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From the Archive: Susan Seidelman on Smithereens and Desperately Seeking Susan

Nothing Concrete text
23 Jun 2021
25 min listen

We head to the scuzzy streets and broken dreams of 80s New York City with director Susan Seidelman to look back at 2017's The Grime and the Glamour film season, featuring Seidelman's debut film Smithereens and Desperately Seeking Susan. 

From the Archive sees us dig into our extensive contemporary and classical music and cinema podcast archive as we rediscover interviews and discussions with artists, with our long-standing producer and presenter, Ben Eshmade. 

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Ben Eshmade: Hello and welcome to Nothing Concrete, the Barbican podcast. I'm Ben Eshmade and on this week's archive exploration, we embark on a journey in our time machine back to back to the scuzzy streets and broken dreams of 80s New York City with director Susan Seidelman.

Susan Seidelman: New York was maybe only an hour and a half away from the town I grew up in, but it was a world apart. So I actually as a child rarely went to New York City, but I always kind of had my dream version of what New York City would be like. 

BE: Back in the Autumn of 2017, the director's debut film Smithereens and its follow up Desperately Seeking Susan was shown across the Barbican cinema screens. In her debut feature Smithereens, Seidelman follows the character of Wren, a teenage New Jersey punkette, freshly arrived in the big city, played by Susan Berman. 

Film clip - Smithereens
Wren: So what do you want to do now?
Paul: Well, I got a van down by the Westside Highway.
Wren: You gotta van?
Paul: Yeah, I told you that before, remember?
Wren: Oh yeah, right, I remember.
Paul: Anyway, I thought maybe we could go back down there, I got some tapes and a tape deck.We could just sit around and listen to music.

BE: Seidelman's second film, Desperately Seeking Susan, starred newcomer Madonna, playing a Lower East Side hipster, who becomes an object of fascination to a bored, New Jersey housewife, played by Rosanna Arquette

Film clip - Desperately Seeking Susan
Leslie: Who's Susan? You know, these people? 
Roberta: No, you see see Jim follows Susan all over the country. Last January, she was in Mexico City then Seattle. They send messages back and forth. That's how they hook up. Now they're in New York. Desperate. I love that word. So romantic.

BE: The director kindly joined me on the phone to talk about her experiences in the early 80s in New York making these films.

SS: I made the film, Smithereens, with the people that I had met while I was at NYU Film School. And you know, the first year you make a little silent movie, the second year, you do your first black and white movie with sound, that's maybe 15 or 20 minutes. And then this third year, you get to make something in colour that's slightly longer. So I started to make these short films. And I realised that to me, kind of, filmmaking combined all the interests I had previously had. Interest in design, interest in storytelling, and music. And back in those days, I'm now talking about, this was probably the late 1970s, there was an emerging group of independent New York filmmakers who were kind of making movies on a total shoestring with non professional actors. And, you know, I was able to kind of put together about 15 or $20,000. And thought, hey, let's, you know, let's make a feature film with these people from NYU. Again, at that time, we all did it, there was a kind of naivete about the whole thing. We really didn't think about how we were going to get it out into the world. We just thought it would be interesting to kind of tell this story about life in New York at that time. What was interesting and great about New York at that time is New York was coming out of a bankruptcy crisis. New York, the infrastructure of New York had totally fallen apart in the mid 70s. And the city was on the verge of bankruptcy. That was bad for the city. But it was kind of good for young people at that time, because in New York was affordable. Also, the crumbling city provided a kind of interesting backdrop that was, you know, for musicians and artists and filmmakers, because it was visually very interesting, because the city was falling apart. We, you know, I never even thought about getting filming location permits. We just sort of, guerilla style, went out there and just filmed what we wanted film. You know, and the texture of kind of rattiness of this, of downtown New York, was very cinematic. You know that, that was part of the inspiration of making Smithereens at that time.

Film clip - Smithereens
Paul: Who are you with tonight? You with him or with me?
Wren: Look, Paul, I'm telling you this is business. This guy used to play in a band, it's a connection.
Paul: A connection?
Wren: Look, five minutes then we'll go, okay? Five minutes, I swear to God.
BE: How much of yourself did you see and identify with Wren, the runaway, the main character in Smithereens?

SS: Well, I grew up in a really homogenous and somewhat boring suburb of Philadelphia. It was one of those communities that were built in the late 50s, early 60s, where every house kind of looked alike, had the same little garden. It was either a ranch house, a split level house or colonial house. You know, I didn't see myself living there all my life. I know for my parents, it was probably their version of the American dream, especially, you know, my parents grew up in the Depression and after World War Two, they got to have this, you know, safe little community. But for me, I just kept thinking, Oh, this, there's got to be a, you know, another way I can be living my life. And so New York was maybe only an hour and a half or two hours away from the town I grew up in, but it was a world apart. So I actually, as a child, rarely went to, to New York City, but I always kind of had my dream version of what New York City would be like. So for me, the idea of the main character Wren in Smithereens, you know, escaping, you know, her boring New Jersey world, going to the city to reinvent herself was very much something I related to. And in a weird way, you know, Desperately Seeking Susan also shares that same theme, Desperately Seeking Susan is, is kind of the fairy tale version of that myth or that theme. And Smithereens is a darker version of that.

