'Girls' showrunner Jenni Konner on season 4 and 'falling in love' with Lena Dunham
Jenni Konner stopped by the Frame studio to talk about the new season, falling "in love" with Dunham, and what script doctoring taught her about writing.
For fans of HBO’s “Girls,” Sunday night marks the end of the wait for season four. The new season begins with Lena Dunham’s character leaving New York City, her friends and boyfriend for the MFA program at the prestigious Iowa Writers Workshop.
“Girls” is produced by Dunham, Judd Apatow and showrunner Jenni Konner.
Prior to “Girls,” Konner had done some feature film script doctoring — including on “Transformers 3” — and had been a writer on Apatow’s Fox TV series, “Undeclared.” But when she discovered Lena Dunham’s 2010 indie film. "Tiny Furniture," Konner says she was hooked on this new young talent.
Konner stopped by The Frame studio to talk about the new season, falling "in love" with Dunham, and what script doctoring taught her about writing.
I want to take you back a little bit in time to the original pitch for this show and whether or not the original pitch is what the show has become.
Well, the original pitch wasn’t really a pitch. I mean, what it was was that Lena had made "Tiny Furniture." ... I think one of the reasons it all happened so quickly for us at HBO was because we had this template. So we had this movie, and we said, "Well, the show is going to look kind of like this, and it’s going to feel like this. And we’re going to have some more girls in it, and it’s going to be probably a little funnier. And that’s what the show’s going to be."
So there were no surprises, because when you sell a pilot based on a pitch, no matter how great the script is, it’s going to look different and feel different from what someone imagines in their head. There will always be varying degrees of disappointment or confusion. And so we used the same [director of photography]. Lena was the director, Lena was the star, and so, you know, they weren’t very surprised, and that helps a lot.
Where had you guys first met? What was your first collaboration?
Well, our first collaboration was "Girls," and we met very romantically through our agents. But actually the reason we met was because I saw "Tiny Furniture." Sue Naegle from HBO — but this is just coincidentally, we’re mothers at the same school — had given me a DVD [of the film] and said, "Oh, you should watch this."
And I became obsessed with it. I thought it was really, really incredible. I would have our agents at UTA make me copies so I could give it to people. Back then, I would have given you a copy and [said], “This is a very important movie to see. It’s going to rock your world. Please enjoy it.” Judd now calls me the unofficial distributor.
You were a bootlegger.
And I was just a huge fan. ... Lena made a blind script deal at HBO, which means basically they’re just going to make something with her, they don’t know what it is yet. She had gone into a meeting and said, "I feel like people like me are underrepresented on television," and that was all they knew. And then she needed a supervisor who had television experience, and they called me because I was like her stalker.
And where does Judd Apatow figure into all this?
During that time when Lena and I first met and started to fall in love, within two weeks after that he saw "Tiny Furniture" and called UTA. They said, "Oh, Jenni’s doing it." I’ve worked with Judd since "Undeclared," and once you work with Judd you never stop working with Judd.
Unless something really bad happens.
Really, only something really good happens. Like, you learn everything. So I started working. He called me, and I remember I had taken a friend to the eye doctor because he had to get his pupils dilated, and I got the phone call and Judd was like, "Hey! So, you’re working with Lena Dunham. Rocking and rolling! You want a little help?" And I was like, “Uh, yeah! We would love it.” And then our show went from a little niche nothing to a big Judd Apatow project.
Has the nature of the creative collaboration evolved over the years? Do you find yourself doing things that you weren’t doing in the first season that you’re doing now? And has the balance of work shifted in any material way?
Yes, significantly. Because at the beginning, Lena didn’t know at all how to run a show, because why would she? And then very quickly, like so quickly, she learned how. I stopped supervising her, really, pretty early on. And so it changed in that way, because she could learn German in two days, I think, if she wanted to. That’s how quickly she learns things.
I think also she got more comfortable with other people’s writing. We have this incredible writing staff, and she started — really early on in the first season — to really trust them. It became easier for her to step back a little bit. Not from writing. I mean, she always is going to do the lion’s share of the writing and every script will always go through her, but she realized other people could do that. And the same with the directing — she’s been directing fewer and fewer episodes because we have such great directors who really understand the voice of the show, and then she can devote her time to other things.
So she is doing less directing and probably a little bit more producing. How does that affect what you are doing?
