The definitive backstory of a series that began as "the worst pitch you've ever read" (see it yourself!) as the seminal comedy starts its final season and all the major players spill on the (very NSFW) sex scenes, those racism charges and what the "voice of her generation" does next.
Turns out Lena Dunham's introductory line in that very first episode of Girls — "I'm the voice of my generation … or at least a voice of a generation" — couldn't have been more on the nose.
Over the past half-decade, Dunham's millennial dramedy chronicling the lives of four 20-something women in New York has on more than one occasion seized the pop cultural conversation and steered it into areas that sometimes made even HBO uncomfortable. True, it never was an audience magnet — a typical season grossed between 4 million and 5 million weekly viewers — but it made up for that in buzz as it pushed the boundaries of casual nudity, gender identification and sexual mores and ignited controversies over everything from race to rape. With the series coming to an end with 10 final episodes beginning Feb. 12, HBO programming chief Casey Bloys jokes, "Lena Dunham single-handedly created the think piece industry."
Dunham was all of 23 when she sold Girls to HBO with a page-and-a-half-long pitch that included nary a character nor a plot. Her only calling card? Tiny Furniture, a $50,000 indie film about a young woman who moves back home after college that Dunham wrote, directed and starred in, alongside her real-life friends and family. But the movie, which won the narrative film prize at the 2010 South by Southwest Film Festival, had some very big fans, including HBO's then-entertainment president Sue Naegle and producer Judd Apatow.
After Tiny Furniture, Dunham had been pursued by independent studios looking to hook up for her next project. "Everyone was like, 'There's a YA novel that you might be good to adapt,' " she recalls. HBO in many ways was an unlikely place for the fledgling filmmaker to land. The premium cable channel had been better known for investing in bold-faced names — and for creating content for baby boomers rather than cable-cutting millennials. But Naegle and her then-27-year-old associate Kathleen McCaffrey had a hunch that a voice like Dunham's could speak to an audience — and perhaps a generation.
Now, with Girls set to conclude, the cast — led by Dunham, 30, along with stars Jemima Kirke, 31 (as free spirit Jessa), Allison Williams, 28 (uptight Marnie), Zosia Mamet, 28 (earnest Shoshanna) and breakout Adam Driver, 33 (elusive Adam) — as well as executive producers Apatow and Jenni Konner, a cadre of executives and others reflect on six seasons that began with what Dunham describes as "the worst pitch you've ever read."
••• PRETENTIOUS AND HORRIFYING'
LENA DUNHAM, CREATOR-STAR (HANNAH) I wrote HBO this one sheet. [Scroll to the end of story to read.] It was like a tone poem about millennial life. It doesn't mention a character, doesn't mention a plot. "They're everything, they're nothing, they're everywhere, they're nowhere." I mean, it's the worst pitch you've ever read — pretentious and horrifying — but I remember writing it, sitting on the floor listening to Tegan and Sara in my underwear, being like, "I'm a genius."
CASEY BLOYS, FORMER HBO COMEDY HEAD (NOW PROGRAMMING PRESIDENT) There wasn't a formal pitch, but because of Tiny Furniture, we all felt we had this very good blueprint for what a show might be.
KATHLEEN MCCAFFREY, FORMER HBO CREATIVE ASSOCIATE (NOW VP PROGRAMMING) I was a creative associate, the bottom of the barrel, but I knew I didn't want Lena to leave our meeting. She was 23, I was 27. I turned to Sue and said, "I want to buy something from that girl." Sue didn't even flinch. "Great, call UTA."
SUE NAEGLE, FORMER HBO ENTERTAINMENT PRESIDENT There had never been a show that had skewed that young or that had been about people that age at HBO. The feeling had been that the HBO viewer was much older and more affluent and that they wanted to see shows about their experience — plus, people who were Lena's age can't afford HBO, so what's the point? So the biggest hurdle was wrapping people's heads around the idea of doing a show about this demographic.
JENNI KONNER, SHOWRUNNER Lena was looking for a showrunner, and at that point I had broken up with my writing partner, and I was trying to figure out what I was going to do.
NAEGLE I felt very strongly that we should try to find Lena a great female mentor and really try to keep the experience in that point of view without the influence of a guy.
