Interviewing Susan Seidelman: From Madonna to Menopause

Susan Seidelman

Susan Seidelman

With a perceptive eye and an ear for dialogue, Susan Seidelman has an understanding of human behaviour that might, had filmmaking not existed, have landed her in a more scientific profession. Yet she’s a director at heart, and films like Desperately Seeking Susan (1985) and Cookie (1989), as well as TV series like Sex and the City (1998-2004), exemplify her light touch with the form. CURNBLOG recently touched base with her on these topics, addressing her thoughts on the balance of comedy and drama, the way to elicit strong performances from actors and the plight of women in Hollywood.

You were one of the quintessential women’s voices of the 1980s, with films such as Desperately Seeking Susan, Making Mr. Right (1987) and Cookie providing a bemused, distinctly female cinematic perspective. What have you learned from this era, and how has producing art with a woman-centric outlook changed since then?

SS: I went to film school in the mid-70s at New York University. At the time I had heard about other female film directors but I wasn’t that aware of many women who directed movies. Of course there were women like Lois Weber and Ida Lupino and my personal favourite, Lina Wertmüller. But there really weren’t many role models for young women wanting to make movies. However, I was aware of personal filmmakers like those coming out of the French New Wave, and John Cassavetes here in the US, so I thought that personal filmmaking was something I was interested in. Being a woman and not having other role models to show me how to do it, I just pulled from my thoughts, perspective and concerns, and made films from a familiar perspective. Growing up in the 60s and 70s – that was an era influenced by feminism and it influenced my way of thinking at the time [too].

The first movie that I did, Smithereens (1982), was a low-budget independent movie that was told from a female perspective. The protagonist was a young woman living in downtown Manhattan in the late 70s and early 80s, on the fringes of the punk rock scene. She was a character I identified with at that time.

Susan Seidelman Desperately Seeking SusanWe’re in the 21st century! Why are the movies still dominated by male directors, and is there anything we can do about it?

SS: It’s a mixed blessing. In some ways we’re more aware of female directors. Certainly, Kathryn Bigelow broke the glass ceiling by getting an Oscar [win]. On the other hand, in some ways it’s not any better. The interesting films are mostly being produced independently. When you’re an independent filmmaker you’re also usually a producer; you’re giving yourself the opportunity to direct. I think it’s gotten worse in the last 10 years for women wanting to work within the Hollywood studio system as the film industry has gotten polarised. There aren’t so many studio films that are character-based or narrative-based – and many “Hollywood” films are super-expensive, action-adventure CGI, and women aren’t getting the opportunity to direct those.

There’s a direct correlation between the budget level and the number of women given the opportunity to direct those films. Higher budget, less women. Now, there are more interesting independent movies that can be made at a lower budget and still reach an audience through new distribution technologies. Internet distribution (VOD) has opened up the door for other voices that were shut out of Hollywood, whether it’s women, African-American, Asian filmmakers or other “outsiders” (i.e., non-white males). There’s a bunch of women recently who’ve directed big animated movies. But work directing the big action movies and their sequels is usually given to men. There’s a club of guys that they trust to make those kinds of movies, especially when the budgets reach $100 million-plus and they want the film to appeal to 15-year-old boys. You’d think the studios would recognise that there is a large female audience that also likes action-adventure movies and get some women to direct them. They’ve discovered that female audience in the “fantasy” world with films like Twilight (2008) and The Hunger Games (2012). And it’s interesting to note that Twilight was originally directed by a woman [Catherine Hardwicke].

One of your biggest fortes is comedy, yet you’ve infused your films with helpings of drama that transcend the genre. How do you balance the two, and is it difficult to move from one tone to another when directing?

SS: If I wasn’t a filmmaker I probably would’ve liked to be a cultural anthropologist or sociologist since I’m interested in human behaviour. I like mixing comedy [with drama] because life is serious and humorous. Observing people’s foibles and the things that make them charming and funny is very interesting, but I think there’s got to be something underneath the humour. I like using humor as a way of making observations about how we live and what makes us human.

Susan Seidelman

Madonna and Susan Seidelman

You’ve worked with a number of very talented actors – including John Malkovich, Meryl Streep and Peter Falk – yet one of your biggest achievements has got to be turning out a terrific performance from Madonna in Desperately Seeking Susan. How do you work with your actors on polishing their portrayals to get the best from them … and how much laissez-faire do you employ?