BE: Did you feel you were creating something new or different by focusing a film around this strong, if flawed, female character?

SS: Well, I kind of... she is flawed. But I kind of liked the fact that she was so determined to be a part of something and to change her life. So that was the part of her that I really liked. But I also thought it was interesting... I mean, I think, characters that aren't flawed, you know, sort of lack of kind of complexity, and there weren't that many interesting female film characters. There were a lot of interesting European female film characters. There weren't a lot of... And I think that perhaps one of the reasons for that is there weren't that many female American film directors. And so as a woman director, I felt like I wanted to tell stories that I related to characters that I felt passionately about. So in that way, I was trying to tell stories I hadn't seen before. 

BE: Looking back, do you think that Smithereens fitted into any trend of films at the time or was the beginning of a trend, I suppose? 

SS: Well, I think it was part of that New York independent film scene that was emerging at that time. There were other people like a guy named Amos Poe, and Scott and Beth B. and Betty Gordon was another woman who was making films around them and Jim Jarmusch and Eric Mitchell. So there were a lot of people and then, you know, some of them went on to, to make other films at you know, in the 80s and 90s. And up until now, certainly Jim Jarmusch has. But it was all based, you know, around that East Village area. And what was kind of interesting, although we weren't working together, there was a sense of shared information and also a sense that we were using some of the same actors. Some actors in Jim Jarmusch's early films were in Desperately Seeking Susan, for example, or, you know, Amos Poe has a cameo in Smithereens. And also, a lot of it was stemming from that downtown music scene, you know, the bands that were playing at CBGB's or Max's Kansas City, or people who were hanging out with the Mudd Club. So there was a very vibrant music and then that extended to that, the kind of art scene that was emerging in the East Village at that time.

BE: The film was the first independent American movie nominated for the Palme d'Or, that must have been an exciting experience. 

SS: Well, it was a total shock. I'll tell you that. I remember turning up you know, at the festival, Susan Berman and I, it was sort of like being Alice in Wonderland. I mean, we had no idea how big a deal the festival was. I had heard about the festival. I had never been to an international film festival before. We were really walking around kind of in a dream state and also the fact that it was one of the three official US selections, was also shocking because our film was made for $40,000 initially, and then it cost another 25 to blow it up from 16mm to 35. And the other two American films were big movies with movie stars and very well known directors that, you know, cost millions of dollars. 

Film clip - Smithereens
Wren: You know I got in a fight on a bus once, some jerk's giving me a hard time, you know lawyer type, reading the New York Times, and he kept inching his shoulder closer to mine, so I kept moving away but all the time he's hiding behind his paper like he's minding his own business. 
Man: Two more...
Wren: So you know, I did. I pretend like I was lighting a cigarette, and then I reached over I lit his New York Times on fire.

BE: Moving from Smithereens to Desperately Seeking Susan, that seems quite a step up in regards to budget and ambition. What were you trying to achieve with your second film?

SS: Well, after Smithereens, suddenly I got an agent and I started to get a lot of scripts submitted to me through this agent. One of the things I knew was that I had heard about, you know, women who had made, especially female directors because there were so few of them, who had made a low budget movie and then suddenly got to make a studio movie. And it didn't work out well. I read a lot of scripts over the course of about two years and most of them I thought were silly, or I just didn't relate to or I didn't think I could do. And then finally, my agent submitted the script to Desperately Seeking Susan to me, and I read it and A it had my name in the title, I did not put my name in that title - it just came with that name. It had a scene that I related to, again, this idea of somebody from from another place, feeling like an outsider. And also it dealt with two worlds that I felt I knew very well. So I wasn't intimidated by... I knew the suburbs. I could have been Roberta Glass, I could have been that Rosanna Arquette character had I not chosen to leave and move to New York. And I, and I understood the East Village world of Madonna. I knew who that girl was, I knew who, I knew the world she inhabited. And so it wasn't that intimidating to me. What was intimidating was, you know, when I thought about making a studio movie with a union crew, I had never worked with a union crew before. Key people I was working with my producers, Midge Sanford and Sarah Pillsbury, had never made a movie before. So I wasn't scared of them. I wasn't intimidated by them. I was the one who had made a feature film. And they thankfully, let me do it [in] a way that I felt comfortable. And the DP I was working with Ed Lockman had never done a Hollywood studio movie before. So we were all both kind of on an even footing. And, you know, so there wasn't that kind of pressure that some people might have felt if they had worked with a big time producer.

Film clip - Desperately Seeking Susan
Susan: Yeah, right. Yeah, I guess I did. You know, Gary, you could have told me about not wanting dinner instead of making me rush.
Gary: Rush? From where? According to you, you didn't go anywhere? What are you wearing? 
Susan: A jacket. It used to belong to Jimi Hendrix.
Gary: You bought a used jacket? What are we poor? What's going on here? 

BE: When did Madonna get involved? Did you have any doubts about casting someone who was sort of emerging as a celebrity as much as a musician at the time?

