Friday, July 29, 2016

Q-&-A with Susan Seidelman, director of 'Smithereens' and 'Desperately Seeking Susan'

[Image via]

"Smithereens" starts a weeklong revival today at the Metrograph, the newish theater complex down on Ludlow Street.

The 1982 dark comedy, which marked Susan Seidelman's directorial debut, is set in the East Village (and other downtown locales). Wren (Susan Berman), a suburban New Jersey escapee, is eager for downtown fame, plastering "missing" posters of herself on the subway and elsewhere. She sees a meal ticket in Eric (Richard Hell), the hot guy with a short attention span in a band. And there's the too-nice Paul (Brad Rijn), who pursues the uninterested Wren. Hustling ensues.

Seidelman started filming in late 1979, and continued on and off for the next 18 months. (Production shut down when Berman broke a leg during rehearsal.) "Smithereens," made for $40,000, was the first American indie invited to compete for the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival.

She went on to make several female-focused comedies, including 1985's "Desperately Seeking Susan" with Rosanna Arquette and Madonna and 1989's "She-Devil" with Roseanne Barr and Meryl Streep, among others. (She also directed the pilot for "Sex and the City.")

I spoke with Seidelman about "Smithereens" and her follow-up, "Desperately Seeking Susan," also partly filmed in the East Village, during a phone call last week. Here's part of that conversation, edited for length and clarity.

On why she wanted to tell this story in "Smithereens":

I was living in the East Village and I was also at NYU. And at the time, NYU Film School, the graduate film school, was on Second Avenue — part of it was where the old Fillmore East used to be. So for three years, that area around Seventh Street and Second Avenue was my stomping grounds.

I started NYU in 1974, and I was there until 1977. So it was interesting to watch the transition from the older hippie generation and hippie-style shops and people as it started transitioning into the punk and new wave kind of subculture. I was a music person, so I frequented CBGB and Max’s Kansas City at that time. And so, that world was interesting to me, and telling a story set in that world about a young woman who’s not from that world, but wants to be part of it in some way, was both semi-personal and just of interest.

On production shutting down:

There were challenges throughout the shoot because I never had all the money. The budget ended up being about $40,000, but I probably only had about $20,000 at any given moment. I was borrowing and racking up bills. I wasn’t really thinking about how I was going to pay it. I figured I’d get to that when I needed to pay it.

Aside from those challenges, when Susan Berman fell off a fire escape and broke her leg during rehearsal, there was no getting around that. We had to quit filming. I kind of thought, oh, you know, fuck it — I’m not going to let this stop me. It made me actually more determined. I had the time to look at what was working and what wasn’t working, and I learned a lot of stuff. I started editing the footage. I could rewrite stuff and change the story a bit.

On casting Richard Hell:

That was when we redefined the character of Eric, who was originally not played by Richard Hell. It was played by somebody else who was not a rock-and-roller — he was more of a downtown painter/artsy type, not a musician — and was also played by a European actor.

By recasting and redefining that role with Richard Hell in mind, it shaped the tone of the movie and changed it, I think, in a good direction. I’m not going to give names, but the other actor — the other person is a working actor, as opposed to Richard Hell, who was acting in the movie, but was more of a presence and an iconic figure even at that time. So trying to make the character of Eric blend in with the real Richard Hell added a level of authenticity to the film.

On filming in the East Village:

In the scene when Wren is waiting out on the sidewalk and the landlady throws her clothing out the window and then splashes her with water, all the people and all the reactions in the background were from the people living on that block who had come out to watch.

At the time, New York was coming out the bankruptcy crisis. There weren’t a lot of police on the street, there wasn’t a lot of red tape and paperwork. These days to film on the street, you have to get a mayor’s permit — so many levels of bureaucracy. Back then, either it didn’t exist … but also I was naïve to what probably needed to be done.

We just showed up with cameras and we filmed. We had some people working on the crew who were friends and they told crowds lining in the street — just don’t look in the camera. Sometimes they did, sometimes they didn’t, but it was all very spontaneous.

That’s the advantage of doing a super low-budget movie — you can just go with the flow. For example, there’s a scene with a kid who’s doing a three-card Monte thing on the sidewalk. He was a kid we saw in Tompkins Square Park with his mother. We didn’t have to worry about SAG or unions or anything. I thought he was interesting and [we asked his mother] if they come to this address at this time and be in our movie.

