"Why don't we try to make a feature film?" This was the question Susan Seidelman, fresh out of NYU, asked herself in the early 1980s that led to her debut, Smithereens. The movie is a slice of life that follows a hand-to-mouth New Wave chick named Wren (Susan Berman) as she uses anyone and everyone around her to try to survive and become famous and successful, or at least self-supporting. Her need is a yawning chasm that seems unfillable, her concern for others non-existent.
Susan Berman in Smithereens: "What am I s'posed to do? Sleep on the subway?"
I'm grateful to my pal Kenneth of KennethInThe212 for inviting me to the 92nd Street Y in TriBeCa to see a double feature of Susan Seidelman's first two movies, Smithereens (1982) and Desperately Seeking Susan (1985)—otherwise, I'd have never known about it and would not have had the chance to meet Seidelman and hear her speak about both of these uniquely Downtown films. Seidelman appeared after the first film to take part in a Q&A and before Susan to introduce what would go on to become known as "the Madonna movie."
I see Smithereens as a relentlessly downbeat film, sort of a style-soaked, uberobservant Run Lola Run whose main character never stops going, a film that ends almost as a cautionary tale with an oddly unforgettable freeze-frame of Wren seeming to turn to prostitution. Susan strikes me as the same exact movie as filtered through a rose-colored lens, a cheery, fantastic, breezy romp that sells the audience on New York.
Brad Rijn, playing a naive squatter with wheels.
"She's definitely selfish, that's for sure," Seidelman conceded of Wren, whose story could almost be a Madonna biopic—minus the charm and sex appeal—made before Seidelman ever met the future icon. Personally, I felt Wren was almost sociopathic without Madonna's charm and sex appeal—she had an Imogene Coca quality, and a voice that later served her well in voicing Rocky a Rocky & Bullwinkle flick. What would have been especially useful was any semblance of talent, something both Madonna and Seidelman—she admitted that there was more than a little of herself in Wren—possess. (A more recent photo of Berman, who played Wren, is at left; she looks so much cuter without the harsh, period-accurate Benatar-esque styling.)
Seidelman described Smithereens as having been made in "dribs and drabs" due to lead actress Susan Berman breaking a leg during filming as well as money issues. Times were tough.
"New York was pretty gritty in the '70s," she said, remembering the recession that made it anything but a vacation. "I personally love all those '70s New York movies because you could feel the texture of the cities. And so that was some of what I tried to capture."
She also recalled, "There was a real [convergence] of people—of musicians and painters and filmmakers—so everyone was kind of contributing to each other's work." That Downtown creative scene is the real star of Smithereens, and it heavily informs the more conventionally structured Desperately Seeking Susan.
Seidelman spoke about casting non-actor Richard Hell in Smithereens, but could have been talking about Madonna in her next movie. "And he was great because he allowed us to use a lot of his music and brought his own sense of style in. You know, one of the things about casting this kind of thing is you can do it with low-budget, and because we weren't really going for superexperienced actors, was sort of casting personas. So pretty much everyone who was cast, there was something about who they were that I felt would add a level of authenticity and just kind of reality and grit to the film...I felt it was important to cast for personality and then, as the director, try to make the actors feel comfortable enough to get that thing that I thought was interesting onto the celluloid."
During the break, some pretty male Madonna fans in their thirties were pounced on by a New York Magazine writer asking what first drew them to Madonna back in the day—as if this line of questioning could ever result in anything new or interesting—and Seidelman was pounced on by Kenneth and I for pictures.
Learned: Madonna improvised the pits.
Here is Seidelman discussing working with movie newcomers Roseanne Barr (later, in She-Devil) and Madonna, and goes on to discuss how Madonna came to be cast over Melanie Griffith, Kelly McGillis and Jennifer Jason Leigh:
Hilariously, she recounted sending a postcard to the Cannes Film Festival to ask how to enter her movie and through an incredible series of events actually winding up showing there alongside some of the greatest filmmakers of the era.
For her next assignment, Seidelman wanted to be sure she had the right script—as a new female director being handed a $6 million budget, it would have been easy to crash and burn:
The character of Susan was originally "a backpacker/hippie type—she was someone who'd just come back from Guatemala," Seidelman remembers. "It was a transitional time between punk and New Wave. [I was interested in] getting some of that punk/New Wave texture into the film. Certainly that was part of the reason Madonna was ultimately cast."
I asked her how she'd pulled such a strong performance out of Madonna, considering the fact that Madonna has since been terrible in some roles and pretty good in others—in short, anything but a sure thing. Seidelman didn't want to say what she thought of Madonna's performances in other movies ("good in some, not as good in others") but did make the strong point that Madonna was acting in Desperately Seeking Susan, not merely "playing herself." She said it's impossible to hit marks and recite lines and do all that is required in making a movie and to simply play one's self.
Arquette's name helped DSS get made.
She wrapped up her intro and stayed briefly to watch us watching her film, which was of course as delightful as always. It's a little scary to realize it's a quarter-century old, but must be gratifying to Seidelman to see that it does indeed have that place-specific yet timeless quality she made it her business to achieve.