'My Art': Lena Dunham's Mom Laurie Simmons Recreates Classic Cinema in Her Directorial Debut
Laurie Simmons found a filmmaking style by directing herself.
A debut feature from a lifelong artist, Laurie Simmons' My Art examines how the personal and professional lives of a creator often merge. It's not explicitly autobiographical, but certain elements are closely aligned. Like Simmons, the lead character Ellie is an art professor interested in making movies similar to the ones that inspired her. As she travels upstate for the summer to experiment with performance art mirroring moments of classic cinema, Ellie comes across a number of eager locals interesting in getting involved. They become her silver-screen stars, and in the process, the cast becomes Simmons' too.
As the film opens in limited theatrical release this weekend, No Film School spoke with Simmons about the choice to cast herself in the lead role, how she sought advice from fellow filmmakers, how she recreated classic movie scenes, and the frequently challenged integrity of comedy.
No Film School: My Art is your feature debut, and you serve as its director, screenwriter, and lead character. How did you know the time was right to embark on this project?
Simmons: I grew up in a post-World War II, middle-class, suburban Long Island Jewish community. When I went off to art school, I felt like, “how did I get away with this?” But, my best friend, who was a guy, went to film school, and I always had this feeling of, “that just couldn’t happen for me.” He's the one who introduced me to the French New Wave, and he's the one that educated me [about cinema]. We’d go into the city and watch films together. I didn’t know anything about Agnès Varda, for example, until much later!
All the artists I know—and basically I only know artists—are cinephiles. They're all passionate about film and many have even made films. I’ve always had this desire to move to time-based work, but I like going through each of the steps of my work. I never studied any photography, so I had to learn it, and then I got swept up in the language of contemporary art. When I made my first movie in 2006, a 45-minute musical, I stopped and asked myself, “how did it take me this long?”
The seeds of My Art were planted after seeing the way my daughter Lena Dunham portrayed a woman artist in her film, Tiny Furniture. I had become increasingly impatient with the way women artists and women my age were being portrayed on the screen. I started coming up with the idea for this film in 2011 and then had all of these notes by 2012. Producer Alicia Van Couvering introduced me to a NYU film student by the name of Mark Lukenbill. He became an Associate Producer on my movie! I asked him, “Can you teach me how to use Final Draft?" So he did, and the whole thing just started moving along. It was like my secret hobby.
This is something I rarely talk about: In the spring of 2013, an artist and friend of mine, Sarah Charlesworth, died very suddenly. Her death really polarized me. [When she passed], she had been in the middle of a million things in her career, and then…[she was gone]. When I heard the words, “Sarah died,” I also heard the words, “make the movie.” I understood that you have to do the things that you really dream about. You have to try and do them.
NFS: You don't know how much time you have.
Simmons: You don't! Nobody knows. Don't put things on the back burner. I'm not trying to give a lesson in how to live life, but it was really sudden, this feeling of “I have to make it.” And once I uttered those words, the concept of obsession doesn't even begin to cover what I went through. I could not turn back. I mean, I used to just keep writing more and more and say, “Please God, stop me before I kill again!" My daughter actually said, “Mom, could you stop saying it that way?"
NFS: It’s supposed to be a positive experience!
Simmons: "Just write it!” And so I did.
"Throughout my life, I haven’t had to dress up for a job, you know? The clothes that I wear are the clothes I go to 'my office' with."
NFS: Did you ever have any hesitation putting yourself in front of and behind the camera simultaneously?
Simmons: Hmmm. I went back and forth with the question “why me to play the role of Ellie? Why not an actor? Why is the artist playing the artist?” I ultimately decided that so much of the movie was going to be be about Ellie and her process, Ellie being an artist, and the physicality of all that. Throughout my life, I haven’t had to dress up for a job, you know? The clothes that I wear are the clothes I go to “my office” with. I just felt that if I could get the process parts right, and the "performance art" parts right, then I would be okay. I could get good enough actors to do the heavy lifting, and I could get through the rest of the film.
NFS: For the production, you brought on several filmmakers in non-directorial roles. Josh Safide plays a former actor with a controlling wife, Lena Dunham plays an artist quite full of herself, and Celia Rowlson Hall is credited as a choreographer for the Picnic dance sequence. I'm sure it was helpful having them involved, but was it ever nerve-wracking?
Simmons: No, I relied on it! I had some kind of relationship with each of the actors before I began the film. Robert Clohessy lives up the hill from me and John Rothman really loved my performance in Tiny Furniture and said, “ I want to work with you, I really want to work with you!” I thought, “whoa, a real actor wants to work with me?” Barbara Sukowa and I are in the same film group…. I didn't know Parker Posey before beginning the film, but I knew people who knew her and maybe we’d been to the same Christmas party and had mutual friends in common.
