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In 2010, Lena Dunham inspired a generation of college graduates trying to figure out what to do with their lives with her film Tiny Furniture. Now, she’s hoping a new film will inspire another generation, the generation of baby boomers, to remember their value in the world and start creating again. The kicker? The film, My Art, which premieres at the Venice Film Festival Tuesday, is by her mother, artist Laurie Simmons.
Tiny Furniture and My Art are full of parallels, not just in the storytelling of a woman trying to find her place in the world, but also in the filmmaking. Both are family affairs. Simmons starred in Dunham’s Tiny Furniture as the mother, Siri, a role which inspired her to pick up the camera once again (she has previously made non-narrative art films). Dunham’s sister Grace, who also starred in Tiny Furniture, makes a cameo at the end of My Art, and even the family dog has a role. Tiny Furniture was shot in the family loft at the time. My Art was shot in the family’s country house.
While her father and artist Carroll Dunham declined playing the patriarch in Tiny Furniture, he does make an appearance early on in My Art with one of his iconic paintings hanging on the walls of the Whitney. The location is where we first meet Ellie, Simmons’ 60-something, single professor-artist character who is wandering the halls looking for inspiration.
In real life, her work is hanging in the show America is Hard to See alongside her husband’s. But this is fiction and she runs into a former student, Meryl, played by Lena Dunham in perfect humble brag.
Meryl has a show at the Biennale and another one in New York, and has no time to see the boyfriend. Life is just so hard. Ellie, meanwhile, is struggling. She escapes the city for the summer for some much-needed inspiration, taking over a famous friend’s home upstate.
Picking up a camera, she starts to reenact old films, reinventing her identity and slowly enlisting the people around her to collaborate: a recent widower Frank (Robert Clohessy), a divorcee lawyer John (John Rothman) and young actor Tom (Josh Safdie). Parker Posey plays Tom’s less-than-enthusiastic girlfriend. Ellie then regains her creativity, remembering who she is and why it is that she creates.
The Hollywood Reporter spoke with Lena Dunham and Simmons about the new film and how they inspire each other as artists and as a family.
Did the idea of My Art come to you suddenly?
LS: It really happened when I played Siri when I was in Lena’s movie, Tiny Furniture, because Lena was telling a story about a woman artist from a 24-year-old woman’s point of view. We are very close and very collaborative. It made me think of the portrayal of women my age on film and women artists on film and it set me off on a yearslong meditation. Scenes were coming into my mind that weren’t attached to each other. So it was a matter of writing all of those down and creating the story.
Lena, your mother famously starred in your film and now you’re playing a role in hers. How did you react when your mother asked you to be in the film?
LD: It’s truly the most the I’ve ever wanted to be in two places at one time: to see the world premiere of my mother’s film in Venice, but we’re shooting the final season of Girls in New York. She didn’t ask me until the last minute, so I was trying to be cool, but of course I wanted to be in it. We love working together. We have a certain chemistry. It was amazing how commanding she was and how clear she was in her vision. I definitely didn’t get the special treatment as her daughter. But it was special in so many ways, not least of which was being on my mom’s set. It was a dream to be shooting at the Whitney.
How did your photographic work influence the filmmaking?
LS: I would say the look of the film is very much from my work. I collaborated with a really great DP (Tom Richmond) and that was the easy part, because my visual language is developed from 40 years of my still photography. The idea that I had a story to tell was a surprise because my work is very anti-narrative. I’m not interested in telling a story in my photographic work. I’m more interested in freezing certain moments in time.
Lena, you’ve spoken about wanting to be an artist as a child. Do you still ever get urges to be a visual artist?
LD: I’m so in awe of what visual artists do and I do understand the differences of what visual artists do. I have a small art collection I hope to expand. I love supporting young illustrators with Lenny Letter. But directing is about as visual as I get and I will leave artmaking to the rest of the family.
If you had a gallery show, what would it consist of?
LD: I’d probably be printing it out on my Instagram, and I don’t think anyone would want to come to my gallery show. I grew up seeing my parents hang those shows and I understand the precision it takes. One of the reasons I’m so proud of my mother is she took her skills of over a 40-year photographic career and translated that to a film. I hope this movie feels emotionally and generationally important to women who feel they’ve been denied their creativity or sexuality or importance in any way because they’re not 30 anymore.
Did you collaborate with Lena on the script for My Art?
LS: I showed her a script when it was pretty far along. It was during this period after Tiny Furniture when things really took off for her. To say she was busy would be an understatement. She really passionately wanted to work on it with me. I loved that that was her reaction, but I knew it wasn’t going to happen. I think in a perfect world we would have collaborated more on it.
How did you create Lena’s character?
LS: Lena helped me with the concept with the humble brag. Lena had a friendship with the person who created that concept, who since died [Harris Wittels]. I love that phrase and I have known it so well. “Oh god, success is so exhausting.” The student feels that the teacher is always their teacher and they’ll always be their teacher and will be happy for them no matter what. They can’t imagine that the teacher may not have a career or a boyfriend or success. I really wanted to capture that and I wanted to do it right at the beginning to get the sense of where it Ellie was in her life.
It was really hard to schedule but Lena was amazing. She came off set for one night and threw on her leather jacket and she nailed it. I think I was really stunned by her younger student laying it on her. I think I was genuinely stunned in real life by Lena transforming herself into this truly obnoxious young girl.
LD: What she basically said to me was that this character was representative of what these older woman who worked their asses off for what they have, versus these younger women of the social media generation who can’t stop showing off that life is so hard and who don’t necessary respect the older generation that have paved the way for them. My character doesn’t understand that without my mom’s character, Ellie, without her struggle, she wouldn’t have the career she has. She can’t see past her own success.
Do you think that’s a common trait among students these days, forgetting that teachers have lives too?
LD: I think we all feel that way when we’re young we don’t think teachers have lives. We don’t think therapists have lives. We don’t think doctors have lives. I remember in college a lot of my teachers were writers who were struggling to get their work seen. That is the story my mom is telling. They don’t give up. They reframe their lives to be an artist, even when there are humbling moments. I love that Ellie wanted to be an artist despite these moments and remained an artist.
From Jules & Jim to Clockwork Orange, how did you choose the films to reenact?
LS: I had such a really long list of vignettes to choose from and the thing that a lot of people may or may not know is every artist is a cinephile, whether they watch movies, whether they’re painting, or have films that influence them. In the end, the way I made the decision is the vignette needed to, subliminally or not, move the narrative along.
What was most challenging about directing the film?
LS: Filming the artwork was the most challenging and agonizing part. The second most agonizing part was whether I would play Ellie or get an actress to play her. So much of the movie is process, cutting or pasting or building or walking across the lawn in a pair of grungy jeans. Those are things I felt so comfortable doing and I was worried about directing someone through the process. And I thought, if I let only actors do the heavy lifting around me then maybe I could do it.
There is a strong tradition of artists turned filmmakers. Did anyone provide you with any guidance?
LS: Well especially in the ‘80s, there were a lot of friends of mine, Cindy Sherman, David Salle, Robert Longo, Julian Schanbel. I remember thinking: “All you guys go off to Hollywood. I’m going to stay here and do my work.” I remember I always made notes of videos to make, to move into time-based works. I always saw myself doing that but I never saw myself doing a feature absolutely 100 percent. No, it wasn’t even a fantasy.
Things have changed and there are two things that I think really stood out for me. I think making the first film in 2006, The Music of Regret, working next to Ed Lachman, and understanding how structurally complex it is to make a film, that really turned me on to it. I love a lot of moving parts. And being so close to the process in Tiny Furniture, that was really a film school degree. Both of those experiences were really formative for me as a young filmmaker. I love saying that!
So Lena has inspired your work as a filmmaker?
LS: For sure. I think I always thought making a feature was always out of reach. Tiny Furniture may have been the first feature shot on the Canon 7D. The budget was really, really low. That was a very critical juncture in filmmaking because suddenly many more people could make films and that made me think many more things were possible.
How has your mother influenced your career?
LD: There is no way that my mother hasn’t influenced my career. She’s my first critic. She’s by best critic. She has the best instincts from writing to style to editing, to the visual elements of my career. If you look at both our careers we have a lot of shared interests, how women are treated, ignored, and have to find and stand in their own power. There are a lot of connections between her film and my work. You don’t have to go too deep below the surface to find that common thread.
Do you see parallels in the way you both put yourself out in front of the camera in an honest way?
LS: I really understood what Lena was doing in Tiny Furniture because I used to take a whole bunch of pictures of my own parents. I feel like an artist often turns the camera on themselves and on their own families to understand who they are. That’s why I really understood her need and her desire to turn the camera on herself and her family because I had done that when I was younger. You mine your own past in order to get to know yourself.
In terms of putting yourself in front of the camera, Ellie is so not me but she’s so familiar to me. A lot of people were confused by Tiny Furniture because people thought it was a documentary. Ellie really is a fictional creation from everything her perfume to her personality.
LD: We don’t have a real sense of vanity. When my mom was in Tiny Furniture, she was like, “Great, photograph me in my spanx.” I’m the same way. I like to get dressed up for an awards show but I don’t care about getting dressed up for my show. We sacrifice it for the art. We are the same. My mom is super chic and wears Marni and Marc Jacobs (which she gets on sale) and always wears silver nail polish and all my friends think she is the coolest. And Ellie is a different type of archetype. I’m much closer to the sloppy archetype that is Hannah Horvath.
What did you learn growing up in a family of artists?
LD: I think the biggest takeaway is that’s it’s a business. You’re a small business and you have to take care of yourself the way you would a small business and take care of yourself the way any small business owner would. My mom is the small business owner and I love that she’s expanding what that is.
Do you have any other projects together in the works?
LD: We wrote a script together that we’d like to revisit. We have some plans to work on a book and photography project. We are careful because we both work so much that when we’re together we kind of just want to hang out and maybe watch a Judy Holliday film. But I don’t have any doubt a lot more will happen. I will cast her in almost anything. We’ve had a few ideas together. Right now it’s a baby. I need to figure out who I am without this thing that is Girls. We have to understand what the other is saying in their work and now we have to understand what we will say together, and we don’t have any doubt we’ll do that.
LS: I do have a project in mind where we could work together in a couple of years. Scarily I have at least two more films in my brain. I think making features has got to be in the addiction category.
How do you hope your mother’s film is received?
LD: I hope this movie, it connects so much for me, in the same way that Tiny Furniture connected with woman in my age group who felt lost after college, that feeling of, “I don’t know who I’m supposed to be in the world.” I want this movie to be the same for women who at age 55 or age 60 feel that people are underestimating what they have to offer in the world. And this movie is kind of an f-you to that.
And I think it’s also just a funny, and beautiful romantic movie. It’s not easy to make a movie after you’ve raised a family and had a successful career as an artist and do something entirely different. I was happy when Michael Jordan picked up baseball. Go him!
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