For writer-director Lena Dunham, Karen Cushman’s 1994 Newbery Honor-winning YA novel Catherine, Called Birdy is almost a sacred text. Following the comic exploits of a young girl in 13th century England, Cushman’s book is an irreverent take on being a teenage girl at a time when such an identity left young women powerless and beholden to the men in their lives — first their fathers, then their husbands.
Bella Ramsey (pictured above, with co-star Joe Alwyn) stars as the 14-year-old title character who rebels against the patriarchy as best as she can when her father (Andrew Scott) announces that she is to be married to a wealthy husband in order to save the family from financial ruin. As she fends off potential suitors to her parents’ dismay, she finds her own voice as a witty, rambunctious young woman who has the power to stand up for herself. Dunham admits that seeing Ramsey for the first time summoned memories of when she bought her copy of Cushman’s book as a preteen at the Union Square Barnes & Noble in Manhattan and first became obsessed with the character of Birdy. The design of the book also influenced the look of the Prime Video film, particularly the use of color. “All that made it into [the film], from the production design to the casting,” she says. “It’s the genesis for so much of what the movie became visually.”
The film also became a family affair, with Dunham collaborating with her husband, musician Luis Felber, on the film’s soundtrack. She also cast her dog, Ingrid, in a minor part — à la Sofia Coppola’s film debut as Michael Corleone’s infant nephew in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather. “I gave her the role,” Dunham says with a laugh. “People were skeptical, but I believed in her!”
DAYS OF HEAVEN
Dunham first saw Terrence Malick’s 1978 drama when she was in college, having purchased a VHS copy (with this cover). “It was the first time I genuinely loved a slow, auteurist, adult film — not just performing interest but being really rapt by it,” she admits. Not only did the font on the cover inspire the typefaces used in Birdiebut the narration by then-15-year-old star Linda Manz also inspired Birdy’s voiceover throughout the movie.
DUNHAM’S DOG, INGRID
“Ingrid was with me through writing, scouting and shooting this movie,” says Dunham, noting that her dog — a Mexican hairless and pug mix — has a cameo in the film as the baby Jesus in the Christmas pageant. “As we were traveling to these medieval buildings, we would see these old paintings of saints and peasants with their dogs. They all looked a little like Ingrid — she has a very medieval look.”
CATHERINE, CALLED BIRDY
“That was the face of Birdy I always saw,” says Dunham of the illustration of the title character on the original edition of Cushman’s novel. “When I saw Bella’s face, it summoned so many of those same qualities that the character has — very classical beauty coupled with intelligence, [and] wide-eyed innocence coupled with trickery.”
This was a shoppable magazine published around the turn of the millennium. “My parents would get their Hammacher Schlemmer catalog in the mail, and I’d get it Girlfriends LA,” recalls Dunham, who ordered her bat mitzvah dress from the company. “I wouldn’t say my costume designer spent hours perusing the Girlfriends LA catalog, but as I looked through the costumes, I felt that energy. It’s like Y2K fashion, only from a century before Y2K.”
JULIA JACKLIN’S CRUSHING
The 2019 album from the Australian singer-songwriter was frequently in rotation as Dunham was in preproduction — and it was an album that she bonded over with her husband, musician Luis Felber, who also worked on the film’s soundtrack. “Julia’s voice became this kind of troubadour, narrating my experience coming to and exploring England,” says Dunham. The idea of a female traveling minstrel also inspired Dunham and Felber to include cover songs by singer Misty Miller, who recorded versions of hits like “My Boyfriend’s Back” and “Fade Into You.”
This story first appeared in a December stand-alone issue of The News84Media magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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