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Exclusive: An Interview with Desperately Seeking Susan Director Susan Seidelman

Tonight our friends at the 92Y Tribeca are hosting a double-header of director Susan Seidelman‘s classic ’80s films. The first, Smithereens, is a stylish, albeit low-budget look at life in New York City’s punk scene. The second, Desperately Seeking Susan, is a film that likely conjures up images of that leather jacket and ’80s Madonna getting into the groove. While Seidelman will be on hand to intro both films, she hopped on the phone with Flavorpill to discuss her memories of old-school New York, the plight of female directors in Hollywood, and what it was like to work on the Sex and the City pilot.

Flavorpill: Can you talk a little about the process of making Smithereens versus Desperately Seeking Susan?

Susan Seidman: I had gone to NYU film school. After I graduated, I had an idea for a low-budget feature film that I wanted to do, and having kept in touch with my friends from film school, I told them about it. So we went ahead and made Smithereens. It was originally made for about $40K in 16mm. It took about $20K to blow it up to a 35mm print. It was made for very little money back then, and again, just with my friends – the crew anyway – from NYU.

After it came out it got some attention because it was at the Cannes Film Festival and was picked up for distribution by New Line Cinema — again something I never expected. I started to get calls from agents out in LA who had seen the film and wanted to meet me. I also started to get a bunch of scripts, most of which were pretty terrible. But then I got this one script that had the title Desperately Seeking Susan. I didn’t put my name on that. [laughs] I thought that was a good omen, that it was desperately seeking me. I read it. Not only did I love the story and the characters, but it felt like it was the next organic step from making Smithereens, which was about the East Village punk/new wave culture of that time. Desperately Seeking Susan is a very different kind of story, but it is sort of based in that culture.

The thing I was so nervous about — I’m aware of independent filmmakers who do a low-budget movie to acclaim and then go on to make their first “Hollywood” movie and they get totally lost because the producers overwhelm them or working with the studio is overwhelming. They lose track of their vision and their cinematic personality. So I wanted to make sure that the next thing project I did after Smithereens was something I felt comfortable doing. Subject matter that I had something interesting to say about. Again, I waited until the script came along and it just felt organically right.

FP: Were you more of a Roberta or a Susan back then?

SS: You know, I had been a Roberta. I grew up in the suburbs of Philadelphia, and could have been a Roberta. I moved to New York because I wanted to go to film school, but equally because I wanted to get out of the suburbs. I was desperately seeking an escape. [laughs] Looking for another world. The weird thing about coming from — whether it’s New Jersey, which to me is just a metaphor for being on the other side of the bridge from where you think things are happening  — it was very similar to coming from the suburbs of Philadelphia. You kind of felt the presence of New York, and it wasn’t that far away, but in terms of it’s atmosphere, culturally, and so many other ways, it was like another planet. For me, going to film school and moving out of the suburbs to New York City was my transition from being Roberta to wanting be Susan.

FP: Do you ever miss the downtown scene that these films are associated with? Were you a part of it?

SS: It was something I was part of. Certainly, Smithereens is all about that, in even a more gritty way than Desperately Seeking Susan. That definitely was something that I was a part of and that excited me. The whole punk/new wave scene. Starting in the later part of the ’70s and the early ’80s. Punk kind of merged into new wave around ’83 or ’84, so Smithereens is more on the punk side of the equation and Desperately Seeking Susan is more new wave. To me there was something really exciting, culturally about that time. Living downtown and having friends downtown, I rarely went above 10th Street. I still live in SoHo, so I still downtown, and it’s been 30 some odd years.

It’s interesting because I know that now there’s kind of a retro punk thing going on — weirdly enough that fashion has kind of stayed, there’s been punk throughout the ’90s and early 2000’s. I think it was something about the rebellious energy of that time that makes it so appealing.

FP: What is it about the way we remember that time period that history gets wrong?

SS: Having lived through the original time period, it’s hard to know how someone who didn’t or who was too young at the time sees it exactly. But New York was really different. In the ’70s, there was a real recession in New York. Now the East Village is gentrified. The Lower East Side is gentrified. At that time it was pretty rough. And dirt cheap to live in. Artists and musicians and filmmakers could afford to live in downtown Manhattan in a way that they can’t anymore. I think that there’s something that comes out when a neighborhood is marginal, and a little dangerous, and cheap. It attracts creative people. There’s a kind of interesting energy that comes from the mix of rawness and grittiness.

