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A Spirited Q & A With “Tiny Furniture” Actress/Writer/Director Lena Dunham

A Spirited Q & A With “Tiny Furniture” Actress/Writer/Director Lena Dunham (photo)

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As a way of celebrating this year’s nominees for the Spirit Awards in the weeks leading up to the ceremony, we reached out to as many as we could in an effort to better understand what went into their films, what they’ve gotten out of the experience, and where they’ve found their inspiration, both in regards to their work and other works of art that might’ve inspired them from the past year. Their answers will be published on a daily basis throughout February.

Of all the things written about Lena Dunham in the past year, a span of 12 months that has included a New York Times piece on her ultra-low budget feature “Tiny Furniture”‘s successful debut at SXSW in March and culminated with a lengthy profile in The New Yorker upon its release in November, the irony, which has surely not been lost on the actress/writer/director, has been the best teller of Dunham’s story is herself. Words have come tumbling out, just as they cascaded from the tongue of Dunham’s onscreen alter ego Aura, because it’s rare to witness a genuine phenomenon, a singular voice that captures the ambivalence of a particular time and age while wringing it for laughs with an honesty that is both courageous — which as Alison Willmore noted in her review, was due in no small part to “Dunham’s nigh-majestic lack of vanity” – and cringe-inducingly familiar.

02142011_LenaDunhamTinyFurniture.jpgThis isn’t to confuse what Dunham has done with “Tiny Furniture” as autobiography, despite the casting of her mother and sister in their natural roles onscreen in the suspiciously similar story of a young woman who moves back in with her family in New York to deal with post-college malaise. Although the parallels to her real life are well-documented, Dunham is hardly lacking ambition. At just 24, Dunham honed her observational style on Web series (“Delusional Downtown Divas”) and her first feature “Creative Nonfiction,” if not necessarily sharpening it — the charm of her style is in its disarming looseness, as if there’s no filter between her mind and her mouth. Yet “Tiny Furniture” is precise in the feelings it elicits, no doubt a product of Dunham’s script, nominated for Best First Screenplay, and the keen-eyed cinematography of Jody Lee Lipes, also nominated for a Spirit Award.

These days, if Dunham doesn’t know where life will take her next, it’s because of all the many choices in front of her — she’s already at work on her first TV series, the Judd Apatow-produced HBO series “Girls,” an adaptation of David Levithan and Rachel Cohn’s “Dash and Lily’s Book of Dares” for “The Social Network” producer Scott Rudin, and also co-wrote “You Wont Miss Me” director Ry Russo Young’s next film “Nobody Walks.” Whatever direction she decides to take, Dunham is clearly going somewhere no one else has, and quite possibly taking what we hold as the standard for great comedy with her.

Why did you want to make this film?

“Tiny Furniture” was doing laps in my head for almost a year before I wrote it. I waited until my desire to tell the story was almost unbearable before I started to write. The time between graduation and landing in the adult world is painful, frustrating, funny, oddly universal — many of the qualities I search for in a favorite film. I needed to give it a shot.

What was the best piece of advice you received that applied to the making of this film?

The film’s editor, Lance Edmands, encouraged me to show more private moments with my character. The DP, Jody Lee Lipes, gave me permission to take my time with scenes, breathe, even though they’re dialogue heavy. These bits of wisdom really aided the neither-here-nor-there dramedic tone I was hoping for.

What was the toughest thing to overcome, whether it applies to a particular scene or the film as a whole?

There were benefits and challenges to the incredibly low budget. The benefits: creative freedom, forced resourcefulness, people doing it for the love of the game. Challenges: never enough time, manpower or snack foods.

What’s been the most memorable moment while you’ve traveled with the film, either at a festival or otherwise?

Seeing the film play for the first time in front of an international audience in Israel. No one laughed and I was terrified, but afterwards people seemed to have liked it. (They just thought it was a drama.)

Also, the time I heard three octogenarian women discussing how much they hated it in a bathroom in Sarasota, Florida.

