A Lot of Success Has to Do with Timing: An Interview with Susan Seidelman

photo courtesy of Snowbird Films LLC
Every time I’m in a fit of anxiety, I go out for a walk, plug in my earphones, put on ‘Into the Groove’ by Madonna, and ask myself, “What would Susan do?”  The Susan I’m talking about is the eponymous character from 1985’s Desperately Seeking Susan, played on screen by Madonna and brought to life by Director Susan Seidelman. With her metallic jackets and spiky heels, Susan’s character is the embodiment of confidence and charisma, symbolic of the tough, self-reliant downtown New York woman of the ‘80s.

Desperately Seeking Susan is a story of reinvention and adventure, and Seidelman was attracted to the script (the debut of screenwriter Leora Barish) partly because it resembled the story of her own life. Born in the suburbs of Philadelphia, Seidelman felt out of place in her hometown and eventually moved to New York City to attend film school at NYU. She carved her name in the industry when her first feature film, Smithereensset in a much more gritty and unsanitized version of downtown Manhattan—was invited to compete for a Palme D’Or at the 1982 Cannes film festival. Her other projects include Cookie, a mafia drama from the point of view of the daughter of a mobster, and She-Devil, a black comedy about a housewife whose husband has an affair with a famous romance novelist (played by Meryl Streep). Seidelman is particularly adept at playing with archetypes and creating fun but complex female characters.

Recently, I chatted with Ms. Seidelman about Madonna, New York, gentrification, and the difference between watching movies at home and in the theatres.

I am such a big fan of Susan’s character. Could you talk about that a little bit? How much of that was in the script and how much of it was Madonna?

I’ll go back a little bit and tell you why I wanted to make the movie. I think it’s really about reinvention. It’s about wanting to go someplace where you can reinvent yourself in some way. As a young girl, when I grew up outside of Philadelphia and was bored, I always dreamed or fantasized about having a different kind of life. The idea of going to New York and of being somebody different than who I was in suburban Philadelphia was always something in the back of my mind.

So I made Smithereens and it was a surprise success. No one imagined that it would get into the Cannes film festival or get distributed in movie theaters. Suddenly I was getting scripts, and I realized that if I’m going to do something, I wanted to pick a story that I think I can do better than somebody else. I’m not going to compete with Martin Scorsese or Oliver Stone because that would be crazy. I wanted to find something that I thought I had something personal to say about, and I read a lot of scripts and I was just getting a lot of many dumb ones, many teen comedy kind of stuff. And finally this script came to me through my agent and when I read it I absolutely connected with the characters and with the theme. That was the first reason I wanted to do it. It also had my name in it, which was just a weird circumstance, but I am superstitious so that caught my attention.

The other thing was I understood the character of Susan, that kind of character, those sort of slightly bad girls, but not too bad, free-spirited bad girls, always appealed to me. I just liked that character and when I saw that character in there, I thought, I know how to make that character come to life.

And then of course, the other half of the film, which the Roberta character played by Rosanna Arquette. Her worlds, her suburban world that she found herself living in was something I could have related to. I could have been that character if I didn’t choose to take another path. Both those worlds I related to, and in both of those worlds, I felt I had something unique to say about them that I hadn’t seen in other movies before.

I was actually thinking about what you said about identifying with both the characters of Susan and Roberta. I’m actually from a small town in India and I left when I was really young. But when I go back, there’s a very different side of me when I’m there and a very different side of me when I’m here in New York.

Yeah, I think the other main character of Desperately Seeking Susan is the city itself. New York is a star of the movie because I think New York—and I’m not sure if it’s still the case, and I would be very sad if that was no longer the case—but New York was always a Mecca for outsiders. Like a magnet, the city pulled them in. That was also why we wanted to make it into a fairytale city. Because it really is. I’ve said this before, but it really is also inspired by Alice in Wonderland. Another story of a bored little girl who follows an exotic creature into another way more colorful, playful, dangerous and exciting world.

Related to that, I was also thinking about the costumes and the outfits. Did you all basically show what you saw around you or did you embellish it in some way?

It was embellished, I would say. Smithereens was much more what I saw around me. My background is in design, I had originally wanted to be a fashion designer.

The reason I was into design, and probably why it definitely shows in all my films, is because I think that you can say a lot about a character by the details, the shoes you put them in, the clothes you put them in, the little thing on their handbag, whatever. You don’t have to have dialogue about it. You just understand who they are. And so it’s like a quick bit of information.

