Claudia Weill's 1978 debut Girlfriends is about the estrangement of a pair of Manhattan roommates in their mid-twenties, Susan, a photographer (Melanie Mayron), and Anne, a writer (Anita Skinner, who bears an uncanny resemblance to Chloe Sevigny in The Last Days of Disco). After Anne moves out and gets married to her boyfriend Martin (Bob Balaban), Susan struggles to make a place for herself in the bitchy Soho art scene. Like Enid in Terry Zwigoff's Ghost World, Susan is alienated by every dimension of her social life, and possessed of brilliant comic timing. She has a fling with a much older, married rabbi (Eli Wallach) and a nice, young, available guy she's just not that into (Christopher Guest). I can't recommend this movie highly enough. It screens tomorrow,Tuesday, April 3, as part of BAM's series Hey Girlfriend! Lena Dunham Selects, which begins tonight. Weill will be on hand for a Q&A.
Weill and Dunham met a year ago after Not Coming to A Theater Near You's screening of Girlfriends at 92YTribeca. This summer, Weill, who has a long career as a television director (thirtysomething, My So Called Life) will shoot an episode for Season 2 of Dunham's HBO series, Girls.
Girlfriends is an exquisite study of female communication. So perhaps it's no surprise that Weill is a wizard in the conversation department. We talked on the phone on Saturday, and within 45 minutes, she'd extracted as much information about my life story as I had about hers. We dished about moms, work frustrations, and relationship foibles—what follows is boiled down to the relevant: the making of Girlfriends, her experience as a director, and how the world has (or hasn't) changed in the interim between Girlfriends and Girls. I began by asking her about a 1980 interview by Roger Ebert from the Chicago Sun-Times.
Ebert starts out by saying, "We really need to stop talking about 'women directors,'" then he proceeds to ask you if you're planning to get married and have kids. Would he ask a man that? Like, "Mr. Scorsese, what's going on with your marital status? I heard you got divorced."
Right! I would love to read an interview with Martin Scorsese by Roger Ebert at the time he was making Mean Streets. About when he thought he might settle down and have children! That would be hilarious.
Seemed to be kind of a common theme in interviews with you. All these people wanted to know, "When are you going to get married?"
Just like my mother! And they were film critics!
Film critics are mostly men, and so are directors, so when they talk to a woman director, maybe it seems like a reasonable question.
I don't think it's any of their fucking business. Unless they're willing to ask the same question of any artist. Ground rules are kind of set between the interviewer and the interviewee. But the assumption is made that if it's a woman, it's a fair question to ask regardless of any rules set down.
How did you start the Girlfriends project?
I got a grant from the AFI. It was for a film about growing up Jewish in America, a documentary, and by the time I got the grant and started working, I realized I wanted to make a feature film. I didn't know what that meant, so let's say I wanted to make a "dramatic film." I started working on the story and I got my girlfriend Vickie Polan to work with me.
That situation [between Susan and Anne] had happened to me many times by then. My sister got married, my best friend, everybody got married, and I was nowhere in the ballpark. Like completely, are you kidding? How do people get married? I totally did not get this. First of all, how do meet somebody that you like, and second of all, how could you possibly know you want to be with him for the rest of your life? It was so remote a possibility. Also because I was so involved with my work... I was always that "other girl." So I just started working on a film about it.
You shot on 16mm, and BAM is showing your 16mm print. How was it distributed?
It was released on 35mm. I sold it to Warner Brothers in 1979. They took over all the prints and advertising.
Did you have any specific influences as far as novels or movies, or was it more of an autobiographical story?
There was a wonderful novel written by Eleanor Bergstein called Advancing Paul Newman . The last sentence of the first chapter was, "This is a story of two girls, each of whom suspected the other of a more passionate connection with life." I think that's kind of what Girlfriends is about. Even if Susan contemptuous of Anne, she feels like Anne's got something. We go around thinking everybody else has the answer, or they've got the life. But you just have to get on your own program and have respect for it, whatever it is.
Another thing from that Ebert interview. You described going on a talk show at the same time as John Huston. You said, "Huston has such a presence...His voice is so deep and he's so legendary and fascinating that instead of sitting there like a movie director, I sat there like a little girl." You were irritated with yourself because you failed to assert your professionalism. Often when I should be professional and feel anxious, I start talking in high-pitched voice. Why do we do that?
It's hard to take hundreds of years of cultural conditioning and just change internally. I hope young women today are somewhat further along than we were. In some ways it's different and in some ways it just isn't, is it?
No. Richard Brody wrote in the New Yorker that your film "reflected a time when professional assertiveness and romantic fulfillment were more openly in conflict." They're still in conflict. But maybe not openly?
Maybe we think we're too cool for school when we think they're not in conflict. But I don't know. I guess it would be more strange for a guy not to accept a woman's career than it would've been in my time. So it's different, but some of the underpinnings are just still at work. Guys are still intimidated by women who earn more, or are stronger or more famous.
Somebody once said, "Women relate to men the way men relate to work." Lots of women relate to work in their life the same way men do. But for some who do in any way desire to create a family life of some kind, there is that other side-you do relate to that side the way men relate to work. It becomes the primary thing. It certainly did for me at a certain point. By the time I hit my late thirties, I realized I really wanted a family. I was lucky enough to meet the man I love and have two sons. But that didn't happen to me until I was 39. The first 40 years were like full-on work, really.
You made your second feature, It's My Turn, before that?
Yes. I started directing theater in New York, and I met my husband in 1985 and had my sons in '85 and '88. Once I had kids I went into television and started directing episodes and pilots and cable movies, stuff like that because it was a much shorter commitment, much easier than thinking about doing a feature forever and ever.
