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Lena Dunham Wants to Talk About ‘Girls,’ Not Herself

She addressed the way her show is talked about with Andy Greenwald

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

Lena Dunham is used to being in the headlines. A lot. But as her show, Girls, wraps up its sixth and final season, she’s ready to discuss it, not herself. She joined Andy Greenwald to talk about the curious amount of attention she’s gotten in relation to the show on the latest episode of The Watch’s Andy Greenwald Podcast.

Listen to the full podcast here. This transcript has been edited and condensed.

Andy Greenwald: The show is often the least discussed part of your career and the show itself.

Lena Dunham: Yes.

Greenwald: When I was watching the new season I was thinking about how throughout the run of the show, Hannah always wants to become a writer; the word has this sort of holiness to her. And people are always trying to conflate you and your character, but you are a writer. You write episodes of this show. You are not just writing tweets or pithy blog posts, it’s an Emmy Award–winning television show ending after six seasons. Does this still frustrate you?

Dunham: Yes and it’s interesting because this is the first year that I’ve actually felt comfortable having that complaint. I think that we as people — and especially we as women — are so trained to say “thank you, thank you, thank you” for our blessings that I felt that if I complained about the conversation around the show or if I complained about any aspect of this incredible gift, which is getting to have a show of your own that runs for six seasons on HBO, that that was the brattiest thing you could do. And I eventually realized that by just nodding and going with it, I was actually doing myself, the show, and other female creators a disservice. Like that by saying “Actually, can we guide this conversation back to the fact that I’m a creator, I’m an artist, I’m a craftsperson and so is everybody that I work with?” that I was protecting the show’s legacy and not just, like, being a little twat.

This has been the first season in interviews where I’ve gone, “Actually, you know I don’t think it’s fair the way the show’s been discussed” and I think if we were to do a side-by-side study of me and, say, Larry David or me and Chuck Lorre or me and any television creator whose sort of reputation has at times preceded them, you would find a very different conversation. And I think it has to do with gender, I think it has to do with age, I think it has to do with the political climate in which [Girls] hit. But at the end of the day I was like, “I kind of don’t care what it has to do with because it’s not right anymore and it’s not fair to everyone who shows up on our set every day and works their ass off and all of the girls who show up [and] act with so much bravery and intelligence — Allison [Williams], Zosia [Mamet], Jemima [Kirke] — and then get treated like they’re basically on The Hills.”

Greenwald: Right. You made the show in an era where the process surrounding television has become as big of a story as television itself and yet almost until that great Vulture piece about your writers’ room that ran I think a week or so ago —

Dunham: It was amazing to have a writers’ room [get] acknowledged because so many people act as if the show exists in like a bubble of my own narcissism. As if the show is something that I tweet out every week.

Greenwald: What’s crazy to me is that your life these past few years hasn’t been consumed by tweet wars, it’s been consumed by production for a television enterprise. You’re working. This is a job and I know how Chuck Lorre’s writers’ room works because there’s a legendary story about it, I know that Larry David, the loose attitude he brings to set. I realized I didn’t know [about] your writing style, your process when you sit down to write, when you bring [a draft] to the room, who contributes, what you do on set when you’re acting and directing. This all fell through the cracks of the larger conversation.

Dunham: Well it’s been interesting because since the first season we’ve really tried to do it differently. I came in as an independent filmmaker … and we decided to try to bring the energy and approach of an independent film to the medium of television and we worked really hard to try to make these episodes feel like mini movies, to make strong cinematography choices.

I get frustrated because there’s all these incredible craftspeople and we’re thinking, we’re constantly looking at film references. For example, the second episode of this year we based a lot of it visually on Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs, and so that involved a really long conversation with our [director of photography] about the best way to sort of mimic the shots without getting too stylized, a conversation with [composer] Michael [Penn] about how we could capture the tension of that music, [then] making the actors watch the episode and kind of shift their performance a little bit to reflect that kind of weird terror.

Greenwald: It’s a tightrope in that episode because it’s very funny and it’s actually a little scary.

Dunham: That was the goal. You kind of think a murder’s gonna happen but you can’t really think a murder’s gonna happen because this is a half-hour comedy show. But those are the conversations we’ve never gotten to have and those are the conversations I want to have.

I grew up in the New York art world where literally like all I did was sit around and listen to my parents talk about craft and form and how many studio assistants this person had and how this person was hanging their show, and so I think I expected to come in and be asked those kinds of questions. I will never forget the first question I got on the press cycle for Girls Season 6 was, “What does it feel like to be hated by both the left and the right?”

Greenwald: Oh god.

Dunham: So I told my dad. And my dad texts me once a day, “What does it feel like for everyone to hate you?” or like, “What does it feel like for your dogs to hate you?” He thinks this is the funniest thing that’s ever happened.

But I’m coming to the end of six years of something that I feel I can now confidently say was an important cultural moment and as a creator and as an artist, that’s the first question that you’re gonna ask and it’s not even an answerable question? So thank you for letting me unleash my rage.

Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.