If I wanted be a judge on some random cooking show every week, I could do it—not to sound arrogant, but that’s easy to do once you have name recognition.

EO

I stumbled into a position recently where a lot of things are happening at once and it’s devastatingly overwhelming and I’m trying to figure out what I want.

LD

“Devastatingly overwhelming” is a great to put it. Someone just asked me what my book is about, and I told them it’s about thinking twice before getting what you want.

EO

Oh, I saw on your Wikipedia. Is this the forthcoming one with Random House?

LD

Yes, I wrote a memoir that came out in 2014 and was like, “I’m 26 and here’s what I have to say about my life.” That's always a fool’s errand!

EO

Not That Kind of Girl, yes, I read it.

LD

This book is the almost ten years later version. It’s funny, I gave an early draft to Judd Apatow, who I still consider a close friend and mentor, and he was like, “Is this meant to be funny? This is actually very depressing.” I think people expect it to be a dance through my Hollywood hilariousness and instead it’s about how devastatingly overwhelming it was for me to navigate. And of course, we are all playing a tiny violin for the person who gets have their dreams come true.

EO

I think people forget that there’s a sacrifice with and for the things that we desire.

LD

Now, I’m keenly aware that there’s a human person behind every story. I’m too aware. But I’m sure I wouldn’t be if I didn’t have the experiences that I had, I would just be another person on Twitter laughing at anyone else’s mistakes or misfortune. I was working right at the beginning of the Twitter maelstrom moment and now it’s par for the course where every celebrity has a day where they’re trending negatively, but it wasn’t that way when I started.

EO

Right, Tiny Furniture came out in November 2010. I remember signing up for Twitter in 2009.

LD

I remember logging on Twitter in 2009 too. I was in Japan with my mom, and a friend of mine had an account where he wrote everything that he had for lunch every day and I thought it was so funny. I had no consciousness about it as a platform, I just thought, “I like being a writer, and this is a nice way to tell little stories.” I sure don’t feel that way about it now and I don’t run my social media anymore. I send things to my friend and social media manager Dolly who will put them up. If I do log on, I’ll go to twitter.com and search for someone’s profile. I don’t have a joyful relationship to social media. It’s funny that we’re talking today because tomorrow is the 10th anniversary of when Girls aired.

EO

Yes, I know. I started rewatching the show earlier this year and you’ve kind of been in my psyche for the past few months and then within the last two weeks these articles have been engaging the history of you and the show. It’s been this weird haunt.

LD

I’ve been thinking about it a lot recently. I haven’t watched the show since it aired, it’s not my thing to rewatch my work in that way because I like to keep moving forward. I also hadn’t looked back on the discourse, and I just went and looked at the first reviews and people were feeling a lot from the first episode- vibes being thrown, as you said. I think it’s easy for me to think, “Oh it took a couple of years of me being out in the world for people to get angry and sick of me, to get an allergic response, or I said things that made people turn.” I’m sure that’s all true, but from day one it was a deeply divided. Whether it was about my body, representation of New York, who I cast, my parents, or the sound of my voice, it was a series of conflicting opinions and energies and I had absolutely no guidebook for how to tune it out or what to look at.

EO

I was thinking about this because first you made films. How did you end up making television?

LD

I put Tiny Furniture out, and it won the prize for Best Narrative Feature at South by Southwest (SXSW) in 2010. And I ended up going to Los Angeles because I was told people wanted to have meetings. I got an agent, and one of the first meetings I went to was with HBO, and then I wrote a pilot. The movie premiered at SXSW in March of 2010 and by October 2010, we were shooting the pilot of Girls. It was all about the speed, and since then I’ve never had anything happen in television that fast. I remember Judd Apatow saying to me: “This isn’t how it works; you don’t just bounce into the industry like this.” Then the pilot was greenlit and a year and a half later we shot the first season. I was twenty-three-years-old when I wrote the pilot of Girls, when I see someone that age now, to me, they’re a fetus, and I can’t even conceive of how that happened. Suddenly, I went from making a movie in my living room with six people and my mother and sibling to making a television show with over one hundred crew members and being the head of a small corporation.

