How Lena Dunham learned to love her childhood self through writing a film

It’s easy to dismiss how hard it was being a kid. We grow up and face what we think are real challenges. Death, Divorce, Taxes. If our childhood contained some degree of stability—clothing, food, shelter—the weighty realities of adulthood seem to eclipse the fears and hurts of being small. I don’t think I’m alone in the fact that I’ve never been particularly charitable to my little self. The fourth-grader who dressed up as Cher Horowitz almost every day for a year just to have lunch alone while reading a biography by Barbra Streisand. The 12-year-old with thick highlights who sneezed on her first kiss. The 16-year-old, who was so worried she curled up in the library in the North Face coat she’d begged for so she looked more like the girls who smoked on the corner between classes.

It’s a funny story at best and a frightening burden at worst. But as I tune into her, I can still feel the shame, as immediate and disarming as preparing dinner and the knife slipping in your hands.

Like many children without social skills, I disappeared into books and sought myself out in their heroines. I loved Kay Thompson’s Eloise for her independence, Madeleine L’Engle’s Camilla for her romantic streak. I have created elaborate fantasies around Frances Hodgson Burnett’s A Little Princess, in which a girl separated from her war hero father, mistaken for an orphan, is ignored by her schoolmates and forced to sweep the floors until… he reappears in a burst of satin and cinnamon buns.

But no book has fascinated me like Catherine, Called Birdy, Karen Cushman’s 1994 ode to the long-ignored domestic realities of a medieval teenager. From page one I was in love with the tone, part cheeky brat and part wise philosopher. I told of the heroine’s desire to be part of something, tempered by her inability to keep her mouth shut.

Like so many of my favorite young protagonists, Birdy’s life was nothing like mine. But replace the arranged marriage and maggot-stuffed meat with the school dance and crippling OCD, and you had a resonance that turned this book into a dog-eared obsession. Cushman understood that throughout history, teenagers have felt the same: constantly misunderstood, deceptively strong, radically hopeful. By contrasting the everlasting desires and needs of the rising personality with the extraterrestrial peculiarities of medieval life, she created an enduring classic.

When I first came to Hollywood more than a decade ago, teen movies were having a moment – between ‘Twilight’ and ‘The Hunger Games’ the power of committed young people (especially girls) was revisited. But unlike the films that raised me from girl to woman — films like Clueless, Slums of Beverly Hills, and The Man in the Moon to name a few — these films needed an epic hook. Vampire love, fights to the death, they have their joys, but also just seeing the world through a teenager’s eyes.

But it wasn’t easy convincing those in power that there was an audience for a period film about getting a period.

When I finally found partners in Working Title (and then Amazon Studios), the script was still a slim 70 pages, with the main movements being internal rather than external. Cushman’s book is told in diary format, with Birdy chronicling the details of her days. I tried to preserve that with an energetic voiceover that put us right inside Birdy’s head. I’ve said many times that young viewers don’t need an epic scale to understand epic feelings (I said epic so many times I sounded like a big wave surfer or a mad director’s remake of Citizen Kane). But the great lesson my producer, Tim Bevan, taught me was that we can have both moments of external magnitude that fit the emotional tenor of our lead. It involved a major rethink in the final third of the novel that almost felt like sacrilege, but Karen knew every step we took was to honor her creation.

I started dreaming of doing this film when I was 20, but we didn’t shoot until I was 34. As I grew, so did my empathy, and the characters who were once antagonists – Birdy’s lost alcoholic father, her overwhelmed mother, her gray-haired suitor – filled me in as much as only lived experience can offer.

Writing Lord Rollo (assisted by the brilliant Andrew Scott) made me think of my father, a man who worked so hard to understand the experiences of women and trans people in his life, but in another time wouldn’t internal and external resources to undertake this journey. Birdy’s mother, Aislinn (Billie Piper), had a series of devastating stillbirths and I thought about the wolf howl I missed after my hysterectomy, the sense of lost opportunity that can still creep up on me in the middle of the night. And in the eccentric widow Ethelfritha (Sophie Okonedo), I saw the wisdom of a life lived with sometimes chaotic abandon, the intergenerational love we have to offer even if we’re not technically mothers. That’s the love I have for Bella Ramsey, who ended up becoming the only Birdy I get to see.

Actress Shelley Duvall once said, “You never grow up. We’re all still dealing with the same hopes, the same fears, and the same dreams that we had as children.” It’s true. But sometimes we have to grow up to express them and hope that in doing so we can love our past selves.

https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/awards/story/2022-12-05/lena-dunham-catherine-called-birdy-essay How Lena Dunham learned to love her childhood self through writing a film

Sarah Ridley

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