SS: Well, I didn't have any doubts about working with Madonna, because in Smithereens, I had worked with a musician who had an interesting persona and Richard Hell, my hope was to get his persona on this screen. And I think I approached Madonna the same way. Although this was more of an acting role than perhaps what Richard Hell was doing in Smithereens. It was still the same feeling that I, there was something interesting about Madonna, about her as a person that I wanted to give to the character of Susan. And I just hoped that I could get that on screen. And I knew that Madonna was a really good performer, being an actress is being a performer. So I trusted that she could do it and do a good job. And also, you know, this was the early days of MTV, and she had some of the early videos on MTV and, and she was so charismatic on film. You know, so I knew that the camera would like her. And regarding her fame, when we first started the movie, when she was first cast in the role, she was not that famous. I remember the first day we were shooting. We were shooting on St. Mark's Place in the East Village. And you know, we took the camera out, it was a scene with her walking down the street, and no one was looking, you know, people like glanced over. Oh, there's a camera. Somebody is being filmed, but no one was kind of hovering around and making a big deal about her or the movie. Her star rose so quickly that by the time we were finished, or the last week of filming, we literally couldn't be out in the street with her in the cameras anymore. We needed security. So it was so interesting to see how her music career and her stardom kind of paralleled, you know, the making of the movie, they just, you know, it was good timing for both.

BE: It's a classic story in some ways, the film's plot, you have mistaken identity, love, the universality maybe led to its success>

SS: Well, I think it's a theme that a lot of people, not just women, but men can relate to the idea that inside of you there's another person that's dying to get out. You know, you want to live a more exciting or a more authentic life. And so I think that that touched a universal theme. You know, part of what I'd like to do is sort of take all those genres and reinvent them sort of with the twist. So this was definitely a screwball comedy. I mean, the idea of amnesia and mistaken identities, all that was, you know, done by Preston Sturges and Ernst Lubitsch. It was reinventing the old screwball comedies of the 30s, but putting a new twist on them. So I think that there was something classic about this genre, but it was new, because you were trying to spin it a little bit and also feel contemporary in that it was very much a reflection of the, of the of the 1980s culture at that time.

BE: You were later involved in the pilot and the first season of Sex in the City, it seems to me you got the chance there to explore again, some of the themes and ideas you started back in the 80s. What was that like?

SS: Well, definitely Sex in the City sort of dealt with a lot of the themes that the female or feminist themes that that I've always been interested in. And all those very diverse female characters were characters that appealed to me. What was interesting was, I was sent the script, the pilot script by Darren Star, and I really had no strong interest in working on a TV series. But then I just read this pilot, and I thought, wow, this is, this is really amazing. Because first of all, I never read a script, certainly a TV script, where women are saying things that I know they are talking about things that I know that they talk about in real life. But I've never seen that reflected, you know, on TV. The kind of boldness of the dialogue and the themes certainly appealed to me. And the fact that it was very New York of its time. I mean, when I did the pilot, I guess it was 1997. Again, New York keeps changing. And I think that the world of Carrie and her friends and Mr. Big and, just a lot of the issues that are explored there, and a lot of the settings were very authentic and timely and just had their finger on the pulse of, of 1997, New York. 

BE: To finish, what do you remember most fondly about making your first two films? Do you miss anything about the New York of that period?

SS: New York is a city that keeps evolving. I mean, of course, I'm nostalgic about New York of the 80s, when it was kind of grittier, and to be quite honest, you know, it was, it was funkier and cheaper. So you had more diversity, young people could afford to live there. People, you know, it was, it was more multicultural. And there were more struggling artists, because, again, they could afford to live and have workspaces, lofts were cheap in the city. As New York has changed over the years and has become a kind of mecca for international billionaires, the East Village is now expensive, you know, all those kind of falling apart, tenement buildings have been renovated and gentrified. And now you have to be a junior stockbroker to afford the rent. And so the young people, you know, a lot of them and a lot of the artists have moved out and moved to areas of Brooklyn like Williamsburg, or Park Slope, where they now can't afford to live anymore. And so they keep moving, they moved to Queens and they'll keep moving further out, because economics dictate that. So I, you know, New York has, has lost some of its funkiness, that I found endearing and wonderful and was what I was drawn to years ago. You know, it's a city that part of its charm is that it is a city that keeps changing, unlike, you know, some other older European cities like Paris, or Rome, where so much of it is about what it was. New York is about what it will become. So I think that's also what gives the city its energy.

Film clip - Desperately Seeking Susan

Susan: Man, some witch steals my clothes, Meeker gets pushed out a hotel window and now you get fired. 

Roberta: No offence, but bad luck really seems to be following you around.

BE: Thanks to Susan for speaking to us. Search out those films online to admire the work of a director and perhaps even revel in the sights and smells of New York City as it was over 40 years ago. I'm Ben Eshmade. Thanks for listening to this archive edition of Nothing Concrete, the Barbican podcast. Here to inspire more people to discover and love the arts with weekly episodes of archive finds and theme series. Subscribe to Nothing Concrete on Acast, Spotify or wherever you find your podcasts. And if you can leave us a review to help us get the word out.

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