I I felt like I had a handle on everyone who was coming in, and I was willing to learn from everyone too. That's the most important thing. When I made my first movie, The Music of Regret, I had the great Ed Lachman as my DP! The advantage I had was that some of these guys want to work with artists. They find it interesting working with a visual artist, and so that's how I was able to work with Ed. If he shoots your movie, you sit back and be quiet. That’s better than film school, I'm sure. God, I learned a lot just from watching him.
NFS: Were your actors invited to bring their own ideas into the screenplay? Josh Safdie's character is a big Marlon Brando fan and claims to share a birthday with him. After doing research, I realized that the two men actually do share a birthday in real life. Did you look for real life inspiration from the men and women you brought aboard?
Simmons: I worked with each actor on their characters beforehand, letting them have a lot of input. It's not my nature to crack the whip. That's not the way I work, and I knew what I wanted my film set to be like. I wanted it to be harmonious, which isn't always possible, but as an artist, I feel like I might ask everyone what they think (or what direction they think I should go in). In the end, I do what I want. [laughs]
This isn’t A Chorus Line we’re talking about here, but if I really listened to the actors and their stories, I felt I would get a lot more interesting information, and they, in turn, would get more comfortable. Robert Clohessy really does come from a family of cops and there were so many things in the movie that were reflective of what I know about Robert and who he is. I wasn't pushing people that far out of their own personal stories.
"In fact, when I imagined my movie, I imagined something more like the crazy beginning of Napoleon Dynamite, where you’re in the cafeteria with the lunch-trays and plates [constantly moving around]."
NFS: The film's opening credits sequence is playfully conceived, as your character visits The Whitney Museum and takes in a new exhibit. The credits feel embedded into her surroundings, ie. the film's title is revealed right before the elevator doors proceed to close in on them, your character walks in front of and briefly obscures on-screen text, your writer/director credit is physically placed high above your character, etc. Did you have that title design concept in mind when you began the film?
Simmons: I worked with Teddy Blanks on designing the opening credits and my producer Andrew Fierberg had a lot of input. I didn't always know how the title sequence was going to look. In fact, when I imagined my movie, I imagined something more like the crazy beginning of Napoleon Dynamite, where you’re in the cafeteria with the lunch-trays and plates [constantly moving around]. I imagined my opening credits having a similar palate with paints splashing and tons of crayons and easels, and then I thought, "my character isn’t supposed to be a painter!"
That opening scene at The Whitney was the very last scene we shot. It was also the time where I felt the most comfortable. Walking through a museum is something that's really in my bones, and it's something I really know how to do. I've looked at art my entire life! I thought, “I’m finally in a sequence where I feel really comfortable.”
Parenthetically, the thing about looking at art is if you've been doing it a lot, you go towards a piece and think, “I’m going to go closer or I’m going to back up, I want to read the wall label, etc.” If you watch people, specifically artists, walk around a museum, you realize that they're so focused. They’re at one piece [for a second], and then another [for a second], and then at another for twenty minutes. In the end, we decided that it felt like the right way to begin the film.
NFS: What did you use the Digital Bolex for?
Simmons: The Digital Bolex was meant to be for Ellie to use for those [film recreation scenes], but we ultimately used it only to shoot out the window as she leaves New York and goes upstate. We shot with an ALEXA for the rest of the film.
While the moments of fantasy, where Ellie imagines something in her head, resemble the film projects she’s working on, those production values are so much higher than what the character could have actually made. That’s okay. The level of fantasy is what appealed to me. The art sequences are like a combination of Ellie's art and what’s going into Ellie's brain.
"If you want this to work, you have to shoot these film sequences as an artist like they're your artworks."
NFS: Given a key element of your film being your character's desire to recreate memorable scenes from iconic cinema, how much of a passion of your's was it to play that character recreating them?
Simmons: Well, it was really difficult to decide what kind of artist I wanted to make Ellie. What kind of arts would be interesting to a filmgoing audience? For example, watching painters is very difficult. If there's a movie about a painter, obviously the paintings are made by someone outside of the film. It's not interesting to watch people paint. I don't know how to paint really, so I wouldn't be painting in a realistic way, and that's my big gripe. It's never realistic, so I felt like a combination of performance art and a filmic project would be really interesting to the audience. I felt it would be appropriate for someone Ellie's age to be fixated on movies from her childhood.
NFS: How did you work with your DP to hearken back to the visual identity of the films you recreated?
Simmons: We tried to create it as realistically as we could within the inherent limitations of our budget. I think the big breakthrough was that Andrew Fierberg, my producer, said when he came on board the project, that if “you want this to work, you have to shoot these film sequences as an artist like they're your artworks. You can't take a break in the narrative while you're shooting to set up The Misfits."
