Susan Seidelman: 'J'ai Madonna et Bruce Willis faisant un essai'.
Once More Into the Groove: ‘Desperately Seeking Susan’ Turns 25
September 22, 2010, 9:00 am
By DAVE ITZKOFF
Empty out your vintage shopping bags from Love Saves the Day, unroll your fishnet stockings and dust off that pyramid jacket you claim belonged to Jimi Hendrix, because “Desperately Seeking Susan” is a quarter-century old. This 1985 comedy-drama, which starred Rosanna Arquette as a New Jersey housewife masquerading as a bohemian Manhattanite – and, by the way, provided Madonna with her first lead role in a movie – was for a generation of viewers an introduction to New York’s downtown counterculture and its motley fashion sensibility. Now the film plays like a cinematic time capsule, filled with endearingly grimy places, authentic and imagined, and distinctive personalities that have vanished from the city.
To celebrate the 25th anniversary, the Film Society of Lincoln Center is hosting a screening of the film at the Walter Reade Theater on Thursday evening that will be attended by its director, Susan Seidelman; its screenwriter, Leora Barish; and the producers Sarah Pillsbury and Midge Sanford.
ArtsBeat spoke recently to Ms. Seidelman (who went on to direct “She-Devil,” “Gaudi Afternoon” and episodes of “Sex and the City,” among other projects) about the making of “Desperately Seeking Susan,” her memories of New York in the ’80s and, of course, Madonna. These are excerpts from that conversation.
Q.Twenty-five years after the fact, what are you most looking forward to about this particular showing of “Desperately Seeking Susan”?
A.I haven’t seen a lot of the actors and crew members in a while, but I haven’t seen it on a big screen in many, many years, so I’m just as curious to see how New York has aged. It was a very different place back then, especially downtown. Young people didn’t have to move out to Brooklyn and Queens to find affordable housing.
Q.How did you first get connected with the movie?
A.This was my second film. I had done a low-budget independent film that was also set downtown, called “Smithereens,” in 1982. And as a result of that, these producers, Midge Sanford and Sarah Pillsbury, sent the script to my agent. And I’m kind of a superstitious person so the “Desperately Seeking Susan” title caught my attention. It had that title already – that wasn’t vanity on my part.
But it had a theme that my first film was about. It’s about finding out who you want to be and who you are inside. The inner Susan — the adventurous creature that’s inside the suburban housewife — really interested me thematically. I wasn’t a housewife but I grew up in suburban Philadelphia and I couldn’t wait to cross the bridge, metaphorically speaking, into Manhattan. I just knew that there was something on the other side, out there, that I needed to get to.
Q.How deep were your roots in the downtown New York scene?
A.I came to New York in the mid-’70s to go to N.Y.U. film school. The grad film school, at that time, was on East Seventh Street and Second Avenue. That was when Second Avenue – after First Avenue, you just didn’t go, but Second Avenue was pretty funky. I’ve always been a downtown person for the last 30 years or so, and I’ve never lived above Ninth Street. So I was familiar with that world. I went to the clubs, I knew some of the musicians. I felt comfortable.
Q.Who did you cast first, your Roberta (the housewife) or your Susan (the bohemian)?
A.The producers were from L.A. and had gotten Rosanna Arquette attached before the movie was greenlighted. Then when I got involved, the rest was cast out of New York with up-and-coming actors — obviously, Madonna, who was not known at the time, as well as downtown types that had been in some of these independent, downtown movies. Like Rockets Redglare, Richard Edson, who had been in Jim Jarmusch’s first movie — he hadn’t made any others at that time – and some of them had been in my first movie, “Smithereens,” like Richard Hell and Susan Berman.
Q.How did you find Madonna for this film?
A.Madonna lived down the street from me, so she wasn’t “Madonna,” in quotes. I knew her from people who were in the downtown music scene. We started to audition more up-and-coming actresses who had done some films -– people like Ellen Barkin and Melanie Griffith and Jennifer Jason Leigh and Kelly McGillis, who had just made one or two movies and were getting known. But even though the film is a fairy tale, in a sense, it needed to be grounded in some kind of authenticity. We didn’t want actors putting on costumes and playing downtown.
