When she was asked to serve as showrunner for a new HBO show about four young women in New York City, Jenni Konner likely did not expect that the show would one day serve as the core of a Sunday-night block. Yet here we here — Girls has just entered its fourth season, and it is anchoring a night of half-hour dramedies, including Looking and the new Duplass Brothers show Togetherness. Late last night, Konner spoke with John Horn, host of Southern California Public Radio's new arts and entertainment show, “The Frame,” about the new season and how she responds to critics of the show.
I want to take you back a little bit in time to the original pitch for this show. Is that original pitch what the show has become?
Well, the original pitch wasn’t really a pitch. What it was was that Lena had made Tiny Furniture — one of the reasons it all happened so quickly for us at HBO was because we had this template. So, we had this movie and we said, “Well, the show is going to look kind of like this, and it’s going to feel like this. And we’re going to have some more girls in it, and it’s going to be probably a little funnier. And that’s what the show’s going to be.” So, there were no surprises, because when you sell a pilot based on a pitch, no matter how great the script is, it’s going to look different and feel different from what someone imagines in their head. There will always be varying degrees of disappointment or confusion, and so we used the same DP. Lena was the director, Lena was the star, so they weren’t very surprised, and that helps a lot.
Where had you guys first met? What was your first collaboration?
Our first collaboration was Girls, and we met very romantically through our agents. But actually, the reason we met was because I saw Tiny Furniture. Sue Naegle from HBO — this is just coincidentally, we’re mothers at the same school — had given me a DVD and said, “Oh, you should watch this.” And I became obsessed with it. I thought it was really, really incredible, and so I would have our agents at UTA make me copies so I could give it to people. If I were here today, back then, I would have given you a copy and just been like, “This is a very important movie to see. It’s going to rock your world. Please enjoy it.” Judd now calls me the unofficial distributor.
Yeah, so you’re kind of a small band of pirates, right?
Yes, exactly! I'm bootlegging.
You were a bootlegger.
And I was just a huge fan. Lena made a blind script deal at HBO, which means basically they’re just going to make something with her, they just don’t know what it is yet. Basically, she had gone into a meeting and said, “I feel like people like me are underrepresented on television,” and that was all they knew. And then she needed a supervisor who had television experience, and they called me because I was like her stalker.
And where does Judd Apatow figure into all this?
During that time when Lena and I first met and started to fall in love, about somewhere within the two weeks after that, he saw Tiny Furniture, called UTA. They said, “Oh, Jenni’s doing it,” and I’ve worked with Judd since Undeclared, and once you work with Judd, you never stop working with Judd.
Unless something really bad happens.
I know, though, name a time. Really, only something really good happens. Like you learn everything. So I started working. He called me, and I remember I had taken a friend to the eye doctor because he had to get his pupils dilated, and I got the phone call, and Judd was like, “Hey! So, you’re working with Lena Dunham. Rocking and rolling! You want a little help?” And I was like, “Uh, yeah! We would love it.” And then our show went from a little niche nothing to a big Judd Apatow project.
Has the nature of the creative collaboration evolved over the years, and do you find yourself doing things that you weren’t doing in the first season that you’re doing now? Has the balance of work shifted in any material way?
Yes, significantly. Because at the beginning, Lena didn’t know at all how to run a show. Why would she? And then, very quickly, like so quickly, she learned how. And so, all of a sudden, my work became less because she really learned how to produce in that way, and to show-run. I stopped supervising her pretty early on. She could learn German in two days, I think, if she wanted to. That’s how quickly she learns things. And she got more comfortable with other people’s writing. We have this incredible writing staff, and she started — really early on in the first season — to really trust them. And so then it became easier for her to step back a little bit. Not from writing. I mean, she always is going to do the lion’s share of the writing, and every script will always go through her, but she realized other people could do that, and the same with the directing. She’s been directing fewer and fewer episodes because we have such great directors who really understand the voice of the show, and then she can devote her time to other things.
