"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
HBO’s “Girls,” a new comedy about four 20-something girlfriends living, working and having sex in New York City, premieres this Sunday night. Despite this description, “Girls” is much grittier and more naturalistic than “Sex and the City.” It’s less a frothy, glossy, orgasmic take on Manhattan than the reflection of the particular sensibility of Lena Dunham, “Girls’” 25-year-old star and creator. That sensibility has already given “Girls” a spot in the zeitgeist: It’s being written and discussed as the latest window onto the sometimes awkward, sometimes hilarious, sometimes awkwardly hilarious realities of being a young woman now.
Dunham spoke to Salon about being “the voice of her generation,” why some men may find all the bad sex the characters are having so worrisome, and the ongoing appeal of cupcakes.
Frank Bruni recently wrote a piece for the New York Times about “Girls,” called “The Bleaker Sex,” in which he lamented the circumstances of young women’s sex lives, as portrayed in your show. What did you think of the piece?
I’m a fan of his and I love speaking to him. He’s just a smart, literate dude. But the piece was really interesting to me because it was a little challenging to be put in the position of having to speak for the sexual reality of a lot of women. I’ve never said that was something I was comfortable doing. In fact, I’ve spent most of my sexual career feeling like everything I was doing was alien and not representative of the populace, so if people relate to it, great, it makes me feel less lonely and it’s wonderful. But the idea of being asked to speak to the state of the union of young sexual encounters … I just would [need to] go out and get more experience before I could do that. I was given a role I never said I could handle.
But this — you being emblematic of women of a certain age — is going to happen all the time now. Are you ready for that?
That was sort of the joke of the “I think I might be the voice of my generation” line in the pilot. This character of Hannah, who is her own specific, isolated, entitled weirdo, thinking that she can somehow speak for everybody was so funny to me, so the idea that anybody’s taking that idea seriously is also funny.
But didn’t you think that line, “I think I might be the voice of my generation … or a voice of a generation” would resonate on different levels? As a joke for the character, but also as a well-couched statement of your intentions?
At the time, I was like, “This character’s on drugs, what would be the thing she would say to convince her parents that she deserves the most exorbitant allowance of all time?” And then Jenni Konner, the other executive producer, came up with the idea of [adding the line] “or a voice of a generation.” She was feeding me lines and it was making me giggle so hard. But I know enough about media and I’m enough of a consumer of media that I should have realized that that would be the sound bite that people would hang on to. And I am prepared for the idea that I’ll be asked to address what this show means about the state of women and the state of feminism. And I’m comfortable saying my opinions. I mean, I’m not scared of opinions; I’m not trying to be nonpartisan. But I also am very prepared for a lot of girls to be like, “That is not my sexual experience, that is not my reality.” I’m sure there are girls who are like, “I have a sweet boyfriend and he really knows how to fuck and we’re having a great time, why don’t you back off?” And I’m ready for that too.
Bruni also seemed worried about you, and about women your age, and about how they are having sex now. Hannah’s boyfriend treats her mostly like an object and an inconvenience (during one sex scene, he tells her to play “the quiet game” and refuses to say if he’s wearing a condom), and in one episode, a character is treated to some very aggressive dirty talk. Has concern been a common reaction to the show’s sex scenes?
I’ve found that men — just in the little bit of research I’ve done — find the sexual thing in the show more sobering than women do. And this is kind of a leap, but I think it’s because guys are like, “Have I ever made a girl feel that way? And is it rape?” Literally, I think that is what comes into their brains. I know that sounds like a dramatization, but don’t you kind of think guys think, “That’s not the sex I had, girls I had sex with were happy as fuck.” It was interesting reading about him sort of worrying that girls in general were allowing themselves to be taken advantage of. I will tell you, I’ve had loving sexual experiences, and anxiety-producing ones, probably slightly more anxiety-producing ones at this point. But none of them have ever made me feel like I was being forced into situations outside of my field of choice. If you notice my mincey language, it’s just that I’m still shedding the fact that I went to Oberlin College and if you slightly mangled your women’s/gender studies pronouns, you’d be sent to some Guantanamo for liberal arts students. So I still have this fear of my professor like jumping out of the walls and beating me with a giant Gayatri Chakravorty book or something.
You just mentioned a minute ago the girl with the sweet boyfriend who knows how to fuck, who is not at all a character on your show. One of the characters has a very sweet boyfriend, but she’s not attracted to him. The attractiveness of machismo, and the unattractiveness of a lack of machismo comes up a lot in the first three episodes.
It’s like the Jordan Catalano, Brian Krakow thing. Ben and Noel. I mean there’s no woman who hasn’t been torn between these poles. There is always that idea of the one you should be with, and the one you want to be with. And we didn’t give that problem to one girl, we gave it to a pair of best friends and sort of saw them duke it out. I think in a more traditional TV setup Hannah would be torn between a Charlie [the nice guy] and an Adam [the not so nice guy], but the way we did it, each best friend represented a different polarity and then they are each explaining to the other why their experience is both more and less desirable.
