Lena Dunham, apropos of her semiautobiographical approach to filmmaking, still lives with her parents in a Tribeca loft. (“I’m reupping a year-long lease,” she quips.) Several months ago, the 24-year-old writer-director-actress worked as a babysitter; now she’s prepping an HBO pilot with Judd Apatow, adapting a book project she is attached to direct for producer Scott Rudin and awaiting the Nov. 12 theatrical release of her second feature, “Tiny Furniture.”
Dunham, who graduated two years ago from Oberlin College with a degree in creative writing, says she was drawn to directing simply as a way to express herself, citing the same approach her mother, conceptual photographer Laurie Simmons, has to her art. “It’s not because she loves the feeling of the camera in her hand,” explains Dunham. “It’s just the medium we’ve found for telling the stories we want to tell.”
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Dunham’s feature film debut, “Creative Nonfiction,” and Web series “Delusional Downtown Divas” showed off her knack for tart, comedic dialogue and for capturing awkward social interactions. Though “Creative Nonfiction” was never picked up for theatrical distribution, the Gotham art-world parody “Divas” became a minor online sensation, with fans including designer Isaac Mizrahi and artist Nate Lowman (who appear in cameos).
Dunham’s sophomore effort “Tiny Furniture” won the top prize at this year’s SXSW Film Festival. The film — equal parts “Manhattan,” “Party Girl” and mumblecore — delivered on the promise of her earlier efforts with its combination of smart slacker comedy, refined cinematography and, most of all, a psychological honesty aided by Dunham’s personal investment in the material.
Not only does she play the main character, Aura, but her mother, Simmons, plays the protagonist’s mother, her real-life sister plays her sibling, and the film was shot in and around the family’s New York loft. “There were times that the boundaries got a little blurry,” she says, “but at the same time, shooting in our house gave us so much production value.”
Dunham hopes the intimate directing she did with her family on “Tiny Furniture” extends to her next project, an untitled HBO pilot that follows the misadventures of three girlfriends in Gotham two years out of college.
When her agent, UTA’s Peter Benedek, got Dunham a meeting with HBO, the cabler made a blind script deal; she’s since written five half-hour episodes.
“I treat all actors like my family,” she says. “Not that I’m abusive to them or walk around naked in front of them, but I like to be chatting. I like to develop a relationship. It was like a set of training wheels, because there’s nothing that I was afraid to say to them on that movie. And that’s something I look at now in casting. If I feel connected to an actor, even if you’re not exactly what I thought, I’m going to shift my vision to accommodate that.”
As with her previous work, Dunham will play one of the leads (“I know I’m not an ‘actress,’ but I get a lot of pleasure from exploring my own writing through acting”), and the series will address the issues she faces as an aspiring twentysomething in New York. Quoting a line from Noah Baumbach’s 1995 indie “Kicking and Screaming,” “I’m nostalgic for things that are happening right now,” she says, “I feel that way all the time.”
Working on the pilot with Apatow and veteran showrunner Jenni Konner has been a kind of “film school,” admits Dunham, who has no formal training in TV. “When I’m writing, I feel like I’m walking in a windstorm, and I have no idea if it’s funny, so they’ve given me insights into structure, into character, basic screenwriting 101.”
Konner is enthusiastic about working with Dunham. “Lena is brave and hilarious, and I feel lucky just to be in her orbit,” she says.
Dunham hopes to continue writing for TV and film but worries about the difficulties of sustaining a career.
She admires the eclecticism of Elaine May’s work — comedy records, performing, writing, directing — and calls May’s “Mickey and Nicky” “one of the most laugh-out-loud tragic and beautiful films I’ve seen in my life.” She also cites Nora Ephron, Tina Fey and Lynne Ramsay as role models.
Whatever happens during her Hollywood foray, Dunham vows she will continue making movies: “If they have to be $100,000 movies, then that’s what they’ll be,” she says. “But the Steven Soderbergh model of ‘one for me, one for them’ is a very compelling model.”