EO

Did you write the script by yourself? How considered were you when you approached shaping the seasons?

LD

I wrote the script myself but had Judd Apatow and Jenni Konner as producers guiding me and shaping it. I knew that I liked to watch and that I had been a student of TV, but I didn’t know how it was going to take shape. I became more considered as it all moved along, and I learned a lot about the process of television and film but I’m still learning. I definitely was taking my John Cassavetes taste and putting it into a sitcom structure.

EO

Right. The show never read to me as TV but felt more like vignettes or scenes within one movie, but the episodes feel like films themselves in terms of dialogue and resolution.

LD

That was the goal and is how I still approach making work. My movie, Sharp Stick, premiered at Sundance in January, and it was rated about 50% on Rotten Tomatoes, which again, is that binary of engagement, of conflicting opinions. It was interesting to be back in that space of being reviewed and there was a note that I got a lot from people who said the movie was plotless and misshapen, but that’s always who I’ve been. Plot is not my gift, I’m more of a tone and dialogue person. Essentially at the end of the day, I still think of myself as a memoirist who works in a lot of different forms, which can be television, film, or fiction. Even if I’m adapting a book or taking on someone else’s story, the way that I approach making things is memoir and that’s how I approached making the show.

EO

A lot of my friends are artists or makers of varying degrees, like with me making furniture, it’s something I was able to produce because I didn’t know how to do it. The questioning and moving through the process is what made the product. I often think that the people who get it done, or do it “best” are those who don’t know how or don’t understand what they’re capable of doing. The people that have too much information or those who get weak in the knees never get it done. Honestly, working on November as a practice has been a process of giving myself permission to not have all the answers or know what I’m doing.

LD

My favorite space to be is as a student. It’s funny because I was a bad student, I wasn’t good at school and while I was at the New School, I would stay up all night writing the most insane papers about It-girls at my high school. [Laughs.] I don’t know even know what I was writing about and it was crazy.

EO

I was at Dia Chelsea last night for my friend’s talk on Robert Morris and was talking to one of the curators afterwards and we ended up talking about Andrea Fraser and how I wrote about her show Down the River at the Whitney some years back. The curator was like “Oh, where was that text published?” I was like, “published? That was for school!”

LD

You wrote something about Andrea Fraser? That’s amazing. A huge informative experience in my life, which will not surprise you, is going to Chelsea to see her show and watching the video where she fucks the collector for money.

EO

No way.

LD

[Laughs.] And my dad took me, and I was 15 years old, literally. I walked in and was like, “This is a job?” My dad was like, “This is a complicated piece of art where this woman was paid to fuck,” and I was like, “I’m in. Sign me up”. When people ask me who my favorite artists are, or who formed my sense, it’s Andrea Fraser, Carolee Schneemann, and Lynda Benglis. It’s not Aaron Sorkin or David Simon. I respect the titans of television but it’s not where my focus is, and ultimately when I started out, I thought of myself as a performance artist and memoirist. But I will also do whatever it takes to learn and push myself. My favorite space to be in is when you’re a kid on the first day of school—except literally, because I hate school!

EO

There’s this [Jacques] Derrida concept that I was obsessed with in grad school called “L’arrivant,” which I interpret as him saying if you can anticipate something happen then it’s not an event, it has to be an experience that’s purely encountered for it to be relished or special. In other words, if you know how it’s going to develop or unfold from the onset, then it’s not news—nothing worth reporting on. While watching Girls, you break that timing a lot where I have had to release control and just follow the character conversation. Each episode reads like its own manifesto, I’m curious if everything is heavily scripted or do most people improvise considering your mumblecore adjacency?

