A Few Questions for Lena Dunham's Mom
Laurie Simmons talks about her directing debut, MY ART. And, of course, about her family.
The film follows Ellie (played by Simmons herself), a single, middle-aged artist whose career hasn't yet developed the way she wanted. Or, better: She has a stable job as a teacher in an arts school and is surrounded by successful and supportive friends, but her artwork hasn't been acclaimed internationally. She profits from the summer break to go house-sitting in upstate New York, where an affluent friend has left her a “blank space” to shake up her practice. Ellie's solitary creative process is soon interrupted by two actors-turned-gardeners (Robert Clohessy and Josh Safdie), who—half courting her, half just dying to do some acting—funnily partake in the making of her artworks. As we get a glimpse of what an artist's studio practice really is, My Art delivers both a tribute to the history of film and a reflection on the art world's generational divide. At the end of her creative retreat, Ellie's new set of art pieces includes re-enactments of classics such as Some Like It Hot, Jules & Jim, and A Clockwork Orange, and also has situated the figure of the struggling artist no longer at the beginning of a career. Creative struggle happens at all ages and stages, the film suggests; it has to do also with consistency and experimentation, not uniquely with fame and presence in the marketplace. As to ironically draw a parallelism, Lena Dunham makes a brief cameo as an artist (and Ellie's former student) whose career is successfully boosting with Biennales and international shows. Other known and lesser-known faces from Simmons' entourage make their appearance, too: Parker Posey, stage and film actors Blair Brown and John Rothman, as well as Barbara Sukowa. My Art premiered at the Venice Film Festival, where I had the pleasure to interview Simmons.
To contextualize, why did you decide to make this film?
Laurie Simmons: This character was growing and growing in my mind. She was a fun person to think about, because I had two issues that were kind of troubling me: Number one was the portrayal of women on screen who were around my age. And number two was the portrayal of artists on screen. I've been thinking about these things a lot. Around 2010 or 2011, I would go for long walks, and started to think about this very vivid woman-character who wasn't me. It was one of those daydreams that were super satisfying. So I started writing down the little moments in her life, putting them to paper, never imagining that it would end up being a film. I got to a point where I was really starting to tell a story. Then I had to learn how to write a script!
Did your daughter Lena help out with the script? You weren't known as a narrative artist.
Simmons: I was anti-narrative until this! I always thought that she would've helped me with the script, and by the time I really had something that I could let her read, she was so deep into her working on Girls and everything else that she was doing... so I let her read the script finally when it was done. She really loved it, and told me she’d like to work on it too. At first I was excited at the idea, but I knew that it would have been my own project, because I could see how busy she was. And I thought, 'You know, it's time for me to grow up and do this on my own!'
Miranda Scherffig: Are there any other overlaps between the character Ellie and you?
Simmons: Yes, the sense that I understand so well what it means to be a solitary artist, to work alone. At least for my generation, a lot work that way. Going into your studio and working on your art—whether you have a partner, whether you are married, whether you have children, whether you have a dog, we all face the same demons in the studio. So in that sense Ellie's looking for new identities, looking for a new voice, that part is super familiar to me. And then her character being a single woman and having not a lot of worldly success—she has personal success, she has great friends, she seems to have a good job; she's based on so many women who are my close friends. It's like I know her, personally. I had to do things to help me become her; there was a certain perfume I called 'my Ellie perfume' that I would only put on in certain moments, and there were certain ways I wore my hair, certain clothes I wore, but... yes, she's a compilation of many women I know.
Miranda Scherffig: And is that why you decided to be the lead actress? Were you struggling at the beginning?
Simmons: I was struggling as to whether or not to play her. I think the thing that ultimately made me decide to play her was that so much of the film is just her being in her process of cutting or pasting or shooting or looking at art. Things that are really second nature to me. A lot of the dialogue was also left to the other actors. I tried to write it so that that I would have more work as a physical artist and less as an actress, you know?
Miranda Scherffig: The opening scene is shot at the Whitney, where Ellie is looking at the exhibited artworks and we see the reflection of the cameraman and the boom. Why did you decide to keep it?
Simmons: I like to leave clues around, even in my own artistic work. I think that making art is a process of leaving evidence and clues, and playing games with yourself. I am always the person that notices one scene if the lipstick color of the actresses change, I'm the one always looking for those mistakes, or clues.
Miranda Scherffig: Everybody around Ellie is 'super busy, oh I am so busy, very busy.' How do you relate to that? On the one hand it seems that she's not jealous of other people's success, while on the other it feels really like it's all just a pose.