What’s your favorite thing about your film that’s been largely uncommented upon?

I love when people notice the costumes. Every actor dressed themselves, and it feels like a testament to how well they knew and loved their own characters.

What’s been the most gratifying thing to come out of this film for you personally?

The chance to work more, and with additional resources, and most of all with people I admire.

What’s been your favorite film, book or album from the past year?

“Fish Tank”

“Tiny Furniture” remains available on demand continues to play around the country — a full list of screenings is here — and will return to Los Angeles at the New Beverly on February 16th and 17th. The Spirit Awards will air on IFC on February 26th.

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A-O Rewind

Celebrating Portlandia One Sketch at a Time

The final season of Portlandia approaches.

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Most people measure time in minutes, hours, days, years…At IFC, we measure it in sketches. And nothing takes us way (waaaaaay) back like Portlandia sketches. Yes, there’s a Portlandia milepost from every season that changed the way we think, behave, and pickle things. In honor of Portlandia’s 8th and final season, Subaru presents a few of our favorites.

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Put A Bird On It

Portlandia enters the pop-culture lexicon and inspires us to put birds on literally everything.

Colin the Chicken

Who’s your chicken, really? Behold the emerging locavore trend captured perfectly to the nth degree.

Dream Of The ’90s

This treatise on Portland made it clear that “the dream” was alive and well.

No You Go

We Americans spend most of our lives in cars. Fortunately, there’s a Portlandia sketch for every automotive situation.

A-O River!

We learned all our outdoor survival skills from Kath and Dave.

One More Episode

The true birth of binge watching, pre-Netflix. And what you’ll do once Season 8 premieres.

Catch up on Portlandia’s best moments before the 8th season premieres January 18th on IFC.

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WTF Films

Artfully Off

Celebrity All-Star by Sisters Weekend is available now on IFC's Comedy Crib.

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Sisters Weekend isn’t like other comedy groups. It’s filmmaking collaboration between besties Angelo Balassone, Michael Fails and Kat Tadesco, self-described lace-front addicts with great legs who write, direct, design and produce video sketches and cinematic shorts that are so surreally hilarious that they defy categorization. One such short film, Celebrity All-Star, is the newest addition to IFC’s Comedy Crib. Here’s what they had to say about it in a very personal email interview…

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IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Celebrity All-Star is a short film about an overworked reality TV coordinator struggling to save her one night off after the cast of C-List celebrities she wrangles gets locked out of their hotel rooms.

IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Sisters Weekend: It’s this short we made for IFC where a talent coordinator named Karen babysits a bunch of weird c-list celebs who are stuck in a hotel bar. It’s everyone you hate from reality TV under one roof – and that roof leaks because it’s a 2-star hotel. There’s a magician, sexy cowboys, and a guy wearing a belt that sucks up his farts.

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IFC: What was the genesis of Celebrity All-Star?

Celebrity All-Star was born from our love of embarrassing celebrities. We love a good c-lister in need of a paycheck! We were really interested in the canned politeness people give off when forced to mingle with strangers. The backstory we created is that the cast of this reality show called “Celebrity All-Star” is in the middle of a mandatory round of “get to know each other” drinks in the hotel bar when the room keys stop working. Shows like Celebrity Ghost Hunters and of course The Surreal Life were of inspo, but we thought it
was funny to keep it really vague what kind of show they’re on, and just focus on everyone’s diva antics after the cameras stop rolling.

IFC: Every celebrity in Celebrity All-Star seems familiar. What real-life pop personalities did you look to for inspiration?

Sisters Weekend: Anyone who is trying to plug their branded merch that no one asked for. We love low-rent celebrity. We did, however, directly reference Kylie Jenner’s turd-raison lip color for our fictional teen celebutante Gibby Kyle (played by Mary Houlihan).

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IFC: Celebrity seems disgusting yet desirable. What’s your POV? Do you crave it, hate it, or both?

Sisters Weekend: A lot of people chase fame. If you’re practical, you’ll likely switch to chasing success and if you’re smart, you’ll hopefully switch to chasing happiness. But also, “We need money. We need hits. Hits bring money, money bring power, power bring fame, fame change the game,” Young Thug.

