Friday, July 29, 2016
Q-&-A with Susan Seidelman, director of 'Smithereens' and 'Desperately Seeking Susan'
"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.