LD

Even though I liked the casual making practices of mumblecore, I was always a writer who scripted things intensely. I love to let people improvise but I write hard jokes.

EO

[Laughs.] Someone’s a rapper.

LD

[Laughs.] I’m trying. I also listen a lot, so a lot of jokes are things that I’ve grabbed from different places. I’m a hyper observer more than a participant.

EO

Yeah, it’s clear that you have a specific relationship to language, and it comes across through in the characters. I love Aaron Sorkin and enjoyed The Newsroom, and The Social Network is easily one of my favorite movies, after Good Will Hunting. [Laughs.]

LD

I love him; he’s a brilliant genius. I wept hysterically to The Trial of the Chicago 7 movie and didn’t even know why I was doing it. Language is my way in, as a filmmaker I love images but it’s much less intuitive for me. Shot listing or making a film is much more like doing math. Everything for me springs forward from writing.

EO

What’s your relationship to writing?

LD

It’s an everyday all-day activity. When I’m not writing I feel like I should be. We all have a space where we feel free, and from the time I learned to write, I would just sit in my room and write these stories, and I remember getting this level of satisfaction from the experience of telling myself a story. It was so much bigger than the satisfaction that I got from being around other kids or reading. I love to read but I feel like I’m a writer first, reader second.

EO

Is it visual? I’m curious what happens in that space for you? When you’re in it what does it feel like?

LD

I always describe it as putting on an incredibly comfortable sweater, where it feels like you’re socking into this experience of extreme coziness and it’s taking you on a ride. I’ve been open about having a lot of health issues, and so my body has never felt like a particularly safe space. I always look at people and I’m like, “How does this person have the capacity to move down the street?” But when I’m writing I feel as free as the people I perceive as able-bodied. It’s like seeing an athlete and they’re totally at peace when they’re running or swimming, that’s what writing feels like for me. It’s a lot about inhabiting memory and nostalgia. Even if I’m writing about something that I haven’t personally experienced, I have to find a way in, where I can sort of move back in time and enter the experience from a nostalgic place.

What I love about writing is that it’s only thing that I’ve found in my life that I continue to be in that space of learning. Every time I sit down, whether it’s to write a screenplay or an essay, I’m surprised, engaged, and excited. I don’t find the act of writing boring, ever. It’s interesting because in Hollywood you meet writers who don’t write, just like in New York you meet so many artists who don’t make work. I always say to anyone who wants advice, “Don’t be the person at the party who talks about writing the novel, just don’t.” You meet so many of them. I remember Judd [Apatow] saying to me early on, “It’s so weird how much you like to write” and I’m like, “It’s my job. I’m a writer. Aren’t I supposed to love it?” So many people don’t because so many people have an identity around doing something that they seem not to have a real connection to.

EO

It’s funny that you phrase it that way because someone recently told me that I use this structure of questioning in most of my interviews, where I ask, “What’s your relationship?” to whatever thing, saying that it’s become a trope. And I was like, no that’s my signature! I want people to actively be thinking about what their relationship is to what they do and why they do it. I think the best work is made when people have an adjacency to the work that they’re doing. The thing that made Girls compelling is that, as a viewer, we’re living with and in the interiority of the person through language. You’re mainly thinking in terms of the writing, and then you’re thinking of how to put said writing in the context of television.

LD

I love that you pick up on that and feel it. For me, the act of writing isn’t a struggle, there are days for everyone where you’re tired, hungry, or angry. Filmmaking, showing up on set, shot listing, working with actors—I’m always scared when I show up. Every single morning on the way to set I pray that I can be of service to the project, hear what the actors have to say, and just do it. Every day when I leave, I’m like whoa, I was spared another day of humiliation, or I wasn’t spared and was humiliated and it was great. I’m relieved when that chapter is over, and I can reenter the writing phase. I was talking about it with my business partner who runs my production company, and I was saying that every time I’m writing, I’m just thinking, “When am I going to be on a set? And every time I’m on a set, I’m like, “please just let me go home and write.” Every artist’s struggle is that they’re living in the next or previous phase of conception.