SS: The most important job of the director is casting. If you can cast your film in an interesting way, then you’re 50 percent there. In the case of Desperately Seeking Susan, because Madonna had never acted in a film before, I didn’t cast her for her experience as an actress but because she had an interesting persona that I thought would be right for the character of “Susan,” and I wanted to capture that on celluloid. That’s something I learned with my first movie, Smithereens, [starring] rocker Richard Hell. He was not an actor but there was something interesting about him as a person, and my goal was to get him to trust me and open himself up to me on film. You gain [actors’] trust sometimes through the rehearsal process, through interactions with them, by getting to know them, listening to their opinions. It’s a little like being a therapist or a friend: Then once an actor trusts you, you can give criticism in a positive way, to shape the performance. lf you don’t have that trust relationship, it can be detrimental. On the other hand, I’ve worked with actors like Meryl Streep who are far more experienced than I am. In that case, it’s about working together to figure out who the “character” is, but then trusting the actor’s instincts to be able to deliver that character onscreen.

Comedy requires different acting skills from drama. Working with good, experienced actors in a comedy is a lot of fun. In a drama, the dramatic situation carries the viewer through the movie. In a comedy, it’s about timing – and the twists and turns, quirks and surprises that the actor can bring to the character.

Susan Seidelman CookieThe world of television has also seen the application of your directorial skills and outlook – including in series such as Sex and the City. Do you have more or less control when adding your perspective to a TV show than a feature-length film, and does television provide more or less opportunities for women directors?

SS: I did the pilot episode for Sex and the City, so that was a unique situation. Doing the pilot, you’re creating the template. I wasn’t following in someone else’s path. In TV, the controlling position is the writer-producer. Being the director of the pilot gave me a certain amount of creative freedom because I was involved in the entire process, which included the casting of some of the major roles as well as the look and the feel of the show. The show’s creator, Darren Star, sent me the script and I just thought it was smart and funny – and also pretty bold. It was the first time that a TV show featured women talking about things they really talk about in private. Also, it used humor to deal frankly with some taboo subjects of that time. That appealed to me, and certainly creating vivid New York City female characters was of interest. It was a unique opportunity where I got a script that I loved and instantly was on board.

I also directed some of the subsequent episodes, but when you work on a series that’s already established, there’s a formula in place, so the job is a little bit different. For me that’s not as creatively satisfying as doing the pilot because the template has already been established.

However, there are more jobs for women directing TV simply because there are more TV shows being made than feature films. Also, the TV networks recognise the importance of a slightly older and more female viewership, and the fact that it’s cheaper to produce a TV episode than a feature film makes the network executives less reluctant to give women a chance behind the camera.

Susan Seidelman SmithreensCan you talk to us a little bit about how you began work on directing and editing your first feature film, Smithereens, and what kinds of obstacles you faced?

SS: That was my first feature film after graduating NYU film school. These days everyone wants to be a filmmaker, and new camera technologies and computer digital-editing systems make it easier for people to make their own films. But back in the mid-late 7Os it wasn’t so easy (and certainly more expensive). You had to know about lighting, cameras, lenses, film stock, etc. And you had to have access to expensive cameras and film stock and complicated editing equipment. Film school was a great place to form friendships with other aspiring filmmakers. That’s when I started making short films that won some festival awards. My student film And You Act Like One Too (1976) was nominated for a student Oscar and distributed in the non-theatrical film market.

I stayed friendly with my friend from film school after graduation and we decided to pool our resources to make a 90-minute film. No one got paid and I started out with about $10,000 to $15,000 in cash. Midway into filming we ran into some problems; the lead actress, Susan Berman, broke her leg. But part of being a film director, especially on the independent level, is being a cheerleader of sorts, so I had to try to keep the cast and crew together while the lead actress was in a cast for six months. I started the film in 1979, but it wasn’t finished until 1981 because of the stopping and starting. The final budget was about $40,000.

While making Smithereens, I never thought about making a film for a particular audience or that it would even get theatrical distribution. I just thought I wanted to make a personal film about “downtown” NYC in the early 80s. Ignorance is bliss. I was very naive about the world of film festivals and film distribution. So on a whim I submitted an application form to the Cannes Film Festival. I got a call from one of their representatives about a month or two later, who said, “Drop it off at 48th and Broadway, we’ll take a look at it and get back to you in three days.” A few days later I got a call saying they wanted to include Smithereens in the “Official Selection” at Cannes. I was surprised and thought, “Could it be this easy for the rest of my film career?” (It wasn’t!)