There’s also a scene in one of the episodes where a guy says to one of the characters, “The first time I fuck you I might scare you a little, because I’m a man, and I know how to do things,” and it’s supposed to be a huge turn-on.
Somebody actually said that line to me, only afterward he was like, “That’s the thing my friend who works at Vice magazine taught me.” And I was like, the best way to negate the hot thing you just said is to end it with, that’s the thing my friend at Vice magazine told me.
Was it working before he said that?
No, it never really worked. I don’t think he was really willing to put his money where his mouth was. I’ve been watching that show “Bent,” and I just love the main guy in it. He’s a guy who comes over and is like, “When you’re ready for me, it’s gonna be crazy.” I’ve never had a situation in real life where that’s been effective, but in my movie life, it’s very effective. Real life – it’s grotesque. But if somebody says like, I’m paraphrasing, like, “We’re gonna screw and you’re gonna like it,” that is so much more attractive in theory than in practice.
Unless you really wanted to have sex with them.
Yeah. [laughing] I have not yet had that experience.
Is there anything that Hannah does that you wouldn’t do?
Totally. I think that Hannah’s total inability to really articulate her needs is something we’ve all felt, but that I hope I’m a little farther away from than she is. I’ve been, at points, a person who can’t get anywhere on time, and can’t get out of bed, who’s sort of flopping through the city. But that hasn’t been me in a little while and I hope that’s not me again. And there’s a scene later in the season where Hannah tries to seduce someone in a way that’s super inappropriate and clearly unwanted, and I like to think that my gauge of the people around me is a little better. But there’s also stuff I admire about Hannah, a certain naiveté or unflappability that I always like in a heroine.
She never gets angry. Like, when the guy she’s sleeping with calls her a dumpling, she smiles right through it.
I think there’s a part of her that thinks that’s what she deserves. Not to make her sound like a little abused animal, but I think there’s a part of her that thinks, “Well, it’s good that I’ve got mentors to set me straight.” I think that what Hannah doesn’t realize is that she’s probably building up a massive reserve of anger she’s not getting in touch with, and in six months she’s going to lose her shit with somebody because she wasn’t able to say, “It really hurt me when you called me ‘toddler tummy.’” I think she thinks one of her big, most important qualities is her affability. I’ve felt that way before, if I tell someone I’m angry, there’ll be no reason to love me.
How is it writing dialogue about your body, or reading now how people are writing about your body?
Some people are nice. Some people are like, “I love it, she’s fat.” I’m prepared for it. Every time there’s an adjective that’s not the word “obese” I feel fine. The dream is that we get to a point where people can write about the sex without talking about the shape of the bodies having it. But we’re not even close to there. And if I can open up the dialogue on this topic I’m perfectly pleased.
How do you guys write the sex scenes for the show?
I know that sex is in itself a political act, and that can’t be denied. But when we write them it’s not like we’re trying to lampoon the way women are doing things now. We’re really in that scene with those characters thinking about what that interaction means to them. The ones that are in the first three episodes I was sort of embarrassed about the minute I finished them. They came forth from my brain and there we are. I bring it to the writers’ room and then we pitch like, what is the weirdest dirty talk that Adam could offer up? And Adam [Driver] was so down to improvise. It’s fun for him to come up with the most disgusting things that could come out of a man’s mouth. There are some S/M moments, if we want to call them that, but I think they’re so much goofier. No one is informed enough to be doing anything close to S/M. The role-playing is so poorly done and badly constructed. It’s such a meta take on role-playing that he’s doing. And then my A.D. came in when we were shooting the scene at the top of the second episode and he was like, “It smells like a men’s locker room in here.” It was so hot, we’d been naked for so long.
How do you feel about the “Sex and the City” comparisons?
I feel like that show’s hugely influential, obviously, to the characters we’re playing and to us, and I think we’re on the same network, it’s for women, it’s the same city. But I kind of hope that once people see the show they’ll feel what the natural differences are, just cause it’s tonally and phase-of-life so different.
“SATC” is also, like “Girls,” often about odd or awkward sexual encounters, the major difference being the “SATC” women always get off anyway.
I realized we don’t have enough orgasms in our show. We’ll have to work on the second season. The thing about “Sex and the City” is that it covered every sexual base that exists. I mean there’s nothing we can talk about in our writer’s room that “Sex and the City” hasn’t done a version of. We can only hope to do our version of it because they’ve blazed a sexual trail across New York and beyond.
Also like on “SATC,” you guys do eat cupcakes. At one point, Hannah eats one in the shower.
I’ve eaten half a loaf of bread hanging out in the shower. This is just a tidier, more visual way to do that. And why would you not — if you woke up late — want to enjoy your cupcake while you shower and are too lazy to stand? Don’t you think those would be the girls who would be into cupcakes? I mean, girls, at 24, what’s an exciting food these days? They’re cute, they’re trendy, they recall home economics class while also having a Riot Grrrl aspect. It just seems like the food of the moment.
Willa Paskin is Salon's staff TV writer.More Willa Paskin.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)