On the lead characters:

My intention wasn’t to make likable characters. My intention was to make interesting characters and who had some element of ambiguity. There are things that I like about Wren; on the other hand, I think she’s obviously somebody who uses people and is incredibly narcissistic. I’m aware of that. But she’s also somebody who is determined to recreate herself and to live the kind of life that she wants to live, and redefine herself from her background, which you get a little hint at, this boring suburban New Jersey life she must have run away from.

On the independent film scene at the time:

The definition of an independent filmmaker has changed so radically. Nowadays, being an independent filmmaker could mean you’re making a $5 million movie that’s really financed by the Weinstein Company, or it could mean you're doing a cellphone movie like “Tangerine.”

But back then, there weren’t that many independent filmmakers. I know there were some people working out of Los Angeles who were doing stuff and a small pocket of people in New York City. So either you knew them or you were friends with them or you just knew what they were doing and had mutual friends. It was truly a small community. And within that community, there were also a definite relationship between people who were musicians, filmmakers or graffiti artists.

So everyone was borrowing people, trading information or sharing resources. Also, the world wasn’t as competitive as it is today. People were eager and willing to help somebody who was a filmmaker would act in somebody else’s film or tell them about a location or a musician. It was pretty simple, like — hey, let’s make a movie, without a lot of calculation.

On her follow-up film, "Desperately Seeking Susan:"

I didn’t have anything lined up after "Smithereens." I didn’t know what I wanted to do next. I just finished the movie when it was accepted into the Cannes Film Festival.

But I did know that there were very few female film directors. And the one or two I had heard about who had made an interesting independent film ... I knew that your follow-up movie, especially if it was going to be financed by a studio, you needed to be smart about the choice. You had to make a movie that you could still be creatively in charge of, or else you could get lost in the shuffle.

For about a year and a half, I was reading scripts. And they were, for the most part, terrible. I just figured these couldn’t be my next movie. I have nothing to say about this kind of material.

So then I got this script. It was a little different than the way it ended up being, but it was called "Desperately Seeking Susan." I liked that the character, Susan, felt like she could be kind of related to Wren in "Smithereens." I thought I could bring something unique to that kind of a role. So I didn't feel like I was out of my element there.

And also, part of the film was set in the East Village, a neighborhood that I loved and knew. The other good thing was I was so familiar with the characters and able to add my own spin using a lot of people from the independent film community in small parts, like Rockets Redglare, John Lurie and Arto Lindsay. Richard Hell has a cameo.

On working with Madonna:

At the time, Madonna was not famous when we started out. We were just filming on the streets like she was a regular semi-unknown actress. So there wasn’t a lot of hoopla around the film.

And then, you know, so much of life is about being there with the right thing and the right timing. It just so happened that the movie came out at the moment that her "Like A Virgin" album was released and they coincided and she became a phenomenon. But since that wasn’t during the actual filming, there wasn’t the kind of pressure that one would normally feel if you were working with a big star or a a super-famous person.

On the legacy of "Smithereens":

I think I was trying to document what it felt like to live in that neighborhood in that part of the city at that time. I never really thought about it in terms of whether the film would pass the test of time or be a time capsule or anything.

But the fact that it ended up being pretty authentic to the environment, to the neighborhood, is maybe what enabled it to pass the test of time.


The Metrograph is showing "Smithereens," which features a score by The Feelies, on a new 35-millimeter print courtesy of Shout Factory LLC. Seidelman will be attending tonight's 7 screening. Details here.


Anonymous said...

On behalf of all girls who were living a " boring suburban New Jersey life she must have run away from," thank you, Ms. Seidelman -- your films gave us hope.

Also, people need to check out the criminally underrated She-Devil because it is funny as hell!

Anonymous said...

Drat. Can't make it. Love Susan Seidelman's films! Wish the Q&A to show up on Periscope!

Anonymous said...

Desperately Seeking Susan featured St.Mark's Place and Love Saves The Day :)

What was the name of the diner Arquette and Quinn get thrown out of because the manager mistakes Arquette for Madonna cuz Arquette is wearing Madonna's jacket.