EO

Yeah.

LD

It’s nice for me to get to talk about craft because the conversation around the work overshadowed my love of doing it, and my favorite conversations are the ones where I can talk through process and story.

EO

[Laughs.] Yeah, I don’t care about you as a site of critique. I’m only interested in engaging the work and your methods. You’re a primary example of the kind of artist who’s never experienced talking about your work, development, or process—it’s always about identity, gender, and your body. All the conversations center other people’s perceptions or read of you—it’s not and has never been a compelling conversation.

LD

And I get that, and I also don’t care about me. I think people sometimes thought I cared more about myself than I did because I had this desire to please people and give them what they want—quotes, buzzy moments, etc. If someone approached me for an interview and wanted to know about my trauma and relationship to men, I would be like, “Sure, let’s talk about it so you can make your editor proud that you got the scoop.” One of the things that I’ve learned in my 30s is that I don’t always have to be interesting and don’t have to give anyone a sound bite if I don’t want to. [Laughs.] The more car crash interviews that you’ve had, people start to ask you advice about how to handle giving interviews, and I tell them, “You don’t have to make yourself compelling and you don’t have to fill the space. Your only job is to show up and talk about what you’re doing.”

EO

I’ve struggled with this but more in intimate relationships than anything where I know I have everything to give, and will give it away, but it’s hard when people approach you wanting something when you would already give it to them if they waited. [Laughs.] But let’s walk it back to give more context. Why did you leave the New School?

LD

I left the New School because I had grown up in New York and felt like I needed to have an experience that existed outside of the context of the city. It was in the height of the moment of what we’re now referring to as indie sleaze, which was at its prime, and I was going to Misshapes every weekend, getting drunk at Luke and Leroy’s, and trying to hang. I remember meeting girls who had an endless supply of disposable income and following them around the Stella McCartney store thinking, “This is not why I went to college.” I remember telling my dad, “I feel like I’m in a car driving away from my own body.” Even then I’m glad that my young self knew that I was lucky to be in school, but I wanted to start a real practice with and for myself, and it wasn’t going to happen in the social reaching and climbing atmosphere. I was surrounded by kids who had been trying to get to New York their whole life and were now wilding the fuck out. I had wanted to go to Oberlin in high school, but I hadn’t gotten in, so I spent one year at the New School, the one time I ever got a 4.0, so I could get the fuck out of there and then the 4.0 died real fast after that.

EO

[Laughs.] That’s so real. What happened?

LD

I put myself on my own curriculum when I got there. I was writing plays, putting them on, going to the library and watching every single Criterion Collection movie, and reading all of the confessional poetry in the world. College is cool because if you have the luck to do it, you’re a working artist in your own context.

EO

I know. That’s what grad school was for me, it was a time and context that I used to explore different forms and texts that realigned me with the goals and work that I wanted to do that made me feel more like me. In college I had to hustle, make sense of the school of thought I was trying to learn, engage thinkers and philosophers that could hold me down, and be a social, living, breathing person in the world and it was just frankly, paralyzing. There wasn’t space for me to disappear, do the research, live in the work, and think about the things that were interesting for me. And with going to grad school, I was able to delve into my own practice because I wasn’t forced into conversation with the world in the same way you are when you’re living in the city as a young adult trying to learn yourself and form a relationship to yourself and it as a place is a lot.

This is conversation that we’re having isn’t dissimilar to the one I had with Zadie Smith some months before I started grad school. I was working for Scott Rudin after having left Artforum and was just like kind of lost emotionally and spiritually, where I found myself kind of aimless navigating the Bryant Park territory listening to Rosalía. Anyway, the conversation we had ended up becoming this essay “The Black Market” in her book Grand Union, that details me trying to understand how to use my body as a vessel being that my perceived presence isn’t something I can always control or negotiate with people. While I can’t choose who and what I am to other people, I had to drastically shift and restructure how I saw and related to myself. I had to become someone that I liked, it was fucking hard.

