I’m on vacation this week, but last Friday’s TIME includes my feature on HBO’s Girls, the raunchy, observant comedy from 25-year-old director-star Lena Dunham, debuting Sunday. I interviewed Dunham in Austin for the South by Southwest film festival, and as usual, there was much more material than I could use in the piece. So I’m posting excerpts from it here, in three parts—today, Friday and Monday, the morning after the pilot airs. Here’s part one, starting with the obvious question:
TIME: So: Girls. Why is it called Girls?
LENA DUNHAM: We were thinking a lot about what to title the show. Everything felt sort of cute and quippy in a way that the show isn’t, or tries not to be. Every title that I was coming up with had “Girls” in some way, “Girls Like Us” to “Those Crazy Girls!” And now it has become the season of girl titles, which hadn’t happened yet when we began working. Then it was just Untitled Lena Dunham project for a while and I was sort of avoiding the title topic all together. Then Judd called up one day and he was like we need to have a temporary title, what about just girls? And it was sort of like he had found the meta title, you know what I mean. He like sort of distilled everything we’re doing down to an essence, down to its essence. And the fact is I think like there’s something a little ironic about calling 24-year-old women girls was a little cheeky. But, at the same time, I don’t think that they would self-identify as women yet and the idea that they are still kind of feeling like little girls, capitalizing on their girlish charm to get what they want.
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Now, I get really excited every time I see like a “Live Nude Girls” sign. I take pictures of things with word “Girls on them. I was thinking about getting a Girls tattoo because I have a bunch of tattoos, and Jenni Konner (co-executive producer) was like, “That is the worst luck in the world, before your show premieres to tattoo the name of your show—it could just be the saddest reminder of your cancellation of all time.’”
In your pilot, you have overt references to Sex in the City. Obviously, you’re writing about four young women friends in New York City. Do you see Girls as sort of a response or reaction or a tribute to SATC? Was it just something that naturally these characters would reference themselves in comparison to?
That was sort of the first thought was that Shoshanna [Zosia Mamet’s character] would have moved to New York because of Sex in the City. And a lot of these girls, even Hannah who might make fun of the girl who were the “I’m a Carrie” T-shirt, part of the reason she came to New York is clearly because she thought she was a Carrie. It’s almost like not only is this a show that talks about Sex and the City, these are women who couldn’t exist without Sex and the City. And I sort of wanted to reference that, honor it and get it out of the way. But I was sensitive about that Sex in the City reference. I was scared when I sent the pilot to HBO that they’d be offended or find it to be too meta, and they told us that it was a big reason that they picked up the pilot. They liked the fact that we were the first script about women that had commented on Sex in the City and took the issue head on.
Did you conceive the show first as a project for HBO?
I had a meeting with HBO—had I even spent like one more week in Hollywood I would have been too scared to do this. We were talking about TV, and I said, “Here’s the kind of show I would want to see. Here’s what my friends are like. They don’t totally have jobs but they’re really smart. They take Ritalin for fun, but they’re not that fucked up. They’re having these kind degrading sexual relationships yet they’re feminists.” I was sort of just describing women I know and how I would love to see them on TV. And amazingly enough HBO seemed interested, and I went home and actually wrote almost like a little essay about these girls. It wasn’t specific. It didn’t say “Hannah” or “Marnie.” It didn’t talk about any plot points. It just talked about a sense, a feeling about this world and they seemed to connect to it.
So we began the development process and Judd [Apatow] got involved. But I kind of never really—I loved TV, but when I finished Tiny Furniture, I was just thinking like how am I going to make a living and get the chance to keep making movies? I thought, maybe I could get like a staff writing job on How I Met Your Mother. It never occurred to me that I could be a showrunner and it never occurred to me that I could be a person who was on television. I thought they would, you know, cast Kat Dennings as me. I remember my agent, who’s incredibly supportive, was shocked. A week before we were going to shoot he went, “Wait, you’re acting in this, too?” like it hadn’t even occurred to him that HBO was going to let me do this. He figured I was going to have to cast some sassy, thinner version of myself. And he was excited but shocked.
There’s a lot of bad sex in Girls—I guess in Sex in the City there was bad sex, but it was definitely more stylized.
Well, the bad sex in Sex and the City was sort of like, “It was so bad he left his socks on.” Our sex is like “It was really bad because we’re not emotionally connected and he doesn’t want to be here and I’m scared and alone.” There are people, obviously, making ridiculous, fumbling sexual moves but the badness is sort of coming more from just a place of being unformed people trying to connect rather than like someone committing a specific sexual faux pas, if that distinction makes sense.
Hannah and Marnie have different sorts of bad sex experiences with their boyfriends, and I’m wondering if you’d talk a little bit these scenes. Some of them like pretty, even for HBO, graphic, but not in a titillating way.
No. If anyone’s turned on by those, I’m worried for them. I mean, they’re, I think — you know, I think that we might potentially get the criticism from people that’s like there are more 20-somethings enjoying sex than you’re showing. Why aren’t we seeing anybody enjoy sex? I personally think that seeing people enjoy sex is boring. I’d like to know that all my friends are enjoying sex, but I don’t want to watch it. I’m interested in hearing, “I fucked this guy and it was a disaster,” because that’s what’s funny to me. And if you’re having good sex, that feels like it’s your own private sacred business.
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But with these scenes we’re always trying to make the sex a reflection of where the characters are at emotionally. So it’s never just like bad sex for the sake of a funny bad sex scene. It’s that Hannah and Adam can express themselves to each other is like through this weird role-play. And the only time that Charlie really gets a sense of how Marnie feels about him is when she literally can’t contain her revulsion while they’re having intercourse. It’s sort of impossible to pretend when your hormones are racing and someone’s like inside your body, like the screen goes down, the shield goes down, and you’re just you. So Hannah thinks she’s this tough girl gathering experience in the city, that she can handle this kind of weird, potent sexual interaction. She actually kind of can’t, and you see that in the way that she fumbles in her relationship with Adam. And you see that Adam isn’t exactly the tough guy that he thinks he is when he like kind of has to scramble with a condom or can’t quite flip her over properly.
It’s interesting how Adam is portrayed–he seems like a total asshole and then maybe he’s not a complete asshole, you know, in moments. Is that showing us the way Hannah sees him, like this is why she’s staying in the relationship?
I think it is. You’re not crazy, so you don’t stay because there’s never a sweet moment. You stay because there’s these hints that something could be greater and you’re like kind of reaching for it. So I think Hannah has this sense that below it all Adam cares about her, and I think he does. And I didn’t want to see a one-dimensional relationship where like he’s a dick and she has low self-esteem. She’s sort of implicit in her own treatment and he is sort of doing what he thinks he’s supposed to. But, at the same time, neither of them is ready to commit. So I really wanted to explore the fact that these are two characters who like almost love each other and almost could be strangers. I think Adam Driver brought a lot of complexity to that role, because he’s an actor unable to do anything in a one-dimensional way. So I think we really started to write to him and his kind of odd sweetness.
And I really fell in love with that character–he’s my favorite character to write for, hands down. I love every single one. But for me Adam is like—he’s actually very old fashioned. I get very poetical talking about him. To Hannah he’s almost just like a Walt Whitman or Thoreau figure who’s like talked and lived his life in his own way and sees beauty in odd things—even though he’s lived in the shitty apartment and has no job, he’s about as like liberated as a person can be. And I think there’s a lot of qualities in him that she wants for herself, like she’s partially sleeping with him because she wishes she was him.