I've never understood how they find people to direct television episodes. How does that work?
I'm not sure. They just have lists of people I guess. I think in my case Ed Zwick and Marshall Herskovitz were familiar with Girlfriends, and Melanie's role in thirtysomething of the single photographer was kind of based on her character in Girlfriends. So they hired me to start directing the show.
Melanie Mayron is so striking. She goes through these physical transformations throughout the film. In one scene she'll be dressed up and have on a bunch of makeup and in the next scene she'll be in her pajamas at home. Usually in movies the women look the same all the time because they always have full makeup and clean hair, but in real life women look totally different depending on the activity. I really liked that about her character.
Right. I like that too. It was also shot out of sequence.
How did you cast Girlfriends?
Melanie auditioned. As did Chris Guest and Bob Balaban. I met Anita at the Williamstown Theater Festival. I was there directing for a summer. I had met Eli Wallach at a party and asked him if he'd be in my movie. He said, "Sure, I haven't had played a romantic lead in years!"
Charles Grodin starred in It's My Turn. You have great taste in actors.
Yeah, I like people with a sense of humor. That's important to me. That was really lucky.
There's this blonde/brunette thing in Girlfriends. I was thinking about Last Days of Disco and Ghost World and all these movies where you see this dynamic. Of course there's Betty and Veronica and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes...
Well, you do have to be able to tell them apart. But, being Jewish, I certainly grew up very aware of the WASP stereotype. I grew up at the time of phrases like "Blondes have more fun." The idea of being blonde was the opposite of being an angst-ridden, curly-haired dark-haired Jew. The film is also about cultural differences. [Anne is a WASP and Susan is Jewish.] I guess it's probably a stereotype I fell into.
But it's a real thing about female friendships. No matter what the hair color, there's always an element of mutual envy about the other girl's appearance.
I know. It's kind of related to what I was just saying earlier, about two girls, each suspecting the other of being more passionate. And that WASP/Jew stereotype is old stuff. It's really old stuff.
Let's talk about Lena Dunham. There are many little similarities between Girlfriends and Tiny Furniture. She hadn't seen your film?
No, she hadn't seen it. Her mom told her to see it. She came to the screening at 92YTribeca. I'd heard about Tiny Furniture but I hadn't seen it either. I was thrilled to meet her and we became friends. I just adore her. But I think I'm not alone!
One similarity that struck me between Girlfriends and Tiny Furniture is the placement of a poem early in both films. Somebody reads a poem to the main character, and there's as much significance in the act of reading/listening as there is in the poem itself. It tells you what their relationship is going through.
I forgot about that! The poem in my film was by a girlfriend of mine, Honor Moore. She teaches writing right now at the University of Iowa. The poem is called, "I Have a War With My Mother..." She's a wonderful poet and a wonderful writer. I really wanted to include all my girlfriends and their work in the film. Even though Honor has jet black hair, Anita's character was loosely based on her.
Another similarity is that your film and Lena's also both end in a gallery show.
That's true, I guess that's just the life.
Can you explain the giant photograph of the woman's crotch in the male gallerist's office in Girlfriends? Was that a comment on sexism in the New York art world?
Yes, it was an offhand way of pointing it out.
What do you think are the other differences between my film and Lena's?
Tiny Furniture is more concerned with food.
I'm not sure why there's not much about food in Girlfriends. Food is very important. Another thing is that Lena's parents are much more in evidence in hers. The parents in my film are almost invisible.
Yeah. In Girlfriends, we see the parents show up at the gallery, but they don't talk.
That's a big difference. I thought Lena had such an amazing relationship to her mom in Tiny Furniture. I didn't know about it until I was having lunch with Lena. Because I'd never read about the movie, she just sent me a DVD last year. I said, "That woman playing your mom is just amazing." She said, "Oh, that's my mom." And then I met Gracie [Lena's sister, who plays her sister Nadine in the film]. She has an astonishing family. I think she grew up understanding that you just make things every day. You get up and you make things, which is a fantastic heritage.
Were your parents artists?
No. My dad was a Sunday painter and earned a living with men's haberdashery. They were European and they were very involved with the arts. But they weren't artists per se. Do you know what I mean? It's a different thing.
Where did they emigrate from?
Switzerland. Zurich and Lucerne. Both their families left in 1939 because of Hitler, but my parents met in New York. My dad was in the American army and my mom went to college here.
What did you study in college?
Modern European History and Literature at Harvard. But I wasn't much of a student.
Well. I went in as a painter, but I didn't like how they taught painting. It was more history than process. But now I teach!
What do you teach?
Advanced Film Directing in the Graduate School at USC. Directing is a really hard thing to teach. There's not a craft the way there is with acting and writing. You have to bring a lot of right-brain experinece and bring a left-brain lesson and create exercises so people can learn on their own.
Have you heard of this thing, the "Bechdel Test?" It's a feminist yardstick for evaluating movies. To pass, a film must (1) have at least two women in it, who (2) talk to each other about (3) something other than a man. What other movies do you think are accurate reflections of female friendships?
Thelma & Louise, Mulholland Dr., all of Nicole Holofcener and Lisa Cholodenko.
Girlfriends has so many great zingers. ("When we go to Italy, we're going to have to write down everybody's dress sizes."... "Don't patronize her, Charlie, she's a 'professional' now." ... "You're not the same person. You're married.") What's the role of comedy, or dark comedy, in the film?
Comedy is so important, especially when you are trying to challenge assumptions.
Ok. Care to comment on Rush Limbaugh and Rick Santorum?