Because Smithereens was grittier, and we didn’t have any money, we just sorted through people’s wardrobes, or told them to bring something that was in a certain color palette. But, as gritty as that movie was, it was still a little highlighted. The outfits are a little—heightened reality, I would call it. It’s pushed a little. The same in Desperately Seeking Susan, but probably to a greater extent, because the whole movie has definitely more of a fairy tale quality to it.

I was on this website that compared shots of a particular location from the movie with photos of what that place looks like now, the fairy tale version versus the present-day reality, I guess. And, I noticed that many of the locations that you shot in don’t really exist anymore. What do you make of that?

I really believe that sometimes the more specific you can be, the more timeless something can be. So even though, for example, Danceteria hasn’t existed probably in 30 years, the fact that that was a real club and that really captured a bit of what it felt like, made it more universal and timeless cause it wasn’t a Hollywood construction.

Again, everything was a little heightened. The lighting that Ed Lachman uses, he uses a lot of colored gels, which then became very common. At the end of the ‘80s and the ‘90s, every MTV rock video had colored gels, but when Ed was doing it, it was pretty early on. Again, to just kind of take gritty reality and just tweak it a little bit, heighten it. Working with the costume and the production designer, a lot of what a film looks like, especially when you’re not working on a Hollywood soundstage—it’s so important to select the right locations. So, picking the right streets in the East Village, picking the right shop—you know Love Saves the Day, which burned down last I heard, years ago.

Oh really?

Where she sells the boots, you know. It’s gone.

So it’s about selection. And then once you make those selections, how you decorate the room, it elevates it a little bit. It was great working with Ed Lachman because we all work well together and there was definitely not a formula, but a format. We definitely wanted, for example, everything in Roberta’s suburban world to be soft and pink and peach and taupe and beige. And everyone at the party is dressed in these very soft colors. Her bedroom was pink, versus the Susan world, which was a lot more harsh, but also more magical.

The locations, for example, the Magic Club, was the Audubon Ballroom.  That was where Malcolm X was shot, and it was crumbling and very gritty and dilapidated. Using that texture, but lighting it in a way to make it look magical. But part of it was the magicalness of those alleyways and the crumbling New York City. Because, again, New York—more so when I shot Smithereens, but still there when we did Desperately Seeking Susan two years later—the city was falling apart. It started to become gentrified in the mid-‘80s. But you know, it really wasn’t until the end of the 80s, or ‘87, ‘88, that this whole kind of yuppie culture came in and those tenements became condos.

I’ve also been watching Pretend It’s a City on Netflix, starring Fran Leibowitz, and she talks a lot about how the city was falling apart in the ‘70s and ‘80s.

I was at NYU in ‘76, ‘77ish. I started Smithereens in ‘79, planning it out, and started filming in ‘80, but there was a bankruptcy crisis in the city. Garbage wasn’t picked up, it smelled,  there weren’t a lot of police around. So what was good about that? It turned the city into a big canvas for artists to be able to do graffiti and put up flypaper, put posters up, rows of them, all over the East Village and other places. And no one pulled them down. Nowadays I’m sure the police would pull them down or there’d be a condo association that would. But it was a cheap canvas for a lot of artists who were living downtown because being an artist or a student, living on a low budget, you could get an apartment and you could afford to live in the city.

The city got harder and harder to afford in the mid-‘80s and then, unfortunately, it got ridiculously hard. So if you weren’t a billionaire, it became very hard and after 2013, ‘14, or whatever, unless you bought in early and had a rent-controlled apartment.

When I was in grad school, it was really funky. It’s not where Tisch is right now. NYU grad school was on seventh street and second Avenue and back then, so like right off of St. Marks and back then, everything beyond Avenue A was No Man’s Land. Second Avenue, which now I’m sure has a GAP and lots of big box stores, back then was pretty funky. I lived on East Ninth street, so I knew the neighborhood.

And you stayed in the city until two or three years ago?

I didn’t stay in the same apartment in the city. But interestingly enough, I’ve always lived in Downtown Manhattan. When I first came and for the last 35 years, I lived in Soho, off of Houston Street, which again started to change. I moved there in 1984/5—the neighborhood was just changing, and by the time I left, it was a whole different kind of neighborhood.