DUNHAM Sue really, for lack of a better word, cock-blocked a bunch of male producers.
KONNER There was Scott Rudin, there was John Lesher, there were others …
DUNHAM I'd never been pursued like that by anybody in my f—in' life. … I was getting calls as if I had been friends with these producers since I was born and was betraying them. People ask what happens to young female directors when they come to Hollywood. The first people who support them feel this incredible sense of entitlement. I mean, I'm sure there are 10 people in town right now going, "I had dinner with Damien Chazelle, and he told me about the idea for La La Land, then he just walked away?!" Maybe it happens to everyone. I just think it's probably a little worse for women, or the bullying is worse. Or maybe men are just better at going, "F— you"? But I blame misogyny for everything. I remember I'd have conversations with these [male] producers, and they'd compliment the movie but for the wrong reasons, and then they'd give me suggestions. I was in a meeting where a guy was literally like, "You could do a whole episode about when the girls sync their periods." I was horrified.
JUDD APATOW, EXECUTIVE PRODUCER I was given Tiny Furniture by my agents, and I loved it. The more I learned, the more shocking it became: how young Lena was, the fact that the budget was $50K. … So I sent her an email [scroll to the end of story to read] telling her how much I loved it, and I said, "If you want somebody to help screw up your career, give me a call."
DUNHAM I was incredibly excited to get Judd's email. I had gone to see [his movie] Funny People at midnight the night it came out. But there was no part of me that actually thought he was going to come in, roll up his sleeves and push the process along. And I was trained by my mother to think that men come in and f— things up.
KONNER Sue had been one of Judd's agents when she was at UTA, and she loves Judd, but she called me and said, "Are you sure you want this?" Which is unheard of — the head of a network saying, "Maybe we're going to walk away from a huge name producer."
NAEGLE As much as I loved Judd, in the beginning I was like, "Oh no, no, no, no. Here's another high-profile guy. But I trusted him. And Jenni, who had worked with him [on Undeclared], felt so comfortable with him.
KONNER Judd was the one who came up with Hannah getting cut off by her parents, which was huge for the show. Before we shot anything, Judd and I flew in, and the three of us sat around pitching jokes and talking about stuff. I just remember Lena going, "This is so much fun. Is this what TV writing is?"
••• FINDING THEIR GIRLS (AND ADAM DRIVER)
JENNIFER EUSTON, CASTING DIRECTOR It was 2010, and I'd done one or two network shows and did not have good experiences. Then Kathleen McCaffrey called and said: "I have this script. It's Lena Dunham, and Judd's attached." I'd seen Tiny Furniture, and I'd worked with Judd, but I told her, "I'm not doing TV." She kept hassling me; she had me sit down with Lena, and eventually she just wore me down.
APATOW We used a few people from Tiny Furniture. I was always a big proponent of Alex Karpovsky [the nebbishy Ray] as my personal way in, and Lena wanted to have [her childhood friend] Jemima Kirke play Jessa.
JEMIMA KIRKE (JESSA) I said no a couple of times. I was working as a painter at the time. Honestly, it was the money [that convinced me]. I was 24 and about to have a baby, so I was vulnerable, and the contract was very long. (Laughs.)
ALLISON WILLIAMS (MARNIE) I had just moved to L.A. from New York very dramatically after I graduated from college. I came in to audition, and we improvised a scene where I braided Lena's hair, which was … dirty.
DUNHAM I called Allison before we cast her, and I asked her how she felt about nudity. She said, "I don't want to do nudity." I was like, "We have to get back to you. I'm gonna be naked, people are gonna be naked — that's a big part of what this show is." She told us she wasn't scared of sex, she just didn't want to show her vagina, her nipples or her butt — and she never did.
WILLIAMS So instead, they bent me over a counter with someone's face to my butt. [Marnie's music partner and love interest Desi performs analingus during season four.] It's funny because my character actually had the vast majority of sex on the show, but it just doesn't stick to me. People are like, "So you've never had sex in the show, have you?" I'm like, what do I have to do? I've literally had someone in my butt." (Laughs.) And with that scene, the headlines were all, "Brian Williams' daughter gets her salad tossed." Well, no, not to reveal too much, but that is definitely not something I'm interested in, and it's definitely never happened to me in real life. But the media often decides when to believe us as characters and when to just portray us as ourselves.
