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How Lena Dunham learned to love her childhood self through writing a film

LA Times logo LA Times 12/5/2022 Lena Dunham
"No book transfixed me quite like 'Catherine, Called Birdy,' Karen Cushman's 1994 ode to the long-ignored domestic realities of a medieval preteen," Lena Dunham writes in an essay. (Celeste Sloman / For The Times) © Provided by LA Times "No book transfixed me quite like 'Catherine, Called Birdy,' Karen Cushman's 1994 ode to the long-ignored domestic realities of a medieval preteen," Lena Dunham writes in an essay. (Celeste Sloman / For The Times)

It's easy to dismiss how hard it was to be a child. We grow up and encounter what we consider to be real challenges. Death, divorce, taxes. If our childhoods contained some measure of stability — clothing, food, shelter — the weighty realities of adulthood seem to supersede the fears and slights of being small. I don't think I'm alone in the fact that I've never been particularly charitable to my small self. The fourth-grader who dressed as Cher Horowitz nearly every day for a year only to eat lunch alone while reading a biography of Barbra Streisand. The 12-year-old with chunky highlights who sneezed on her first kiss. The 16-year-old who was so anxious she curled up in the library inside of the North Face coat she begged for so that she'd look more like the girls who smoked on the corner between classes.

She is at best a funny story and at worst a cringe-worthy liability. But if I tune in to her, I can still feel the shame, as immediate and disarming as preparing dinner and the knife slipping in your hands.

Like many children without social gifts, I disappeared into books, searching for myself in their heroines. I loved Kay Thompson's Eloise for her independence, Madeleine L'Engle's Camilla for her romantic streak. I crafted elaborate fantasies around Frances Hodgson Burnett's "A Little Princess," in which a girl who is separated from her war hero father is mistaken for an orphan and ignored by her schoolmates, forced to sweep the floors, until he reappears in a burst of satin and cinnamon buns.

But no book transfixed me quite like "Catherine, Called Birdy," Karen Cushman's 1994 ode to the long-ignored domestic realities of a medieval preteen. From the first page, I was enamored of the tone, part cheeky brat and part wise philosopher. I related to the heroine's desire to be a part of something, dampened by her inability to keep her mouth shut.

Like so many of my favorite young protagonists, Birdy's life didn't resemble mine. But replace arranged marriage and maggot-filled meat with the school dance and crippling obsessive-compulsive disorder, and you had a resonance that turned this book into a dog-eared obsession. Cushman understood that teenagers throughout history have always felt the same: perpetually misunderstood, deceptively powerful, radically hopeful. By contrasting the eternal wants and needs of emerging personhood with the alien specifics of medieval life, she created an enduring classic.

When I entered Hollywood more than a decade ago, movies for teenagers were having a moment — between "Twilight" and "The Hunger Games," the power of engaged young people (specifically girls) was being revisited. But unlike the films that raised me from girl to woman — movies like "Clueless," "Slums of Beverly Hills" and "The Man in the Moon," to name a few — these films required an epic hook. Vampire love, battles to the death, they have their pleasures, but so does simply watching the world through the eyes of a teenager.

But it wasn't easy to convince the powers that be that there was an audience for a period film about getting your period.

When I finally found partners in Working Title (and then Amazon Studios), the script was still a slim 70 pages, with the major movements being more internal than external. Cushman's book is told in diary format, with Birdy chronicling the minutiae of her days. I tried to preserve that with a vigorous voice-over that placed us squarely in Birdy's head. I said often that young viewers didn't need an epic scale to understand epic feelings (I was saying epic so much that I sounded like a big wave surfer or a crazed director remaking "Citizen Kane"). But the great lesson that my producer Tim Bevan taught me was that we could have both — moments of external scale that matched our lead's emotional tenor. It involved an extensive rethink of the novel's final third, which felt almost sacrilegious, but Karen knew that every move we made was to honor her creation.

I started dreaming of making this film when I was 20, but we didn't shoot until I was 34. By growing, my empathy grew too, and the characters who were once antagonists — Birdy's lost alcoholic father, her overwhelmed mother, her grizzled suitor — filled out for me in a way that only lived experience can provide.

In writing Lord Rollo (with an assist from the brilliant Andrew Scott), I thought about my father, a man who has worked so hard to understand the experiences of the women and trans people in his life, but who in another time wouldn’t have had the inner and outer resources to take this journey. Birdy's mother, Aislinn (Billie Piper), has had a series of devastating stillbirths, and I thought about the wolf howls that escaped me after my hysterectomy, the sense of lost possibility that can still creep up on me in the middle of the night. And in the eccentric widow Ethelfritha (Sophie Okonedo), I saw the wisdom of a life lived with sometimes-messy abandon, the intergenerational love we have to offer even when we are not technically mothers. That's the love I feel for Bella Ramsey, who ultimately became the only Birdy I can see.

Actress Shelley Duvall once said, "You're never grown up. We're all still dealing with the same hopes, same fears, same dreams that we had as children." It's true. But sometimes we have to grow up to express those, and hope that we can love our past selves in the process.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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