About Girlfriends: Jemma Desai in conversation with Claudia Weill

I am Dora curator Jemma Desai in discussion with American director Claudia Weill about her 1978 film Girlfriends.

Jemma Desai

17 Apr 2014

Following a special presentation at the Birds Eye View Film Festival (the first in the UK since it’s release in 1978) I am Dora and the ICA are pleased to present an extended run of Girlfriends (1978) directed by Claudia Weill. A witty and acerbic take on women’s relation to other women, to men, to God and to artistic endeavour, Weill’s first feature was written and produced completely independently on a miniscule budget. Weill went on to become the third woman to be admitted into the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and has recently directed an episode of Lena Dunham’s Girls.

As part of the screening at Birds Eye View Film Festival, I am Dora curator Jemma Desai worked with Claudia Weill to produce limited edition film notes which were given to ticket holders at the event. To mark the extended run at the ICA, Jemma shares the full text of her conversation with Claudia for the first time:

Jemma Desai: Your film started out as a documentary project on Jewish American identity. How did your background as a documentary filmmaker inform the writing and directorial style?

Claudia Weill: I was very fixated on what it meant to be Jewish and female in America at that time, because that was what I was facing.

That story that Susan tells the Rabbi [in the film], it seems very clear to her from a very early age, and what seemed clear to me—because I had Orthodox grandparents—God was just available for men, not for women.

So, a lot of that material made it into the film, but by the time I got the grant, I wasn’t interested in making a documentary anymore.

I had spent years following people around with my camera, kind of waiting for them to say what they wanted to say and then spending months in the editing room manipulating that into a film. So all I wanted to do was to make a film that had a script first.

Coming out of a documentary background, what happens when you’re shooting a doc, especially if you’re shooting film—not videotape, where you just shoot and shoot and shoot and there is no real cost—is that you really have to observe very closely and become very in tune to behaviour and be sort of intuitive when something interesting is going to happen, because you can’t roll all the time, at least not in the old days. Especially as an independent filmmaker: who was paying for the film, right?

So, you become very tuned in to small gestures that are very revealing; how people try to move away from each other at moments when I’m talking about intimacy; you know the kind of little, subtle contradictions, those little idiosyncrasies that tell you so much. When I started directing actors, coming out of documentary film, I was kind of looking for those tiny gestures and details that revealed character and it sort of made me into more of a miniaturist really. You know, looking for the small details that reveal. As opposed to broad strokes. Like the fact that Eric might pick up and eat one of her shrimp. And how that might make her feel.

What’s interesting about the characters is that they feel quite painfully real, you really succeeded in creating those nuances, but what is striking is that those nuances don’t become banal, and Susan, in all her narcissism, doesn’t become unlikeable or a victim to Anne.

Part of the reason you don’t hate Susan, even though she’s very self involved and not always the best friend, is because the approach of the film (and you can see it most clearly in the film’s score) is not to take her too seriously. Which is not meaning to put her down, but for instance when she’s watching TV and she starts crying or when the electricity goes out, we’re meant to feel her pain, but also in a comedic way, you know, meant to have some distance from it.

I think it’s key that we understand that Susan is not perfect, that there is a certain amount of narcissism or just plain self centeredness in struggling to become an artist and to find your voice and feel like you don’t want to sink into the bourgeois lifestyle and lose your edge, and at the same time you would love to sink into the bourgeois lifestyle and lose the edge that you use against yourself! You know, I had both my sisters, all my friends get married, and I was always the other one, the one who didn’t. And at the same time I knew I wasn’t this saint for that. If you make Anne the bad person then you’ve lost the story and she’s no longer a worthy antagonist.

There is this very Jewish comedy to it, a play with words, physical, neurotic, awkward. A lot of it is quite self-referential. Woody Allen is an obvious parallel, but how do you think Susan’s neurosis is particularly feminine?

It talks about a kind of self doubt which is perhaps more female, I think of it as being more female, not being sure that you’re really a contender, that you can play the game. Not sure that you’re one of the boys, so to speak.

It was important to me that Susan be the girl that’s not normally the protagonist - not the pretty, blond, breezy one that everybody loves and adores. She is that girl’s best friend, the 'Rhoda' lineage, Mary Tyler Moore's best friend played by Valerie Harper.  The best friend is always funnier and men are usually less attracted to her because she’s either overweight, not as gorgeous or not as oriented towards pleasing them. I was very interested in making a movie about that girl because that’s who I am and making films was just my way of figuring life out. 

New York and neurosis seem synonymous! Did the city give you a certain cinematic language, a kind of rhythm?

New York was very important. It’s where I grew up, it’s where I was living then. It was a great time in New York. It was right at the beginning of when downtown Manhattan started to exist below Greenwich Village. It was just the very beginning of Soho and back then it was like reclaiming old factory buildings and it was really industrial and it was just a very exciting time.

