'Girls' producers Lena Dunham & Jenni Konner talk finale, backlash, Judd Apatow and more
What did they learn making season 1 of the HBO comedy? And how do they feel about James Franco, TV critic?
Even by the standards of a national approach to popular culture where we build people up quickly only to tear them down just as quickly, the roller coaster of good and bad hype for Lena Dunham and "Girls" was pretty extreme. Before the show premiere, TV critics were falling over themselves to come up with new superlatives for it. (Mine was "it may, in fact, be the best new HBO comedy since 'Curb Your Enthusiasm'") Almost immediately after it debuted, there was a backlash to the show (and to the reviews), then a backlash to the backlash, a backlash to the backlash to the backlash, etc.
The praise and pans kept flying back and forth, back and forth, and all the while Dunham and showrunning partner Jenni Konner just kept working on the show, first finishing up the 10 episodes of season 1, then seguing almost immediately to production on season 2. And because the two of them in general — and Dunham in particular, who co-writes every episode, stars in all of them and directs many of them — are so busy making "Girls," they were able to exist in a bubble about the feedback — but only to a point. Dunahm says she tries to do "half press avoidance," but can only avoid so much — especially since her mother likes to forward her press clippings.
So when I sat down with Dunham and Konner for a bookend to the interview we did before the season, it was in the context of me having seen the entire first season (here's my review of the season finale), and of them being aware of most, if not all, of the good and bad things people had been saying about it. Over a long lunch — I should warn you, this transcript clocks in at close to 9,000 words, so I've broken it up into sections for those who want to read it piecemeal — we talked about the reaction to the series, about the ways the show and their working relationship evolved, lessons learned that will be applied to season 2, Dunham's weight loss (thanks to better eating habits and a daily spin class, she's noticeably slimmer than when the first season was filmed), and more, all coming up just as soon as I'm wearing two plaids...
UPDATE: It turned out this interview may have been the point at which word limits actually do matter on the Internet, as it keeps being cut off before the end. So I'm splitting it up into two parts, with the first three sections down below, and the next two here. Sorry for the confusion.
PART ONE: WHEN YOU SEE ONE THING, WHILE YOUR AUDIENCE SEES ANOTHER
So we end the season as it began, with Hannah stuffing her face.
Lena Dunham: It’s so true.
Was that deliberate? How did you come to that?
Lena Dunham: You know, it’s a very Hannah move. She does it at points in the middle of the season, too. But I think when we actually had it, we had an end that was her on the beach that felt like it was missing one kind of Hannah-ish beat, one thing that sort of reminded you what our show was and who she was and where her priorities lay.
Jenni Konner: Hannah’s staring to the ocean. We needed to keep a comedy point of view about it, even though we’re allowed to have a serious moment occasionally.
Lena Dunham: But it is a serious moment. She and the people around her are sort of having these massive life transitions. And she’s sort of looking deep into her soul, but that doesn't prevent her from like really wanting to stuff her face with sweets. And only later did I become of the sort like having her cake and eating, too, or eating your cake and no longer having it resonance.
Jenni Konner: It didn't occur to any of is until people started talking about and then we were like, oh yeah, totally.
Lena Dunham: We’re big in metaphor. And it did seem like shocking to me that she hadn’t found an opportunity to eat the cake previous to that point at the wedding.
At that point, the cake is all she has. She’s lost her best friend, she’s possibly lost her boyfriend, she’s lost her wallet, she’s lost in Coney Island with a piece of cake.
Lena Dunham: It’s true. Maybe it’s just my desire for sweets, but there's something really hopeful about that sort of indulgence at a moment like. And so it was fun to shoot and we were drawn to it without really looking at it sort of like deep emotional implications. Those sort of appeared for us later, I think.
So when we talked in January, you said there's an arc to the season and there very clearly is, having now seen all 10 of them.
Jenni Konner: Were you surprised?
Certainly, I was not expecting to see Jessa and Thomas-John get married.
Jenni Konner: Yes. But were you also surprised about—
Well, the Adam thing and the warehouse party was—
Jenni Konner: The Adam thing, because you wrote that thing about—
Yeah, because I asked you about that. I said, "This is the grossest human being I’ve ever seen. It’s the worst relationship." And you said, "Oh, it changes," and it did.
