• Film

Lena Dunham Gets the Directing Bug Again with “Catherine Called Birdy”

Presenting her new film in Los Angeles, Lena Dunham recalled the early years and how it all started.

“I started, in a way, so young. Now, I look back and I think: how could I have set out to do anything before that? I was, basically, fetal. But, at the time, it felt like a real idea that I suddenly had. I always loved to write and I always wrote as a kid. If there was ever an irritating poetry or playwriting elective you could sign up for or a lit mag you could submit to…”

Lena Dunham recalled her early years as an aspiring filmmaker during a Q and A following a special screening at Harmony Gold of her film Catherine Called Birdy by the American Film Independent.

Dunham, who won the 2013 Golden Globe Award for Best Actress in a Television Series – Comedy or Musical for Girls, recounted, “I was incessantly sending things to Stone Soup, the children’s literary magazine, and getting polite rejection notes six months later.”

She added: “When I went to college at Oberlin, in Ohio, I studied creative writing and film studies. I wanted to be a playwright. I thought what so many of us thought, which is: I knew I loved movies but I didn’t know who made them or how you would make them.”

The 36-year-old New Yorker, whose father was a painter and whose mother was an artist-photographer, admitted that she got lucky that her parents were artists. “I thought a creative life was a possibility. Which, I realize now, was such a very blessed advantage because so many people…I’m sure many of you come from families where the idea of pursuing something creative is considered a long shot, or something that would be impractical; or there’s the lack of support for even that.

“And so, I wanted to be a playwright. I had a whole plan in my head about writing plays and putting them in garages and maybe teaching English to some scrappy teenagers,” she recalled fondly.

“I have told Andrew Bujalski that he really changed my life because I went into the local video store that was in my Tribeca neighborhood – rest in peace, to that store – and I saw the movie Funny Ha Ha on the shelf. I picked it up. I was 20. I watched it and thought this is a person who is close to my age, who clearly has limited resources, who is just setting up the camera and letting life happen. We all have a moment where it’s, like, the barrier to entry what we’re pursuing falls away just a little bit,” she said.

Evolution came slowly but steady. “It was just when the PD170 camera was coming out – and everyone was talking about how David Lynch had shot Inland Empire on this camera. I took all my babysitting money, that I had been keeping in a piggy bank since high school, and bought this camera, started making short films in college. Which led to making a baby feature called Creative Nonfiction.

Lena shared her first steps in the business. “Through my incessant email harassment of various mumblecore filmmakers, I was able to learn more and more about what they were doing.” She figured out “that South by Southwest (SXSW) was a place where Janet Pierson, who’s an amazing woman, was newly running the festival”.

Dunham, who became the first woman to win a Director’s Guild of America Award for Outstanding Directing for the comedy series Girls, shared that it was at SXSW that she met “a group of young men who had gone to New York University – Jody Lee Lipes, Kyle Martin, Sean Durkin, Antonio Campos – all of whom were starting to make movies on a much more ambitious level than I could conceive of.”

“We’re still tiny but, to me, a film crew of six was impossible to conceive of. I started collaborating with Jody. That led to Creative Nonfiction, which led to Tiny Furniture,” she stated. “My life was really blasted open by that.”

“It felt really alive and really specific. You never know when you’re living through a really cool cultural moment that it was.” There is joy in her eyes. Then, she adds: “I ran into somebody, whom I knew from that South by Southwest period, last night. I just felt, like, what an amazing moment that we lived through”.

She mentions other realizations along the way. “I remember seeing the Duplass brothers’ first movie that they did on an iPhone, like a botched answering machine recording. But I was also very conscious of the fact that most of these filmmakers were men.”

As for her medieval comedy film Catherine Called Birdy, which is based on the 1994 novel of the same name by Karen Cushman, Dunham said that she first saw the book on the new releases at the Barnes and Noble in Union Square, “where my dad would take me every Saturday. I was 10. We all have that book. That’s like a safety book. And it became that, for me.”

“I would probably reread it once, twice a year. There were so many books where I had admired the heroines but there were very few where I had identified with them. I also loved historical fiction. Like, this was my Harry Potter. It was the way that some kids become obsessed and kind of disappear into the cavern of their imagination,” she suggests. “Karen Cushman, the author, has written a series of incredible books for young readers about children living through complex historic periods.” 

Dunham, who wrote, directed, and produced the film, said that she has been trying to make the movie for 10 years. “Film, for me as a young teenager, was so important. Especially being someone who felt a little bit socially isolated. So, whether it was Clueless or A League of Their Own, or Slums of Beverly Hills, these were movies that just totally formed my identity.

The young director added this: “I was really excited about trying to make a film that could be appropriate for younger viewers but, also, just honored their intelligence, how much they do know; wasn’t pandering, and didn’t assume that their primary interests were romance or popularity. I felt like, insofar as I know, that this character is a really great role model.”

Asked by moderator Jenn Wilson, senior programmer for Film Independent, if she felt a lot of pressure since the book is well-loved, Dunham replied, “I read an article four years ago in Nylon magazine about how Catherine Called Birdy was their way of figuring out their queerness. A few years ago, in the New York Times, an amazing comic was talking about how it was her escape from her household, as a kid.’ Dunham added: “It wasn’t the most popular book. It didn’t sell crazy commercial numbers. The people who love it really love it.”

“So, it’s one of those kinds of cult things. Must be how my husband (Luis Felber) feels about Sandman. Because he was really panicked. He did approve of the adaptation. He was very panicked before we watched.”

She stresses one singular point: “I wanted to make sure that I did right by the author whom I love so much, Karen, who is 80 and lives on Vashon Island off Seattle and is a total badass; and by this book, that had meant so much to me. Then, as the casting crew also started to fall in love with the characters in the story, I felt like, okay, we’ve really got to try to bring this home.”

The film, which stars 19-year-old English actress Bella Ramsey (Game of Thrones, The Worst Witch) as the title character, also stars Billie Piper, Andrew Scott, Lesley Sharp, Joe Alwyn, and Sophie Okonedo.

On Ramsey, Dunham shared that when they cast her, she was only 15. “We started shooting when she was 17. She’s 19 now. As wonderful as she is as an actor (and you guys will see more; she’s on this show called The Last of Us that’s coming on HBO), she’s more remarkable as a person.


“It takes a lot to be the number one on a call sheet. It’s like a real responsibility. If someone has negativity or even a lot of insecurity, it can bring a really different energy to set. People were in awe of Bella every single day.”

Lena recounted that it was Nina Gold, the famed casting director, who found her. “When Nina said ‘I think I know the person for this’ and showed me a picture of Bella, the tiny little warlord on the last season of Game of Thrones, I was angry that I didn’t think of it myself. I felt at that moment there was just absolutely no one else who could do the role.”

As for making more feature films in the future, Dunham pointed out: “I’m certainly not going to take another 12 years off of making features. The bug bit me again and I definitely need to be making movies. I am so grateful for that time because it took me back. It took me on a really interesting path. I acquired the skills necessary to push it. But I still feel, in some ways, like a baby future filmmaker.”

She elaborated on that course of action: “This is still really new and thrilling to me. I hope it stays new and thrilling to me. I am certainly going to keep making movie. And I have a couple of TV things that I’m hoping to do, as well. I would like my future to really hold a balance of the two because I have been reminded that this was my first love for a reason.”