Simmons: I think that New York is this super busy town. Is the place where you live and you don't see your best friend for six months, but you talk to on the phone. The quality of life there is constantly changing, and people are very uncomfortable when they're not moving. I'm always amazed when I come to visit friends in France or Rome, where you literally do three things in a day and that day is done. And I kind of love it. But New York is almost a joke about being busy. If you're being realistic and trying [to show] the city, you have to make a reference to that.
Miranda Scherffig: An upside of that attitude is perhaps shown when one of Ellie's friends suggests that she should embarrass herself more. Is there any reference about you going out of your comfort zone, and choosing a different medium?
Simmons: That's another great clue you picked up. I always felt that in my work, early on, particularly when I had my first show 1979. I had made two bodies of work. One of them—which was dolls and dolls' houses—embarrassed me terribly. The other was more conceptionally cool. I showed both works, and the people that wrote about or who came to see the show were only interested in the work that was embarrassing. They barely saw the work that I was comfortable with. So I started out early thinking that pushing yourself out of your comfort zone might actually mean being embarrassed. I love that connection. Also the movie, even when I watch it, is hugely embarrassing to me.
Miranda Scherffig: You mentioned earlier that we see Ellie preparing the studio, setting up things, using different tools, before we actually see her work. So I thought about the creative process. Is there something similar to the way you work?
Simmons: Yes. I think that most artists I know involve themselves in a huge amount of preparation before they work. Since this isn't a job, no one is telling you how to do it and when. You need to make yourself feel important, organized. The set-up is so much about getting you to the moment when you can actually make things. Of course Ellie had to learn how to navigate a whole new studio. She had to see what she could borrow from her friends to use. She was actually like a vampire in her friend's house, taking the marijuana, taking the clothes, taking pieces of furniture.
Miranda Scherffig: How was it to work with Josh Safdie and Parker Posey?
Simmons: Josh is a friend, and besides being an incredible director, he's an amazing actor. I thought he would just capture the vulnerability, the arrogance... he's just the perfect Tom. Even also when he kisses Ellie—he thinks of himself as Marlon Brando [in one of the re-enactments]—there's something so innocent about it: He's not coming on to an older woman, he's just completely high on his own supply. And Parker is just the emblem of indie movies, and I'm making an indie movie. Her energy always feels like she's jumping from one movie to the other so it was really thrilling to have her jump into my movie... and hang from a tree! And that was her real beautiful blond hair—I heard somebody wrote that she was wearing a wig but that's her hair.
Miranda Scherffig: At the end of the credits I saw a mention of Giuliana Bruno, whose writing is an incredible inspiration for many critics and scholars.
Simmons: Yes, she's here, she's been with me every second! She's my producer's (Andrew Fierberg) wife. It's all family. I have an 'academic rockstar' in my circle. Her book is also in the film.
Miranda Scherffig: What was the most challenging thing you did? Do you want to make another movie?
Simmons: The most challenging thing was deciding what Ellie's artwork would be. Inventing movie art. And... regarding movies: Yes! It's an addiction. But I don't want to leave my studio practice. I want to make a winter movie. This movie was so green! I started shooting in 2013, so the bulk of the shoot took about twenty-one days, and then we shot all the art separately and that took another week. It took so long to really do it.
Miranda Scherffig: Frank, the gardener, asks her what she's doing, and she goes, 'I don't know yet, I don't know yet.' So there's the concept of the art practice and not knowing what is going to happen. Did you have a precise idea when you started making the film, and did you accomplish it, visually?
Simmons: First of all, I think that making art of any sort is like taking a leap into the unknown. You may think you know what you're doing, but you never know really. It's not that controlled. I made the film that I wanted to make. But certainly, before I made it, I could not image what it would take. I just didn't know how sad it would be or how funny. The thing about making an artwork is that there are a bunch of moving parts. In the end it's almost like magic that makes it work or not work. This is certainly true with film.
Miranda Scherffig: One can feel that magic in the film's events too. After her surprise birthday party, Ellie notices that 'everything happens all at once, always.' So it's either nothing or everything. Did you build the story this way because of a plot climax or because it happens to you too?
Simmons: I think it's both. I think that life is like a movie sometimes. These sequences of events that happen to me seem like they could've happened only in fiction or in narrative movies. You couldn't have made this stuff up, this is so unbelievable... that you won't believe it. But life really is like that. Like you would have a surprise birthday party and... well I don't want to give away the whole movie! But lots of things could happen in a twenty-four-hour period.