At the ripe young age of 24, Dunham has already written and directed two feature-length films, the second of which, “Tiny Furniture,” hits select New York theaters today (November 12), L.A. theaters November 26 and Video On Demand soon after. What’s more, the film — which was shot on a shoestring budget in the Dunham family’s New York apartment, with her real-life friends, mom and sister as actors — has already earned her legions of fans, including a couple with quite a bit of Hollywood heft. Judd Apatow was so impressed with “Tiny Furniture” that he’s now producing an HBO pilot with Dunham writing, directing and starring. And Will Ferrell has gone on record calling the movie “subtle and brilliant,” listing it among the top 10 things that make him laugh.
That’s high praise from such influential comedians… but it’s well deserved. “Tiny Furniture” stars Dunham as Aura, an exaggerated version of herself who returns home to NYC after graduating from a Midwestern college (Dunham went to Oberlin) and sets about trying to figure out what to do with her life. The film perfectly captures the sense of post-collegiate aimlessness that so many movies aim for but so few achieve. It’s funny without being ridiculous, emotional without pandering, and real without being boring.
I had the chance to chat with the rising star about the film, and Dunham had some interesting things to say about the doors it’s opened up for her (a Judd Apatow pilot and a gig writing and directing Dash and Lily’s “Book of Dares” — not shabby), the joys of making films with her family, and the challenges involved in staging a sex scene in a gargantuan metal pipe on the side of a New York City street.
MTV: You wrote the screenplay in a single week, which is crazy. You must have been pretty inspired.
Lena Dunham: I think what inspired me to do it was that it was my first year out of college, and all the various trials and tribulations, the up moments and the down moments. I was just kind of thinking about it, outlining it in my head as I walked, as I worked, while I was in the shower. And then one day, I was just like, “OK, I have to write this screenplay.” I’ve always been a bit of a binge writer, so I just kind of went for it in this kind of ridiculous sprint — which I wouldn’t always recommend, but it does tend to be the way that I write.
MTV: You shot the movie with friends and family in your parents’ Tribeca apartment. Was that a weird experience?
Dunham: For me, I’m working on another project right now, and I still really like to work with people that I know and love. One of my favorite parts of filmmaking is the communal aspect, and you feel that even more when you work with people you already have that rapport with. I also live with my parents. So shooting there I was in my own environment. There were definitely surreal moments, though. Sometimes after a long night of shooting I’d wake up and there would be someone standing over me with a boom pole or something. I was definitely living a movie life. But at the same time there was this incredible ease. Since it was with my family and in my home, it gave me a real shorthand with my creative expression.
MTV: How much of the movie would you say is based on your own life? Your mom is a famous photographer, your sister did actually win that same poetry award she wins in the movie…
Dunham: She absolutely did. She’s a cool, precocious little chick. You know, I would say that all my work is somewhat autobiographical. But the amazing thing about writing is that you can make all these decisions about things that you sort of never did in real life. You can come up with that witty comeback that you really only could have thought of five hours later. There’s a lot of stuff in there that comes from my life, and there’s a lot of stuff in there that’s totally not me — things I’ve heard or heard people say.
MTV: Where’d you get the idea to make the idea of “tiny furniture” so central to the movie?
Dunham: Well, there’s a lot of tiny furniture in my mom’s photographs, so it’s sort of an image that’s been present in my life from the beginning. But I also liked it for the metaphor — not to be a total cheese bucket — for the way that when you leave college or just when you grow up, you’re trying to create a life that resembles like a smaller version of what your parents had and kind of the confusion that can follow. So it started out in a literal way, but took on different meanings for me during each stage in the film’s life.
MTV: There are definitely some intentionally uncomfortable scenes in film — were any of them particularly difficult to shoot?
