Smithereens: From the Gritty Punk Rock Streets of New York to the Cannes Film Festival! An Interview With Actress Susan Berman and Director Susan Seidelman
by Lee Sobel
The 80s may have been the decade of big hair and Rubik's cube, but it was also the era when independent filmmaking crossed into the mainstream. One of the movies of that time that seemingly came out of nowhere, shot for no money on 16mm blown up to 35mm and found commercial success was Smithereens (1982). The first feature directed by Susan Seidelman, it is as much a movie about a young woman finding her identity as it is a story of New York City, which unlike any other city in America, has always had a magnetic pull for people who want to make it in the arts. The early 80s was the hangover of the 70s me decade and in 1982 when Smithereens was released, it was just before the AIDS epidemic hit, before Manhattan was cleaned up in the Giuliani era and before rents went sky high. The movie is both universal in its story of a young person trying to come to terms with the adult world and it's a snapshot of a New York City that is long gone, torn down and rebuilt several times over since then.
Fresh out of NYU's graduate filmmaking program, Susan Seidelman scraped together $20,000 and started making Smithereens without permits. The
journey the movie took after completion is astonishing and is a testament to how great the movie really is. Ms. Seidelman submitted Smithereens to the Cannes Film Festival where it became the first ever American independent feature to be in competition for the coveted Palm d'Or. Although it did not win the prestigious award, the movie's completion and blow up to 35mm for theatrical release was financed by a distributor, and the movie had a long run at the Waverly cinema in New York City. Director Seidelman was rewarded by being offered to direct her first Hollywood studio backed movie, Desperately Seeking Susan (1985), followed by a long career directing movies and television (including the pilot episode of Sex and the City).
The star of Smithereens is Susan Berman who had the difficult task of making an obnoxious, self-centered people user into a sympathetic character and she completely pulled it off. Her character, Wren, wants to make it big and boldly puts herself out there to figure it out as she goes. She isn't above a little petty theft or lying to get ahead but hey the city is a jungle so what's a girl to do? There is a lot we don't know about Wren and that works in the movie's favor because any young person, male or female, can project themselves onto her and relate to her need to find her place in the world. The strength of the movie for me personally is that when the movie is over, I found myself really concerned for Wren and hoping that everything turned out okay for her. The movie lets you make up your own mind. It
doesn't spoon feed you and wrap it up with a bow like most Hollywood movies.
What follows is an interview I did with the star of Smithereens, Susan Berman, and after that is an interview with the film's director, Susan Seidelman.
Lee Sobel: When did you first move to New York and what are your memories of the crumbling NYC of the 1970's?
Susan Berman: There was a lot more poverty, a lot more crime than the New York of today. People were able to support themselves on their low wages jobs and live in Manhattan and they were doing all kinds of interesting things and the music scene was so fascinating at that time. I loved it. I used to go to the clubs all of the time. Also I used to move three
or four times a year. If I didn't like my apartment, I'd just move and it felt like there was a lot of freedom. At the same time I had friends who were held up at gunpoint so there was a serious underside to all of it. Nothing ever happened to me although I used to pride myself idiotically on going on the subway at four in the morning by myself, which is stupid but I also lived in Little Italy for a while and that was a time when there were these old Italians that hadn't been outside like a four block radius. So, I was always watched out for in the neighborhood, like these old Italian guys would say, "Susan I saw you last night. You were coming out of a cab so I made sure that everything was okay." I liked New York better then. I feel like New York isn't as interesting now as it used to be.
Lee Sobel: What do you remember about the start of production of Smithereens?
Susan Berman: I guess it started in 1980 because during the making of the movie
I fell off the side of a building and broke my ankle and so we had to wait for four months while I recuperated. During that time, Susan Seidelman rewrote the entire script. It ended up taking a lot longer to finish the movie because they had to wait for me to recover. Originally the Richard Hell role was a wealthy art dealer. So, it was a whole different story.
Lee Sobel: How surprised were you by the attention the film received?
Susan Berman: I was really surprised. I was shocked and so it was pretty amazing. I think everybody was surprised that that happened.
Lee Sobel: What did you think when you saw the finished film?
