Few movies capture the filth-under-the-fingernails grit of early ‘80s New York as well as Susan Siedelman’s 1982 film Smithereens. The character study follows its protagonist Wren through tagged-up, trash-strewn Lower East Side, Soho, and beyond as she attempts to make it in the big city with no discernible goal beyond that or the skill to pull it off. She glues selfies to subway walls that read, “Who is this?” She attempts social-climbing in dive bars. She fixates on a dickhead in a band, Eric (played by punk icon Richard Hell), who treats her like shit, and ignores the attention of Paul (Brad Rijn), who seems genuinely sweet but isn’t quite a prize himself (he lives in a van on the West Side Highway). Wren gets kicked out of her apartment and tumbles through the city in punk chic like a weed without roots. “I’m really rotten,” she confesses to Paul at one point. “I’m really disgusting.”
This week, Criterion released a gorgeously grainy restoration of Smithereens on Blu-ray. Siedelman, who studied at NYU in the ‘70s, made the film in her late 20s for about $40,000. She says she had no ambition beyond getting it completed—no sense of the festival circuit, no ideas about how it would be distributed. It ended up getting accepted to Cannes and became the first American indie film to compete for the Palme d’Or. It’s almost eerie how prescient the movie is about the thirst for fame, eerier still how the scenes in various dives could have been filmed yesterday. Yes, New York is a far different place than it was 36 years ago, but walk through the doors of some piss-smelling venues with black walls and punk blaring out of its blown-out speakers and it’s as though no time has passed at all.
Smithereens was Siedelman’s first feature—she’d go on to direct a string of studio movies in the ‘80s including the hit Desperately Seeking Susan and 1989's She-Devil with Roseanne Barr and Meryl Streep. She stepped away from film in the ‘90s, focusing mostly on television (she directed a few episodes of Sex and the City, including its pilot). She’s remained active as a director and is also a professor—come fall, she’ll teach directing and screenwriting courses at the New School, as well as Stony Brook University. She spoke with me Monday by phone from her house in Bucks County about her first and subsequent movies, being labeled a “woman director” in the ‘80s, and the sea change underway in Hollywood. An edited and condensed transcript of our chat is below.
JEZEBEL: Something that I find very useful about watching Smithereens in 2018 is that it provides a window into an old, grittier, perhaps more dangerous New York for those who miss it or never got to visit at the time. Was recording for posterity one of your objectives when making this movie?
I wasn’t thinking that far ahead. My interest [was] in looking at people and trying to be authentic to some extent, although film always manipulates, to the kind of characters and kind of stories and kind of location I wanted to portray. Did I ever look ahead and say, “Forty years from now, people will look back?” No, but I’m glad I was able to document something about New York. A lot of the streets we were filming on back then are now expensive condos or NYU dorms. Looking at it as an interesting timepiece is kind of fascinating.
As much as it is of its time, many of the ideas in Smithereens are still relevant, still playing out in culture. Do you see it as prescient?
Wren is somebody who desperately wants to be recognized, yet she has no specific talent or skill. She just wants to be famous. She’s taking pictures of herself—selfies—Xeroxing them and putting them up all over, which in some ways predates the whole idea of a reality star or instant celebrity culture we have moved into over the last decade or so. Xeroxing copies of herself, because we didn’t have social media back then, with the words, “Who is this?” is essentially what everyone on Facebook or Instagram is doing some variation of—saying, “I exist, I’m interesting, you should be curious about me.”
I agree, and Wren’s social climbing in dive bars is also something I see all the time still. I saw it on Saturday.
I think if you can make a character that feels real… you know, one of my goals was never to make a sympathetic character, I wanted to make an interesting character. The goal was trying to define a character as opposed to making a moral judgement as to whether she’s a good person or a bad person. Maybe that’s something that’s timeless. Those kinds of characters still exist, but you don’t see them in too many Hollywood movies because if you’re manipulative, you’re not the leading lady in a movie.
Were you ever thinking ever in the opposite direction, though? Was Wren a provocation or a test to see how much self-centeredness audiences would tolerate in a woman protagonist?
