Lena Dunham admits that she isn’t the first to attempt an adaptation of Karen Cushman’s beloved young adult novel. Catherine Called Birdy. “If you could look up Catherine Called Birdy, some teenagers have like made their own movie versions of it on YouTube,” says Dunham.
And while she may not have been the first, Dunham likely had the biggest budget for her outing. Backed by Working Title and set for release on Amazon on Sept. 23, Birdy saw Dunham and her cast, which includes Game of Thrones break-out Bella Ramsey, Andrew Scott, Joe Alwyn, and Billy Piper, filming on location in a period-appropriate castle in England with all the necessary accouterments for its medieval shoot: horses , swords, and lots of mud.
The movie, which will debut at the Toronto International Film Festival on Sept 11, follows a rebellious teenager in 13th century England (Ramsey) who undermines her father’s (Scott) attempts to marry her off to a wealthy, landholding man in the hopes of saving the family from destitution.
Ahead of the festival, Dunham spoke to THR about expanding on the father-daughter dynamic in Cushman’s book, casting diversity, and working with Scott: “If someone is like, ‘Hot priest is in your movie.’ Then [I’ll be] like, ‘Now he’s hot medieval dad.’”
What is your personal history with the book?
What I love is that the people who read it, it was a cult book for them. It was one that they don’t forget. I am a huge YA fan, and what I loved about ’90s YA was how raw it was and how it didn’t question young people’s intelligence. There is still a lot of amazing YA, but there is also a lot of YA where you have to have magical powers or a sword or a sexy stranger comes to town to give the girl any life. For me, the importance of that book was that she wasn’t any of those things. I first read it when I was 10, which was perfect because it was a little advanced for me so I felt a little naughty reading it. I was in a Barnes & Noble with my dad and had probably read a quarter of it on the walk home. Then it became something I just reread over and over again.
Were you anxious about adapting something so personal to you?
You always just want to do it justice. The book is quite slim, so there were ways to expand upon the narrative without detracting from the narrative. I was lucky enough that I had a really wonderful relationship with Karen Cushman, and she blessed the project at every stage. The idea that one of the main characters, Perkins, is queer, she was like, “Well, that’s not what I wrote, but I am happy you found that inside of what I wrote.” It was a beautiful thing to realize I was in concert with a writer who was so developmentally important to me. I optioned the book in 2013. I did it myself. It was a moment where it was hard to convince a studio that this was a YA story that deserved to be told. It wasn’t until 2018 that I met Tim Bevan at Working Title where he went, “I see this. I understand it.”
We were going to start shooting in April 2020. We were about a month out when the [COVID] shutdown happened. The shutdown really ended up being a wonderful thing because I thought the script was done, but it wasn’t. A lot of the stuff that developed between Birdy and her father came from the time I was able to sit quietly with the script. I am lucky that I have had commercial avenues to tell not particularly commercial stories, but I wanted this to hue more towards a three-act structure because I wanted it to feel like a big movie for the young people who watched it. I want girls to dress like Birdy for Halloween. I know that is a lofty goal, but that is my dream.
How did you find your Birdy?
Bella was unbelievable, and she has the work ethic of a fucking 72-year-old woman. She was on set every moment, every scene she gave everything that she had. Nina Gold, our casting director, in our first meeting with her showed me a picture of Bella and was like, “I think I know who [Birdy] is.” I had seen Bella on Game of Thrones, and I’d seen her in a movie called Two for Joy, and she was incredible in all of it. Then I saw her on tape reading it, and after that, it just wasn’t going to be anyone else. During the pandemic, I was thinking, “Oh my God, what if Bella grows like eight feet? I don’t think I can give up on this.” If Bella comes back from the pandemic and she’s grown into a 6-foot-2 person who looks 25, I may just have to cast her anyway. Luckily, she was still able to pull off 14 years old. The father-daughter dynamic in this movie is very fleshed out.
What did Andrew Scott bring to the role of Birdy’s father?
He kind of brought everything to it. He really cracked the idea that this guy didn’t just have to be a brute. The same way that Birdy was stuck in her moment in history and she can’t bust out of it, he’s stuck in this thing that we’ve now coined “toxic masculinity,” but let’s just say what he thinks is his duty. He’s a very flawed person, but there’s also a real gentleness to him. He’s not the guy who can nail the sword fight, and he’s not the guy to drink you under the table. He doesn’t have whatever that traditional machismo of that moment is — he’s something different. There’s a scene we cut in which Billy Piper’s character talks about how when he was a child he was a very delicate dancer and loved to dance and his father would beat him for it. Just like Birdy is being asked to change the way she presents to the world, he’s been beaten up enough that he had to change the way that he presented to the world and he really thinks he’s protecting his kid. All that psychology came from conversations with Andrew, and I feel like in upping the stakes of his character, he upped the stakes of the whole movie. And, together, we talked a lot about his clothing and basically said that he’s like the medieval equivalent of somebody who buys a lot of Gucci.
He wears a great necklace.