This is clearly a show that is a lot about her as a performer and her as a person, her as a creative person. Does the show represent more of a consensus of what the group putting the show together decide upon as opposed to one person’s idea?
The show is always going to be Lena’s voice predominantly. Though she is an incredibly collaborative person, she also knows what she wants and knows what her voice is. The way we do it is me and Lena and Judd sit down a few times and have these long sessions where we just try to figure out sort of generally what’s going to happen every year, and what the journeys of the characters are going to be in a general way. And then we get a little more specific and think about what the first two episodes are going to be, and then Lena and I usually go off and write them so we can go into the room with people knowing exactly how it starts, and then we all break the season together and it becomes very collaborative. These characters really belong to all of us now, and we all really know them. And so, people will fight hard for something they want or something they don’t want that they don’t believe a character would do.
Let’s talk about what’s happening now. You have moved the show to Iowa.
Part of the show.
Part of the show. That’s true. You’ve moved Lena.
Hannah has moved. We have moved to Iowa. What precipitated that, and why did you think that was an interesting narrative idea?
Well, Hannah is a person who really cares about her art and cares about her writing, and we wanted her to take it seriously, and she’s sort of always been applying to Iowa kind of quietly. There’s just this fun idea for us also, of, what will it look like? Everyone’s so used to Hannah now, in her world. What if we put her in a room with a whole different group of people who had no idea who she was? How would they perceive her? How quickly would they figure her out?
And how would they judge her?
And how would they judge her! And then when you make that room specifically MFA students, then it becomes an even more extreme version. It’s kind of like its own weird spinoff.
Because as students, they are criticizing work, and they are very eloquent about that criticism, and the work itself is, at least at the beginning, very autobiographical.
So, it is almost as if she is in a group therapy session where she doesn’t get to defend herself and everybody else gets to do their own diagnosis.
That’s right, and again, you’re not allowed, as you just said, you’re not allowed to speak when you’re in the middle of your critique. And there’s almost nothing that I could imagine being harder for Hannah in her entire life. And that’s a real struggle for her.
When you were thinking about moving the show, you tried to shoot at the University of Iowa.
And the spokesman for the university, and I’m quoting him now, “I felt the storyline placed the city and university in an unfavorable light and considering the potential for disruption, I made the decision to deny the request.”
But we had not made the request when he denied the request. He heard that we were going to do it because one of the writers in our writers’ room actually went to that MFA program and is in close contact with them and let them know we were doing this. So, he actually denied us before we requested it. But the truth is that, budgetarily, it was so much better for us to stay where we are.
So where are you? Where is the University of Iowa?
In Staten Island, and we’re in Brooklyn. And we’re in Poughkeepsie. And having never been to Iowa, I’d like to say we did an incredible job.
When you move a character geographically away from a place, as you describe, you create new situations, new challenges. But you also create a storytelling problem that you have to solve, which is how many phone calls, how many Skype calls can we have? How do we connect these characters together, and how have you gone about trying to wrestle with that challenge?
We don’t actually think that’s a challenge. One of the things we have always tried to pay a particular lot of attention to is this idea that if you were in a group of friends, you all get together all the time. We live in the real world, and I never see anyone I like. Barely. Except at work. It’s very hard to get together with your friends. You rarely see friends as a whole group. It’s one at a time and all that. And so that’s something that, even for the first three seasons, we didn’t worry about that much. I think the girls aren’t all together in one place until the middle of the first season. We weren’t really concerned that that would be like a huge division for them.
There are two things that have happened with her going to Iowa and this MFA seminar. One is you have put her in a room that is as diverse as any MFA program probably in the nation.
And I’m wondering if part of that is in reaction to the criticism of the show itself.
No. Honestly, we try never to react to any of the criticism. It’s such a losing battle, and it’s one thing to hear it and metabolize it. But to do stories based on it, we’ll just lose that fight. That was casting. It was just really one of the people in the room was a writer on our show who went to an MFA program, so we loved him. That’s Jason Kim. And Desiree, we’ve been wanting to figure out a way to work with for a while because we knew her. And the rest was we have an amazing casting director named Jennifer Euston who does Orange Is the New Black. She’s a genius.
