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SXSW '09 Interview: "Creative Nonfiction" Star-Director Lena Dunham

by William Goss

The "Creative Nonfiction" Pitch: "Ella is a college student, but she's more focused on her pseudo-romance with her dorm mate Chris than on the screenplay she's supposed to be finishing for her Creative Writing class. Reality and fiction are indistinguishable as she tries and fails to differentiate her script from her increasingly awkward social life."

Describe your movie using the smallest number of words possible.
A small movie about life, art, and their influence on each other. Alternately, a college movie without fraternities or fun.

Is this your first trip to SXSW? Got any other film festival experience?
This is my first trip to SXSW-- very excited. I previously went to Slamdance in 2007 with a short film called DEALING. Although Park City was somewhat overwhelming as a first festival destination, I enjoyed the experience immensely. I kept a list of all the celebrities I saw written on the back on an envelope. The best? Screech from "Saved By The Bell" and Gary Coleman. And if memory serves, they were holding hands! I met some of my most cherished friends and collaborators there as well. With festivals in general, I love the chance to see so many movies in one place. And there are often free snack foods.

Back when you were a little kid, and you were asked that inevitable question, your answer would always be "When I grow up, I want to be a..." what?
It changed all the time. Both my parents are artists, so I said that one for a while. Then I wanted to me a musical theater star. Then a wildlife rehabilitator. Then a fashion designer. After that, a novelist. The interesting thing is that filmmaking actually allows me to dabble in all of these pursuits. It's all those careers rolled into one.

Not including your backyard and your dad's Handycam, how did you get your real "start" in filmmaking?
I made a low-budget digital short called DEALING that took me to Slamdance and got me hooked on the process.

Do you feel any differently about your film now that you know it's on "the festival circuit?"
I know it validates the movie in a certain way, but it's also very arbitrary. I see awful movies in multiplexes and great movies that get rejected from every festival. I'm still as self-critical as ever. I am very thankful that I'll finally get to share this, though.

Of all the Muppets, which one do you most relate to?
Miss Piggy, certainly.

During production, did you ever find yourself thinking ahead to film festivals, paying customers, good & bad reviews, etc?
I made this film while in college in Ohio, begging and borrowing and stealing. It was hard to believe it would ever make it that far (the idea of a paying customer is still absurd!) The male lead is based on a real guy I "dated", and I did spend a lot of time wondering what he might think about the whole thing. He gave it a nice, apologetic review and that has been my favorite feedback thus far.

How did this film get rolling at the beginning? Give us a brief history from writing to production to post to just last night.
I wrote the script in a mad flurry over January of 2006, but I had never even made a short at that point and so I really didn't know what to do with it. After I had made a few low-budget mini-movies, I decided it was time to embark on CREATIVE NONFICTION. I bought a PD-170 (I was fond of telling myself that this was the camera Lynch shot Inland Empire on) and recruited some talented young crew people to help me with the Super 16mm aspects of the production. I started shooting in April 2007, shot on and off for a number of months. Then editing, which took about a year. I finally settled down with the film when I sound-mixed last week.

If you could share one massive lesson that you learned while making this movie, what would it be?
I learned so many lessons making this movie. It really was film school for me (at least one semester). I guess the major thing I learned, which I'm still working on, is that you need other people-- doing it all yourself leads to misery and shoddy work. It really does take a village to raise a movie. It can be hard to find the middle ground between being creatively open and standing up for the film as you have envisioned it since day one. It's a balance I always struggle with and I aspire to get it right some day.

What films and filmmakers have acted as your inspirations, be they a lifelong love or a very specific scene composition?
I get certain films stuck in my head, almost like songs. They possess me for a period of time while I dissect them and try and understand why they work so well. My taste is varied but I will say, I love to watch films by women. Particularly influential have been Lynne Ramsay, Nicole Holofcener, Amy Heckerling, Agnes Varda... I have been a huge Hal Hartley fan for a long time-- his brand of skewed naturalism really appeals to me. Whit Stilman for his sharp dialogue and strong stable of go-to actors. John Waters for his sense of style and refusal to be polite.

Did you watch any movies in pre-production and yell “This! I want something JUST like this …only different.”?
Funny Haha by Andrew Bujalski was huge for me -- I didn't know you were allowed to make movies like that. It was the perfect mix of realism and parody. I also watched Somersault, starring Abbie Cornish. A very lyrical coming-of-age film.

What actor would you cast as a live-action Homer Simpson?
Joaquin Phoenix.

Say you landed a big studio contract tomorrow, and they offered you a semi-huge budget to remake, adapt, or sequelize something. What projects would you tackle?
There is a young adult novel called Catherine Called Birdy about a teenage girl in Medieval England that I would just kill for the rights too. With a budget and resources, tackling it would be heaven. It's historical and hilarious.

Name an actor in your film that’s absolutely destined for the big time. And why, of course.
My best friend Audrey Gelman, who plays my best friend in the film, is amazing. I always cast her in everything I do. And the annoying part is that she doesn't even want to be an actress-- she's a political science student at NYU. But she is just so natural and funny, and she looks like Winona Ryder and Jennifer Love Hewitt had a perfect little baby.

Finish this sentence: If I weren't a filmmaker, I'd almost definitely be...
...a private investigator. I like gadgets and gossip.

Who’s an actor you’d kill a small dog to work with?
Male: David Straithairn. Female: Parker Posey.

Have you 'made it' yet? If not, what would have to happen for you to be able to say "Yes, wow. I have totally made it!"?
Well, I feel really lucky that anyone is interested in what I'm doing. But I still work day jobs, have film-related debt, wonder how I'll get the next one made. As crude as it sounds, I guess I'll feel like I've made it when someone else wants to pay me to do my thing.

Honestly, how important are film critics nowadays?
To me? Very. A well-written film review, be it positive or negative, has the ability to make me excited about the medium and inspired to work. That being said, we live in a message board culture and I fear HobbitDood98's words may have a more wide-reaching impact than A.O. Scott's.

You’re told that your next movie must have one “product placement” on board, but you can pick the product. What would it be?
Some tampon brand. I could work that in.

You’re contractually obligated to deliver an R-rated film to your producers. The MPAA says you have to delete a sex scene that’s absolutely integral to the film or you’re getting an NC-17. How do you handle it?
I want people to see my work and I don't thrive on conflict, so I'd probably try to get creative and nix the scene. If the movie is really strong, it can handle it. But then again, with the movie I just made I would be screwed-- the sex scene is the piece de resistance! Good thing I had no producers.

What's your take on the whole "a film by DIRECTOR" issue? Do you feel it's tacky, because hundreds (or at least dozens) of people collaborate to make a film - or do you think it's cool, because ultimately the director is the final word on pretty much everything?
Well, I have mixed feelings. On the one hand, everyone is essential. But in my ideal filmmaking situation, the director is the person who curates a strong crew, makes those around them feel inspired, and deserves a title that implies all of this. It really depends on the dynamics of a specific team.

In closing, we ask you to convince the average movie-watcher to choose your film instead of the trillion other options they have. How do you do it?
My little sister is a debate-team superstar, so I'd have to recruit her for that job. Once she gets them in the theater, I hope people recognize something of themselves in this little movie, and that it's a "we-laughed, we-cried" type of experience.


Lena Dunham's Creative Nonfiction will play as part of the 2009 South By Southwest's "Emerging Visions" slate. For more information, click here or visit the official website.

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originally posted: 03/06/09 08:06:35
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