Is that why you decided to move away?

I think there were a lot of things. I’m a senior citizen now. I wanted to travel more. And I also realized that many of the things, to be honest, although I have great nostalgia for my past, that many of the things I loved doing when I was 25, 30, 40, I just wasn’t doing anymore. I wasn’t going out to rock clubs, I wasn’t even going to the theatre as much. And the theatre that I would have been going to, it wouldn’t have been Broadway, it would have been independent theatre that wasn’t even happening so much anymore. If I were a younger person, I probably would be in Brooklyn right now, not in SoHo.

And where are you right now, if you don’t mind me asking?

I’m in an area called Bucks County, it’s old farm country. I’m in an old farmhouse. In fact, if you can see the house I live in, the original house was built in 1768. That’s the original front door. This would have been the original kitchen—during the Revolutionary War, that would have been their kitchen.

It’s a beautiful home.

It’s very different, I tend to go for one extreme or the other. Either something modern, or if I’m going for something old, something really old. It’s probably an interest in drama, at both ends of the spectrum.

I watched some of your other films, I watched She-Devil and Cookie, which I loved. I loved Cookie a lot, it was so wonderful, so funny and playful. I was wondering, what do you make of your career trajectory and the choices that you made?

I always made choices based on my gut and sometimes they ended up more commercially successful and sometimes less so. I have to make something that I might want to watch. Or show a world that I find interesting, like the idea of a mafia world from the perspective of the daughter seemed like a fun idea.

The idea of a revenge comedy, She-Devil, where there is a battle between these two very different women. I thought it would be about a theme I thought was interesting—people’s obsession with beauty and power and fate. The idea of an ordinary housewife versus this sort of woman who’s living this wacky fairytale life.

What I’ve also realized is that a lot of success has to do with timing. You try to make the best you can and something weird happens—Madonna suddenly becomes famous. We couldn’t have predicted that. Would the film have been as successful if she wasn’t famous? Probably not. I’d love to say that it would have, but it was the film at the right time.

Cookie, unfortunately, was made by a studio that went bankrupt and then another studio took it over. The movie business is funny. Sometimes when it’s not a studio’s baby, they don’t give it as much of a push, meaning advertising dollars, promotion etc. They put it out there, and if the ground doesn’t open up, they sort of let it drift away. Cookie is one of those movies that just had bad timing, quite frankly.

Even though it’s a great film.

Thank you for saying that. But I think it just got lost.

Do you think of yourself as an indie director, or a commercial director, an amalgamation of the two? Or do you avoid labels?

I can certainly relate to the independent film community and spirit. I definitely started out in that world. But like a lot of people who started out in that world, Jim Jarmusch for example, if I want to make movies, I have to go out of the world to find financing. So sometimes, I’ll step out of that world. Or I’ll work independently, I’ll just make the movie, try to find an independent producer and make the movie through independent financing. If there’s something I want to do, I’ll just find the best route to doing it. So I don’t really try to box myself into one category.

I think that’s wise. What are you working on right now?

Yeah, actually, there’s two things. The movie industry has changed dramatically—it was changing, but this past year has been an absolute game-changer. So it’ll be very interesting to see whether people go back into movie theaters or how long it takes them to do that. Or have we all just gotten spoiled and our TV options are better?

When I started out, the thought of doing something on TV, I mean, who wants to—you wanted to be a filmmaker, not a TV maker. But now some of the best stuff out there are these series.

What I’m working on started as a feature film but then it morphed into a 4-part limited series. It’s a revisionist look at the King Arthur legend. In our revisionist, feminist version of that, actually, Arthur doesn’t pull the sword from the stone. He tricks his young girlfriend, Guinevere, to pull the sword from the stone. She pulls the sword out of the stone and he says, “Hand that to me because no one’s gonna believe you did that. You’ll get burned at the stake as a witch.”

She gets nervous and hands him the sword. He becomes the King of England and the recipient of love and honor and lots of other wonderful things when in fact, she’s the one always whispering in his ear. He’s a vain usurper.

Ultimately, it’s a story about all the women who stood in the background of history and whispered into their man’s, their partner’s, their bosses’ ears, while letting them get the credit. And she finally says enough.

It’s about the power struggle between men and women as they navigate that. And the tone is like The Favourite.  It’s set in the 13th century, but the language and the attitudes are modern.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.