But also within that environment, I think you kind of touched on this a little bit earlier, you can use these students to express opinions that maybe you know are out there about Lena or about Hannah. That you can use that room to kind of be a laboratory of what those criticisms are. So, even if you say you ignore it, it feels like—
No, no. I’m sure subconsciously that’s all we’re doing.
I think you’re doing more than that, but it certainly is informing it?
Yeah, and also I think we wanted to sort of touch on this idea about the MFA. Some writing programs are very much, you come in and you have a niche that becomes yours, and, you know, you’re the dude from the streets. Or you’re the woman who was in prison. Or you’re whatever. So, we were casting based on that as well.
You had also done, and I suspect still do, some script doctoring for feature films.
Well, I do it just for friends now, but I used to do it a lot as a career.
How did that experience affect, improve, or detract from your ability to work in television?
I’d done so much television until then. I would just say that experience was really positive for me. It was always really, really fun. First of all, it’s always great. It’s the easiest thing in the world to be able to go in and just say, “Oh, I think this is wrong with it. Let me do something better.” Like, the writer of the script has already done the hard work, and I just come in and I'm like, “Here’s a joke!” and everyone’s like, “Hallelujah! You’re great!” And so that is kind of a lovely position to be placed in, but also, I got to work with people I just never probably would have ever worked with. I worked with Michael Bay on Transformers, and I got to work with the writer of Transformers, who’s this really great guy whom I loved.
You worked on the robots fighting? Is that what you did?
The fight choreography.
Yeah, they brought me in for that, definitely.
Or the nude scenes?
Well, sort of. I got to do a little bit of that, and I got to work with this writer who had written all the Transformers who was a completely different — you don’t meet guys like that in comedy rooms. And so, that was really interesting. And Michael Bay. It was like being on another planet, but it was so interesting. And he was so lovely to me.
You’re apparently the first person.
I don’t know.
I didn’t say that.
But it was really interesting to watch, and also I had never been on anything that had a budget of more than $40 million, maybe? And so, the first day, I literally got there and we were in what I thought was an office building. And then they were like, “Okay, be careful. Hold on,” and the office building tipped. Tipped 15 percent or something, and just slanted, because it had been hit by a bomb where we were shooting, which is new to me.
So, what did you actually do on that movie? What did you write?
Well, what happened was it was when Megan Fox left and they brought in Rosie.
Yes, and then the writer was on the set doing other writerly things, doing the rest of the movie, sort of, and they just wanted extra help with the female part. Often when I was brought in for things, it was extra help with the female part.
So, you could write for a lingerie model and for Lena Dunham.
Exactly. That’s right, that’s right.
You said earlier that you try to insulate, consciously or subconsciously, yourself, and I suspect the writing staff on the show from the criticisms about the show.
Well, not completely.
What does that mean?
I don’t like to listen to the unthoughtful criticism. When we have thoughtful criticism, I love it. It’s when people come at you on Twitter and say really crazy things. That’s the kind of stuff that I insulate myself from. All of that is not very interesting or helpful, but we have critics who sometimes really love us or sometimes don’t, and it’s really interesting for me to see what they don’t like about it. Just thoughtful. Alan Sepinwall or Willa Paskin, people who are really, really smart, thoughtful critics who just say, “Oh, I didn’t like it when they did this.”
But do you pay attention to that? Do you think thoughtful criticism can affect the way you go forward?
Probably not, probably not. But it must get in there, and I like to read it.
Why do you think the show or Lena elicits such a strong, almost personal, reaction? Do you have any theories?
I mean, I don’t really know. All I know is that it’s better that then someone yawing. I’d rather have people loving it or hating it or feeling passionate about it than ignoring it. It’s a better place to be.