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This story first appeared in The Hollywood Reporter‘s August Emmy stand-alone issue.
The Hollywood Reporter: You’re nominated for directing the utterly cringeworthy episode “On All Fours,” which sees your character Hannah puncture her eardrum with a Q-tip and Allison Williams’ Marnie deliver the most awkward vocal performance in history, among other tough-to-watch scenes. What was the most surprising feedback you got?
Lena Dunham: People either responded to the punctured eardrum or the sex scene between Adam and Natalia [in which his character seems to force sex on her character]. I was amazed by how many people were unable to watch Hannah’s Q-tip experience go horribly awry. In the same year that people watched Zero Dark Thirty, brave adult men were unable to open their eyes during that scene.
THR: Which was more difficult to direct?
Dunham: The eardrum scene, yet again, was a challenge. We actually reshot it. The first go-round, it was a little soft and not quite true to the experience of injuring yourself in that banal yet horrific way. In contrast, Adam Driver and Shiri Appleby are such pros that their sex scene was a very smooth afternoon. We went in very prepared and got exactly what we needed, no more and no less. It’s such a gift when two actors are so willing to let go of natural human fears about vanity and likability and engage a scene on its own terms.
THR: How and why did you to choose a slow cover of Kanye West’s “Stronger” as the song Marnie sings at the party?
Dunham: That was a Judd Apatow brainchild. He tried to think of the song that would be the least appropriate to hear coming out of Marnie’s mouth. We all lost our minds laughing about it, and Michael Penn‘s arrangement was beyond our wildest dreams. We had to create a test track for Kanye’s camp to approve. I must have listened to it 87 times. Every day I asked postproducer Peter Phillips, “Have we heard from Kanye?” When Allison sings as Marnie, she gives it a Little Mermaid polish that makes every note cringe-inducing. In reality, her voice has more spirit and nuance.
THR: As a dramedy director, how do you know when something is funny enough?
Dunham: I don’t think in terms of comedy — I find when we look for the joke it tends to fall flat — but I do have a meter for when things are getting too heavy or too self-satisfied. In real life, people rarely sit head in hands sobbing over a date gone wrong. They try and summon their courage, only let a little bit of that pain show through, and that’s far more heartbreaking to me.
THR: Has directing yourself become easier or more difficult over the years?
Dunham: It has, counterintuitively, become a bit more challenging. I am far more aware of camera, sound, costumes and blocking than I was when I started. I had a blissful ignorance that let me simply exist in a scene. Now I am pickier, with a stronger vision for my work. That makes it harder to let go the way you need to in order to do your best work as an actor. I rely on Jenni Konner, my partner in all things Girls, to let me know if I seem present in a scene. And I make sure to do one take where I say to myself: “Blocking be damned! Camera positions can go to hell! This one’s for me!”
THR: How has the show changed or evolved your overall directing style?
Dunham: That’s an interesting one. I directed my first episode of Girls when I was 24, and I’m 27 now. I’ve evolved a lot in that time, aesthetically and emotionally, and so my directorial instincts have evolved too. I try and let myself grow and expand while also recognizing that the show has an aesthetic that shouldn’t vacillate wildly. I have a more intuitive relationship to shot listing now. I used to view it as a mathematical problem. Now I simply think, “Which character do I want to be seeing right now?” Also, I used way too many words with actors. I was too afraid to say, “Can we pace that up a little?” and came up with half-baked emotional explanations for everything. Now I only come up with half-baked emotional explanations for half the things.
THR: The series directing categories boast a record number of five women this year. What does it mean to be among them?
Dunham: It means everything. There’s been so much discussion — blessed discussion — in recent years about the lack of substantive parts for women in film and TV. But what hasn’t been properly addressed is that there aren’t enough women in position to create those parts. I’ve worked with male and female directors on Girls and loved and learned from all of these experiences. But there is a distinct high that comes from collaborating with other women to create “female” moments that have never been seen before.
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