[It’s] a freaking pearl choker! I don’t know how I ended up living my fantasy of putting Andrew Scott in a pearl choker, but it happened. If someone is like, “Hot priest is in your movie.” Then [I’ll be] like, “Now he’s hot medieval dad.” If anyone steps away from this just with like a screen grab of Andrew Scott in a pearl choker, that’s all I can offer. I think I also did something by putting Joe Alwyn into armor. When he comes around the corner on that horse in armor with the hair: My husband called him Prince Charming Kurt Cobain. And I was like, if I was 14 and I saw this, I’d be done for. After we shot it, I was like, whatever this movie is, we just shot like a little iconic moment for the 12-year-old girls out there. And he’s very humble so he wasn’t going to receive that compliment, but I wanted him to know.
A lot of your work has been contemporary. How was it doing a period project?
The only other period I’d ever done was a pilot I shot that was set in the ’60s. What I loved about that experience was the research. I learn on the job better than anything. At one point I was like, “I’m going to register for a medieval history class at Columbia!” And then I was like, “Let’s be serious, I didn’t even go to class. There’s no way I’m going to do it now. But when it comes to my work, I will literally cull the deepest records to try to understand. Making a period piece forces you to get this Ph.D. in whatever subject you’re engaging with. We worked with this incredible historical consultant, Helen Caster, who knows so much specifically about women in the domestic sphere at that point. She would go through the script and flag anything that didn’t feel like it was appropriate. We need to know the rules in order to break them. If anyone comes to me and they’re like, “Hey, that’s not historically accurate,” I can be like, “I know, and here’s why I made that decision.”
How did you find your shooting location?
England has this amazing program of preserving historically relevant spaces and Stokesay Castle. When I saw it, I knew we had to shoot there. It’s almost like they are the medieval equivalent of a Real Housewife of New Jersey who has a largeish McMansion. That’s not the biggest in the world, but it’s certainly bigger than most. Stokesay of all the castles I saw, it’s not the smallest, it’s not the biggest, and it’s very contemporary for that moment in history. Like it had just been built during the period we were meant to be filming. I’ve never been more conscious of where I put my coffee cup. There’s nothing about shooting on a soundstage or in a contemporary space where you just like to put down your cup of coffee and your bag of chips wherever you’re sitting. Here, all our crew showed so much care for the space. There were a lot of logistical things. We weren’t allowed to have heaters in there. You can’t bring in certain kinds of electricity. No food, no beverages. Everyone was so respectful and understood that it was a privilege for us to be in the space that really did feel very, to use a cheesy word, sacred.
There is more diversity onscreen than audiences have seen in other film projects that were set during this time in England. Were you thinking about this when you were populating your scenes?
Absolutely. There’s been diversity, always. It wasn’t expressed in every medieval town and village, but there were definitely people who were immigrating, taking long journeys to new lands, and people who were traders. I really want the movie in many ways — even though it depicts some harsh things — to look like the world that we want to see. I don’t want any kid who’s watching this movie to look at it and not see themselves expressed somewhere onscreen. It was really important to me that we have ethnic diversity, a diversity of gender presentation, a diversity of age and a diversity of body type because I thought there’s just no good reason for this movie not to speak to whatever young people watch this. I understand more through the kinds of conversations that came up around girls just how important it is for people to see themselves reflected. It was really that simple.
Not to spoil anything, but the ending of your movie veers from the ending of the book. Was that always planned?
I needed something that’s like truthful but also has a fantasy fulfillment element. Something I love about the end of the book, which we try to hold onto in the movie, is this idea that it’s not a perfect, happy ending, but it’s her happy ending for right then. I didn’t want it to be like: “And then she gets to go be a doctor.” But at the same time, you don’t want the end to be that you haven’t given some joy to this character that people have come to love. So I’m going to be curious to see if people have a response to that ending, whether it’s not happy enough or not real enough. But I love that ending because it always felt true to me.
As you know, in the book, the terrible guy she’s betrothed to dies and she has to marry his son. And she’s like, “This isn’t great, but it’s not as bad as it was.” I knew that I didn’t want to go like that, and now she can do whatever she wants for the rest of her life because that wasn’t true. And also I just wasn’t ready to put Birdy into that situation. Like I just wasn’t quite ready. I thought what I’d love is for the ending to say, “She’s not free forever. She’s not going to be able to avoid marriage forever, but right now she has a chance to grow up a little more and she has a new perspective on her home and a new perspective on her father.” So, with the seeds of what was in the book, we took the seeds of her dynamic with her father and we just expanded upon them. You can see in the final shot there’s like a man coming on horseback for her, and that is the metaphorical and literal idea that this cycle continues and you’re going to have to keep fighting. [It] speaks to the fact that the cycle of suppressing women continues now and we have to keep fighting—case in point Roe V. Wade. Women are consistently having to re-explain and reassert their independence and their autonomy. It’s something all marginalized people have to do. And that was the impetus for that last shot.
What are your hopes for the movie?
That it would ignite some spark in [audiences]. Whether they’re an adolescent and feel like they can’t express their needs or their desires or their full identity. Or they’re an adult who needs to remember the fierceness that they had in themselves when they were young. That’s its purpose, to remind you of like the richness of who you used to imagine yourself to be and who you can still imagine yourself to be.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
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