So it wasn’t just fashion. It was turning fashion and culture out of the reality of living. Buildings were covered in graffiti, not as artworks – but because abandoned buildings were a cheap canvas. You could spray paint it and make it look cool, and no one stopped you. Graffiti came out of the fact that New York was going through economic hardships and there were a lot of boarded-up, abandoned buildings. Ripped and mismatched clothing wasn’t buying expensive, designer stuff and ripping it up; they were cheap clothes that you could kind of turn into your own piece of fashion artwork by decorating it with stuff or ripping it up. Attaching safety pins to it or whatever. Where it got co-opted and corrupted a bit was when those same designs were co-opted and then cost $300 for something that would have cost $10 in a thrift store.

FP: Did people mind that you were bringing their subculture into the mainstream with Smithereens?

SS: Not really. At that time, it was different. There weren’t a lot of independent films out there. Now that means everything from a Miramax or Weinstein film that costs $20m, but back then independent really meant you had nothing. You scraped together some money. No one got paid. And then you put it out there in the hopes that it found an audience. With Smithereens it was embraced because there wasn’t a lot out there that tried to counter what Hollywood was doing at the time. And it was really made for no money.

Desperately Seeking Susan also – even though it made by Orion pictures, which was a studio — the budget as somewhere between $5m and $6m, which for a Hollywood movie is still pretty low budget. The expectations of what it was were kind of low. Madonna wasn’t famous. Rosanne Arquette was an up and coming actress, not a star. Most of the other cast members, some who have gone on to become noted actors, were kind of unknowns. When it came out and coincided with Madonna’s meteoric rise to fame and hit the culture at just the right time, it was such a surprise. There’s something wonderful about discovering a movie, and that’s why I think it was embraced, in part. No one knew what it was going to be. It still shows on TV. No one thought it was going to have that kind of longevity.

FP: Do you feel that it’s difficult to be a female director in Hollywood?

SS: I do think that. Just look at the statistics — the number of female directors compared to the number of males. It’s pretty low. It’s a serious problem. It’s weird because in other areas — medical school for example — the percentages are more equal. I read somewhere that there are more women than men these days. Even though there are some women in powerful positions in the studios, it’s still a boy’s club — primarily a white boy’s club. That’s problematic. Women sometimes get a shot, but they’re as good as their last project. Or if they create too much commotion, they’re considered difficult. A difficult male director is  powerful. He is an artist. An auteur. Women who are difficult are thought of as bitches.

There’s also this idea that men are better with technology than women are. They’re better at playing with toys. I think that as the film industry has become more reliant on special effects and more complicated action sequences, that they, for whatever reason, have that feeling that guys can do it better. Unfortunately that’s where a lot of filmmaking has gone – movies that are about CGI.

FP: What was it like directing the pilot of Sex and the City? Did you have that same lightning in a bottle feel like with Desperately Seeking Susan?

SS: We didn’t know what we were sitting on top of. Darren Star sent me the pilot script, and I thought it was fantastic. I had high hopes that it was going to be something special because the material was so good. Directing is never easy. It’s physically draining. The hours are long. You’re on your feet. It’s tiring. But I didn’t feel that when we were directing the pilot. It just felt so right. Because the scenes had created and the characters he had created were so much fun to direct. It wasn’t effortless, but it didn’t feel like work.

When I saw the rough cut of the pilot, I just thought there was something special. But you’re never sure if the bigger audience is going to feel that same way. But from the early stages, it seemed unique to me. I felt that same way with Desperately Seeking Susan. It was like: Wow. This is kind of cool. It’s interesting. The fact that it became not only a successful series but a cultural phenomenon… it’s huge.

FP: What’s next for you?

SS: There’s a movie that I’m trying to get off the ground. I like to think I come out of the world of personal filmmaking. That’s where I started. When I was doing Smithereens, the main character was relatively close to my age and where I was at at that time in my life. Desperately Seeking Susan was the same thing. I was telling a story about characters who were around 30. With Sex and the City the characters were getting a little older; I was getting older. There was something I could relate to on a personal level.

Right now I’m actually working on a movie that I’m hoping will come together this fall about a middle-aged female who still feels young. That old isn’t what old used to be – especially for a big part of the Baby Boomer generation. When I used to think about people over 45, they seemed like old people to me. They didn’t get it. At this stage in my life, I think there’s a story to tell about getting older and still staying connected to your inner coolness. And not feeling older. It’s something I’m interested in.

There are also a lot of great actresses who are over 45, and in our youth-obsessed culture, not getting to play interesting movie characters anymore. We’ve put together an interesting cast of women who are great actresses and were major stars in the ’80s and early ’90s and should still be starring in movies.

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