If you know Susan Seidelman's name, you know her as the director of Desperately Seeking Susan, the iconic movie that cemented Madonna's reputation as an actress as well as a pop queen (and in the process glamorized both the idea of drying one's armpits with a hand dryer and eating cheese puffs while lying poolside).
But that's not the only totally essential movie that Susan is responsible for. There's She-Devil, starring Roseanne Barr and Meryl Streep, which I randomly found on Netflix years ago; I subsequently had my mind fully blown. The plot is amazing. Roseanne's husband leaves her for a hyper-feminine romance novelist played by Meryl, and then Roseanne seeks revenge on both of them. And the visuals are incredible, especially the grand, ultra-pink, satin-everywhere compound where Meryl's character lives.
That commitment to evocative images is one of the trademarks of Susan's work; she creates worlds that are visually lush. She manages to give a hint of fantasy to the realest of locations, like, say, the abandoned lot by the West Side Highway where much of her 1982 classic Smithereens takes place. This movie has everything: decrepit downtown New York, New Wave fashion, and a very young and very hot Richard Hell. Hell plays the love interest to our anti-heroine Wren, a girl hungrily looking for fame in the music world despite not having any discernible talent.
Lesser known but due for its revival is the hilarious Making Mr. Right, which stars Ann Magnuson as a high-powered PR executive who coaches a cyborg designed to go into deep space. John Malkovich plays the cyborg, and he also plays the man who created the cyborg, because John Malkovich, I guess. It's also a love story set against a backdrop of tropical Miami colors, which is as much as I'll say without giving it away.
Beyond being really fun movies to watch, Susan's films star fierce, strong women who reject society's restrictions. Her movies might be cult favorites, but they are also critically acclaimed: Smithereens debuted at Cannes, and her short film The Dutch Master was nominated for an Academy Award. She has had an incredible career while not giving in to the pressures of mainstream success. I talked to her over the phone recently about making movies fresh out of school, observing the early days of punk, and directing my favorite episode of Sex and the City.
Laia Garcia: Can you tell me a little bit about what you were like growing up? I know you originally wanted to be a fashion designer. How did you end up as a filmmaker?
Susan Seidelman: I'm from Philadelphia, and I went to Drexel University because they had a fashion program. I loved the design elements of it, but part of the program, especially in the second year, was a lot of sitting behind a sewing machine in tailoring classes.
I was 18 or 19 at the time, and the thought of going to college and sitting behind a sewing machine ... of course it's really important to learn if you want to be a designer, but I was too impatient to do it. I started looking for other classes in the department of humanities so that I could fulfill my credits and move on. This was in the early '70s, and film school wasn't a thing. Who had heard of film school? I certainly never did.
They had these film-appreciation courses, so I started to take Film Appreciation 1. You got to watch all these cool movies, which I really loved. I got to see foreign films, which I had never seen growing up as a suburban kid in Philadelphia. There wasn't any kind of art-house theater near where I was. Then I took Film Appreciation 2, Film Appreciation 3. I ended up taking the courses and found myself addicted to watching movies, thinking about movies, loving movies. I stopped taking the design courses, because film is about all elements of design and drama and music, and it incorporated all of the things I was interested in.
That led to me applying to NYU film school. The best thing about film school at that time is it was very funky. It was somewhat disorganized. There weren't that many students. It was a three-year program, and there were probably about 30 to 40 students in each year. What the program provided, which was great, is it gave us equipment and it gave us access to other students who became our film crew. Suddenly I had the means to make films.
LG: How did the idea for Smithereens first come about?
SS: I was living in downtown New York, in the East Village. It was '75 or '76, and I started to notice that the culture was changing. It was the end of the hippie. It was turning into something else, which was the early punk days. The music was changing. The graffiti on the walls was changing. Fashion was changing. Attitudes were changing. In a way, filmmakers and directors are social anthropologists. They look at their environment and they try to analyze it or figure stuff out. I started to see a kind of female character that fascinated me, and the idea of the character of Wren started to percolate.
I'm not like Wren — I'm definitely more focused — but in certain ways I was like her, in the sense that I was the girl from outside from a boring small suburban town who sensed that there was something more interesting going on culturally and wanted to be a part of that. I understood that impetus. She goes about throwing herself into that world in narcissistic and self-destructive ways, perhaps, but she certainly does it with energy and courage. That was a side of her that I liked, and I wanted to make a film about that kind of character.
LG: After Smithereens, you did Desperately Seeking Susan, which is so iconic. Did your life change after the release of those movies?
SS: Smithereens was in the Cannes Film Festival in May 1982. I went with Susan Berman (who plays Wren), and we had no idea what to expect. It was all extremely surreal. Not only had we never been to a film festival before in our lives, but now we were at the biggest festival in the world with this little film no one had yet seen.
