11/10/2010 07:55 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Filmmaker Builds Tiny Furniture

Having sex on a Brooklyn street: desperate or endearing?

That seems to be the question that writer-director-actress Lena Dunham is hearing a lot about a climactic scene in her new feature, Tiny Furniture, which opens in limited release on Friday (11/12/10). In the scene, Dunham's character, a college student at loose ends named Aura, escapes from an overly hip art opening with a sous-chef she's interested in, smokes pot with him and then, even though he's got a girlfriend back at his apartment, has sex with him inside a corrugated metal pipe on the street.

"For some people, that's her most sympathetic moment," Dunham says, sitting in a corner booth in a restaurant in the Soho Grand Hotel recently, sipping something hot to ward off the cold she feels like she never shakes from one end of winter to the other. "But for others, that's when they lose touch with her. For some people, her vulnerability, the rock-bottom aspect of the moment, is appealing. I've been getting a bunch of different reads on it.

"I was just trying to make something that feels honest. I hope it resonates with people."

For Dunham, 24, art imitates life: Like Aura, she went to college in Ohio (at Oberlin College), then came home to her family in Tribeca, at loose ends. But where Aura gets caught up in a dead-end job and nowhere relationships (one guy doesn't even want to share a platonic sleeping space with her because "women sweat the bed"), Dunham has moved resolutely forward with her plan to become a filmmaker.

In fact, Tiny Furniture is her second autobiographical feature -- and the second to play the South-by-Southwest Festival. How autobiographical, however, is hazy. While Dunham uses her actual sister and mother to play Aura's sibling and parent -- and shot the film in the family loft -- the parallels are less obvious than it might seem.

"When I graduated, I was lost and confused, too," says Dunham who, on this day, looks thinner and prettier than she does onscreen as the sometimes lumpish Aura. "I worked in a restaurant and that experience made its way into this film. Still, I'd say the lines are blurry.

"I knew I wanted to be a filmmaker but I had no sense of how to go about it. I didn't know if there was this thing in the world that could sustain me that I could be good at that wasn't filmmaking."

Dunham, however, doesn't care much whether people confuse her with her character. Using her family and their home seemed like the natural thing to do: "This is what's around me. I have a compulsion to write. I feel like I'll explode if I can't tell a story. My mom and sister were incredibly game for the process. Neither of them aspires to be an actor, so it was about making it work with their schedules."

The one member of her family who isn't in the film is her father, an artist who, she says, is "incredibly supportive."

"For him, it was like a cinematic experience -- it was an amazing thing to have someone who knows me so well commenting on a story he's not in, but he could take it on its own terms," she says. "It's like having it watched by a stranger who knows you really well."

The film is the first to be shot on a Canon 7D, a high-def single-lens-reflex digital still camera that doubles as a video camera. That gives the film a distinctive look and feel -- one that Dunham takes no credit for.

I have no tech sense. During the writing, I'm just thinking about the story. The film's visual identity emerges when we're shooting. Jody [Lee Lipes, the cinematographer] is such a gifted visual storyteller that it helps me strip things down, to distill things to their visual essence.

For Dunham, the film resonates with the moment -- particularly for people of her generation, dubbed "the millennials" by demographers, as they come out of college and try to find their place in the world.

Specifically now, in a recession era of the economy, you feel like you have the least chance ever to go into the field that excites you. It creates a real identity rift. It's a universal condition. I wasn't trying to do some massive social commentary on a national social crisis or anything. But there's a wide group that responds that way.

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