Lena Dunham has just moved out of her parents’ home in Manhattan’s Tribeca and into her first apartment. “I had to call my dad and admit to him – I’d never realised how much he’d been dealing with all this time,” she says. “I kind of understood that the fridge didn’t just replenish itself, but I also didn’t get it, you know?”
I do know – not only from personal experience but, strangely, from Dunham’s. In one scene in Tiny Furniture, the film that Dunham wrote and directed in 2009, aged 22, the main character empties the fridge of its contents, drinks several bottles of expensive wine from the kitchen cabinet, and, as an afterthought, puts her dead hamster in the freezer.
The film was inspired by Dunham’s return to New York after graduating from Oberlin College in Ohio, and by what she calls “the injustice of having to have a job”, and stars Dunham herself as the main character, Aura. Since its release last year at the South by Southwest Film Festival in Texas, where it won Best Narrative Feature Prize, it has shown in more than 100 cities across America, and has gathered a cult following and received national critical acclaim: Dunham must be one of the youngest ever subjects of a New Yorker profile. It has earned the film-maker comparisons with her comedic hero, Woody Allen.
Dunham and her creation Aura are not necessarily the same person, though, as is clear when I meet the film-maker, now 24, in a Brooklyn Heights diner across the road from her new home. Dressed in leggings and a baggy sweater, Dunham apologises for looking “like a homeless person”, though in fact she is much more presentable than her fictional counterpart, who in the film has a tendency to wander around in her knickers, wrapped in a duvet.
And Dunham herself no longer has time “to just lie on the floor and wait for someone to call”. Last year, after seeing the film, veteran Hollywood and Broadway producer Scott Rudin commissioned her to write a screenplay adapting a young adult novel, Dash & Lily’s Book of Dares. Most recently, Hollywood actor and producer Judd Apatow, similarly taken by Dunham’s script, asked her to write a new series for HBO, in which she will also star; she is due to leave for Los Angeles the day after we meet. The series, called Girls, sounds like a sequel to Tiny Furniture: it is about three girls who have just moved to New York and so must, like Dunham, learn to replenish their own fridges.
Perhaps what has attracted the most critical attention to the film is what has been called its “conceptual” side. In the film, Aura’s mother is played by Dunham’s own mother, artist Laurie Simmons. (Her father, the painter Carroll Dunham, exempted himself from the shooting, which took place in the family home.) Her younger, thinner, high-achieving sister Nadine is played by Dunham’s similarly impressive sibling, Grace. Her best friend, too, is played by Jemima Kirke, Dunham’s real-life best friend who will also star in Girls.
All this has made the film “accidentally more fun and saleable, in a way” – but it is not, she insists, a documentary or a piece of performance art, or one of those improvised “mumblecore” movies. “Making a movie without a script – that is like bringing a wood-chipper into a park and being like, what can I chop up?” she says.
Dunham, who talks in a torrent of self-deprecating jokes and laughter, grew up surrounded by art and adult conversation; her parents were, she says, “hyper-involved, more like playmates”. She and her sister Grace attended St Ann’s in Brooklyn, “an artsy high school for artsy kids”, where she started writing plays (“about what high-school students like to write about: incest and murder”). She transferred to the liberal, hippie Oberlin College, where she studied creative writing and wrote stories which, she realises now, were “essentially film treatments – just an excuse to get characters talking”.
Before Tiny Furniture she made several shorts, a precursor called Creative Nonfiction “about a girl in college having some issues”, and an online comedy series called Delusional Downtown Divas with two other friends who also have artist parents – because the art world, she explains, “is not so good at making fun of itself”. “I’m attracted to people who want to mock their personae,” she explains, bright-eyed. “Like when someone like John Malkovich stars as himself in Being John Malkovich – when someone will go for it in that way …”
Like the best comics, Dunham has a talent for identifying her own foibles – her eating habits, laziness, unkempt hair, even what she calls her “over-shariness” – and those of others, and turning them into jokes, often painful ones. Dunham wanted to portray Aura as a girl who “has no sense of how to be herself – which is why she’s either way underdressed or way overdressed”. She also wanted to show the kind of power imbalances she experienced in her encounters with men – something she does with striking honesty in her portrayal of two relationships, one of which results in a shockingly hilarious sex scene.
“A hotel?” Aura’s mother asks of the location of the encounter.
“No, I wish.”
“In the street?”
“No, worse than that.”
“What’s worse than the street?”
“A pipe, in the street.”
Tiny Furniture has triggered the inevitable accusations of “self-indulgence”, particularly given Dunham’s background. When I mention this, Dunham nods, calmly. “When I made it I was fully aware that some people would be like, I don’t want to watch this girl with unwashed hair kind of like schlump about her house complaining about how nice her house is and how everything is put away neatly in a white cabinet.” She is wary of being “the girl who cried misogyny”, but still wonders whether people would have the same response to the work of a male comedian. “People don’t write to Larry David and say, ‘Dear Larry David, do you really think it’s a problem that you had to take a stripper doll in the carpool lane?’”
Finally, leaving me laughing by myself on the street corner, she returns to her new home to work on Girls, before she packs for Hollywood.
‘Tiny Furniture’ shows at the Glasgow Film Festival on Saturday and at the Birds Eye View Film Festival, London, on March 17. www.tinyfurniture.com