I wasn’t trying to provoke the audience. I just knew people like her, men and women. There are people who are cutthroat and manipulative and cruel, but she’s kind of bad at it in a way. To me that’s what made her likable to a certain extent. You can feel the vulnerability. She fucks up a lot, and there’s something humanizing about someone who’s trying so hard to be part of something but is a little confused about what she actually wants and how she’s going to go about getting it.
The ending is very bleak; do you think it’s fair to say Wren gets punished?
I wanted to leave it a little open-ended, but I personally like to think she’s a survivor. She does keep picking herself up no matter what happens. Whether she gets into the car with that guy, I don’t know, and if she does, I like to think she will not be murdered or hurt in some way, but I did want to leave it a little ambiguous. Part of that was being influenced by the French new wave, like the ending of 400 Blows, where the little boy kind of turns and looks at the camera and you don’t know exactly what’s going to happen to him but you think he’s going to be a survivor and it’s not going to be terrible. In the same way I didn’t want to make a moral judgment, I didn’t want to have a pat ending. Part of that was being an independent filmmaker and not wanting to follow the Hollywood formula.
Was there a sense of being part of an “indie” film community in the early ‘80s? It wasn’t until later that decade, into the ‘90s that indie really became a phenomenon recognized by the mainstream.
The whole concept of indie filmmaking was really a ‘90s phenomenon, once Miramax became an indie distribution company. Were they indie really? Indie compared to Warner Bros., but they were still making $2-$5 million movies with Gwyneth Paltrow. When I was starting out, and I think this is probably true for maybe Abel Ferrara, Jim Jarmusch, I can’t speak for Spike Lee, film was a cultural expression. There was so much going on there in terms of punk turning into new wave music. You didn’t need a lot of money to make a record. You didn’t need a lot of experience to be a band. If you could vaguely play the bass, you could play at CBGB or Max’s Kansas City. There was a bit of a do-it-yourself vibe. Same with painting. If you had spray paint and style, you could start to tag yourself on walls and become identified. It wasn’t like an intentional, “We are indie, we’re going to band together and, brand ourselves.” I don’t remember that kind of calculation. By the mid-to-late ‘80s, the culture changed. It was the beginning of the yuppie culture. I think that sense of branding and being aware of your commercial value, or whatever, started to come into play more. In the early ‘80s, I didn’t think about that. I didn’t even think about what would happen to the film after it got made. I didn’t think of film festivals or distributors.
Was there any calculation in terms of expanding culture or making a political statement by putting out a movie about an unsympathetic woman?
Often the cultural events that happen when you’re an older teenager and in your early 20’s influence you and I was influenced by the second-wave feminist movement, especially in the early ‘70s. Making films about strong female protagonists—most of the films I have made have had strong female protagonists—part of it was because I felt like I was filling a void, and because of my own belief that women are interesting. But also I didn’t want to glorify them into perfect earth mothers or perfect professionals. I still wanted to keep that ambiguity.
In the Blu-ray extras of Smithereens, you talk a lot about being a woman director making movies about women. I read a quote from yours from 1987 in which you took issue with the label of “woman director.” (“I really feel like a director, not a woman director.”) Have you come to embrace that designation in the years since?
I think what I might have meant was there was a time when someone would say, “She’s a woman director,” it was almost like they meant, “She’s good for a girl.” There was a kind of pejorative undertone. Now, the conversation is different, and there are a lot of women who aren’t just good in a subset of women directors; they’re good directors. There’s still not enough of them, but I don’t think when someone sees Wonder Woman, they say, “Patty Jenkins is a good woman director.” Or Kathryn Bigelow. I think the conversation has shifted so now the phrase “female director” has a strong political connotation as opposed to being, “She’s good for a girl.”
Did you feel that pejorative from within the industry? Did you face limitations from Hollywood because you were a woman making films in the ‘80s?
I think the fact that Desperately Seeking Susan was a commercial and critical success for that time and it was unexpected—no one thought this movie directed by a woman, starring two women, produced by two women, written by a woman, was ever going to enter into mainstream cinema or to make money. That gave me some freedom. It had been successful in the studio world.
