Thursday, April 17, 2014

Susan Seidelman on "Desperately Seeking Susan"

How did you get started in filmmaking?

SUSAN SEIDELMAN: When I started out, I thought I wanted to be a fashion designer. When I originally went to college, I went to a school in Philadelphia for design. Just on a whim I took a film appreciation course; this was in the mid-70s, and film schools were not nearly as popular as they are today. I liked watching movies and I got hooked on watching movies. And then I kept taking more and more film appreciation classes. They didn't have film equipment, and it was certainly before digital, so it wasn't like you could take your home video camera and make a movie. So I started to make radio plays, because they had a radio studio at the school.

Little by little I realized that one of the things that I liked about film was that it combined a lot of the things I was interested in, like design, storytelling, music. And then on a whim I decided to apply to NYU film school. It was not that hard to get into film school back then, and so without ever having made a film (I sent them a design portfolio with the radio drama tapes I'd made), somehow I got accepted.

But once I started film school and got the chance to make my own little films and work on crews and play with the equipment, I realized that was not only something that I loved, but it was something that I found I was kind of good at, on the student level. I was nominated for a student Academy Award, so I was getting positive feedback from the little student films I was making and I was able to win some grants to continue to make longer and longer short films.

How involved were you in the casting of Desperately Seeking Susan?

SUSAN SEIDELMAN: I was pretty involved in the casting, but I wasn't involved in Rosanna Arquette. When Midge and Sarah brought me the script, Rosanna was already attached. She was a given.

It took some time to get the movie financed, so we worked together on script revisions and meetings at studios trying to get it made for several months.

We had a casting office here in New York and because I'm a New Yorker I was somewhat familiar with the New York talent pool. I had heard of Madonna -- she actually lived a couple blocks from me in downtown Manhattan -- her career hadn't quite taken off yet, she had one single out that was getting some attention. So I knew of her as the up-and-coming singer who was a downtown New York personality.

Did you face any resistance to casting her?
SUSAN SEIDELMAN: No, because I was the one that brought them Madonna, they didn't bring me Madonna. They were the ones saying, 'I don't know if we can go with this person because I've never heard of her.' And I was the one saying, 'I think she's right for this character. Let me do a screen test.' And she was right for the character.

What did you learn doing Desperately Seeking Susan that you were able to take to future projects?

SUSAN SEIDELMAN: Learning how to work with a crew. One of the things I realized is that it's a collaborative art form, so you're dealing with so many different people, all of whom have their own artistic vision. The director's job is to maintain a single, artistic vision by coordinating everyone else's. Everyone wants to give as much as they can, but it can become a real hodgepodge if there's not one, unifying way of looking at the film -- one unifying vision.

I watched movies where I felt that things were out of control because all the actors were doing something different and all trying to do something to the max and it really needed someone to say, 'No, don't do that. Yes, do that.' Learning how to modulate things, whether it's the performances or learning when to be flashy with the camera and when to be subtle. When to not move the camera and when to move it.

It's all about trying to maintain this one vision and that's what I started to see in Desperately Seeking Susan. I'm still learning, it's an ongoing process. But that's the skill that I realized that good directors have, being able to get what they need and incorporate other people's ideas; knowing how to use the best and politely (without hurting people's feelings) not use the stuff that you don't think works.

Sometimes different directors find different ways of doing that. I've heard about or seen examples of male directors who seem to feel that they have to be like drill sergeants and Nazis to show that they're the boss. Scream and get into fistfights and do that macho tough thing.

Now, as a woman, that isn't a style that particularly works for me, and as a woman who's just a little over five feet, I knew that no one was going to be physically intimidated by me. So I had to find my own way and have found my own way over the years of getting what I needed in a different way.

So what still excites you about making movies?

SUSAN SEIDELMAN: Telling stories, that's what excites me. Telling stories. And that's what excited me in the beginning. To me, characters and stories are the heart of what makes a movie great. And although I'm always impressed when I see movies that have amazing technology and amazing special effects, it's the more human aspect of it that really grabs me.

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