Susan Seidelman on Madonna, Roseanne, and Her Punk Classic Smithereens

When the Quad Cinema announced their retrospective series “The New York Woman” (running through July 19), Susan Seidelman’s inclusion was a given; the Philadelphia-born, NYU-educated filmmaker directed two of the great New York movies of the ’80s (Smithereens and Desperately Seeking Susan), and the pilot for one of the great New York TV series of the ’90s, Sex and the City.

Smithereens, her 1982 debut feature, was co-written by future Oscar nominee Ron Nyswaner (Philadelphia), with a cast that included punk icon Richard Hell. It centers on a self-promoting downtown wannabee named Wren (Susan Berman) anxious to break into the fading punk scene, but the film is remembered less for its plot than for its quicksilver energy and low-budget ingenuity; shooting on the cheap in downtown NYC in 1980–81, Seidelman deployed the kind of guerrilla-style cinematography and personality-driven performance that would come to define late-20th-century American independent cinema.

Bolstered by a hard-driving soundtrack (including several songs by the Feelies, an arrangement made by Jonathan Demme, an admirer who saw the film in its rough cut form), Smithereens became the first American independent film to compete for the Cannes Film Festival’s Palme d’Or. Three years later, Seidelman released her sophomore feature, Desperately Seeking Susan, which used the downtown scene as the setting for a throwback identity-swap/amnesia screwball comedy; it was a box-office hit, thanks in no small part to Seidelman’s prescient decision to cast, in the title role, an up-and-coming club performer named Madonna.

Seidelman’s other films include Making Mr. Right, She-Devil, Boynton Beach Club, and The Hot Flashes; she also directed episodes of Sex and the City (including its pilot), Stella, and Now and Again. Smithereens screens at the Quad on Saturday, and it will make its Blu-ray debut in August as part of the prestigious Criterion Collection.

So you were born and raised in Philadelphia, and then you moved to New York to go to NYU?
Yeah. I knew wanted to be in New York and NYU was sort of an excuse to get me there. Because I really liked filmmaking, but at that time — it was like ’73, ’74 — the thought of actually being a professional female director, it was like a fantasy, it wasn’t an actual concrete goal. I knew I liked watching movies, but I really didn’t know of any female directors as role models, at that time. But the idea of going to film school, getting involved, getting to be around people who liked film, was exciting to me — and also getting out of suburban Philadelphia, that was the big motivator.

New York in the mid-’70s — we hear and read a lot about what a hellhole it was at that time. That’s certainly how it’s portrayed in movies of the period. What was your experience of the city coming in, was that stuff accurate or was that overblown?
Well, it was an exciting hellhole. It was kind of grungy, but to me that was what made it interesting. There was something very, you know, outsider-ish about it that was exciting and also inexpensive. The boundaries were blurred. As you know, the recession had hit New York in the mid-’70s, so there wasn’t a lot of policing going on. There was a lot of street-art activity, because it was cheap and it wasn’t forbidden. This is before Giuliani came in and suddenly things were more restrictive.

And you know, when you’re younger, you’re a little bit fearless. Perhaps also coming from being an outsider coming into the city, I didn’t know how dangerous it was. There was something that’s liberating about being so naïve! I’m five feet tall and I would take the subway home at night from some venue at three o’clock in the morning to St. Mark’s subway station. And I didn’t I didn’t even think, oh it’s dangerous. I didn’t know!

It was a great time to be creative and poor, because life was cheap there. And because of that, there was a lot going on — especially downtown.

And so out of that environment — it’s cheap and it’s creative and there’s all these things happening — Smithereens sort of came to be?
Absolutely. That inspired the kinds of characters and the look of the film. It was dirty and grungy and there was something about that, the textured feeling of the city, that made it very cinematic and interesting to me.

You shot it, if I understand correctly, in fits and starts; it wasn’t like we banged it out in two weeks, you were sort of stop and go?
Stop and go, stop and go, over a period of a year. It was filmed in three different sections. I think we started filming — I might be a year off here, been a while — in 1980, in May or June. So it was warm weather. We shot for a week. We were filming in an old loft building, the lead actress was on the fire escape, and she fell off and broke her leg. It could have been a disaster — it was sad she broke her leg, but the irony was that we stopped filming for three months while she was in a cast. And that gave me a week’s worth of dailies to edit, and to see what was working, to see what wasn’t working, and we really reshaped the script to emphasize the good stuff and take away the stuff that that just didn’t work as well.

And as soon as Susan Berman got out of the cast, it was now the winter, and I decided to go back and shoot the interior scenes. So all the stuff in Eric’s loft and the interiors, because I was afraid if I waited all the way till May and June of the following year, I would lose everyone.

We did that, and then I couldn’t shoot the exteriors till it was warm again, it wouldn’t match. So then I went back into the editing room. Now I had two chunks of footage that I could edit, saw again what was working and what wasn’t, tweaked the script a little bit to emphasize the stuff that I liked. And then the following spring, I guess now it was spring of ’81, went back and shot for another week or so, the remainder of the exteriors.

So it was like four weeks, spread out over a year.