I think what happens that is different for women than men, because it is still to a large extent and certainly was back then a boy’s club, is if a guy makes a movie that flops or underperforms, he can still go on for another 30 years making movies. If you’re a woman you’re not quite given that leeway. I was a woman but also a New Yorker, so I was on the other coast. I wasn’t going to the lunch places where the studio heads were eating. I wasn’t playing that game. To some extent, that was an advantage creatively for me because it didn’t make me think so formulaic, but on the other hand I wasn’t schmoozing at the studios and taking lunch and all that kind of stuff.
Are you at all resentful about not being given more chances? You didn’t make a single feature in the ‘90s.
I didn’t. That’s twofold. There were some movies I was offered, but I also had a baby. Because there are so few women directors, that’s not something people talk about that much. I wanted to have a family. I literally had a baby December 16, 1989. It was the [week after] She-Devil came out. Those two events kind of impacted, for me personally in a positive way, but certainly had an impact on my career. When my son was little, I took TV stuff because it was easier. You could do it quicker. I wanted to keep my hand in it—it’s sort of like exercising. But I wasn’t actively pursuing. To some extent, there are times when projects are coming to you and there are other times. She-Devil was not financially successful, although I kind of like that movie.
I do too. I always did.
I think it came out at the wrong time. Today, people would have gotten it. That’s one of the ones I thought was underrated in terms of its commercial and critical reception. But because it wasn’t a hit, it doesn’t mean I couldn’t work, it means I would have needed to be proactive about getting the next movie made, and I just wasn’t ready to do that.
Being the sort of artist who needs to churn out large-scale ideas and then execute them seems exhausting.
It is exhausting, and I liked being a mom. That was what I was doing. I started getting back to work once my son hit second grade, when he didn’t need Mommy around as much. That’s when I started doing a lot more television and the Sex and the City pilot.
Did you have any idea Sex and the City would blow up and become the cultural phenomenon that it did?
Darren Star sent the script to me, and when I read it, I thought, “This is so interesting,” especially for television, a) for its femaleness and b) because it was so audacious. It was truthful but bold. I read the script and I called him and I said, “I’m in.” I’d liked things before that weren’t successes so I wasn’t prepared for the impact it would have.
You worked with Roseanne Barr on She-Devil. Were you surprised by the racist tweet that led to her firing?
It did and it didn’t. I didn’t talk racism or politics with Roseanne back in 1989, so I don’t know what her political beliefs were. But what I did get is that she was somebody that didn’t censor herself a lot. She could say things to be outrageous or say things she might not have meant to get attention or to generate a reaction. I knew that she was an uncensored person and that could have ramifications down the line, and it did. She sang the national anthem in that horrible, mocking voice. Her judgement could be off, I knew that. We never talked politics or racism back then, though, so that part surprised me.
Do you have any sense of why Madonna had such a hard time with her acting career after Desperately Seeking Susan, Evita aside?
When certain people have created themselves in a way and they become iconic, it’s very hard to go beyond that. I think a lot of acting is about losing yourself in a character. In Evita, she had to play another icon, and that’s why it worked. In Desperately Seeking Susan, she wasn’t as famous. Her fame came very quickly over the course of our filming the movie. We started the movie, she wasn’t famous, by the end she was on the cover of major magazines. I had the benefit of having somebody who didn’t have an entourage around them, someone without much interference. She was just being herself and un-self-consciously acting. A lot of people say, “That’s just Madonna onscreen.” It isn’t. She was saying scripted lines, she had blocking, she had to do all that stuff and make it seem natural, which is not easy. She could bring a lot of her persona to that role and it was a perfect blend of who she was then and the character she was playing. She had great ideas, and if she had a great idea and it fit the character, it was great. One of my favorite little bits in the film is when she dries her arms under the hand dryer in the Port Authority bathroom. She just did that. She just turned the blower and dried her armpits. That was so Susan and so Madonna that it was just perfect.
