Rooftop Films @ SXSW: Lena Dunham's Creative Nonfiction

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Danielle Kourtesis is the Music and Outreach Manager for Rooftop Films; look for more SXSW coverage from her and the rest of the Rooftop crew throughout the week.

I spent Wednesday morning at the Convention Center getting my press badge and sorting out my schedule for the day. After getting my bearings, I headed straight to the free Terrorbird/Force Field party at Red 7. I was surprised to find that there was no line for a free party with major buzz bands like the Pains of Being Pure at Heart and Wavves, not to mention the established acts like Beach House, The Thermals, and Vivian Girls. Eventually the venue started to fill up but by no means was it impossible to get in — good for my sister, who is tagging along with me totally badge-less. Beach House played a excellent set in the indoor space, making me fall deeper and deeper in love with the group’s atmospheric sound and lead singer Victoria Legrand’s haunting vocals.

That night I headed to the Alamo Lamar and saw Lena Dunham’s first feature Creative Nonfiction, which is part of SXSW’s Emerging Vision’s Program. I was truly impressed by Lena’s intelligent, if sometimes rough, coming-of-age story. At age 22, Lena’s directorial debut is witty, honest, and showcases a unique talent. After the jump, I chat with Lena about her experience as a filmmaker at SXSW, the creative process behind <em>Creative Nonfiction</em>, and future film projects — which include her mother.

Flavorwire: How was your trip to Austin?

Lena Dunham: Austin is a wonderful city, especially for a frazzled New Yorker like myself. Despite the hectic nature of the festival, I was still struck by the less frenetic pace of the town. I got to enjoy some local pleasures, such as Barton springs, drinks at the San Jose, breakfast tacos at Foodheads and some vintage shopping that really made me feel like a d-bag for having bought used dresses anywhere else. I also saw my friend Sam Sanford’s band {{{ SUNSET }}} play — they play relaxed lovely music and they’re annoyingly attractive. It was in this great back yard at a run down bar, mostly Austin locals, and I was the only person checking my iPhone or applying sunscreen, which was embarrassing.

FW: Which films stood out for you? Any recommendations?

LD: I watched so many impressive/inspiring films. Two that really stayed with me were David Lowery’s St. Nick, which is a quiet haunting narrative that reminds me of Days of Heaven and Rebecca Miller’s Angela, and Jessica Oreck’s documentary Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo, which felt more like an epic poem than a film — in the best way possible.

Jeffrey Tambor’s acting workshop was equal parts comic tour de force and master class.

I also met some amazing people, more than I can name. The Deagol Brothers, the film collective behind Make-Out With Violence, really impressed me. They were like a movie-making rock band!

FW: Tell me about your film.

LD: It’s a low-budget, 60 minute narrative about a college girl and her creative and romantic struggles. Shot on a mix of Mini-DV and Super 16mm, with a cast of non-actors, mostly transpiring in real dorm rooms on the Oberlin College campus. Then there are fantasy sequences, which are in Super 16mm and are very John Waters inspired and employ lots of wigs! You might like it if you’ve ever been to college or made out with someone who doesn’t like you that much. Or if you’ve ever had embarrassingly bad writer’s block.

FW: You made parts of your film while you were still at Oberlin. Did you write your screenplay in class?

LD: The first draft was done over January of 2006, which Oberlin calls Winter Term — it’s a time when you can pursue an independent project for credit. But it really took on a life of its own and became totally nonacademic.

FW: You are 22 and just wrote, directed, and starred in your first feature film. What motivated you to make a film at this point in your life?

LD: I have always loved writing, and I’ve also always had a tendency to step outside my own experience and go “I feel like I’m in a movie right now” (probably the result of being a film nerd who has more movie experience than life experience). This script kind of flowed very quickly out of a particularly angsty few months, and I never thought about actually shooting it. But as I got more familiar with DIY film and the young filmmakers working on shoestring budgets to create really remarkable, truthful work, I became convinced it was something I could do on my own. I had a lot of good role models in that department, many of them films that premiered here at SXSW in years past.

FW: You cast mostly friends. What were the pros and cons of working with them?

LD: Pros: love, trust, comfort, tolerance. You know, friendly stuff. Cons: it can be hard to crack the whip when dealing with people who are doing you a favor — I was constantly apologetic (that may be my issue, though.) I also knew that I had to keep the characters pretty close to who we really were — I didn’t want to ask them to stretch too hard. Although in hindsight, I realize they were all awesomely skilled and could have handled whatever I threw their way. Mostly, it made for a giggly and open shoot.

FW: There was a lot of you in the film. Not only did you write, direct, and star in the film, you were also nude a lot! What was it like to put yourself out there like that?

LD: You know, I didn’t think about it that much while it was happening. I just sort of did what felt right for the role, and took on all the jobs behind that camera that I couldn’t delegate. But once the movie was done and I watched an hour of myself, followed by credits that had my name in them way too many times, I was suddenly aware that if someone hates this movie then they’re reacting, in large part, to me — my voice, my body, my idea of what’s funny and what’s compelling. In some ways, that’s terrifying, but it’s also quite liberating. In projects since, I’ve worked with an editor and with actors. In many ways, this is probably the most personal film I’ll ever make.

FW: What are you working on now?

LD: I make web TV series (I’ve done one for nerve.com and one for indexmagazine.com) so I’m developing some more of that type of content — it’s a really great format for comedy. I’m also writing a script with my mom that we hope to shoot soon, and trying to write another feature about life immediately post-college — I love the immediacy of making a film that focuses on where I am currently rather than waiting and looking at it from a more nostalgic place.