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.