You told Rebecca Bengal, who wrote the essay that accompanies Criterion’s release of Smithereens, “I had no idea until afterward what the movie business was like.” Did you have a rude awakening after finishing your first feature?
I want to put that in the context of there not being an internet at the time, the information wasn’t available. My film students over the last decade, they look at Box Office Mojo and know exactly what movie was a hit over the weekend and who’s the head of what studio and what executives have moved on to produce what. I didn’t know any of that. I didn’t read Variety back then. To me that was a benefit. That kind of naïveté kept me from manipulating a story or my career to fit a plan. For the next year [after Smithereens], I started getting studio scripts and most of them were pretty terrible. I was getting cheerleaders on the run. Girly teen comedies, and I like a good girly teen comedy, like Fast Times at Ridgemont High. I was getting some really dumb ones. I knew I had to be passionate about what I picked. I was afraid I would get one shot, the studio system is cruel, and if I blew it that would be the end. So I waited about a year and a half reading bad scripts until I got the script for Desperately Seeking Susan, which came through my agent.
Were you at all surprised by sexism in Hollywood? Would you say it’s worse than it is in the world overall?
I think that Hollywood is about making money. You have a lot of really smart, sophisticated people making some dumb movies sometimes because they’re wearing a business hat and thinking it’s going to sell. They’re subjugating their own taste to do something they feel will make money, and many times it does. The #MeToo movement, what can I say? Men have been in power for a long time and power corrupts.
Have you ever had firsthand experience with that corrupting power?
I never did the Hollywood game because I started out as an independent filmmaker. The thing about being an independent filmmaker is you make your own opportunity. You are hiring yourself. You’re not having to suck up to anyone or to subject yourself to someone else’s abuses because you are your own employer. I was fortunate. The next project was Desperately Seeking Susan, it was all women and in some way, most were first-timers. I didn’t feel like I had to compromise myself to get to that next step. And then that was a hit, and I was more or less in a position of power... it wasn’t power, it was that I was able to do what I wanted to do next and the studio trusted me. I never abused anyone, and I wasn’t playing the game. So no, I didn’t have any experiences like that.
How tuned into the whisper network were you?
You do hear stories about that, and it wasn’t only from women. I have male friends who had to go through awkward casting-couch situations. I heard. Maybe I’m just a blinkered person but I was in my own world, doing my own thing. I worked with Mira Sorvino, Rosanna Arquette, Natasha Henstridge—a lot of people who are part of the #MeToo movement. No one talked about it. Maybe they were going through stuff and didn’t talk about it with me. The people that were outed, you had heard those rumors if you were in the movie business. Very few names came as a shock.
Having watched the business up close for as long as you have, do you see it changing?
I see talk of change. Let’s see if it really changes. I hope so. It would be nice if in a couple of years this isn’t even a conversation because we’ve evolved beyond it. Will people abuse power? Yeah, probably. It doesn’t just happen in the movie business, it’s just that the movie business has movie stars so it gets headlines. Corporate America, unless it’s a huge corporation doesn’t get the same kind of attention. Do I see much of a change in terms of women not being defined as a female director and evening up the statistics a little bit? I do see change for sure in the sense that I think there are a lot more women working in television and the role of TV has changed dramatically over the course of my career. TV used to be the ugly stepsister to movies. Now I go to parties and listen in restaurants and everyone’s just talking about TV series. That’s good because you need more directors for television and women have always had better statistics in directing TV than features.
Do a lot of young women take your filmmaking courses?
When I was teaching at NYU I taught the highest level directing class, so they were all graduating seniors, and my class was for the last couple of years 50/50 men/women. When I went to film school in the ‘70s, there were 35 of us each year. There were five or six women and 29 guys. I see a big difference. I see a lot more women who are cinematographers, which is as hard as being a director. Being a DP, at some level you run up against union restrictions and the unions had been traditionally very male dominated and it was hard to get into a union. If you wanted to be a female DP and work on a studio movie, if you weren’t in the union, you didn’t get the job. Seeing women and equipment is another big change I’ve noticed.