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Saturday, June 21, 2014

BAMcinemaFest 2014: Q&A with Young Jean Lee (Here Come the Girls)

The New York Times has dubbed her “the most adventurous downtown playwright of her generation.” Of course, that was before she recorded an album of original songs (with guest appearances by Laurie Anderson, Kathleen Hanna, and David Byrne) or started in on what seems to be the first of a few film experiments. Award-winning playwright Young Jean Lee is bringing her short Here Come the Girls to BAM Rose Cinemas this Monday, and we caught up with her after a European tour to talk about it.

You've said that you start a play by asking, "What's the last thing in the world I'd ever want to make?" Does the same apply to your non-theater work?

Not really, although the two films I've made so far both play around with the idea of doing things "wrong" in a way that is similar to my theater work. Here Come the Girls was commissioned by the performance group Findlay/Sandsmark as part of their project, "biograph- last year was pretty//shitty." Joe was the star of their show, so I wrote a script in which I was making a documentary about him without regard for any kind of filmmaker boundaries or decency. My second short, A Meaning Full Life, was written by a 15-year-old high school kid from the Bronx. His teacher, a friend of mine, sent me the script and I immediately fell in love with it because it was so over-the-top in its earnestness. As it was written to be a play, it was extremely uncinematic, in addition to being full of grammatical mistakes, and we shot and edited it to make it even less cinematic, without fixing or changing anything in the text, and trying to keep all the emotional honesty. The result is pretty riveting so far (we're in the middle of editing it).

Talk about some of your favorite movies of the year.

I just saw Nymphomaniac and loved it. Lars Von Trier is such a master manipulator—I find it difficult to grasp the logic behind a lot of his choices, so I spend a lot of time puzzling over what it was he did to me and what he was trying to do to me. I've had so many great conversations about that film. I rewatched Godard's Contempt for the millionth time when they showed it at Film Forum. That film always blows my mind—every frame of it is gorgeous. I liked how Spike Jonze's Her was so heartfelt and real—I think it's great when you think you know an artist and then they turn the tables on you. Also I thought it was a total baller move for him to write an original script and write it well. I liked Under the Skin—I have trouble categorizing and talking about it—it felt like a lot of things.

What was it about William Blake's “Never Seek to Tell Thy Love” that made you want to use it as a song element in the film?

A friend was suffering from a terrible case of unrequited love, so he posted the poem on Facebook, and I got inspired to come up with a melody for it, which I sang into my iPhone and emailed to one of my band members, who used it for the current arrangement and e-mailed it back to me. It fit the theme of the film, and we'd never done a proper recording, so we just used the iPhone version.

What films have served as inspiration in your work?

Well, I've only made the two shorts, and I don't know that they were directly inspired by other films, but I love Kubrick, Haneke, Von Trier, Fellini, Spike Jonze, Paul Thomas Anderson. There's an embarrassing amount of stuff I haven't seen—like I saw my first Tarkovsky only a few years ago—so one of my goals is to see all the films my film snob friends can't believe I haven't seen. They're always making me lists and lending me DVDs but I never seem to find time to watch them.

Here Come the Girls screens in BAMcinemaFest with Thou Wast Mild and Lovely on Monday, June 23 at 9:30pm.

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