I can’t have been the only person surprised to learn that Lena Dunham – the director/actress/podcaster/everything behind Girls – was at the helm of a film set in medieval times.
After all, she was the woman whose best-known character, Girls‘ Hannah Horvath – a semi-autobiographical portrayal of Lena herself – has infamously considered herself the millennial “voice of a generation”. In fact, Lena has been considered one of the leading voices of the millennial, commenting so well on our contemporary culture through her film and television work (in her first film, Tiny furniture; direct the pilot of HBO Industry; the list goes on) and, more recently, in his podcast The C-word.
So what prompted her to enter the world of medieval fiction? Not, it seems, the battles and gore so often associated with this genre; Catherine called Birdy is more of a coming-of-age story set in the 13th century.
“I’m interested in the history of domestic life,” Lena Dunham – who fully accepts my preconceptions – tells me, “not a battle for a crown. I was excited about trying to show both the things that were so specific to that era and also the things that are timeless.
The result is not so much a story as a hisstory; the only bloody part is when Birdy, the film’s 14-year-old protagonist, played by Bella Ramsey, gets her first period. The only “fight” scene is a merry mud fight that opens the film’s action. And, in a genre that so often shows the mistreatment of women by men, our teenage protagonist has a refreshing propriety about storytelling, telling through voiceovers from the start.
Lena opted for the film rights for Catherine called Birdy – a coming of age (YA) book by Karen Cushman – nearly a decade ago, and filming was originally scheduled for spring 2020 when the lockdown put a spanner in the works.
While Lena’s teen drama directing has been put on hiatus, has the lockdown spurred her interest in the ‘inner child’? “Absolutely. It’s got people, and I include myself, looking at themselves in a bit of an unprecedented way. She adds, “It wouldn’t surprise me if a few people came out of lockdown with transitioning stories really intense adulthood that they had written. I came out of confinement with a few of my own.
That last part has me speculating if we might expect a YA take on Girls of her one day. But, for now, let’s stay in the present – by which I assume that means the medieval period – and listen to Lena, in her own words, talk about her latest film.
CHARM: I loved Catherine called Birdy. Full disclosure: I normally turn off when I hear something that has a medieval setting — because I immediately think of violent battle scenes, and I don’t like it. It was so great to see something medieval that was completely different – for example, dealing with the coming of age experience. What appealed to you about directing a story set in medieval times?