Lena Dunham on getting New York right in her new HBO series, ‘Girls’
Lena Dunham knows Weather Up is in Prospect Heights.
“I made a huge mistake," Dunham said when I met up with her recently for an interview. She was explaining a geographical error that shows up in Episode 2 of "Girls," the HBO series that premieres Sunday night, which she helped write and direct, and stars in. "But that was one where I was literally like improvising and named a bar and then was like, 'Fuck it, we’re stuck with it.'”
“I’m hoping people will forgive me.”
Also, the art gallery where Marnie works? It’s shot on Delancey Street, though the characters exit it under the High Line.
“We have one exterior shot where you kind of understand this is not totally Meatpacking District," Dunham said. "I kind of feel like if you’re making those mistakes in a self-aware way, maybe it’s okay. I’m trying not to do the 9 1/2 Weeks thing where they like enter in Chinatown and exit on the Upper West Side.”
But really, Dunham has nothing to worry about. The mistakes are only notable because the show gets so much about the city right, at least the version of the city known to a very particular subset of young New Yorkers. Duhnam was conscious enough of the details when she created the show that she made sure the bar where her character Hannah meets up with an ex-boyfriend was within one train stop of Hannah’s fictional apartment, which is not just in Greenpoint, it’s on India Street.
“I love movies that really look at specific areas of New York. I remember loving 200 Cigarettes because you knew what part of the city you were in at any particular time, or Raising Victor Vargas, which was a way of looking at the Lower East Side in a way we haven’t seen before,” Duhnam explained. In person she is as friendly and disarming as her character on the show.
For those who have somehow managed to miss the countless swooning reviews, the requisite recap: Dunham is the show’s star and creator, a New York native, scion of artists Laurie Simmons and Carroll Dunham. In her 2009 feature film Tiny Furniture, which she wrote and directed, she played a recent college graduate who moves back into the Tribeca loft of her artist mother (played by her real mother) and sister (played by her real sister), where she undergoes the typical traumas and tumults of a precariously employed, confused, privileged twenty-something. The movie was funny and moving in the exact right combination to garner the attention of filmmaker Judd Apatow, who has managed to turn the funny/moving combo into a comedy empire. Apatow offered Dunham a television show, and thus “Girls” was born.
The show’s four principal characters—Hannah (Dunham), who is an aspiring memoirist; Jessa, played by Tiny Furniture’s Jemina Kirke, a globetrotting nanny; Marnie (Allison Williams), a gallery assistant; and Shoshanna (Zosia Mamet), a college student and “Sex and the City” devotee—inhabit the corners of New York familiar to those who descend on the city each year brandishing liberal arts degrees and overblown aspirations. They are the tutors, the nannies, the hostesses, the freelancers and content managers, the occupants of windowless center rooms in railroad apartments and poorly constructed bedrooms-cum-closets in Bushwick lofts.
In the show’s pilot episode, Hannah’s parents, determined to give her one last “push” into adulthood, tell her they’re cutting off financial support. Hannah, who, naturally, believes they should continue to underwrite her New York venture, argues that she’s on the verge of becoming the person she wants to be, and that person could very well could be the voice of her generation. “Or at least a voice of a generation.”
The line is funny precisely because it gets at why the Hannahs of the world continue to populate New York. They do it because they all—sometimes secretly, sometimes overtly—believe themselves to be at least a voice of a generation.
Some critics have noted that these four white, privileged, college-educated young women, participants, no less, in that oft-maligned Brooklyn demographic whose name we ought not utter, certainly don’t speak for them. But that was never the point. Like Tiny Furniture, the series seems to draw on Duhnam’s own particular vision, if not her own experiences.
“It’s a weird subculture, the kids who grew up in New York," Dunham said. "I think we’ve seen the 'Gossip Girl,' Upper East Side kid. You see what it’s like to be really rich or duking it out in a street gang. But to just like be a kid. There are kids who live here who are nerdy, and they have the same kinds of anxieties that suburban kids have. They just happen to live in Soho.”
