The discovery of this year's SXSW (and best narrative feature winner) was 24-year-old New York writer-director Lena Dunham, who shot her semi-autobiographical micro-budget film Tiny Furniture at her family's Tribeca loft with herself, her sister Grace and her artist mom Laurie Simmons (The Music of Regret) in leading roles, along with indie professionals Jemima Kirke, Alex Karpovsky and Merritt Wever, who she met at SXSW when she debuted her first film Creative Nonfiction there. Dunham's painter father Carroll didn't want to be in the film, she admits during our flip cam interview during LAFF at L.A.'s Four Seasons (below, with trailer). "I was exploring a more female-centric thing." Her family worked their butts off during fifteen days of filming (Jody Lee Lipes is her cinematographer) and are "quite proud of it. We all went through that artistic process together."
After SXSW, Dunham and her backers suddenly turned a profit when IFC scooped up Tiny Furniture--it opens in NY November 12 and L.A. November 26 and is up for two Gotham awards. Suddenly, Dunham found herself in demand as a Hollywood writer-for-hire, and was promptly adopted by producer Scott Rudin, who hired her to adapt and direct a movie based on David Levithan and Rachel Cohn's just-published Dash & Lily's Book of Dares. "It's about two kids who meet at The Strand and conduct a romance based on leaving notes for each other in old books," Rudin writes in an email. "Very endearing -- kind of like Henry Orient. I love it. How great is she? I think she’s a total star."
What a difference one breakout can make. HBO has also hired her to write, direct and co-executive produce with Judd Apatow (as a "sounding board," he says) a series pilot about three 20ish New York girlfriends in which she'll star. She has cast Tiny Furniture's Kirke and Allison Williams as the leads.
UPDATE: She tells The New Yorker of her untitled HBO pilot: “My friend says it should be called the 'Entitled Lena Dunham Project'...It’s not, like, the ‘move to New York and have an unreasonably large apartment on an unreasonably cute street’ version, but, like, hopefully feels real without feeling like a Mike Leigh movie.”
How autobiographical is Tiny Furniture? Well, Dunham did return home after graduating from Oberlin College, where she majored in creative writing and created popular webisodes (Delusional Downtown Divas). She was working odd jobs as a clothing store clerk, secretary and babysitter until six months ago, and still lives with her parents. "I was not equipped for any other sort of job," she says. The male characters are composites who have "real aspects, like many men I've known. I blend reality and fiction in everything I write. This is a little less blurred."
Like many of her generation Dunham not only exposes herself in her films but on Twitter (@lenadunham) and her blog. "I'm not trying to create a mystique," she says. "It's important to me through my blog and twitter to be open about what my life is like." She's beyond worrying about what people like @glennkenny think of her. She quotes Rhett Butler: "'A reputation is something that people with courage can do without.' Wanting to be liked and doing work that is honest," she says, "are at odds."
Part One: Using herself as an actress, and the comfort of working with her family.
Part Two: Body issues, writing about women and herself in films: "You have Camryn Manheim and the skinniest girl in town."
Part Three: Writing for Hollywood for hire, adapting a book and an HBO TV series, going through Sundance Screenwriters' Lab with John August, Doug McGrath.
Tiny Furniture Trailer: