SXSW: Lena Dunham Says TV Ratings Mean Nothing to Her

Seth Abramovitch

The "Girls" creator and star returns a conquering hero to deliver Monday's keynote.

Lena Dunham returned a conquering hero to the South by Southwest Film Festival and Conference on Monday, delivering a heartfelt keynote address that traced her swift ascension from New York art world scion to Emmy-nominated stardom and multi-million-dollar book deals.

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"I wrote this last night, high on the quaalude known as cheeseburgers," she joked in her signature self-deprecating fashion as she pulled out her notes, adding that she still had "glitter and glue on my head from hosting SNL on Saturday."

Thus began Dunham's remarks -- "part motivational tool, part rant" -- as she went on to pay tribute to the Austin-based festival that served as the gateway between her younger, aspirational self and "the only part of my life I have ever actually enjoyed."

"To me, this place represents magic, hope, beginnings, adulthood, freedom, triumph and tacos," said the 27-year-old creator and star of Girls, to applause.

She then recounted in detail her beginnings, which started in childhood as an enthusiastic storyteller and playwright (a less-successful example was the play she staged in 10th grade set in an abortion clinic waiting room) and eventually evolved to short film experimentation in her late teens. 

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Inspired by the emerging "mumblecore" scene -- "a preternaturally irritating term" for a kind of ultra-low-budget, character-based filmmaking she nevertheless deeply admired -- Dunham used $5,000 of her babysitting savings and at the age of 20 shot her first, 59-minute feature called Creative Nonfiction. That one was rejected by South by Southwest, but a subsequent short, Family Tree, was selected, immersing Dunham in Austin filmmaking circles and introducing her to Janet Pierson, the film fest's director.

But it was her 2010 feature, Tiny Furniture, that put Dunham on the map in a big way. Selected by Pierson for inclusion in the narrative competition, the indie comedy went on to take top honors. (She admitted she had been tipped off ahead of time and worried that if the festival found out, they might have rescinded the honor for "not looking surprised enough.")

The film's success led to the "couch-and-water-bottle tour of Los Angeles," where she sat with a series of development companies in search of the next big thing. It was a frequently humiliating process, she recalled, in which she was reduced to a series of "this-meets-that" descriptors: "It's Ricki Lake meets Tina Fey. Kathy Bates had a baby with Rodney Dangerfield. Audrey Hepburn's deformed-daughter-that-she-kept-in-a-cage-until-10 meets Albert Brooks." But a meeting at HBO proved the kernel that would lead to Girls, and set Dunham on her wild ride to stardom.

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Dunham said it took some adjusting to learn how to sit in a writers' room. "I considered writing something that you go into your room and do at night, when the muse moves you." 

Towards the end of the keynote, she shared the things that are important to her: "I want to make people laugh. ... I want to be of service to the causes that are dear to me and be an agent of change specifically for women and girls, and on a purely selfish level, I want to continually challenge myself to grow as an artist."

Then she listed the things she "absolutely [does] not care about," and at the top of the list is ratings. "Unfortunately, ratings, which unfortunately HBO would like me to feel differently about. I never expected to have a television show, and now that I do, I never expect to have one with blockbuster ratings. ... It's enough to have the platform," Dunham said.

Also on the list: Republicans. "I'm sure there's some really great ones, but I haven't met them," she deadpanned.

Twitter: @SethAbramovitch

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