Dunham: It’s so funny because in some ways the least uncomfortable scene to shoot in the whole movie was the sex scene because we were so sure it was going to be uncomfortable that when we shot it, there was a shocking ease to it. You’re just like, “Oh, this is just like doing anything else, only you’re pretending to have sex.” The scenes for me that were the most challenging were the scene where my sister has a giant party. We were using real teenagers, real friends of my sister’s, who did not give a crap how many takes we were doing or whether there was any continuity. That desire for realism kind of got me in trouble there by filling it with extras who were like: “What’s a camera? Why am I standing here? I just want to be out and I want to be drunk.” My poor producer had to scream so loud that she was literally hoarse the next day. Filming 17 17-year-olds is more of a feat than I ever could have imagined.
MTV: You mentioned the sex scene. Where did you get the idea to have it in a giant metal pipe on the street?
Dunham: You know, I’ve heard some tales in my day — heard some things, done some things, so I kind of made an amalgam. But it was really funny because that pipe was one of the most expensive parts of our entire shoot because we were on such a low budget. I was so sure we’d just be able to find an appropriately placed pipe, but shockingly enough there are not that many appropriate pipes for public sex in New York City. So we had to have it made. At a certain point, we were going to do something else — my producer was like, “Couldn’t you just do it in a refrigerator box?” I felt like that would have been a different film had we done it in a refrigerator box — not necessarily one I would want to watch. It’s like in “The Other Guys” — that homeless orgy in the Prius. I felt like the refrigerator box would have been leaning more in that direction. But I loved that joke.
MTV: You’ve been getting a lot of critical praise for the movie — Will Ferrell even gave you a shout out in a recent Entertainment Weekly interview, listin “Tiny Furniture” on his list of 10 things that make him laugh.
Dunham: That was mind-blowing. That was totally crazy. I’m such a mega-fan of his.
MTV: Has the positive reaction opened up a lot of doors for you?
Dunham: It really has — way beyond what I ever expected for this tiny movie. I made this movie on a really low budget with — I was really lucky to work with a bunch of people that I really care about, in a really amazing collaborative environment. I think our hope was just that the movie would be seen in some small context. But to have people we admire actually seeing the film is, for lack of a better word, totally surreal. As for it opening doors, I just feel incredibly lucky. All I ever wanted was to write and make movies for a job, and so — knock on wood — that’s what I’ve been getting to do. Although I’m constantly convinced I’m going to have to go back to being a babysitter — not that that’s the worst fate in the world.
MTV: You’ve got a couple of other things going on right now, including a Judd Apatow-produced pilot that you’re writing. Where is that at right now?
Dunham: I do. We start shooting this week. So I’m really in the crazy, critical moment of that. It’s been an amazing experience so far.
MTV: Did Judd reach out to you about the pilot after seeing “Tiny Furniture”?
Dunham: Yeah, I felt incredibly lucky that he responded to the movie. He got in touch, which was surreal. I didn’t even believe it was him when I got the email. I’ve been such a fan of his work as a writer-director, but also as a producer. He’s the absolute master at sort of helping people express their comic ideas in a clear way. I’m very lucky to be benefitting from his expertise, especially because TV is a totally new medium for me.
MTV: Will you be starring in the pilot?
Dunham: I am. I’m one of three main characters. It’s about a threesome of girlfriends — not girlfriends having a threesome, but three girlfriends. Though if we get picked up, there is a whole season to fill. So I play one of those three ladies.
MTV: You’ve also signed on to write and direct the adaptation of “Book of Dares,” by the same authors who wrote “Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist” — how’s that process going?
Dunham: Yeah, I love that book. It’s a really lovely, classic, with-a-twist New York story about the teenage romance I wish I had — so it’s kind of a revisionist history for me because I was a New York teenager with no romance in my life. It was nice to go back and write some of that in, you know, for my high-school self. I’m still writing, so I haven’t yet gotten to the casting phase. But I’ve always loved the idea — especially with movies with teenagers — of finding really new, interesting talent. So hopefully we’ll end up with the next Robert Pattinson on our hands.
Are you going to check out “Tiny Furniture,” either in the theater or when it hits VOD? Tell us in the comments!