Standing on the roof of The Grove’s parking structure, writer-director Lena Dunham took in the lavish details of Friday’s influencer-packed VIP screening of her new Prime Video film “Catherine Called Birdy,” clearly delighted by the Ren-Faire-meets-rave vibe that Amazon created to capture the film’s blend of 13th Century setting and contemporary tone.
“I’m not above doing all the activities,” enthused Dunham, clad in a billowy blue hoop skirt that essentially precluded sitting down yet matched the event’s old-new ethos by also prominently displaying her tattoos. “I just went and got some jewelry engraved.”
Dunham’s immersion in “Birdy’s” world goes back to reading the source material – Karen Cushman’s beloved 1994 YA novel – for the first time when she was 10 years old.
“There’re certain books when you’re a little kid that make you feel like you’re capable of taking on the world and that’s what this book was for me,” she told Variety. “From the minute I read it, I found the character lovable and maddening. I like that she didn’t have any sort of superpowers or sword skills. Her superpower’s just being herself.”
“I was such a book freak and the genre I always loved most was historical fiction,” she explains. “I wasn’t a fantasy and sci-fi nerd. I wanted to disappear into life, but into other people’s lives. And so ‘Catherine Called Birdy’ is one of probably five or six books I can remember that were really mythical in my formation and pushed my fantasy life.”
Indeed, the book had stuck with her and she found her way back to it as she closed out her 20’s, a turbulent period during the run of her high-profile, often polarizing HBO series “Girls” and the rise of her public profile.
“I came to a place where I needed to feel comfort,” Dunham says. “Life had gotten really big all of a sudden and I was trying to return to things that gave me that sense of safety. And I literally found the book again on the shelf when I was still living with my parents at age 24. And I was reminded like, ‘Wow, this was really formative for me.’”
It took Dunham nearly a decade after optioning the book to finally realize it on the screen. “I was trying to make the movie at a moment when YA films were much more about kissing vampires or having a sword,” she says. “So the fact that we’re now here and there’s this kind of hubbub for the book that meant so much to me as a child is pretty wild.”
After self-generating her own stories throughout her career, Dunham found fresh advantages in adapting someone else’s work.
“You can express a lot of your own inner life obviously, but you do it with this kind of shield,” she said. “And it definitely made me realize the beauty of adapting that it’s something that can be deeply, deeply personal even as the work was born from someone else’s head. Luckily, Karen, the author, gave me kind of carte blanche to embrace these characters and fill them with aspects of myself.”
Now, Dunham says she’s started to encounter young people who have taken as much inspiration from her work on “Girls” as she had from her favorite creators. “I definitely have had experiences, especially post-pandemic because kids were left on their own to watch a lot of TV, of going, ‘Oh my God, I’m so old. This person who’s telling me [this] is too young and I am old!’” she laughed. “If the thing that ‘Girls’ was capable of doing was just telling a lot of different people that they didn’t have to necessarily wait to have their story told and that their own the truth of their life mattered, then that’s enough for me.”
Lena Dunham on Rediscovering ‘Catherine Called Birdy’ When ‘Life Had Gotten Really Big’ Following ‘Girls’ Success: ‘I Needed to Feel Comfort’