LD

That’s beautifully said about not having to be in conversation with the world, it’s real. The high school that I went to in New York, while all high schools have their own complicated posturing, mine had kids whose parents were artists, investment bankers, and celebrities. They were all trying to mimic their parents in this microcosm of New York culture eating its own tail.

EO

[Laughs.] I’m obsessed with the concept of ouroboros.

LD

[Laughs.] Yeah, when I went to Oberlin it’s the first time that I had engaged in a world where I didn’t feel kind of toxic social pressures that I hadn’t even recognized were a part of my New York private high school experience. Again, a million tiny violins, but I was amazed by how much space I had in my mind and how my spirit opened, and that was when I discovered my relationship to filmmaking and recognized what my lanes of interest were. I don’t know how younger me knew that leaving the New School and New York for Ohio had to happen because it was tempting to stay and make out with guys who look like Julian Casablancas forever…

EO

I struggled with information overload by going to the New School and living in the city. I didn’t have an anchor to catch a beat to reset because of how drastically you shift through doing things with your time. Going to class and talking about certain artists, then going to institutions and seeing their work, and encountering them at openings and other goings on…it’s a lot. There wasn’t much time for me to reflect on what I was thinking because so much was happening at once. It wasn’t until I went to Columbia that things shifted because I was able to create a framework to house all my thinking. I learned too much in college and didn’t know how to apply it to my everyday life, so it was a good exercise of remembering what I knew. [Laughs.] Also, because we were in the height of the pandemic no one wanted to hangout.

LD

Loneliness is important. I was lonely in college, there were times when I was like, “What am I doing alone in a cornfield in the middle of Ohio? Okay, I guess this is where I am now.”

EO

Right. I think loneliness brings clarity. Living in Brooklyn is helpful for me because of its adjacency to the city, the distance gives necessary perspective.

LD

Every time I have a creative uplift it’s because I go away from these claustrophobic spaces. Before COVID-19, I had lived in-between New York and West Hollywood for a long time. I gave up both of my places and moved to Malibu to a mobile home park, lived between there and this house I built on my parent’s property in Connecticut. I wanted to get as far from the center of LA as I knew how and it had the same transformative quality as going to Ohio did.

EO

Can you talk about Donald Glover and his cameo in Girls?

LD

At that point, Donald Glover had been doing Community, and it was before or around the time that he started putting music out as Childish Gambino. I remember him being on set and being like, “I’m about to put out my first album.” He was recording in his dressing room at Girls. We had seen him on Community, and I remember Jenni, Judd, and I thought he was just incredibly funny. I had seen him do improv in college, which was so good. So Jenni and I went to his trailer on the NBC lot and had a conversation with him about the arc of the show. I remember him coming in to shoot and us doing this very extended improv session, where he had smart ideas about the character and was interested in meeting me where I was at the time and writing jokes of his own. I don’t think people understand the production schedule of television…

EO

What is the production schedule?

LD

Everyone thinks that season two is responding to season one reviews but we had a feeling we were going to get picked up and had finished the writer’s room and were in prep for the second season before the first one came out. People thought that we wrote the stuff with Donald as a response to all of the cultural pressures, but he had been cast and we were about to shoot before the pilot had even aired. Say the first season aired April 15, 2012, which it did, we were shooting with Donald on May 20-something. It’s too close to be a direct response, but life and art are weird and intersect in interesting ways. People felt like it was an ineffective response to the reviews, which would be true if it were about the reviews but it’s not. People can still think it’s ineffective though!

EO

Did you ever consider casting someone else? How do you feel about him being the only Black person with a primary role? There was Jessica Williams and others, but they had a different resonance.

