One especially early English morning, Lena Dunham found she had the Middle Ages all to herself. "It was surreal," she ponders. The filmmaker was on the set of her newest movie, Catherine Called Birdy, for which the medieval village of Stonebridge had been constructed around the historic Stokesay Castle, located in a hamlet approximately three hours from London. "In the quiet of the morning, with the kind of English mist, I just walked through the town," she recalls.
"The only other time I'd had an experience like that was when I did Once Upon a Time in Hollywood and Quentin Tarantino had recreated the Manson Ranch, and every matchbook and every cup was all period-specific and we weren't supposed to have cell phones on set," Dunham says. "You literally feel like you've gone back in time. And I got to have that same experience on my set, walking through the world of a book that basically was like another parent to me. It was one of those moments where you go, like, 'If I don't ever top this moment in my life, that will be okay.'"
The book is author Karen Cushman's 1994 Newbery Medal-winning children's novel of the same name, which Dunham read for the first time when she was 10 years old. She fell in love with Birdy, the teenage protagonist coming of age in the 13th century, and has spent the past decade working to get the movie made. Catherine Called Birdy would have marked Dunham's return to feature filmmaking after more than a decade, had the pandemic not shut down production weeks before filming was slated to begin. (In the stoppage, she shot the indie Sharp Stick, before returning to her longtime passion project.)
Despite existing in 1290s England, Lady Catherine, known as Birdy (and played in the movie by Bella Ramsey), isn't all that different from Lena Dunham heroines before her: she's a headstrong young woman jostling against the confines of a patriarchal society. In this case, the medieval conventions she's bucking are literally medieval: Birdy's father, the destitute Lord Rollo (Andrew Scott), decides the only way to save the family's estate is by marrying his 14-year-old daughter off to a wealthy suitor. As if getting her first period weren't bad enough.
"I wanted to make this movie from the time that I knew that there were people who make movies," Dunham says. "In a way, I feel like I've been in prep on this movie for almost 30 years. The material is in my DNA, and I feel so lucky that I was in a position to take that all the way to the finish line."
In conversation with A.frame, Dunham discusses falling back in love with filmmaking, putting her own anachronistic spin on the Middle Ages, and the creative power of a good dance break.
A.frame: Going from Sharp Stick, which you shot during the pandemic, to this, your biggest production, what was the biggest hurdle for you? And conversely, was there something you were especially looking forward to getting to do as a filmmaker that you hadn't had a chance to before?
Yes. I mean, the entire thing was new and the entire thing was a challenge, and every moment of it, I just wanted to make sure that I rose to the occasion. The thing that I was most excited to do was to find a way to unite my aesthetic and my interests — which is people in real, complex situations that feel naturalistic and emotionally rich — with the experience of making something that was period and that had that lush vastness, and hoping that when I married those two things, it wouldn't feel inorganic. Every single day, I had all of that in the back of my mind, and it was about trying to make sure I was uniting those interests as seamlessly as I could. Then it was, like, one day, they clicked and they were one thing.
It's always an amazing thing when you've been doing something for a long time, and then one day you hit on something new and go, "Oh my god, I'm still learning." Every single day, I knew I was still learning. I never want to go through the motions of this job. I feel like I'm so lucky to be a writer, I'm so lucky to be a director, and I never want to just be plodding through it. There was a moment after Girls where I felt a little bit like I was just going through the choreography, but not doing the dance. With this movie, I knew I was back in the dance.
What were some of those moments you realized you were still learning, or the lessons that you took?
It was a few things. It was realizing again that my job is to find out what each actor needs and then to try to give it to them. My job isn't to prove my mastery as a director or what a genius I am. My job is to listen, and then give each person what they need to do their job. At the same time, working with Laurie Rose, my cinematographer, and finding that I didn't have to be showy, I didn't have to be superpowered, that the same kinds of shots that I love in something that's modern — which is, like, a beautiful wide shot that allows the action to play out — could also work in this new period setting.
That was an amazing feeling, to realize I didn't have to pose. It could just happen. For Bella and Joe's swordplay scene, I had this entire montage planned where they were running through the castle and doing different things. It was all shotlisted, and then I realized all I wanted [to capture is] what it feels like when you're a teenager and you have a crush and the entire world becomes this slow-motion magical montage. And I realized to do that, all we needed to do was have the camera — we didn't even need to record sound — and just have them play and have Laurie run around after them. And that's literally what we did. I put on music and I said, "Enjoy yourselves for 15 minutes, and we'll film it," realizing that something that loose worked in this context was really exciting.