EUSTON Shoshanna wasn't supposed to be a series regular. The story was about three girls in New York, but Zosia [Mamet] put herself on tape, and everyone just fell in love with her.
ZOSIA MAMET (SHOSHANNA) I was in upstate New York shooting a movie, which was a piece of shit, and I was in the costume truck when my agent called and goes, "You got it, and they want to make you a series regular."
ADAM DRIVER (ADAM) I was doing a play at the time, so I was feeling very self-righteous. I thought that that was what I should be doing, and TV was for evil people, and I didn't want to be part of any system or corporation. (Laughs.) But because it was HBO, it seemed different. And then the writing was so good, and I thought it would be fun to play someone who does these things that are morally questionable.
EUSTON I remember begging Adam to even come in. It's funny because for two or three years before Girls, I had brought Adam Driver in for everything. Even things that weren't right — comedies like Cop Out or the T.J. Miller part in the Yogi Bear movie — because I just wanted him to be seen. He was that talented. But he never got anything because he's not conventionally handsome. Then [after the second season] I saw his Gap model campaign and was like, "Are you f—ing kidding me? I couldn't get him arrested before Girls."
••• TOO SPECIFIC, TOO LOCAL, TOO WHATEVER'
ALEX KARPOVSKY (RAY) We showed the first three episodes at South by Southwest right before it premiered on HBO, and we had no idea how it would play. We'd shot the whole season already, and I remember having all of these concerns that it might be too specific, too local, too whatever. But there we were in a 1,200-person theater, and it killed.
BLOYS Then the reviews started coming in, and they were universally great.
RICHARD SHEPARD, DIRECTOR Every other day, The New York Times was figuring out a way to get Girls into an article — even if it was a sports story, they'd shove a Girls reference in it to appear to be hip.
BLOYS It evolved into think pieces about what this show means about women, about Brooklyn, about sex, about race. It did exactly what you want a show to do, which is to start a cultural conversation. I suppose you could say it started a cultural argument, but I'll take it.
DUNHAM The race stuff blew up first. [The series was criticized for having an all-white cast.] The second night we aired was the first time I met my boyfriend [musician Jack Antonoff]; we were on a blind date. I had been metabolizing the criticism all week, and I made a really, really dumb joke that I'm perfectly fine to repeat now 'cause I was f—in' 25. I said, "No one would be calling me a racist if they knew how badly I wanted to f— Drake." He said, "Don't say that in public; that's not going to help you." I just didn't get it. I was like, "I have the three most annoying white friends, and I'm making a TV show about it."
KONNER I knew [the lack of diversity] would be an issue, but I didn't think the criticism would be at the level it was …
DUNHAM … Or that the conversation about race would turn into a conversation about racism.
KONNER But at the time, we were so focused on the struggle of women and the fact that we'd gotten four women on TV.
DUNHAM We had four real women who weren't famous. I remember Jemima going, "I just had a baby, and I have two different-sized boobs, and I've got a huge butt right now because I'm f—in' breast feeding and I'm the hot girl."
BLOYS We knew we were doing something that was provocative, but I was still surprised [by the criticism]. There was the diversity stuff, the charges of nepotism [all four lead actresses have famous parents in the arts and media world, including Dunham, whose mom is a renowned photographer], which never made sense. … I think some of it had to do with the fact that Lena represented a new generation breaking through, and that can be unsettling for people, especially because she was a woman and she was someone who was comfortable not being a rail-thin actress.
DUNHAM My dad likes to joke that I was the kid who annoyed everyone in the third grade — it's almost like that's the way I'm used to being. Everyone was irritated in the third grade, and everyone's irritated now.
••• COULD YOU START WRITING ME OUT?'
KONNER We came back for the second season, and we shot the first scene outside. It was the first time really that we'd had paparazzi, and there was a whole wall of them. At one point, we had to ask them to stop shooting because all of the clicking was affecting our sound.