Susan Berman: If I had known more than I know now I would have
made her more from New Jersey. I think that would have been more interesting.
Lee Sobel: Do you think that would have made your character a little more cartoonish?
Susan Berman: I think you're probably right -- it's hard for me to say because I look at it and I just cringe when I look at myself.
Lee Sobel: What comes to mind in remembering making Smithereens?
Susan Berman: It's pretty amazing how Susan Seidelman put all this together on an inheritance she got from her grandmother and was able to roll with the punches with me getting injured in the middle of
it all. I remember there was this scene we were shooting in Times Square, and one of the crew members was holding this prop gun and suddenly he was surrounded by cops and a SWAT team was around him with all their guns drawn because they thought that he was standing around Times Square waving a real gun.
Lee Sobel: What are your memories of Richard Hell?
Susan Berman: I really was like a good girl so I was terrified of Richard Hell. I remember once he invited me to his apartment and I went in and I was so scared I was like, "I have to go now" so I was completely not the character of Wren at all.
Lee Sobel: I thought you were really great in the film.
Susan Berman: There were other endings that were shot and I think that was really great of Susan to stop it there because there was an ending where Wren actually gets in the car and then there was something else but she cut it just at the moment of decision where you don't know exactly what she's going to do but then you finally realize at the end my God this is just a kid whose walking along a highway holding a television and is really a sad image.
Lee Sobel: What did you think of Susan Seidelman's next movie, Desperately Seeking Susan?
Susan Berman: I did notice that there is a similarity between Smithereens and Desperately Seeking Susan. I think Smithereens was a blueprint. It seemed like, "Yeah let's give
it a bigger budget" and it was like it was the same thing about these kind of wild girls in New York who were kind of figuring out who they were. I think in Desperately Seeking Susan it tended to be a little cute and there were some things that I thought this is going a little too far like does she really have to be a magician's assistant and does she really carry a bird around everywhere? It seems a little too cute. Like this wouldn't necessarily happen, whereas anything that was in Smithereens could definitely happen.
Lee: What did the film do for you? Did it open any doors?
Susan Berman: It did. I got an agent from it. Now it didn't translate into like a big movie career and I think part of it was kind of my fault. It's very hard to kind of do that kind of thing but at least for me I was able to do all of this great theater. I worked a lot with Amanda Plummer and John Goodman and people
Above: Director Susan Seidelman (left) and star of Smithereens, Susan Berman on the streets of NYC. Below: On the red carpet at Cannes
like that. So, I ended up doing something that I really liked. Was I a little disappointed with... Yeah, kind of but now I don't want to act. I have no regret or bitterness about any of it.
Lee: Why do you think Smithereens still holds up?
Susan Berman: I think there's something about looking back at that period and kids are envious of the freedom that we had.
Susan Seidelman Interview
Lee Sobel: Was Jim Jarmusch in the NYU graduate film program when you went there?
Susan Seidelman: I think I was one year ahead of Jarmusch. We weren’t in the same class but we were there at the same time. The program was really small, it only had 30, 35 kids in each year.
Lee Sobel: Do you remember seeing any films at NYU that were inspiring to you or had any influence at all?
Susan Seidelman: Yeah, one of the things that I really liked and that absolutely influenced Smithereens was a movie called Nights of Cabiria (1957). I had never seen it until I was in film school. And that waif-like character that Giulietta Masina plays is very much an inspiration for Wren. And even that tatty fur coat she wore. I stole that look.
Lee Sobel: Except that it’s punk rock pink in your movie.
Susan Seidelman: Absolutely. And also the other films that influenced me because they were just coming out at that time were the German new wave films by Fassbinder and Wim Wenders' Alice in the Cities (1974) and Kings of the Road (1976). I loved the theatricality of some of the Fassbinder films. One of the things about Smithereens was even though it’s kind of grungy and sort of punky it also has a certain theatricality. You know, the way she dresses. It’s just her attitude, her apartment, and the characters. Richard Hell’s girlfriend in the movie and his roommate, they’re all real but pushed just slightly.
Lee Sobel: How involved were you in the music scene? Were you going to see a lot of bands back then? I was wondering if that downtown scene fed into Wren’s character.