Lena Dunham: And that was hard for anyone to believe. I think they thought that was like turning Jeffery Dahmer into someone who worked with kids at the end of the movie or something he did.
Jenni Konner: We never thought he was as unlikable as everyone else did, in the beginning.
Lena Dunham: We had constant debates, like, "Are these scenes too sweet between them?" And the public reaction would be like, "This is the most repulsive sex scene I’ve ever witnessed between two humans."
Jenni Konner: And, conversely, people are like, "I love Adam. I think this is amazing." And I’m like, "Really? It’s supposed to be complicated."
Lena Dunham: I can't tell if I’m more upset when people say this is purely disgusting or when people say that was a hot sex scene, either one of those reactions chills me to my bones.
Jenni Konner: Is so upsetting.
But, when they have that conversation in the warehouse episode, it almost feels like, "Oh my God, Bruce Willis has been dead the whole time" — that everything you’ve thought you knew is completely different.
Lena Dunham: That's so awesome. That was our dream. When we were writing that episode together, initially, it was like Adam just pulled another Adam: he showed up, invited her somewhere, dropped her off his bike and disappeared. And suddenly Jenni was like, "We’ve been building to something so much sweeter and more complicated than this. What does he actually want?" It was really like Jenni kind of pushing a different agenda. It was incredibly exciting. I remember when we figured out that moment and Jenni wrote that last beat and showed it to me, that they were all stuffed in the car with the bike on top of them and the big grin and I just felt a lot.
What you said before, Jenni, about how you didn't expect him to be as unlikable as he was early on —the ongoing discussion about everything about "Girls" is, "Oh my God, I didn't realize how terrible Marnie is" or...
Lena Dunham: Yeah.
Jenni Konner: Yeah. I think, in that case, actually, we thought Marnie was worse, right?
Lena Dunham: Because after every episode, we were like, "What an exhausting bitch." And then, I’ve got all these people tweeting me like "I’m such a Marnie," "Why is Hannah so mean to Marnie?," "That Marnie’s the only logical one here." My favorite was some guy tweeted at me, “You suck. You made watch a whole episode without any Amanda Williams in it.” I was like, "I’m so sorry, dude."
Jenni Konner: We may do all of them without Amanda Williams.
Lena Dunham: Well, it was funny. When we were casting, we had cast Jessa and myself and we still hadn’t cast Marnie, and Shosh was not at that point as primary character as she currently is. Judd said the funniest thing. He said, “Lena, we need to get somebody in there.” He was like, “Jemima seems like she would cut off your penis. You’re neurotic at best. We need to get someone in there that some guy in America can possibly imagine taking out to dinner.” And it’s like, “Good point.” I personally was like, "You don't think every guy in America wants to take me out to dinner?"
Jenni Konner: Of course, we’re incapable of actually following a character like that.
Lena Dunham: Writing that character.
But do you think that that aspect of Allison, that she is so beautiful, blinded people at first, too?
Jenni Konner: No, I think we were just more sensitive to Marnie’s flaws than other people were and more sensitive to Hannah, to Marnie’s treatment of Hannah and the judgment of Hannah.
Lena Dunham: Also, I think a lot of the things that we viewed as flaws for Marnie, other people were like why would that be a flaw? She’s responsible, resourceful.
Jenni Konner: Yeah, she’s organized.
Lena Dunham: Loyal.
Jenni Konner: It’s true. Type A can go either way.
In general, how do you approach this whole issue of how likable any of these four women have to be and how their behavior is, how much the audience needs to sympathize? Or do you just not care?
Lena Dunham: We don't care.
Jenni Konner: We don't care.
Lena Dunham: I’ve learned a lot from Jenni. No, you go first.
Jenni Konner: Neil LaBute said, I think it was in the New York Times, this is paraphrasing, obviously, but he basically said, "People are always asking me who to like in this show, and I’m like, 'Like your friends. This is a show.'" And I do think that we want to like people but the luxury of cable is not having to make everyone’s behavior coming from goodness.