DUNHAM I think we were so confused by what was happening, especially Jemima, that we couldn't remember our lines.
KIRKE I was a bit oblivious to the show's success, maybe even on purpose because I was trying to deny that this would happen, and if it did happen, then I'd be impervious to it and my life would stay the same. I just put blinders on and said no any time my agents even opened their mouths. I saw it a little bit as an assault. I went to Lena [ahead of season two] and said, "Could you start writing me out?"
DUNHAM She didn't understand that she had a contract for six years. I was like, "You're on the poster." I think Jemima was scared. She thought it was gonna be like Tiny Furniture, where it was us messing around and then we got some nice attention at a party. I remember she and Zosia went to the flea market together, and Jemima was like, "No one would stop talking to us."
KONNER Honestly, until the third or fourth season, Jemima wouldn't even refer to herself as an actor. She called herself a painter. So it was about getting her to admit that she was good at it and that she enjoyed it.
DUNHAM I remember hanging up with her that day and thinking, "Oh my God, I convinced my friend to do this and I'm the one who told Jenni and Judd it would be fine." It was horrible. But then she was like, "You don't have to write me out immediately. Maybe it happens over the next few seasons." And then the conversation just ended.
KONNER It was different with Chris Abbott [who played Marnie's longtime boyfriend, Charlie]. He was a recurring character. We wanted to make him a regular, and we were trying to close that deal [for season three], and he had a lot of questions, a lot of issues, and we kept sitting down with him — we'd go have drinks and have a good time, and he'd say, "OK, I'll do it," and then the lawyers would come back and be like, "He's not doing it."
DUNHAM At the time, I was like, "How the f— could you leave this show?" But he felt playing this Brooklyn hipster pansy wasn't accurately expressing his background or his worldview, and he felt limited. [Abbott returned for a stand-alone episode during season five.]
KONNER We had a very big arc for him.
DUNHAM He decided not to come back four days before our table read for the third season. I didn't sleep for 72 hours — we were rewriting, rewriting, rewriting. We had the table read, and then I remember going up to our office and weeping because we had tried to fix it, but there just wasn't enough time. It was the first time it just hadn't felt easy.
••• WHAT IF HE LOSES HIS ERECTION?'
APATOW From the beginning, we were aware that what we were doing was sexually provocative, and that's what made it interesting and new and fun. Lena wanted to reveal something that is normally hidden — so often you're not talking about a giant part of most people's lives because people don't want to portray it on film — and that opened up tons of stories that you're usually not able to tell. But then we had a scene with a conclusion shot …
DUNHAM It was actually cum arcing through a shot.
APATOW And HBO said, "If this is in the show, we could lose our license." We were like, "Oh my God, we've actually found the line at HBO."
NAEGLE In HBO's defense, it was like a fire hose!
KONNER Mike Lombardo [then-president of programming] came to us and said, "You don't need it," and we thought, "You pussies." But when Mike fought us on stuff, which wasn't often, he was always right. I remember being on the phone with him and Sue, and we were talking about the scene in season two where Elijah [a gay character played by out actor Andrew Rannells] has sex with Marnie. Mike just couldn't get his brain around it, and we were like, "This is what young people do; sexuality is fluid, you gotta trust us." And Sue said, "What if he loses his erection?" And he goes, "Yeah, that could work."
ANDREW RANNELLS (ELIJAH) That's still the closest my penis has ever been to a vagina. (Laughs.)
DUNHAM We ended up getting our cum shot — it was conditioner and Cetaphil, by the way — it was just with Adam and Shiri Appleby instead. [Appleby guested as Adam's girlfriend in four episodes in season four that featured a disturbingly rough sex scene.]
KONNER When people watched that scene and said, "Is that rape?" I was surprised. To me, that was a fully consensual bummer of a sex scene. But that was one where people got upset, and I was thrilled for the feedback because it was really thoughtful and emotional — it wasn't just this knee-jerk, "Oh, we did something else that pissed people off."
SHIRI APPLEBY, GUEST STAR I never saw it as rape. That was never a conversation. I remember one of the executives on set while we were prepping said, "Are you really comfortable doing this?" And in my head I was like, "What part is he referring to?"
