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.