The beauty of “Girls” is that it seems to understand what it's like for those who are trying to figure out New York while they're still trying to figure out themselves. Dunham’s New York isn’t Bright Lights, Big City, though Hannah does have literary ambitions. It isn’t even Party Girl, though there is a lot of fretting over rent money. And it certainly wouldn’t be recognizable to Carrie and friends. Instead, Dunham’s is the New York of the fourth-floor walkups, unpaid internships, and the feeling that the city is mostly indifferent to your presence.
Dunham and her co-writers have an ear for the codes with which such New Yorkers speak, the ones that establish who is in and out, who gets it and who doesn’t. Cobble Hill is “grown-up Brooklyn.” Some people think the High Line is “bullshit,” while others think it’s a great place for an afternoon with friends or a book. Even the Weather Up blooper shows an understanding of how New Yorkers segregate by taste.
“I do object to any bar that calls its bartenders 'mixologists,'” quips Hannah, who prefers “a bar where the average patron could be described as crotchety.”
The funniest example of these distinctions are found in Shoshanna, who is the kind of young woman who moved to New York because she thinks “Sex and the City” is real. She buys Dylan’s Candy for a pick-me-up and reads self-help books that offer up real talk advice for “the ladies.”
“She’s not ever going to realize that New York’s not like that,” said Dunham. “She’s just going to think, ‘Well, where’s the part of the city where all the "Sex and the City" stuff is happening? How do I keep not getting there? I go to Magnolia. Why isn’t this going down like it’s supposed to?’ ”
Part of finding your toehold in New York is figuring out which New York to call your own. Those not interested in living in Carrie Bradshaw’s fantasy soon learn to peel back the city’s layers. By burrowing in, by deciding whether you’re the kind of person who waits in line at Magnolia Bakery or knows where to get the best Szechuan in Jackson Heights, whether you covet the phone number to Milk and Honey or prefer a corner table at the Brooklyn Inn, you can begin to crack it open.
“When I started, I made like a bible where I had the characters likes and dislikes,” Dunham said. “It’s pretty easy at this point to say, Hannah would watch an episode of “Real Housewives” but wouldn’t fuck around with MTV. I think Jessa doesn’t know who Miley Cyrus is but is really into croissants”—which she pronounced with an exaggerated French accent. “It was really clear to us that both Marnie and Shoshanna loved Rent. We just knew that that would be a commonality of theirs.”
“Marnie, in her fantasy all her dates take place in the Oak Room at The Plaza. That’s her idea of what she wants, and I think she’d go to Enid’s but be in a bad mood about it. Hannah would be like ‘This is my jam. I just want a cheeseburger.’ And then Marnie would be like, ‘I think this is a lot of money for what this food is,’ and be really pissy about the vibe. She wishes there was a Starbucks near her house.” (This reporter was quick to point out that in fact there is.)
Cultural references can of course be a tricky thing, and Dunham was careful not to make them too cool for viewers outside of New York, or even just outside the particular New York of her characters.
“I think they’re considered,” said Dunham, “but I think they’re just what I’ve been watching and what I’ve been listening to and what we’ve been talking about in the writer’s room. That’s sort of the cool thing about making a show; you can make the weird little pop culture universe we all make for ourselves into the reality of these characters.”
That the show seems to get so much right is no small feat, especially since Dunham isn’t exactly a scrappy Brooklyn transplant. Greenpoint was mostly new to her before filming started, though, “It’s impossible not to end up dating someone who lives there.” As for the fourth-floor walkup, “It’s just sort of obvious to anyone who has ever tried to move out of their parents house that all that’s available to them is a fourth-floor walk up.”
She has, however, had her share of internships: at Softskull Press, Teen Vogue, Filmmaker Magazine, experiences that informed the show: “I know what they ask you to do. I know the conversations you overhear. I know when you feel stupid or when you feel cool.”
“I think it’s always a struggle to show a job in a way that doesn’t feel like a movie job, and also to look at something like the art world or the young literary n+1-y kind of scene” in a way that feels realistic. “It’s so specific so you want to do a realist depiction of it where you’re not satirizing it.”
Though Duhnam has yet to experience much of the n+1-y scene first hand. “I’ve never been to an n+1 party,” she confessed. “I imagine it’s pretty specific. Is anyone like getting laid at an n+1 party? I mean not that everyone gets laid at most parties I go to.”
'Girls' premieres on HBO this Sunday.