Q.You wanted someone who genuinely embodied it, rather than an actor who would be playing at it or pretending it?
A.Right. And she hadn’t really done a movie before. She’d played in a band in the background of “Vision Quest,” whatever. But it wasn’t really an acting role. I hoped that because she is a performer and she had such an interesting persona, I could capture that on film somehow. And that does involve a lot of acting. People sometimes think, “Oh, it’s just being.” But it’s not. When you have to say lines and hit marks and get your lighting and repeat it 20 times from different angles, it’s acting.
Q.Given her inexperience, did you have to make a case for casting her in the film?
A.Well, yes. She had to do a bunch of screen tests. But it was the early days of MTV, and she happened to have a video that got a lot of rotation, because there just weren’t a lot of music videos at that time. I think it was for “Lucky Star.” So the the Orion people out in L.A. saw that and liked the way she looked. She was also helpful in auditions for the actor that was going to play her boyfriend. Somewhere, in a carton in my basement, I have Madonna and Bruce Willis doing an early screen test for that.
Q.How did you find your locations?
A.A lot of them that were places that I knew. I went to Danceteria, I went to the Bleecker Street Cinema and I knew that strip along Second Avenue where Love Saves the Day was. That was home turf. We were trying to find a tone that was sort of hyper-realism. You wanted it to be gritty, but with a slightly romanticized edge. If you look at a location like the Magic Club, it borrows from punk but it also borrows from bad Las Vegas lounge acts.
The other thing that was so crucial was that we filmed it all in New York. We were filming at the end of 1984, and New York was still coming out of the 1970s bankruptcy crisis. Nothing was getting renovated or repaired. There was no money. So it still had that grit. If it was in the ’90s, they would have said: “Go film it in Toronto. Toronto looks just like New York.” It doesn’t. When you look at the background people and the faces, that is New York and you don’t get it in Toronto and you don’t get it in L.A. either.
Q.Watching the film recently, one thing that struck me was how much more curvaceous Madonna was than I remembered her. Where did that aesthetic go?
A.I think that starting in the ’90s, and certainly continuing on, people got a little obsessed with skinniness. Certainly she was more full figured, but look at Marilyn Monroe or Jane Russell — they were great, sexy, curvy, voluptuous women. I guess tastes change and I’m hoping it’ll come back a little bit more in the other direction.
Q.Does Madonna owe you a debt of gratitude for helping to send her career into the stratosphere?
A.I can’t postulate what kind of response the film would have gotten had Madonna’s star not risen so fantastically in such a short period of time. But sometimes things converge and make a thing that’s even bigger than the two alone. By the time we finished shooting the film, Madonna’s “Like a Virgin” album came out and that’s what catapulted her to the first level of stardom. You never knew how long that was going to last, but certainly that made a huge splash. Simultaneously she had this movie, and had the movie not been well received, it wouldn’t have mattered. But the fact that she’s good in the movie, people seemed to like the movie and she suddenly had this meteoric album — all that converged. So much about what makes something happen or not happen has to do with having the right stuff at the right time.
Q.Did you feel like your experience with “Desperately Seeking Susan,” and the success that it had, prepared you for the ups and downs that awaited you in your filmmaking career?
A.I didn’t have any expectations. If I moved out to L.A. and immersed myself in the world of Los Angeles, my ups and downs would have been different. But I’m really a New York person. New York is bigger than the movie business, and I really like not living in a company town. I got to make some movies that I’m really glad that I got to make. I got to make some that I thought were going to be better, more successful than they were, but I’m still glad I made them.
Another thing that people don’t really talk about, but is really true, because there are so few female directors: the last movie I did for Orion [the company that produced "Desperately Seeking Susan," and went bankrupt in the 1990s] was “She-Devil.” The week that movie came out, I was in the hospital having a baby. Literally, in labor pains watching Siskel & Ebert on the monitor in the room. That’s another component to being a female director: how you juggle a professional career with a family raises its own issues. When you’re making a movie it is nine solid months of your life where you are living, breathing that movie 16 hours a day. It’s not like you can do it and turn it off. That’s another article.
Rosanna Arquette and Madonna during the making of “Desperately Seeking Susan”.
Photo: The Kobal Collection.