DUNHAM Not to make this too personal, but the show is very much based on my experiences, and at that point I hadn't publicly talked about being sexually assaulted. But my thought when people had that reaction was like, "Oh, I've been raped, and that's not what it feels like." Then people were like, "How can you redeem Adam after that?" And I'm like, "That scene was very much based on an interaction I had with someone whom I continued to feel very loving feelings toward for a long time after that because human sexuality is so complicated."
RICHARD PLEPLER, HBO CEO Listen, "your own mother-in-law" survey with this show has been a lot of fun. (Laughs.) But I remember back in the days of Sex and the City — and I was more in that demo then than I am in this demo now — people would say to me, "Do women really talk like that?" And I'd say, "Yeah!" And it happened again with Girls. People are saying, "Is that really a part of the tenor of this generation?" And I think the answer is yes. Of course, nothing's monolithic, so I'm sure there are people who watched this show who didn't see a reflection of them or their lifestyle, but there were millions and millions of people who did.
••• SAYING GOODBYE — FOR NOW
KONNER We had always said the show would be five seasons, and during the fourth season, Mike and Casey came to talk to us, and they said, "Don't you think you have, like, one more season in you?" And we said, "Yeah, probably, let's do six."
BLOYS Six seasons felt right. It's bittersweet to end any show, but everyone agreed this was the right place to leave Hannah.
DUNHAM Once we knew that we had 20 episodes left [split over seasons five and six], we were like this bullet train. And we'd been talking about the end for so long. I mean, before the show even premiered, Jenni and I lay in bed after our South by Southwest screening talking on the phone about the characters' whole lives. We were literally like, "She'll probably die this way."
KONNER When it came to shooting [the final season], we ended up going way long. So honestly, we were stoked to be done but also heartbroken.
DUNHAM We were so f—in' tired by the end.
MAMET It was tricky because we shot the final season in a slightly jumbled way. I wrapped on the same day as Jemima, but it was six weeks before the show wrapped. The normal feeling of ending something — which is usually in the air and in the essence of everything you're doing — wasn't there, but I still cried in silence the whole way home.
DUNHAM For the last shot, Jenni was directing, and I wasn't wearing pants …
KONNER … Shocker, by the way. (Laughter.)
DUNHAM I looked up at the trees and smelled the air, and it was one of those moments where I was like, "I want to remember exactly what this was." Then Jenni called cut, and literally men in their 60s were weeping. It was really special, and since I hated both high school and college, I was like, "Oh, that must be what it felt like when people were sad."
MAMET None of us expected this show to do what it did, and it has absolutely elevated all of us in a huge way, but I think it's still much harder for a woman than a man. The success that Adam has had is indicative [in films such as Star Wars] — that's no slight to his talent and his ability, but Allison and I are still fighting tooth and nail for any part we get, and we both have to fight very hard for any part that is different in any way from our role on Girls.
DUNHAM Look, Adam is something unusual that Hollywood was waiting for, and he has "movie star" written all over his face in both an old-fashioned and a modern way. But I do think that — and I experience it, too — it can be harder for people to separate female TV characters from the actors playing them.
DRIVER I still think that TV is evil. (Laughs.) But I'd do it again with the right thing.
DUNHAM What's next for me? I love writing my stupid books, and Jenni and I have [our newsletter] Lenny and a bunch of feature ideas, but we're giving ourselves the gift of a little time.
KONNER We feel like no one necessarily needs to hear from us right now. But if someone wants to do the [Girls] movie, we'll do it.
DUNHAM Oh, we're doing the movie. I'd just want to leave enough space so that we are finding them in a super different place than we left them. But if HBO paid for two Sex and the City ones, they'd better pay for one of ours.
KONNER I think the movie studio paid for those.
DUNHAM Oh, we may have more trouble with that …
••• THE PITCH: "I'VE NEVER SEEN THEM ON TV"
Dunham’s original memo to HBO was short on characters and plot yet still got a nearly instant green light
••• "IT WOULD BE FUN TO MEET YOU"
Judd Apatow wrote Dunham this fan email after seeing Tiny Furniture
This story first appeared in the Feb. 10 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.