I think it’s a very universal story but the setting is very urban - the story of two girls living in the city. When you land up in the country, Susan particularly feels very lost, it’s like she can’t get any traction when she’s in the country. There’s not enough grit, I mean it wasn’t deliberately about that, about it being a love letter to New York, but when I watch it now, it feels like one. And also to that era.

But it’s also about being lonely in the city.

Yes, but not as lonely as being in the country with Anne, you know what I mean?

I think the female dynamics in the film are so painfully real. I particularly like the exploration of the kind of mutual deceit that women enter into when talking about their lives to other women.

The movie was inspired by the last sentence of the first chapter of a novel I read many years ago called Advancing Paul Newman by Eleanor Bergstein: "This is a story of two girls, each of whom suspected the other of a more passionate connection with life”. It’s a bit like what we spoke about, that we all go around thinking ‘oh she’s got the answers’, or ‘she’s doing great’, or ‘she’s not home lonely tonight’ or ‘oh my god, she’s married, I’m never going to get married, I’m never going to find anyone.’

The film starts with Anne leaving and Susan realising that she’s alone, and the ending is kind of a reprise of that. The arc of the film is learning to be alone, or learning to be yourself and getting over the grief of losing your best friend.

As much as the dynamics between the characters are difficult, they are not catty. I really like the relationship between Julie and Susan. It doesn’t descend into backstabbing but there is a bit of envy there too. Did this reflect your experience working in the industry?

I think the greatest obstacles come from within. And it’s not that there is not great prejudice against women in the world and much less opportunity, and so on. It’s how you see yourself and the confidence you have in yourself and the willingness to have a sense of humour, to colour the rage so you’re not the person affected by it. You know, you can just burn up with rage at the situation and never get to do the work! So I’m not big on easy targets like ‘it was the Wicked Witch which was the reason I couldn’t get there’. I just think it’s a more introspective film and I didn’t actually have anybody like Julie in my life, but maybe that was more of a wish you know, more of a wish than a fact.

Did the rage develop? Or did you find that it was a very positive experience?

I wasn’t in touch with the rage at that point. Because I was lucky to come of age professionally when the woman’s movement re-emerged, you know like in the early 70s. I had benefitted from some kind of press because of the coincidence of my career you know, when I was working and the fact that people were starting to become conscious of women as subject, and potentially as filmmakers. So, I was in a way getting a leg up from it, and it’s not that there wasn’t tons of prejudice and assumptions but I didn’t see it at the time.

You were the third woman to be into the Academy. What did that level of recognition mean? Did it affect the type of work you wanted to make?

It felt good. I think there was a point where I had made a couple of features and I just realised that I could kind of make as many films as I wanted but I wouldn’t feel like I had had a full life. So I think that became a little less important then. Things kind of switched for me and I became focussed elsewhere.

One of Girlfriends central concerns seems to be how being creative is exhausting and kind of ridiculous and narcisstic. Do you think you’d make different choices now?

It’s very difficult to know. You know, that was what I did, and that was the time. And I was very lucky that at the time that I made Girlfriends, the Paul Mazursky film, An Unmarried Woman with Jill Clayburgh, had just come out and another film called The Turning Point, they were two films that had come out that year that both had female protagonists that had been quite successful - so when I went out to Hollywood with Girlfriends, people at the studios were curious to see it, so all of that kind of fell into place.

I am interested in the kind of unconscious replication of work in Lena Dunham’s output, work that then brought you together to produce new work.  Can you tell me about the link between your work on Girlfriends and the way that your friendship and working relationship with Lena Dunham has grown into your directing on Girls? What is interesting to you about your dynamic as two women making sense of these issues?

The reason Lena saw the film was because her mum, who is a wonderful artist, Laurie Simmons, said she should go to this screening programmed by Not Coming to a Theatre Near You in Tribeca. You know, she kind of said, ‘I saw it when I was your age and it is very much like your movies, like Tiny Furniture.’ So she came to see it and we became friends at that point and then later she asked me to direct Girls. It was very lovely to feel that the same issues were relevant. It was just great that the film still spoke to somebody that was forty years younger than me and was about to make her own work, about what that was like today. It was gratifying, like it goes on, you know. And it’s an ongoing conversation for all of us. How do we make our lives? How do we become artists and make our lives and you know, create relationships?

Do you feel you have the answers now?

No! Not even remotely! ■

I am Dora is a curatorial initiative that explores how women relate to one another through the medium of film. You can find them online via their webpage, Facebook abd Twitter.

Girlfriends (dir. Claudia Weill, US 1978, 86 mins) is being shown at the ICA from April 18 to April 24 2014.