Smithereens was released in theaters that fall or winter. I got an agent because of it, and she started sending me scripts. It was easy, especially back then, to make the leap from independent movies into a more studio-type movie and get overwhelmed. I wanted to make sure that I picked the right thing and didn't make a stupid mistake because, especially as a woman, maybe you get one shot at doing a studio movie, and if it doesn't work you disappear. I didn't want that to happen to me. I read a bunch of scripts, and for about a year and a half, some of them were good but I just didn't feel like I could do something special with them.
Suddenly she sent me this script with the title Desperately Seeking Susan. Not only was I intrigued by the title — being a superstitious person, I thought that was kind of fortuitous — but also it felt right because it had the same theme that I had been playing around with in Smithereens, which is reinventing yourself. In both Desperately Seeking Susan and Smithereens, a girl from New Jersey looks to New York as a way to reinvent herself and have a more exciting life and become the person she wants to be. Smithereens is a darker version of that story, and Desperately Seeking Susan is the more fairy-tale version of the story, but the theme is still there. Rosanna Arquette's character could've been me if life had taken me in a different direction.
LG: I know that technically, we live in a time where more diverse stories are being told. But I wonder if a movie like She-Devil would have been made today.
SS: Probably not. There are more women directors in two areas: television and in the independent-film community. There's a few token women who are directing bigger studio movies, but really not that many, because the kind of movies studios are making are sequels and comic-book movies. They're so limited probably because they are so expensive that they don't want to take any risks with subject matter or with the directors on a big project with special effects.
TV, obviously, that's where there is more opportunity for women these days. There's just so much more product being made. Interestingly enough, back in the '80s I was making what I would call mid-range studio movies. The studios were making character-oriented movies. They were making more movies in general. There was more opportunity for diversity of subject matter. Unfortunately today that whole mid-range of movie production has disappeared at the studio level. That's why a Desperately Seeking Susan, or even a movie like Cookie, would never get made today.
LG: Going to TV, you directed three episodes for Sex and the City, including my all-time favorite, "The Power of Female Sex," which, now that I'm talking with you, I realize fits so well with the themes that you've explored in your other work.
SS: That's the one where Carrie is mistaken for a prostitute?
LG: Yes! Where she meets Amalita.
SS: Right, the whole theme of reinvention. When I was sent the script for the pilot episode, instantly I knew: I can do this. I see this in my head. I know how to make this come alive onscreen. It was just so refreshing and bold. Now TV has gotten much bolder, but back then the things that the women would talk about on Sex and the City, we hadn't heard women saying on TV before. I loved the script and I loved the idea of the characters and the way the story was told. And even the opening for the pilot episode is that same theme again, that's what so intrigued me. It was a fairy tale. It starts off with "Once upon a time a girl comes to New York," with a character in a cab approaching the city and then finding out the city is different than what she imagined. I had no idea when we were working on it that it would become the success it became.
LG: Do you find that with Netflix you have a whole new young audience?
SS: I love the fact that the Internet is such a great way of spreading information, especially specialized information for people who want a certain kind of movie. People put it out there and other people hear about it and pass on the word. That's amazing. Recently Smithereens had a rerelease at the Metrograph Theater, and I looked around the audience and saw that a lot of the audience members were people who weren't even born when I made the movie, but they were relating to it in a contemporary way. Sometimes I'll watch old movies and think, God, they really feel dated. Everything is just goofy about them. I was shocked that Smithereens seemed to pass the test of time. Even the costuming. The clothes looked contemporary in a weird way.
LG: They totally do. It's still relevant.
SS: Certainly that character and those kinds of weird manipulative and narcissistic situations are. In some ways what I found when I was watching it was that it was even more relevant because — when you think about what she was doing — she was taking selfies and posting them around. She didn't have social media to use, but she wanted people to know who she was and she wanted to be famous for not doing anything but being herself. That seems to be a precursor to what many celebrities have become famous for, just being them.
LG: So many scenes from your movies have another life on Tumblr and other regions of the Internet as GIFs. A two-second GIF of Madonna eating cheese puffs by the pool is a scene that lives on by itself and connects with so many people.
SS: Wow, I didn't know that! Cool!
LG: I think it's also time for Making Mr. Right to have a resurgence. I mean, cyborgs and feminism are topics that people are really talking about now.
SS: That would be very cool! Smithereens and Desperately Seeking Susan were recognized in their time, but I was always upset by some of the reactions to She-Devil, particularly from some of the male critics who did not like the movie because they thought I was portraying men in a bad light, and they probably were secretly offended by the overweight housewife in the lead. To me, it was a film about the culture's obsession with beauty and fame and all those kinds of things. I think it is contemporary. It's been interesting to see how younger people relate to particularly that movie. I'm hoping that Making Mr. Right will find its younger audience, too. That would be great.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
Laia Garcia is the deputy editor at Lenny.