The work we know you for is very explicitly current and of the now. How did you balance the modern touches in the soundtrack and comedic sensibilities with the period trappings of the 13th century?
Something that I said to my actors every day was, "I want this dialogue to feel like it's natural coming out of your mouth. If you want to say an 'um' or an 'ah' or an 'okay,' don't ever hold back." If we were being realistic, these characters would be speaking in Middle English. So, I was like, "We're guessing anyway!" I said, "Just play with it. I want it to feel as loose as if you were doing a Mike Leigh movie that was semi-improvised." When we started, I was like, "I don't know if this is going to work. I think it could." And there's plenty of movies that I admire because they take big swings that occasionally miss, so I was like, "I would rather take a big swing." What is amazing was the actors found this pace and this momentum with each other, and suddenly they were all speaking the same language. And that was a breakthrough for me, to realize that I didn't have to be directing these scenes as if this is 1290 and this is what people would do. I could direct the scenes like I would any group of actors, and that the costumes and the sets would show them how to inhabit their bodies.
"There was a moment after Girls where I felt a little bit like I was just going through the choreography, but not doing the dance. With this movie, I knew I was back in the dance."
Did you ever flirt with taking a role in this too? Or did you always know you would be strictly behind the camera?
I always knew that I wouldn't take on a big role. Frankly, my English accent is not something that anyone wants to hear. I'm married to an Englishman, and he's always like, "You sound like you're Swedish. What are you doing?" Actually, there was a dream sequence that was cut out that I was briefly in, and it was so fun. I got to dance with Paul Kaye, who plays Shaggy Beard, who also happens to be a beautiful dancer. Hopefully that will make it to some kind of gag reel, but that was really thrilling just because I got to wear some of Julian Day's gorgeous costumes for half a day. That was enough for me.
Not even deleted scenes? You're relegating yourself to the gag reel?
I'm putting myself on the gag reel!
Having started directing relatively young, how has your approach to running a set evolved over time? Are there pillars of a Lena Dunham set that have remained the same throughout the years?
I'm not just saying this to sound like I run a perfect set — nobody can — but my biggest thing is I surround myself with really talented people, and then I just want to make sure they feel heard and they understand that their ideas matter. I always say to everybody, "If you see something, say something. I don't care what your job is on the set. If you see something that you think isn't working, whether it's in the way that we're running the set or whether it's literally onscreen, tell me." Because the worst thing I can say is, "No, there's a reason for that." And the best thing is, "Oh my god, thank you so much. I didn't realize that." Having a set where people feel free to talk and there's not a hierarchy is really important to me, making sure that people feel heard and that they feel safe.
I like to keep my days tight. I'm not knocking directors who go into intense overtime, but for me, I need my time to rest. I feel like it's demoralizing for the crew, and I feel like people come in really excited and ready to work when they've actually had some time to live their personal lives. Then I'm pretty heavy into dance breaks. There's no set I've ever had where you don't take a dance break. I think it's really important to let loose and to have fun as a group, and to remember that we're not curing cancer, we're telling stories.
Do you have a standout dance break memory from Birdy?
Yes, I do. It was during our camera tests, and I put on "How Many Licks" by Lil' Kim. I have to say, I do not think that the English male crew members were ready for the rhymes that Lil' Kim is spitting on that song. I was ready, and I have footage of Andrew Scott dancing to "How Many Licks" in period costume, and of Billie Piper dancing in a pregnant stomach. It's so good. I almost made it the credit sequence, but it was a little too '90s gag reel, so I've got to get it to the people a different way. But the pleasure of watching those two move to one of the greatest feminist rap anthems of all time? Let's just say, it was incredible. When it was Bella's time to dance, I put on a different song, because I was like, "She's 17. I'm sure she's heard worse things on the internet, but I'm not going to be the one to expose her."
Now that Catherine Called Birdy is being released, do you have a new passion project you're ready to dedicate the next 10 years, but hopefully less, to getting made?
I have a couple. I have one that's a role that I will be ready to play when I'm 45, so that's something that I'm working towards. I can't say who it is yet, but it's a biopic. Then I have a couple of scripts that are just taking root in me, but what I love is to push them each along. It's making a garden, and then you just see what sprouts first. [Laughs] Can you tell I've never gardened before?
This article was originally published on Sept. 23, 2022.