I teach a directing seminar at NYU film school once a week. The film students today are very savvy about the movie business. And some of that information is great; if you want to be in the industry, you have to know about how the industry works. But for me there was something about being naive that was very liberating. Because I knew so little about the film “industry” at that time, my creative decisions were not calculated to fit within some industry standard or formula. I was just making movies I personally would’ve liked to see. I think that was also the case with Desperately Seeking Susan. It was my first bigger-budget movie; my producers had never made a movie before, so I didn’t have oppressive producers looking over my shoulder, and the first-time screenwriter [Leora Barish] was also a woman. So we were all just kind of making the movie that we wanted to make without the pressure or expectation that “it’s got to be a box-office hit.” Rosanna Arquette was the up-and-coming young star who got the movie “green lit.” Madonna was an unknown quantity at that time and [her casting] was just based on instinct, not on past box-office success. We didn’t realise at the time how that would ultimately pay off at the box office.

Susan Seidelman Making Mr RightWho were your primary influences on your career, and what films do you look to as inspiring your work?

SS: I like directors that have a distinctive point of view, [such as] the Coen Brothers. I tend to prefer some of their more cerebral films. I love A Serious Man (2009). I very much like Woody Allen films of a certain period, from Annie Hall (1977) and Broadway Danny Rose (1984) to Hannah and Her Sisters (1986). I like Scorsese, the earlier films: Mean Streets (1973), Raging Bull (1980) and Goodfellas (1990) – which was a brilliant film and an encyclopaedia of directorial and camera technique. I love the films of Jane Campion. She has  a unique point of view and you feel her personal “sensibility” in her films.

One of my favourite filmmakers is Billy Wilder. His films have an interesting mix of humour, social observation and human drama: Sunset Boulevard (1950), The Apartment (1960), Some Like It Hot (1959). Many of the directors I like have a slightly “outsider” point of view on their films.

What projects are you working on now, and can you tell us a little about them?

SS: I recently did a movie called The Hot Flashes (2013), which was about a group of middle-aged women in Texas who decide to form a basketball team after one of their teammates dies of breast cancer. As I grow older and want to make films about subjects I can relate to, my characters have gotten older. Within the Hollywood studio system it’s difficult for actresses of a certain age to find good roles. Actresses hit their mid-40s and become invisible. They’re no longer young enough to be the leading lady and they’re not quite old enough to play the leading lady’s mom. So for me it was interesting to make the movie that had the opportunity to use all these wonderful actresses like Daryl Hannah, Brooke Shields and Virginia Madsen who had once been leading ladies and were now over 45 and let them be the stars of the film – not the star’s mom or grandma.

I’m currently developing a movie project called Adam and Eve that was inspired by Rear Window (1954). It’s set in a Manhattan office building and involves two characters who have offices with windows overlooking the same airshaft, who become curious about each other’s lives.

susan seidelman

What does the future hold for women directors and the possibility of providing a realistic feminine perspective onscreen?

SS: Cheaper and more accessible camera equipment and access to distribution (at least via the Internet) has opened the door for many women (and also for anyone with an alternative point of view). It’s now as easy to watch an independent film on YouTube or Netflix as it is to watch a big-budget Hollywood movie on TV. For better or for worse, most people aren’t watching movies in a theatre anymore; most people are watching on their flatscreen TVs at home – or their iPads or cell phones. But I still like going into a dark room with a bunch of strangers and watching a film projected up on a big screen. To me that’s the magic of cinema.

Simon Hardy Butler is a writer and editor living in New York City. He has written for publications ranging from Zagat to Adweek and operates a restaurant-focused blog called Critical Mousse (criticalmousse.com) that showcases his opinions on the culinary arena. He also blogs about anti-Semitism for the Times of Israel. His views and opinions are his own.

9 thoughts on “Interviewing Susan Seidelman: From Madonna to Menopause

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  5. This was wonderful. xxoo! That film pushed Madonna to the top. Can remember it like yesterday. As for Jane Campion. That is idol territory, and everything in this is also the era I have lived. I wrote a whole thesis for grad school on Campion’s film “The Piano.” What a great blog and article thank you!

  6. Great interview. I didn’t know she directed some of Sex in the City. Very interesting fact.

    And I love Jane Campion too, definitely has her own sensibility. Hardwicke, still deciding…but I’m glad she exists.

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  8. I remember seeing ‘Smithereens’, and thinking it had something. Then along came ‘Desperately Seeking Susan’, and I was amazed by the performance of Madonna, with little or no acting experience. I have to agree with Susan Seidelman about Jane Campion too, one of my favourite directors.
    That was a good interview Simon, and you have some A list contacts, that’s for sure!
    Regards as always, Pete.

    • Thanks, Pete! I initially saw Desperately Seeking Susan in Sweden, I believe, only a year or two after it came out in the U.S. I was really impressed by it–it was very sly, had terrific dialogue, sharp direction and wonderful performances by everyone. And Susan’s right–when you have great casting, you’re nearly there. This was Madonna’s best performance, in my opinion (though she was also amusing in A League of Their Own).

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