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IFC: Who are your comedy idols?

Sisters Weekend: Mike grew up renting “Monty Python” tapes from the library and staying up late to watch 2000’s SNL, Kat was super into Andy Kaufman and “Kids In The Hall” in high school, and Angelo was heavily influenced by “Strangers With Candy” and Anna Faris in the Scary Movie franchise, so, our comedy heroes mesh from all over. But, also we idolize a lot of the people we work with in NY-  Lorelei Ramirez, Erin Markey, Mary Houlihan, who are all in the film, Amy Zimmer, Ana Fabrega, Patti Harrison, Sam Taggart. Geniuses! All of Em!

IFC: What’s your favorite moment from the film?

Sisters Weekend: I mean…seeing Mary Houlihan scream at an insane Pomeranian on an iPad is pretty great.

See Sisters Weekend right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib

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Reality? Check.

Baroness For Life

Baroness von Sketch Show is available for immediate consumption.

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Baroness von Sketch Show is snowballing as people have taken note of its subtle and not-so-subtle skewering of everyday life. The New York Times, W Magazine, and Vogue have heaped on the praise, but IFC had a few more probing questions…

IFC: To varying degrees, your sketches are simply scripted examples of things that actually happen. What makes real life so messed up?

Aurora: Hubris, Ego and Selfish Desires and lack of empathy.

Carolyn: That we’re trapped together in the 3rd Dimension.

Jenn: 1. Other people 2. Other people’s problems 3. Probably something I did.

IFC: A lot of people I know have watched this show and realized, “Dear god, that’s me.” or “Dear god, that’s true.” Why do people have their blinders on?

Aurora: Because most people when you’re in the middle of a situation, you don’t have the perspective to step back and see yourself because you’re caught up in the moment. That’s the job of comedians is to step back and have a self-awareness about these things, not only saying “You’re doing this,” but also, “You’re not the only one doing this.” It’s a delicate balance of making people feel uncomfortable and comforting them at the same time.

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IFC: Unlike a lot of popular sketch comedy, your sketches often focus more on group dynamics vs iconic individual characters. Why do you think that is and why is it important?

Meredith: We consider the show to be more based around human dynamics, not so much characters. If anything we’re more attracted to the energy created by people interacting.

Jenn: So much of life is spent trying to work it out with other people, whether it’s at work, at home, trying to commute to work, or even on Facebook it’s pretty hard to escape the group.

IFC: Are there any comedians out there that you feel are just nailing it?

Aurora: I love Key and Peele. I know that their show is done and I’m in denial about it, but they are amazing because there were many times that I would imagine that Keegan Michael Key was in the scene while writing. If I could picture him saying it, I knew it would work. I also kind of have a crush on Jordan Peele and his performance in Big Mouth. Maya Rudolph also just makes everything amazing. Her puberty demon on Big Mouth is flawless. She did an ad for 7th generation tampons that my son, my husband and myself were singing around the house for weeks. If I could even get anything close to her career, I would be happy. I’m also back in love with Rick and Morty. I don’t know if I have a crush on Justin Roiland, I just really love Rick (maybe even more than Morty). I don’t have a crush on Jerry, the dad, but I have a crush on Chris Parnell because he’s so good at being Jerry.

Jenn: I LOVE ISSA RAE!

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IFC: If you could go back in time and cast yourselves in any sitcom, which would it be and how would it change?

Carolyn: I’d go back in time and cast us in The Partridge Family.  We’d make an excellent family band. We’d have a laugh, break into song and wear ruffled blouses with velvet jackets.  And of course travel to all our gigs on a Mondrian bus. I feel really confident about this choice.

Meredith: Electric Mayhem from The Muppet Show. It wouldn’t change, they were simply perfect, except… maybe a few more vaginas in the band.

Binge the entire first and second seasons of Baroness von Sketch Show now on IFC.com and the IFC app.

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