LD

No, we didn’t consider anyone else for the role. It was always Donald, he was always it, the part was written for him. I haven’t watched it since making it so it would be interesting to rewatch it and try to understand it in the context of people’s reception of it and in the context of what is culturally acceptable or powerful now. I also don’t know how important it is for me at this point to revisit that, because I am learning through doing.

EO

What’s your relationship to television-making when you’re not actively watching your own show?

LD

I watch other people’s television and I watch my show a million times before it airs. I have so many phases with it: I write, direct, edit, and in the room with it. Once it’s on TV, I’ve already had my process.

EO

What is the process of editing? How do you know when you’ve made a textbook Girls episode? What beats are you looking for?

LD

With a movie it’s more abstract, it’s like: “Does this shot contain the soul of the plot? And yet also have space for nuance,” and then you show it to other people, and you hear what they have to say and get their notes. It’s about constantly refining until the notes you get back are so minuscule that then you’re done. With television, especially when we were airing live and not streaming, we had to hit this twenty-nine-minute mark. It’s like, “Okay, does the episode have everything that it needs, sit inside this structure, hold what the next episode needs, remind us of what happened in the previous episode,” There’s a lot to think about. You also have the stages where you do your director’s cut, then the producers come in and you cut together, and maybe some of the writers come in and review it, and then the network watches it. HBO gave me a lot of freedom, but you still want to hear those concerns. You also have a deadline and sometimes you’re just meeting that mark. I’m sure if I watched it now, there would be a million storylines and imperfections that I wish I could lift, but I’m accepting of these things as time capsules. I’m also aware of the fact that I made the thing that I knew how to make at the time that I was making it.

EO

What happens with all the lost footage and story lines?

LD

It’s so weird, they just go to the footage graveyard. I was just telling someone the other day how John Early is one of my favorite actors and he was in a scene in Girls, where he played a UPS guy that Elijah was having sex with, and would I have loved the world to have the chance to see John in only UPS shorts? Absolutely, but it didn’t fit structurally so it had to go.

EO

Let’s talk about Tiny Furniture and the self-referential fountain scene in the movie.

LD

Totally. I made the fountain scene in college and put it on YouTube it got two million views and I hated the feeling and deleted it immediately. It’s funny because this was before anyone knew who I was or anything about me.

EO

[Laughs.] It sounds boring.

LD

It was! It was just me bathing in a fountain. Emmanuel, when I tell you the comments were just people going like, “Who is this dumb bitch? Who is this fat ho?” And I remember, I was with my parents and brother on a trip to Sweden, and we were at this hotel in Stockholm when I posted it. Somehow it got on the YouTube front page, and I woke up with thousands of emails because the comments at the time would generate individual emails. [Laughs.] In my head, I was like, “I’ll never get into graduate school now. I’m ruined!” I didn’t know what to think. I had my first year out of college working as a hostess at a restaurant, like I was in the movie, and making the small scenes.

EO

What about Clandestino [the Bar]?

LD

I didn’t know Clandestino was a thing. My friend Alicia Van Couvering who produced the film and I were walking down Canal Street knocking on every door seeing who would let us use its interior—cut to Clandestino twelve years later, and it’s where every hipster goes to get laid. I had no idea, it was completely random, we offered them $250 dollars to shoot there for the day and they were like, “Go for it.” We also thought it was the funniest name ever.

EO

Next: Jemima Kirke.

LD

She and I had been best friends in middle and high school, and she had just got back from living in Florida and I asked if she would be in my movie without any clue whether she could act. She showed up on set, did one scene, and you could see the six crew members thinking that this woman was a star. It’s like you were saying, none of us had a sense of what we could do, and we were pushing ourselves. It was also one of the first films shot on a Canon Mark II 5D camera that you could shoot stills and video on.

EO

Right, it does have this wide-shot photographic quality to how the television is shot. The movement of the show seems to happen through the framing of the opening still shots. Movement-wise it sits weirdly between the way the Office and indie film is shot.