So, the first thing we did in February 2015 was to use a very funky studio in Greenpoint or in Bushwick and set up each of the vignettes in different parts of this studio. We shot them all in their entirety, shot-for-shot. That's the only thing we did. So, first we had the film art, and then we were able to take that artwork and embed it into the rest of the movie. In certain cases, I was horrified when he suggested breaking up our Picnic scene during the dance scene in my movie. I thought “no, these have to be intact!” But, we did in fact only take parts of certain things we shot.
The only [film recreations] shot somewhere other than in that Brooklyn studio was the Mr. Peabody and the Mermaid one, which was shot completely in Connecticut. Oh, and also, the Jules and Jim scene because we had the opportunity to actually run on a country road outside, so we did that one there. Oh, and Badlands, when I was dancing in the yard with Josh Safdie! If there was something that was set outside, we could do it. The Misfits, Bell, Book and Candle, and A Clockwork Orange were all done on a soundstage.
NFS: What was it like directing yourself as an actor? What did you learn about visually framing a performance?
Simmons: You know, I don't think I learned it! I'm not sure. When it came to directing myself, I knew it was important to interview several DPs before starting production. It was anguish trying to pick a DP because they were all so charming. Of the DPs that I met, Tom Richmond was [the right choice]. I imagined myself in a very close huddle with him, and I imagined him being able to, in a sense, direct me. I trusted him, and I knew that he would have a way to tell me to do something again without hurting my feelings, or telling me it was terrible. We did have a language. I trusted him so much. Sometimes I could look over at my producer and one of my associate producers and know that I had key people i trusted to judge what was happening. We were working so quickly and on such a low budget and shooting so late into the night that there were times where I would say, “ummm, can I see the dailies,” and they would tell me no! There were times where I barely got to see myself [on-screen] until we were deep into editing, because we just had to make it through the day.
When we were on the soundstage, the guy who created our wigs would come over to fix my hair and say “stand up straight and tuck your stomach in." I needed [feedback like that]. At the moment, you’re nervous and you're falling apart...
NFS: And the feedback in that moment is essential.
Simmons: Yeah, from wherever you can get it.
NFS: How long was the shoot?
Simmons: Let’s see. My dog, who plays an important role in the film, died in 2014 and I had this idea that I needed him in whatever this creation was that I was concocting. I shot a lot of him in 2013 and I shot with my photo students from Yale in 2013. From there I was writing a lot, but we didn't really shoot until June of 2015. It was a 17-day shoot, not including the four or five days on the soundstage we used in Brooklyn the previous February.
We had to do a few re-shoots. I had a love scene with Robert where we were both sitting up in bed on our computers in our pajamas. My few friends who saw it were like, "What the hell? You guys look like you've been married for 25 years. What is with this bedroom scene? You look so comfortable with your clothes on," and they they said, “you have to go back and reshoot that " So, we did and it was freezing when we shot that the following winter.
NFS: And there are three dogs credited on the film?
Simmons: Yes, Dean had died in 2014, and so he actually has cousins who exist, Ivy and Argus. They stood in for Dean. I mean, I think it was Argus who really played dead incredibly well in that one scene! I had shots with Dean playing dead too, because we … well, Dean could do it too. He was a very good actor dog.
"The biggest surprise was how much people laughed during it. I really did not expect that."
NFS: What surprised you the most about showing My Art to an audience?
Simmons: I think the biggest surprise was how much people laughed during it. I really did not expect that. Richard Brody just wrote this little capsule review for The New Yorker and called it a “lyrical drama.” I’m so happy he called it a drama. What would you classify it as?
NFS: I don't want to cheat. I have to choose one or the other?
Simmons: Really, truly, honestly, not knowing what answer I want to hear..
NFS: I would say it’s more of a comedy myself, but I'm not trying to be reductive at all, you know?
Simmons: I mean, that’s a whole other conversation about whether or not humor is reductive, right? Is humor accessible? Is humor something that brings people in or does it push people away? I would get up every morning before the crew and cast arrived, and would take the sides for the day, and look at the script. If there was any joke that even approached broad humor, I was like scratch, scratch, scratch, and got rid of it. I thought that if anything funny were to happen, it would come from these actors and from real life. Think of how Josh is acting in the “Brando impersonation” scene. I didn't know Josh was going to kiss me, and I didn’t know he was going to act so goony! And while the character of Ellie was so shocked by the kiss, she also had no interest in him. She did not see it as him coming onto her. She was just like, "oh, I'll use it in my work." All that stuff is funny because life is so funny.
NFS: And there’s the scene with your student pushing hard to hook you up with his single dad living upstate. It’s funny and the audience smiles as they watch it.
Simmons: Don't you think life works that way?
Simmons: Really stupid things happen. I wrote it and it feels really plausible to me!
My Art is currently playing in limited theatrical release.