Susan Seidelmen: Oh, yeah definitely. There were a lot of fearless women who were hanging out around at that time. One of the actresses in the movie is Cookie Mueller. She wasn’t just in the music scene; she was also a part of the performance art world. Also at that time there were a lot of women who were fronting bands like Debbie Harry. They weren’t groupies. They were part of it and they were making music. None of them were directly influenced by Women’s Lib but a lot of it came out of that generation before
them. This generation was brought up to believe that there were some other options.
Lee Sobel: Who were some of the other women directors at the time your career got launched?
Susan Seidelmen: The person who became a role model for me was Lina Wertmüller. I loved her boldness, her gutsiness. That gutsiness coming from a woman, which I had not seen before, was very inspiring. The great thing about that time period, the great thing about the making of Smithereens was I was totally naïve. There was really no calculation in making Smithereens or where it would take
me. And so when the film was finished, I applied to the Cannes Film Festival just because I had heard about it. I knew it was a big film festival in Europe. I literally knew nothing else. Obviously, this was in the pre-internet days so I couldn’t look it up. Somehow I had found an address and I wrote on a postcard, literally, “I would like to apply. Please send an application form.” And a couple of weeks later I got a call from somebody in New York -- there were no DVDs, it was VHS back then, saying “Could you bring a copy of your film to the screening room?” It was somewhere in midtown and the people from the Cannes Film Festival committee were in town. With my film can in hand, I went there and dropped it off, then a few days later I got a phone call from somebody saying, “Hey, saw your film. We liked it. Come meet me.” It was kind of as weird as that. That doesn’t happen these days anymore.
Lee Sobel: I think that one of the great criticisms of film versus literature is that film doesn’t leave much to the imagination. And I love that you do that with Smithereens.
Susan Seidelman: I did want to leave it open-ended. And the great thing about making an independent movie where’s there’s no one telling you about what audiences want or don’t want is that you don’t have “Oh, you have to end it this way or that way.”
Lee Sobel: Ron Nyswaner, who later wrote Philadelphia directed by Jonathan Demme, wrote the script for Smithereens and introduced you to Jonathan Demme, right?
Susan Seidelman: I was editing Smithereens in my apartment on a Steenbeck by myself. At some point I felt that I needed a more experienced eye to take a look at it. And at that point Ron Nyswaner had somehow met Jonathan Demme, And after they met he asked if I wanted to meet him too and I said sure, yeah I want to meet him. Jonathan was experienced, a real director. I went to the Film Center building, at the time on 9th Avenue and 43rd Street, and I showed him the movie. And it was interesting, I don’t even remember what he had to say at the time. It was in a longer form than it ended up being. I remember the feeling watching the movie beside him. Suddenly I was watching the movie from the eyes of someone who was older and wiser and more experienced. And judging just from my own body when I was fidgeting, it was a really interesting editing turning point for me to watch it through his eyes. But what he did that was really wonderful was that he really knew and he was connected with musicians that I didn’t know. I knew Richard Hell. I knew some of the bands that were playing at CBGB’s and stuff like that but I didn’t know anyone who could do the score or the underscore for the film. First he mentioned John Cale and I met with John Cale, he’s a wonderful musician but at the time he was a crazy person. Then Jonathan mentioned to me The Feelies. They didn’t write music for the film; I just used their music that they had written for their first album. And the energy of it was just so perfect.
You know, that rhythm. The opening music in the beginning when you see Wren steal the sunglasses, the very first image. The pulse of the whole thing was perfect for the fidgetiness and the edginess of this character. All I had to do was edit it to fit with the picture.
Lee Sobel: What was it like shooting on the streets of New York in 1980 without permits? You were shooting in some pretty desolate areas at night. What are some of your memories of that?
Susan Seidelman: Once again it goes back to the naiveté thing. I didn’t even know you needed permits. I never even thought about it. When you’re young you just do stuff. We were standing in the middle of the west side highway with tons of real hookers around. Could someone with a gun or a knife steal a 16 millimeter camera? Of course they could. But did I think about that? No. When you’re young, you’re bold.
Lee Sobel: How did you come to cast Richard Hell?