Lena Dunham: It’s not "Everyone's just misunderstood." What I love about the way that Jenni looks at scenes is she doesn't mind if people are coming from a place of selfishness or a place of deep insecurity that's causing them to act out horribly. I think we step in or shift things if we feel like a behavior feels deeply unfeminist or coming from a place of really base values, like just if something’s really antithetical to what our world view is and what our values are, we push against that and that's something that I’ve really learned from Jenni. Like, no one’s going to give a blowjob for money. Someone is going to steal money after they watch someone masturbate, but that's different. There are certain lines, like nobody is stealing.
Jenni Konner: I don't even know. I think it's hard to define.
Lena Dunham: I don't know. It’s an intuitive thing.
Jenni Konner: Yeah, it’s just something to feel.
Lena Dunham: If they’re into it or something.
Were there certain things that were pitched in the room where you're like, "Wait, okay, that's a bridge too far. If we do that, we’ve lost everyone"?
Lena Dunham: Never what you’d expect. It’s so funny. People would suggest, "She dates him because he has a great apartment," and we’re like, "We’re not doing that."
Jenni Konner: She would never do that. Hannah would never care about that.
Lena Dunham: Yeah, exactly. The line was like, she steals money from people at a blood bank and we’re like no — we haven't done that.
Jenni Konner: We’re guided — just at the moment we’ll feel what feels good or feels wrong or too far, I think. But the great thing that we learned from the feedback from this season is that it’s kind of interesting to show a lot of different points of view from a lot of different people and they’re not fact and they’re not our opinions. They’re the opinions of the characters. And it’s been really great to talk about abortion and show a bunch of different opinions that are coming from the place of, "Well, we all know she’s getting an abortion, so what are the four opinions on that rather than 'should she, shouldn't she?'"
Lena Dunham: It becomes less a moral debate and more a reflection of like the various worldviews of different kinds of women this age.
But because of how relatively unique the show is and its point of view is, and also the title you gave it, it feels like sometimes people are expecting it to be more representative and more symbolic.
Jenni Konner: I know. Is too late to call it "A Couple of Girls"? "You Girls."
Lena Dunham: "Two Girls."
Jenni Konner: Yeah, "One Girl’s Weird Point of View That Doesn't Necessarily Reflect Our Own."
Lena Dunham: "One Girl, Three Friends and a Pizza Place."
It's "Girls*" with the asterisk, and then there’s a really long footnote in the title card.
Jenni Konner: Exactly.
Lena Dunham: Yeah. And I think when we called it "Girls," there was a certain kind of irony we felt, that wasn’t necessarily received by viewers, which was that the idea of calling a show about four girls in a really specific part of Brooklyn with a really like weird, kind of skewed POV — there's something funny about giving it that kind of universal title to something that's so itself. But I think people really went into it — from what I read, considering I do like half press avoidance —people really went into it with a sense that it was sort of going to be filling the gap for everybody. I think as the world of the show, grows and expands, there (will be) more cross-sections with more people with a varied viewpoint than these girls, but that takes a little time to establish the world.
Jenni Konner: Yeah. I kind of love that when she said "the voice of my generation, or a voice of a generation," that some people took it seriously. We meant it jokingly. But, you know, if they did and that appalled them, that's okay, too, like there's sort of a funniness about that miscommunication that I don't mind.
Lena Dunham: I always hoped that because she was like clearly having a very negative drug reaction that that would sort of excuse her from — I don't mind if it excuses Hannah, but that would sort of excuse me from calling myself out.
Jenni Konner: But you never said it was you.
Lena Dunham: It was a character on opium. It’s so crazy. I was not on opium at that time.
Jenni Konner: Well, does Shonda Rhimes — I mean, I know you’re playing the part and it’s blurry, but I wonder, because Meredith Grey is so flawed — she’s brilliantly flawed and I think incredibly well done — are people mad at Shonda because Meredith Grey makes a choice that they consider stupid or says something rude?
Sometimes people get made at Shonda. I don't think it's necessarily about what Meredith does.
Lena Dunham: The get mad when she kills people.
Yeah or when George and Izzie start sleeping together, or Izzie is resuscitating a deer with CPR, that sort of thing.
Jenni Konner: Right.
But you're right, the line becomes blurry because it’s Lena playing Hannah.