Anonymous said...

Ann Magnuson as the cigarette girl - yummy!


I was 10 when Desperately Seeking Susan came out. HBO ran it endlessly that summer and I watched it every single time. It's the reason I moved to New York. The grit, the characters, and the East Village in the staring role. It's the perfect time capsul.

Anonymous said...

Saw this movie on an airplane back in the day.
It really is a terrible movie. It just is.


Fun facts from Wikipedia:

The filmmakers had initially wanted Diane Keaton and Goldie Hawn to play the roles of Roberta and Susan, but the director decided to cast newcomers Rosanna Arquette and Madonna instead and the studio wanted the film to have younger actors in order to appeal to younger filmgoers. Bruce Willis was up for the role of "Dez" and Melanie Griffith was up for the part of "Susan". Madonna barely beat out Ellen Barkin and Jennifer Jason Leigh for the part of Susan. Suzanne Vega also auditioned for the role of Susan, but was passed over.

The Statue of Liberty can be seen in the film when it was still covered in scaffolding during its two-year renovation. The DVD commentary track for the film (recorded in 1996) noted that after Madonna's first screen test, the producers asked her to take four weeks of acting lessons and get screen-tested again. Although the second screen test was not much of an improvement, the director still wanted her for the role, as much for her presence and sense of style as for anything else. Costume designer Santo Loquasto designed Susan's pyramid jacket.

The film was inspired in part by the 1974 film, Céline et Julie vont en bateau (Céline and Julie Go Boating).[7] The film also has an alternate ending included on the DVD, where Susan and Roberta are invited to Egypt after helping to return the earrings. They are depicted next to the pyramids on camels. The director cut this scene from the end saying that it was unnecessary and audiences at the test screenings thought the film should have already ended much earlier (as explained on the DVD). The 1964 science fiction film, The Time Travelers, is playing in scenes 6 and 23 (melts at the end of the movie). All the scenes featuring Dez (Aidan Quinn) working as a projectionist were filmed at Bleecker Street Cinema. The scene between Roberta and Gary in their kitchen show Roberta watching Alfred Hitchcock's Rebecca.

The movie was filmed during the late summer and early fall in 1984, early in Madonna's rise to popularity, and was intended to be an R-rated feature. However, following the success of the singer's 1984–85 hits "Like a Virgin" and "Material Girl", the film was trimmed in content by Orion Pictures to get a PG-13 rating in order to market the film to Madonna's teenage fan base.[8]

The interior/exterior shots of The Magic Club were filmed at the Audubon Ballroom in Harlem.[9] Some of the scenes were filmed in Danceteria, a club that Madonna frequented and which gave her a start in the music business.

Anonymous said...

Cigars, cigarettes, tofutti.

Anonymous said...

regular, unleaded.....

Anonymous said...

Interesting facts, Notorious, thank yew. And thank Alphabet Jesus that Bruce Willis was not Dez. No one can be Dez except for the very dreamy Aidan Quinn!!

One of the things that I love about DSS is that it's basically sympathetic to everyone. Even the bad guys are charming (Bruce Meeker cute-dumbly asleep while Susan ransacks his stuff, Wayne ordering "coffee ... and a ... donut" -- how funny is Will Patton??), and I even kinda felt bad for ol' Gary when Roberrta left him at the end.


Anonymous said...

Thank heavens that cast wasn't chosen, although Suzanne Vega probably could've pulled it off as she looks like Arquette and wasn't a big Hollywood star let alone a one hit wonder yet (or did "Luka" come out before this movie?)

I assume Arquette and Patton were cast for the even funnier and better than DSS NYC comedy of errors After Hours from DSS as both appear in that.

'Weird that DSS was originally slated to be a rated R movie as there is zero cursing, violence, sex, or nudity. I don't get the PG 13 rating either as I think a 10 year old could watch this lighthearted flick.

Bigger LOL that Laurie is Annie Wilkes and none other than Bruce Willis are (were?) in a Broadway/Off-Broadway adaptation of Stephen King's "Misery".

Aidan Quinn was/is such an underrated actor. Him and Michael Pare.

Trixie said...

Shout out for Rockets Red Glare as the cabbie!