One of the reasons I think the film is so interesting, and works so well, is that you have, in Wren, a lead character who has a lot of the rough edges that a more conventional movie would smooth over, and you don’t tell us how to feel about her. A lot of times when men direct movies about women, they want to make them either all or nothing, you know, a saint or a bitch. Was it important to you to create a female protagonist who was challenging for an audience?
Yes, it was, because I wanted to make her feel authentic and real. And you know people used the word, oh, is the character “sympathetic.” That’s something I’ve run up against a lot in the past 30 years. To me, I wanted her to be interesting, I wanted her to be compelling. Did I want her to be “nice”? Not necessarily. I wanted her not to be totally distasteful! But sympathetic, to me is somebody that you get invested in, that was important, you’re interested to see what’s going to happen to her. And not so much that there’s a kind of pat, oh she’s nice or she deserved that. I didn’t want to make a moral judgment.

I revisited both this and Desperately Seeking Susan again over the weekend, back to back, and watching them like that I was really struck by how much Wren and Susan have in common, in that way that they’re both these kind of tough downtown women who are unapologetically looking out for themselves. But Smithereens, you developed from your own story. Susan was a movie that came to you.
It changed, once I got involved. It was set in the East Village, and the character of Susan wasn’t this downtown punk kind of person. At that time she was a little bit more like a hippie traveler. It was more like Diane Keaton, Annie Hall-ish, that kind of a character. And what I thought would be interesting — again, because I was familiar with downtown culture — was to kind of morph it a little bit into the characters I knew, and that I thought could be interesting in that role. And so the character of Susan changed a little bit, and then certainly when we cast Madonna.

It was like working with Richard Hell in Smithereens. He was a musician, a downtown musician, who had a really interesting presence. And I thought I could get a good performance out of them by incorporating what was interesting about their persona, and layering that onto the character in the script. And it does involve acting, Richard Hell and Madonna were saying scripted lines, and they were acting. So when people say, Oh it’s just Madonna being Madonna, that’s not true. But I felt very comfortable looking at people, seeing what could work cinematically, and then trying to capture that onscreen.

I read somewhere that she basically blew up and became a megastar, like while you were shooting.
During the nine weeks we were filming, she went from really relative obscurity — certain musical people in New York in the downtown scene knew who she was, she had like one video on MTV — but suddenly her Like a Virgin album was about to come out, and she got on the cover of Rolling Stone somewhere around the last week or two that we were filming.

And boom. Suddenly everything exploded, we went from being able to film on the streets with no security whatsoever, no entourage, no nothing, to suddenly we had crowds of people when we were filming.

She’s just so clearly a star in the movie. It just captures her charisma so beautifully — and in a way that a lot of other movies after tried and failed to do. Why do you think that thing, which you got right off the bat, proved so elusive for other films?
Well, I was also very lucky that she wasn’t a star at the time we were filming. So I wasn’t, and the movie wasn’t, capitalizing on a famous person’s persona. It was just something about her as a person, and the qualities that would make her a star later on, that we were able to capture.

But the good thing also about working with somebody who would be such a big star, is that later on they do have agents that are hanging out on the set, they do have their team, their managers and makeup artists and everyone kind of hovering around, giving input, looking over the director’s shoulder at the monitor, and giving notes — we had none of that. Which is just a wonderful way to work.

Okay, I would be remiss if I didn’t ask about one other movie from around this time. You directed She-Devil starring Meryl Streep and Roseanne Barr, the latter of whom has been in the headlines a bit lately.
Yeah. Yeah, whoa, yeah, that was weird.

From your experience working with her, are you surprised by the turn that she’s taken over the past few years?
Well … yes, but I really preface this by saying, I liked her and I liked working with her. I thought she was really nice, I did not see any signs, I didn’t think she was a racist, we never had conversations about race. So those comments surprised me.

But the one thing I can say, in that I think it impacts what’s going on with her right now, is that she was unguarded. Some people have a natural sense of, just keep your mouth shut or don’t just say the first thing that pops into your head, whether you think it or not. She did have this quality of just blurting out, you know, how she went to the bathroom that morning! Or the sex she’d had with her boyfriend the night before, this was Tom Arnold at the time. Or whatever was going on in her head, there wasn’t a filter, she just blurted it out. For better or for worse.

So Smithereens is screening as part of this Quad Cinema series of the great New York movies. You just got back from the Edinburgh Festival, where it screened as one of the essential American ’80s independent films. It joins the Criterion Collection later this year. It’s really becoming part of the canon of that era, which is great.
It’s surprising!

Aside from it just being a great movie, do you have any theories as to why it’s becoming so revered in recent years?
Well, you know, when I made the movie I really did not think about its future. I didn’t even think about getting a distributor, or going to the Cannes Film Festival, I really did not think further ahead than I want to make this movie and I hope I can finish it. But I do think that sometimes out of that naïveté and the genuine desire to make something about the time you’re living in, without any calculation, it has an honesty and a purity to it that transcends time.

And I think that that’s one of the things, you know, watching it again and watching it with audiences that weren’t even born at the time the film was shot, I realized that that character does have a timeless quality. That she is a kind of person that could exist now. So it has a kind of purity that that makes the character relatable or recognizable to contemporary audiences.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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