Jenni Konner: Yeah. Of course.
One of her friends is playing her friend, so it’s not quite as blurry as the movie ("Tiny Furniture"), but it’s still blurry enough. In hindsight, given the reaction you got, is there anything you might have done differently to fend off some of the ridiculousness that came? Or this is the show you wanted to make and you wouldn't want to change a thing?
Lena Dunham: I’m pretty anti-regret, generally, and I feel like we’ve had this—we’re doing a second season and have an amazing opportunity to continue to grow and learn.
Jenni Konner: And, yeah, that would be a harder question to answer if we didn't have a second season. We’d have had to address some things.
Lena Dunham: I feel like you were, as Mary J. Blige said, all we can do is grow.
Jenni Konner: All we can do is grow, that's what our girl Mary J. says.
PART TWO: 'GIRLS' FRIENDS
So let’s talk about growing and learning. Jenni, you’ve worked in TV a lot. Lena, this is your first time.
Lena Dunham: Big time.
What are things that each of you, that Jenni learned about making this show in particular and Lena learned about making TV that is now going to inform what you’re doing with the stuff you’re filming now?
Jenni Konner: I’ve learned just a massive amount from Lena, as a writer and director and an actor. I’m not interested in acting, but there's an honesty and a bravery to her work that I’ve never seen anyone do sort of up close like this and that spoke to me so much. So I’ve certainly learned to put it all out there much more. And I think, you know, together we’ve learned so much. It’s crazy to even imagine.
Lena Dunham: I think about some of where we were at the beginning of last season versus this season and just our relationship. One of the most meaningful parts of the whole thing — not to like turn this into babysitters’ club corner — but it was Jenni and my relationship growing and changing and evolving. It’s been the most successful collaboration I’ve ever been a part of, and it’s really meaningful to me. There's a way that I write now because of Jenni, like a way that I crack my mind open that I never would have before, and there's times where if like before—
Jenni Konner: I can't believe you’re saying that because I really feel that about you.
Lena Dunham: Because I feel like before, I was like, "If it didn't happen in my life, I’m not going to write about it."
Jenni Konner: There is a lot of like, "Yes, I know that hasn't happened to you."
Lena Dunham: "But he wasn't wearing a hat."
Jenni Konner: "But now it’s time that we start imagining."
It’s the famous Ray Romano story, where they want him to drink coffee, and he says he doesn't drink coffee, and he goes, "I guess I'm gonna have to act now."
Jenni Konner: Yes. In fact, I’ve quoted that many times because I’ve seen Phil (Rosenthal) on so many panels. He actually is like the greatest storyteller in the world and I worship him.
Lena Dunham: But the other thing is something that Jenni does, and it’s something that Judd (Apatow) does, too, but the way that Jenni ups the stakes of everything that we’re doing and asks how can we turn this on its head, it’s just totally shifted my way of thinking. And I think we’ve also learned a lot about what it means to run a set and to try to stay really true to your vision while also trying to recognize that you’re responsible for the day-to-day lives and employment of a lot of, way more people than I’ve ever been responsible for.
Jenni Konner: Yeah and it’s finding a balance. You know, I never had the opportunity to really run a set with such blurry lines between who was who and what does what and it’s been really, really exciting. And I think it’s finding our footing in that, too, and saying like, well, how can it be really comfortable for everyone but also have some boundaries and learn. But I would say the thing about turning things on their head is just all Judd. "What is the freshest way to do this? What is the realest way to do this?" are questions he’s been asking me for 10 years and I just keep asking them to myself and to Lena.
Lena Dunham: It’s been amazing.
Jenni Konner: That's always the most exciting way to get things more amusing. Although, you did point out, I think it was, was it you who pointed out that everyone gets injured at end of 107, was that you?
I don't think it was me.
Jenni Konner: Someone pointed that out and I was like I really didn't even realize that, and sometimes pushing things to the end is just everyone getting hurt.
Lena Dunham: And Jenni’s great. I mean, she’s like, "It’s my favorite thing in the world to have somebody spray paint letters on the wall and it’s a million feet high and takes an ax to it."
Jenni Konner: I get distracted.