Susan Seidelman: In 1980 when we first started shooting, Richard Hell’s character Eric was played by somebody else. During a rehearsal Susan Berman had an accident and broke her leg. And I was obviously nervous about losing the crew. We had only filmed a week worth’s of stuff. But the good thing is, I tried to turn the bad news into good news, while she was in the cast I got to look and see what was working in the film and what wasn’t working. And one of the things that wasn’t working was the casting of the role of "Eric." He was originally more of a painter/artist, not a
musician. There was a three months hiatus while Susan Berman was recovering, so we rewrote the script for a musician and that’s when I began to think about what person from the downtown music scene might be right and who could bring their own persona to the role. I remember also meeting David Johansen (from The New York Dolls) at that time. But Richard Hell just had something about him, a sense of arrogance and self-confidence mixed with a kind of insecurity. That was kind of interesting.
Lee Sobel: What was it like showing Smithereens at the Cannes Film Festival?
Susan Seidelman: It was like being in Alice in Wonderland. It was totally surreal, walking on the red carpet and people taking pictures of me and Susan Berman. Richard Hell wasn’t there but some of the other crew and cast members were there. We had no expectations and had no idea what it was going to be like. It was like being brought into this new world and feeling very wide eyed and confused about what was going on but it was fun.
Lee Sobel: Can you give me an idea of what being at Cannes did for your career? You got theatrical distribution for the film. Was it at that point that agents and other producers and studios started to approach you?
Susan Seidelman: I suddenly got calls from agents who had tracked me down at the hotel I was staying at in France and I did get an agent there, actually, referred to me by Ron Nyswanner. It was his agent at the time. So that happened. But I knew I had to be careful about what I did next. There had been a couple of American woman directors that had made a film that had gotten attention. One was Claudia Weill, who had made a film called Girlfriends (1978). And then the next movie she made was a charming little movie for Columbia Pictures. And it didn’t work out for her because all of a sudden she had producers breathing down her neck. It’s kind of a hard way to work when you’re used to
being independent. I knew I had to be really smart about what I chose to do next. I was sent a lot of scripts and a lot of what I read were silly girl teen comedies. So I thought I’d wait until I found something I like or develop something of my own. I waited about two years and that’s when the script for Desperately Seeking Susan came to me. And I liked it. Not only did it have my name already in the title, which, being superstitious, felt like an omen, but also because it straddled two worlds that I felt I knew well. The kind of downtown New York world that Madonna inhabits but also the suburban world. So I felt like it was something I could make my own and that I could do better than somebody else could. I didn’t want to make a movie that I thought somebody else could make better than me. But I knew those characters and felt that I had a unique take on them.
Lee Sobel: When you were developing Desperately Seeking Susan did you move to L.A. or were you always living in New York?
Susan Seidelman: I was always living in New York. I was going back and forth for some meetings but as much as I enjoy being in L.A. for a short period of time, I am not an L.A. person.I always feel as if the Earth is shifting under my feet when I’m in L.A. I don’t really drive and I’m a terrible driver, so spending that much time in a car was kind of weird. I like my own turf, where I feel comfortable.
Lee Sobel: What was it like putting Desperately Seeking Susan together, where you were working with a studio?
Susan Seidelman: I guess I lucked into a fantastic situation because if there was any studio at that time that was considered director friendly, it was Orion Pictures. That’s why it had people like Jonathan Demme and Woody Allen at that time, and Oliver Stone. It was a studio that actually respected the director once they approved the script, the budget and the cast. Once that was done they let you make the movie. I don’t remember a studio executive being on set. Someone might have come by to visit from time to time but I don't remember. They left us alone and the producers, Midge Sanford and Sarah Pillsbury, were first time producers.
So I was the experienced one. It wasn’t like I had an oppressive know-it-all producer hovering over my shoulder. They were first timers, relatively naïve about the process and they were very supportive.
Lee Sobel: Vincent Canby named Desperately Seeking Susan one of the top ten films of 1985.
Susan Seidelman: That was pretty good. The British Film Institute also had it as one of the 100 best films of all time. It might have got knocked off by now, I don’t know. But for a while it was on there and it may still be.