Lena Dunham considers herself a historian of her own generation. As the creator of the HBO series “Girls,” she became a defining millennial voice, even if her work was always a little tongue-in-cheek. But in her new film, “Catherine Called Birdy,” she turns her attention to actual history. It’s a space where she feels comfortable. “I’m much more someone who’s going to stay at home and read an odd medieval diary by, you know, a milkmaid that was found in a pile of rubble than I am apt to go out to a party in Williamsburg,” Dunham said in a recent phone call.
An adaptation of Karen Cushman’s 1994 Newbery Medal-winning children’s novel, “Birdy” is the story of a rebellious 14-year-old in medieval England (Bella Ramsey from “Game of Thrones”) whose father (Andrew Scott) wants to marry her off to keep their family from slipping into poverty. Birdy does whatever she can to thwart that effort, all the while starting on a tenuous path to emotional maturity. Despite the period setting, it’s material that rings very true to Dunham. In fact, she considers “Birdy” the third part of a trilogy that started with her breakout feature, the semi-autobiographical “Tiny Furniture” in 2010, and continued with “Sharp Stick,” a sexually explicit saga about a 26-year-old virgin that was released earlier this year after debuting at the Sundance Film Festival.
Bella Ramsey, the star of “Catherine Called Birdy,” said Dunham understood “what it was to be a teenage girl who didn’t fit the mold of a teenage girl.”Credit…Alex Bailey/Amazon
“They are all about different moments in the coming-of-age story,” she said. Though these works take place in various eras and settings, she added, “I hope that they all offer a sense of how complicated that moment is, especially for young women, and how both invigorating and terrifying it is and the way that it kind of cracks you open.”
Making “Birdy” has been a longtime goal for Dunham, 36, who first fell in love with the book as a child. (She has six copies, she calculated.) She initially received the rights from the author nearly 10 years ago. “‘Girls’ had just started and someone asked, ‘If you could adapt anything into a movie, what would your dream be?’ and I don’t think my reps at the time were hoping that I would say a medieval YA story about a girl entering into forced marriage, but that is what I did,” she recalled.
The rights for the book, which is written in the form of a diary, had been optioned once before. Nothing had ever come to fruition, Cushman said in an interview, so when Dunham sent a letter about her love for the book, the author quickly said yes.
Cushman, now 80, hadn’t yet seen “Girls” — she doesn’t have cable — but had watched “Tiny Furniture,” which she found “so depressing.” The novelist explained, “I thought she was amazing at her young age to do what she had done, and I was hoping she had over the years cheered up a little after ‘Tiny Furniture.’” (Dunham eventually sent Cushman discs of “Girls.”)
Dunham finally dug into writing her version of “Birdy” in 2019 after decamping to England to direct the pilot of HBO’s finance drama “Industry” and finding inspiration in scouting trips to medieval landmarks. She was about to shoot the project in March 2020 when the pandemic shut down production. Feeling the urge to create after that disappointment, Dunham threw herself into writing the Los Angeles-set “Sharp Stick,” in which the sheltered heroine has an affair with her married boss that sends her on a spiral of sexual exploration.
“‘Sharp Stick’ is my most complicated, maybe least commercial instincts and ‘Birdy’ is, hopefully in a positive way, trying to tell a populist story, but they are both asking the same questions,” she said. Having “Sharp Stick” to explore her most provocative side, however, allowed Dunham to “pull back” in certain ways when it came to her follow-up. A part of her, she said, might have wanted to dig deeper into the ugliness of medieval society in “Birdy” more than she ultimately did. Instead she was content with her protagonist’s more innocent viewpoint.
Before making “Birdy,” Dunham met her now-husband, the British-Peruvian musician Luis Felber, and started spending more time in Britain. Going into the project, she was a self-described “embarrassing Anglophile” to the degree that she wanted a Brontë-themed bachelorette party. (“It did not end up happening,” she explained. “It’s much harder to have a bachelorette party on the moors than you would think.”)
Still, she was careful to set aside some of her romanticism for the purposes of the film, which lightly touches on the horrors of British history like the Crusades. Dunham worked alongside the medieval scholar Helen Castor to understand the nuances of the period while diverging from the historical record when she saw fit. An example: The score by Carter Burwell, sung by the group Roomful of Teeth, invokes choral music, while the soundtrack is filled with Misty Miller’s covers of pop songs like Supergrass’s “Alright” and Mazzy Star’s “Fade Into You.”
Dunham’s version of the 13th century, which she crafted alongside the production designer Kave Quinn and costume designer Julian Day, is filled with color and flowers — “one step away from Coachella,” according to Dunham. The goal was costumes that were both historically appropriate and fun enough to capture the eyes of girls looking for their next Halloween costume.
That knack for understanding ascendant womanhood served Dunham well when it came to collaborating with Ramsey, the 18-year-old who plays Birdy. “I think she understands what it was to be a teenage girl who didn’t fit the mold of a teenage girl,” Ramsey said of Dunham. “She knew what it was like to feel things deeply and not know how to express them.”
“Catherine Called Birdy” is easily Dunham’s most family-friendly work and by extension her most accessible. Parents can be assured there are no unprintable sex acts, although there are discussions of menstruation and farting. For Scott, the actor best known as the hunky priest on “Fleabag,” who plays Birdy’s often sloshed father, Rollo, it’s a way for audiences to see a part of Dunham that may have been hidden in her more boundary-pushing material. “I love the fact that this film is so full of heart,” he said. “I love the fact that that side of her is something that people can recognize now.”
Dunham knows “Birdy” will probably still be compared with “Girls,” but she’s grateful it took about a decade to get made. Those years of life experience meant she could flesh out the world around the spunky teen at the movie’s center, whether that be Birdy’s mother’s multiple stillbirths or the heartbreak endured by her best friend. “I feel lucky there’s a little bit of space so that hopefully this movie, which I care so much about and which feels in so many ways like the culmination thus far of my life’s work, will have a chance to stand on its own,” she said. She just wants viewers to fall in love with this story the same way she did all those years ago.