Lena Dunham: She loves a good use of physical violence. I feel like it’s how a baby grows three times its weight in the first year of its life, like it’s just crazy what this has become.
Jenni Konner: Yeah. Also, just you’ve learned so much in terms of managing people and directing. I mean, you went from a crew of, what, six?
Lena Dunham: Six to —
Jenni Konner: To a lot.
Lena Dunham: Someone actually asked me the other day how big our crew was and I was like, "There's a lot of us around, a lot of clowns in this car."
Jenni Konner: I think I’ve said this about her before to you maybe, but the thing about Lena is that she learns things overnight that takes people 10 years to learn, like Daryl Hannah in "Splash," like when she goes to Bloomingdale’s and learns how to speak English, like that's Lena, like every night.
Lena Dunham: I’d never done a thing where I was acting every single day. And last summer, even if I watched the episodes, it’s something subtle, but just because I’ve spent so much time editing them, it really is a thing where you just flex those muscles and I don't even know if it’s like you get better, but it’s like you just start to recognize that you actually have a tool in your hands. And it used to be I kind of didn't know if I could do the same thing twice. It just sort of felt like I was pulling some wheelie suitcase that I couldn't quite manage. And I’m not saying I turn in amazing performances every day, but—
Jenni Konner: You just got nominated for a Critics’ Choice Award for your acting.
Lena Dunham: And that's much to the shock of my father.
Jenni Konner: People are liking it.
Lena Dunham: Much to the shock of my father. But so it’s been a really, it’s been amazing to sort of keep that muscle flexed and improve that area.
PART THREE: SHOSHANNA, JESSA AND… JAMES FRANCO?
But in terms of some specific things that you guys figured out as you went along, Shoshanna was originally not a significant character. She’s not even in some of episodes or she’s in one for about 30 seconds.
Jenni Konner: Well, we made her a series regular after the pilot.
Lena Dunham: After the pilot.
Jenni Konner: Because we were in love with Zosia (Mamet). I mean, we were just like, "We got to keep this going, we’ll use her when we can, but let’s commit to her." And the more we see her, the more we love her and we just keep going on that.
Lena Dunham: And we’ve realized like she really initially existed as a way to sort of call out this other reality of "Sex in the City"-obsessed girls in New York and she became so much more than that. And I think we’ve learned a lot from our actors. Adam (Driver) really informed who that character became because he played the role from his first audition with a kind of sweetness and oddity that we didn't expect.
Jenni Konner: And we did the same thing with him, right? We made him a regular after we met Driver.
Lena Dunham: Yeah. He was initially going to be like the first few episodes boyfriend and then suddenly he’s, you know, become—
Jenni Konner: We can't quit him. We just can't quit him.
I was doing an online chat yesterday about the show and someone referred to him as a "hipster 2012 Mr. Big."
Lena Dunham: So good.
Jenni Konner: I love it when people compare us to "Sex in the City," being able to say, "Okay, but that's our Mr. Big. Are you cool with that?" Is that your fantasy?
Lena Dunham: Some woman came up to me after a Q&A and she was like, “I heard you loved 'My So-Called Life,'” and I was like, "Yeah, it’s one of my favorite shows of all time." She’s like, “When’s Hannah going to get a Jordan Catalano?” And I was like, "I’m so sorry to break it to you, he has arrived."
Jenni Konner: Well, Richard, who is my boyfriend but also one of the directors, Richard Shepard, his mother wants to know why she’s not dating someone like James Franco. She literally said that.
Noted television critic James Franco.
Jenni Konner: Yeah.
Lena Dunham: Oh my God, we read that aloud and I really thought I was being punked.
I think pretty much everything he does you have to question whether you’re being punked, up to and including the Oscars.
Jenni Konner: I just didn't understand what his thesis was. Do you know what I mean? Like I didn't understand actually what he was saying about the show.
Lena Dunham: I really felt like whoever is his Svengali manager was like, "You have to host the Oscars, write a novel, also, it’s important to dabble in TV criticism this day and age," like it’s how you stay relevant.
You’ve got to get him now to guest star on the show, so it folds in on itself.
Lena Dunham: Seriously.
Jenni Konner: My mother-in-law, or whatever she is, would be very happy.