Well, it makes my life easier. And when she’s doing less directing and can do more of other things — acting, writing, other projects — we have a production company together now. So, you know, as much as we can use her time for other things, it makes my life better.
This is clearly a show that is a lot about her as a performer and her as a creative person. How do you guys bounce ideas off each other? And does the show really represent more of a consensus of what the creative group that is putting the show together decide upon as opposed to one person’s idea of what the show’s going to be?
Well, the show is always going to be Lena’s voice predominantly. Although she is an incredibly collaborative person, she knows what she wants and knows what her voice is very clearly. And I would say the way we do it every year is me, Lena, and Judd sit down a few times and have these long sessions where we just try to figure out sort of generally what’s going to happen, what the roles and the journeys of the characters are going to be.
And then we get a little more specific and think about what the first two episodes are going to be, and then Lena and I usually go off and write them so we can go into the room with people knowing exactly how it starts. Then we all break the season together, and it becomes very collaborative. And these characters really belong to all of us now and we all really know them. People will fight hard for something they want or something they don’t want, that they don’t believe a character would do.
And how much of your own personal experience and your ideas start to inform really specific plots?
A lot of it — and a lot [for] all the writers. I mean, Lena’s only one person, and she’s [only] lived 28 years. And we all kind of like to write from truths, so we’re all using our own stories a lot. We’ll never tell you [which] they are.
Oh, come on!
No, never. Not in a million years.
Hannah [Dunham's character] has moved to Iowa in this season. What precipitated that, and why did you think that was an interesting narrative idea?
Hannah is a person who really cares about her art and her writing, and we wanted her to take it seriously. There’s just this fun idea for us: What will it look like? You know, everyone’s so used to Hannah in her world. Oh, that’s such a Hannah. Hannah did this. Well, that’s just like her. She’s a narcissist. Whatever. What if we put her in a room with a whole different group of people who had no idea who she was? Like, how would they perceive her? How quickly would they figure her out?
And how would they judge her?
And how would they judge her! And then, when you make that room [consist of] specifically MFA students, it becomes like an even more extreme version. It’s kind of like its own weird spinoff.
As students, they are criticizing work and they are very eloquent about that criticism, and the work itself is, at least at the beginning, very autobiographical.
That’s right, and again, you’re not allowed to speak when you’re in the middle of your critique. There’s almost nothing that I could imagine being harder for Hannah in her entire life. That’s a real struggle for her.
There are two things that have happened with her going to Iowa and this MFA seminar. One is you have put her in a room that is as diverse as any MFA program probably in the nation. I’m wondering if part of that is in reaction to the criticism of the show itself.
No. Honestly, we try to never react to any of the criticism. It’s such a losing battle.
But also within that environment, you can use these students to express opinions that maybe you know are out there about Lena or about Hannah. You can use that room to kind of be a laboratory of what those criticisms are. So, even if you say you ignore it, it feels like ...
No, no. I’m sure subconsciously that’s all we’re doing.
I think you’re doing more than that, but it certainly is informing it?
Yeah, and also I think we wanted to sort of touch on this idea about the MFA. Some writing programs are very much like, you come in and you have a niche that becomes yours, and, you know, you’re the dude from the streets. Or you’re the woman who was in prison. Or you’re whatever. So we were casting based on that as well.
You said earlier that you try to insulate — consciously or subconsciously — yourself and, I suspect, the writing staff from the criticisms about the show.
Well, not completely. I don’t like to listen to the unthoughtful criticism. When we have thoughtful criticism, I love it. It’s when people come at you on Twitter and say really crazy things — that’s the kind of stuff that I insulate myself from. But we have critics who sometimes really love us or sometimes don’t love us, and it’s really interesting for me to see what they don’t like about it. Just thoughtful. Alan Sepinwall or Willa Paskin, people who are really, really smart, thoughtful critics who just say, "Oh, I didn’t like it when they did this."
Why do you think the show or Lena elicits such a strong, almost personal, reaction? Do you have any theories?
I don’t really know. All I know is that it’s better that than someone yawning. I’d rather have people loving it or hating it or feeling passionate about it than ignoring it. It’s a better place to be.
Do you think she can finish her MFA in an academic year? Or does it tend to take two?
Um, I think that she may struggle with finishing it at all. We’ll see.