We speak to director Susan Seidelman about her seminal feature film debut
Before she directed the pilot episode of Sex and the City and the Madonna-starring Desperately Seeking Susan, Susan Seidelman established her distinct approach to free-spirited female characters with her first feature, 1982’s Smithereens. An energetic and colourful debut, filmed at the epicentre of downtown New York, Smithereens combines grit and glamour to tell the story of a young woman who leaves behind the suburbs of New Jersey to make a mark on the city’s flourishing punk scene.
To the tune of The Feelies’ “The Boy with Perpetual Nervousness”, punk-waif protagonist Wren (Susan Berman), dressed in a printed vinyl skirt and fishnet tights, opens the film by swiping a pair of checkered sunglasses from an unwitting stranger. Mimicking the frenetic energy and style of music at the time, punk cinema of the 1980s often carried similar sentiments of antiauthoritarianism, cynicism, and frustration. In Smithereens, it’s echoed in Wren’s assertive attitude, and in the film’s relatively thrifty DIY aesthetic.
Shot on 16mm, the film follows Wren as she stomps confidently through the chaotic, dirty streets of a city that had recently nearly gone bankrupt, and stars Television’s Richard Hell playing a former member of fictional band Smithereens.
The artistic environment of the late 1970s and early 1980s was fertile creative ground for female artists engaging with resistant subculture. Filmmakers and artists like Kathryn Bigelow, Bette Gordon, Nan Goldin, Kathy Acker, Sara Driver, and many others worked around the same time as Seidelman on films focusing on women’s agency and self-determination. Often working on small budgets and without regard for film permits or potential distribution channels, these filmmakers were a part of a true independent cinema.
Seidelman’s career was quickly propelled forward after Smithereens competed for the Palm d’Or at the 1982 Cannes Film Festival. She moved toward bigger budgets and higher concepts. To much her own admission, her films frequently elevated the often dire state of the city at that time to a creative wonderland, incorporating elements of fantasy – an understandable approach when confronted with the condition of New York City in the early 1980s. Despite her commercial success, Seidelman’s career is enduringly rooted in punk amateurism, and is an integral part of New York’s history of vital independent cinema.
We sat down with the seminal filmmaker to discuss how she made Smithereens, and to talk about the unique value of punk, DIY, and street fashion.
BREAK THE RULES
“Punk was about redefining the rules and breaking the rules. I think that same held true for punk cinema. Those working in New York – a lot of them women — like Lizzie Borden or Beth B, did this. Because there were no rules, no-one could tell you not to make films, or that you couldn’t make films. It was so cheap to make movies, and the structure was so loose. And that was part of the aesthetic. People weren’t controlled by the power of money, which in the film industry, had always been like that. It was liberating.”
REAL, ‘COMPLICATED’ WOMEN
“I wanted Wren to be interesting and appealing, I didn’t care about her being likable in the traditional sense of likability. To me, one of the things I was bothered by was certainly the traditional Hollywood cinema. In European cinema, they were a bit more complicated. The American industry was so much stronger that we had a pre-determined idea of what a heroine should act like or be like. I wanted to make a character that reflected some of the people that I found interesting. Some of those people were not necessarily good or bad, but they were interesting. It wasn’t about putting them into categories.”
FUND FILMS, NOT WEDDINGS
“I initially only had about $20,000 to make Smithereens. Then, honestly, my grandmother died and she had left me money. She had left me $50,000 to pay for my wedding – for presents, and the wedding as whole. But, I had somebody I had been living with and we broke up. So what better use for that money than to put it into the film? I think my grandmother would’ve been proud of that.”
“I had somebody I had been living with and we broke up. So what better use for that money than to put it into the film?” – Susan Seidelman
PUSH THE BOUNDARIES
“Smithereens is a little bit different than some of the other punk movies. I always liked, to some extent, taking reality, but heightening it a little bit. The locations are gritty, but they’re a little bit magical just in terms of the design or the graffiti on the van, or Richard’s apartment – everything is pushed a little bit. Even the way Wren is dressed. I did that even more when I made Desperately Seeking Susan, which really pushes into a sort of element of fantasy and hyperrealism, you know, with lighting that’s a little bit magical.”
“When I got out of high school, I thought I wanted to be a fashion designer. I was always into street fashion – and rebellious fashion – and what that can say about character. How a graphic or a look could say something about who a person was or what they wanted to be. Whether it was the punk ripped T-shirts and safety pins of Richard Hell, or whether it was the kind of extension of the Andy Warhol, Velvet Underground look. I just found it interesting, rebellious, and fresh.”
“I was always into street fashion – and rebellious fashion – and what that can say about character. How a graphic or a look could say something about who a person was or what they wanted to be” – Susan Seidelman
BEAUTY IN DECAY
“I was fascinated by the French New Wave of the late ‘60s, the realism of Italian cinema, and film being able to kind of capture the energy on the streets. In Italian cinema as well – which was post World War 2 – there was rubble because of the bombing and the war, I was interested in that texture of that decaying city falling apart and its layers of rubble. Because of New York at that time was falling apart.”
“The good thing about independent cinema, and the reason why there were a lot of women directors in New York at that time, was you could make your own opportunity. You’re not knocking on other peoples’ doors. I definitely thought about knocking on Hollywood’s door to maybe be a PA on a set or the assistant to the assistant of some producer in Hollywood. But with independent movies, you do it yourself. You hire yourself. So all of those women, whether it’s Beth B, or Bette Gordon, or Lizzie Borden, or even with Kathryn Bigelow in her early days, they hired themselves.”