Lena Dunham: It’s interesting, we’re pretty avoidant of stunt cast-y stuff on show. I mean, whenever we bring in someone sort of who you’ve seen somewhere else, we try to do it really judiciously and not sort of to make concrete point.
Jenni Konner: Peter Scolari, like someone you haven't seen that much.
Lena Dunham: Critics’ Choice nominee Peter Scolari.
Jenni Konner: Exactly. Peter got nominated.
Lena Dunham: I’m very excited.
Jenni Konner: They really were incredible this season and really brave and cool.
Lena Dunham: Yeah.
That was an interesting episode because the show basically reorients itself and the other three women are really not there and it’s about Hannah and her parents.
Jenni Konner: We love a capsule.
Lena Dunham: We are going to have a few of those this season, too. I mean, not necessarily that just focus on Hannah, but just we like the fact that in this medium it’s something that "Louie" does, too, and it’s something that cable will give you the opportunity to do. It’s just that you don't need to make sure that everybody gets to the bar together at the end, because that's what life is. You go home for the weekend and your friends kind of disappear and your old world becomes at the foreground.
So if there's not a Jessa story that week, there's just not a Jessa story that week?
Lena Dunham: Yeah.
Jenni Konner: Right.
Lena Dunham: It’s pretty natural. We don't really pressure ourselves to sort of shoehorn anybody in.
Jenni Konner: No, people drop in and out. I mean, I think one of the reason—you know, we got so much positive response on 107, the party in Bushwick, and I think part of the reason was because we kind of had been holding back, not on purpose but we hadn’t seen the girls standing together somewhere and see their dynamics, and I think people were really excited about that. But again, we do it when it feels right.
Yeah. That was also one people talked about as being among just the more overtly laugh-out-loud episodes you did. How did you figure out, all right, this a thing that we can do that is funny?
Lena Dunham: I would credit Jenni Konner with that.
Jenni Konner: I actually would just say we had no idea that people were going to interpret it that way. And I think people did also because it came after 106, which was the capsule-y kind of independent film thing.
Lena Dunham: It’s funny because that's the one that Judd wrote with me and it’s actually the least quippy of any episode. But I would say that a skill that Jenni has, which, again, I’ve learned from, is the ability to sort of do an incredibly hard joke that still doesn't cut down on the emotionally factor.
Jenni Konner: Until people started saying that, it did not occur to me that was funnier than (the others). I just thought we were doing the same thing every time. I am so surprised by that, actually.
Okay. In terms of Jessa, was this something that was also sort of planned out, like she’s going to get to a point where she gets in this ridiculous marriage to this ridiculous person?
Lena Dunham: We were shooting episode five, and I walked over to Jenni and I said, "She should maybe get married," and Jenni was like, "Obviously," like it was just so clear to us. And then, we sort of had to figure out who it was. But it just seemed like, in some way, the most renegade, surprising thing she could do was make this sort of adult commitment and pull the opposite of a Samantha.
Jenni Konner: Yeah. And you saw it, we kind of wanted whatever she did after the Kathryn Hahn conversation to actually have an impact on her, like the first thing something kind of resonated with her but she would be a person who couldn't just take a bit of advice. Do you know what I mean? She overcorrects to a mammoth—
Lena Dunham: Degree.
Yeah, I don't think that's what Kathryn had in mind when she goes over there for that intervention.
Jenni Konner: Yes, exactly. Yes. And I think we were actually experimenting with the idea, at some point, of Jessa telling her, "Because of what you said I got married."
Lena Dunham: "I tried and I really got fucked over."
Jenni Konner: Blaming her for it.
Lena Dunham: Yeah. But it did feel like sort of the natural step for sort of this wild child to make this kind of rash decision and also the way that it would thrust the other girls. It’s like the first truly adult thing, even if it’s not a mature move, like there's no denying that getting married is something adults not children do. And so being there and seeing that your friend even thinks she’s old enough to make this decision. I was interested in the idea that we’re old enough that someone could get married and it’s not insane and they don't need to get their parents to sign a waiver — that's terrifying to me. I’m going to my first wedding of somebody my age in September and I literally think about it every day with like a weird knot in my stomach.