She took 'Tiny' steps from baby sitter to filmmaker

Lena Dunham calls her film ''The Graduate' for girls.' Lena Dunham calls her film "'The Graduate' for girls." (Wendy Maeda/Globe Staff)
By Erin Trahan
Globe Correspondent / December 5, 2010

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This time last year, Lena Dunham was still saying yes to baby-sitting jobs.

She had found modest success as a filmmaker and actress. Her first feature, “Creative Nonfiction,’’ had premiered at SXSW, and a slew of snappy YouTube shorts (see “Hooker on Campus’’) and a Web series (“Delusional Downtown Divas’’) were racking up Internet views. But had she won a SXSW festival jury prize? Been profiled in the New Yorker? Signed a sitcom deal with HBO? Been called the voice of her generation? Not yet.

Dunham’s life changed significantly with the debut of “Tiny Furniture,’’ the semi-autobiographical work that actually captured two big prizes at last March’s SXSW (best narrative feature and breakout filmmaker) and has since been nominated for two Gotham Independent Film Awards and three Film Independent Spirit Awards. Critical praise for the movie, which opens in the Boston area on Friday, has put a spotlight on the 24-year-old Dunham, who is the film’s director, writer, and star. She’s earning high marks for low-budget creativity. The New York Times labeled her work “part performance piece, part thought experiment.’’

Dunham calls the film “ ‘The Graduate’ for girls.’’ In it, she plays flat-lining Aura, who lugs her post-collegiate blahs home from Ohio to New York. There, her mom and sister, played by Dunham’s actual mom and sister, look past Aura’s bewilderment and go about their business being an artist who photographs dollhouse furniture and a gifted high school student.

Like her character, Dunham found herself in a “what next?’’ haze after graduating from Oberlin (class of ’08) with a bachelor’s degree in creative writing. She returned to a sleek Tribeca loft full of accomplished artists — mom is photographer Laurie Simmons, dad is painter Caroll Dunham, and Lena’s younger sister is national poetry prize-winner Grace Dunham. “Tiny Furniture’’ is full of additional autobiographical elements. Dunham’s childhood friend Jemima Kirke plays Aura’s childhood friend Charlotte. Simmons’s diary from her 20s makes on-screen appearances, as does one of Dunham’s shorts, “The Fountain,’’ the artistic confidence of which prompts Charlotte to tell Aura she’s brilliant.

With a Kerouac-like fervor, Dunham says she hammered out the screenplay in under a week, then shot the story using a hybrid still/video camera (the Canon 7D, new to feature filmmaking) in her parents’ apartment, where she still lives. She edited a rough cut, and within a month attended her first-ever business meetings to woo backers in Los Angeles. It’s been reported that the finished film was made for less than $50,000. It’s already paid off in indie cache for Dunham.

“It’s a wild turnaround from working totally not movie-related jobs,’’ she said of ditching hostess and secretarial work to spend recent months writing and casting the HBO sitcom, which at the time of this interview she called the “Untitled Lena Dunham/Judd Apatow Project.’’ (“My friend says it should be called the ‘Entitled Lena Dunham Project,’ ’’ she told the New Yorker.) Apatow is the executive producer and Dunham will star, along with Kirke and Allison Williams, daughter of NBC news anchor Brian Williams. Dunham described the sitcom’s premise as “girls out of college facing highs and lows in New York. One is more traditional, business-minded, one has flower child tendencies . . . one will be the female equivalent of a womanizer or man-izer.’’ The shorthand suggests “Sex and the City’’ meets “Absolutely Fabulous,’’ but her sense of humor will more likely produce “Curb Your Enthusiasm’’ for “Bored to Death’’ feminists.

Dunham’s short films are full of visceral, self-deprecating humor. She bathes in a fountain, pees in an alley outside a party, puts a finger up her nose to make herself sneeze (to illustrate what she thinks an orgasm is like). At an upscale designer boutique, her character in “Delusional Downtown Divas’’ strokes a shoe and says, “I don’t feel I deserve anything more than this beautiful practical loafer.’’

If her female characters don’t run themselves down, then other characters, often the non-boyfriends, do it for them. In “Tiny Furniture,’’ a mooch named Jed (Alex Karpovsky) tells Aura that calling herself a hostess is “generous.’’

While Dunham’s barely edited, hand-held shorts feel like a demo reel for “Saturday Night Live,’’ her latest feature takes a disciplined, more understated approach to humor. Critics point to the cinematography of Jody Lee Lipes. Dunham also credits her editor, Lance Edmands, who typically cuts documentaries. “This is a movie that makes hard cuts. We let people breathe,’’ said Dunham. “So it doesn’t feel sitcom quick.’’

Comparisons have been made to Azazel Jacobs’s 2008 film, “Momma’s Man,’’ also slow-paced, darkly humorous, and about a troubled transition from youth to adulthood. Other recent big screen companions, at least in terms of humor and female angst, include Nicole Holofcener’s many-layered “Please Give,’’ with a guilt-steeped Katherine Keener in a fragile marriage. But no other star lays her body on the line like Dunham, who appears as a pants-less anti-heroine throughout much of “Tiny Furniture,’’ even using her self-described “lumpiness’’ as a tool to break up her sister’s unsanctioned high school party.

Dunham admits there are still topics she avoids. “I don’t want to talk about my period,’’ she said, “until I have something more original to say than ‘chocolate, chocolate, chocolate.’ I don’t want to talk about food issues.’’ On the other hand, she thinks it’s uncommon and important to talk about reproductive rights, including women who don’t want to be moms. “I get not wanting,’’ she explained.

What Dunham also gets is that, even in a milieu of privilege, Aura “needs to start recognizing the value of her own time. That character says sorry a lot,’’ said Dunham. “It’s like, ‘Sorry I’m alive.’ And ‘Thank you for speaking to me, because I suck.’ ’’

It’s a habit that particularly annoys Dunham in real life. She says it’s no way for a woman to talk, or think. Not if you’re a baby sitter. And not if you’re a movie star.

Erin Trahan can be reached at

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