LD

It’s funny you say that because a huge part of the way that it was framed was that those 5D cameras did badly with movement and tracking, if you didn’t shoot it very still the camera would kind of stutter. Jody Lee Lipes, the cinematographer, and I formed the entire aesthetic of Tiny Furniture around the idea that we couldn’t really pan the camera.

EO

It has this perspectival framing to it that’s photographic, it doesn’t read as a film. What were your references?

LD

Yes. We were inspired by my mom’s [Laurie Simmons] work and the cinematography of Gordon Willis. We went to do Girls, we had all of the toys, but we established this cinematic language of keeping it still, so it was nice to have access to fancy equipment but had established our own language. It was fun to have all the toys but not to play with them, like we could get a crane, but we don’t want one because we like to shoot still.

EO

Speaking of cranes, the theater episode “Hello Kitty” plot based on Kitty Genovese where it pans through the yard around to all of the different buildings’ windows as a sort of looking glass into people’s apartment and lives was a satisfying move.

LD

Oh my god, that was so fun to do. I was obsessed with that Kitty Genovese story since childhood, which is based on the myth of the inactive bystander. That whole story of the people in the apartment building watching a woman getting murdered and not doing anyhing was proven to be a myth, because a bunch of neighbors called the police, and they just didn’t show up in time. People went down and tried to help her, it became this myth of city loneliness and brutality but was debunked. What’s also crazy is that the man who killed Kitty Genovese died the day after that the episode aired.

EO

No way.

LD

My theory is that he felt so much energy from her revival that he just dropped dead in jail.

EO

What were your references with Girls? What were you trying to prove or disprove?

LD

Good question. On a writing level, I wanted Hannah to encounter the legacies of other women who had thorny stories in New York, it was interesting because Kitty Genovese was this example of a young woman in the city, who seemed to be trying to have this independent life but instead it was cut short by this man’s desire. I wanted to show how Hannah in a way could breeze through the city. That episode was supposed to give the feeling of looking into someone else’s windows in New York, like passing someone’s window and wondering who lives where, specifically thinking about apartment windows lit up at night.

A lot of my inspiration is not direct film to film, it’s inspired by a feeling, an idea, image, piece of music, and then outcomes. I remember the episode where Marnie meets her ex-boyfriend and they go for a night out in New York, that came from the image of a girl wearing a tight wet dress walking barefoot in New York, boom done and then thinking about how to build out from that detail. The Kitty episode came from this idea of looking in other people’s windows and trying to understand their reality. I loved to read as a child, and loved Eloise, but I had this one book—I can’t remember what it’s called—but it was of this New York apartment building, and you could pull back these pop-up windows and see inside everyone’s homes and they’re moving up and down the stairs. It's almost like any children’s book where you’re flipping through the pages.

EO

Right. My favorite book growing up was From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E. L. Konigsburg.

LD

[Laughs.] I was obsessed. That thing where you get to sleep in Queen Victoria’s bed and hide behind different artworks is beyond.

EO

Feeling is something that we’ve lacked in art and film over the last few years.

LD

That’s why I loved looking at your furniture because it gave me a feeling. I love interiors especially because I love to spend time at home and to write. If I could have a book of pictures of every artist’s living room and bedroom, I would be the happiest person in the world.

EO

I grew up this small two-bedroom apartment with my mom and brother in Los Angeles, and the architecture of the place didn’t lend itself to my imagination because it was just a lot of squares and hard lines. It felt like growing up in a white cube when all I wanted want shape, color, and curved walls. All my friends lived in these beautiful estates and houses, but they also lacked personality and charisma. I’ve always been intrigued by wealth not because I want to be rich, but because I’m interested in storytelling and seeing how people tell the story of their lives through the choices they make. It was so unnerving to encounter the wealthy but have their houses be so generic and have the pool be the most interesting part of the house or the exterior.

LD

Growing up in Tribeca and Soho, before it became what it is now, and when it was all artist’s lofts, there was an aesthetic where all the artists were keeping these minimal homes, collecting midcentury objects and trying to avoid the ever present dust in these old spaces. You know that look of the traditional artist loft. My parents leaned into that. Someone might walk in and think, “Oh this is chic,” but it wasn’t to me. I had a friend who lived in an apartment near Union Square, and she had a green leather sofa set from Jennifer Convertibles, a TV in a glass case, and her mom had a ceramic bird. I was like, “Mom, our house sucks dick. I want a ceramic bird and a leather sectional sofa. Why is your taste so fucking bad?”

EO

[Laughs.] You would have loved my house growing up because we had the full sofa, chair, loveseat, and chaise lounge set from Jennifer Convertibles.

LD

[Laughs.] I would have flipped out. I remember the feeling of the leather sofa on my butt as I watched TV, being like, “This is the height of luxury.” And I would go home, and my mom would say, “But you have this beautiful kidney shaped vintage coffee table in your room that we got at auction.” [Laughs.] And I was like, “I’m five.” When my mom let me decorate my room for the first time, I still remember the feeling of walking into Woolworths and Broadway Panhandler, and she let me get leopard print contact paper and put it all over my wall. I got a candle that was shaped like a honeydew melon slice, and then I took a lampshade and glued feathers all over it, which was a DIY project from this book I had called Design on a Dime, and that’s when I realized I was a maximalist living in an apartment full of minimalists. I had this little room that wasn’t even a bedroom it was an open alcove, which I used to express myself and I remember painting my radiator chalky pink. My entire life now is just an adult approximation of that: I still have a feathered lamp, pink wall, and a leopard print fetish because we never change in a certain way.

EO

[Laughs.] It’s tragic.

LD

Now my parents come into my house and they’re like, “This is a LOT.” But it’s like we’re all in this push and pull in terms of what we desire.

EO

My mom’s favorite color is black. So, our apartment was a combination of black, chrome, and glass. That’s her vernacular.

LD

Love. Very '80s power babe.

EO

I’m more of the mind of color.

LD

Now you live in this beautiful Memphis-y space that you’ve created for yourself that has all these cool references. It’s funny because Cyrus [Grace Dunham] has all of our childhood furniture in his house in LA so it’s this cognitive disorientation, where I sit down on the sofa, and mid-century leather armchair, a vase and cups that we had when we were eight. He has those genes and taste and finds it cozy, whereas I inherited a different gene that belonged to my Jewish grandmother in Great Neck, Long Island, who wanted everything to be prints. I’m sure my kids will be like, “Oh my god, if my mom paints one more thing pink I’m going to do a murder. [Laughs.]

EO

As someone who’s designed furniture, it feels like a television show in the sense that you described, like while everyone else is watching season one (or collection one), I’m in the writer’s (designer’s) room focusing on the next one to come. I always tell people my furniture feels two dimensional in that it’s a sketch of what’s to come, the Real objects.

LD

The other cool thing about interiors is that they are like making a TV show, because everything can shift season to season, where the most interesting homes are the ones where people don’t live in stasis but live in transition. I’m always confused how my parents get anything done because every time I go over the furniture has been dragged into a new position and they’ve tested a new shade on the wall—and that’s a metaphor, in a way, for how I want to live my life. I love that my parents are seventy-two years old, and they’ve been together for forty-five years and they’ve been making art for a million years, but the one thing they’ve refused to do is stasis and I think it’s been the greatest influence on me. [Laughs.]

As Lil’ Kim would say, “I’ve been a lot of places and seen a lot of faces,” but what is most compelling is that they’ve kept cycling and moving through what they do, whether it’s a series of work, new iteration on their house, or my mom being sixty-five and being like, “guess I’ll design a clothing pattern,” or at seventy, “I guess I’ll make a movie,” or when I was ten she was like, “I’m going to make a doll house.” That energy of wanting to be a student all the time is the thing that I’ve inherited and cherish the most.