I revisited both this and Desperately Seeking Susan again over the weekend, back to back, and watching them like that I was really struck by how much Wren and Susan have in common, in that way that they’re both these kind of tough downtown women who are unapologetically looking out for themselves. But Smithereens, you developed from your own story. Susan was a movie that came to you.
It changed, once I got involved. It was set in the East Village, and the character of Susan wasn’t this downtown punk kind of person. At that time she was a little bit more like a hippie traveler. It was more like Diane Keaton, Annie Hall-ish, that kind of a character. And what I thought would be interesting — again, because I was familiar with downtown culture — was to kind of morph it a little bit into the characters I knew, and that I thought could be interesting in that role. And so the character of Susan changed a little bit, and then certainly when we cast Madonna.
It was like working with Richard Hell in Smithereens. He was a musician, a downtown musician, who had a really interesting presence. And I thought I could get a good performance out of them by incorporating what was interesting about their persona, and layering that onto the character in the script. And it does involve acting, Richard Hell and Madonna were saying scripted lines, and they were acting. So when people say, Oh it’s just Madonna being Madonna, that’s not true. But I felt very comfortable looking at people, seeing what could work cinematically, and then trying to capture that onscreen.
I read somewhere that she basically blew up and became a megastar, like while you were shooting.
During the nine weeks we were filming, she went from really relative obscurity — certain musical people in New York in the downtown scene knew who she was, she had like one video on MTV — but suddenly her Like a Virgin album was about to come out, and she got on the cover of Rolling Stone somewhere around the last week or two that we were filming.
And boom. Suddenly everything exploded, we went from being able to film on the streets with no security whatsoever, no entourage, no nothing, to suddenly we had crowds of people when we were filming.
She’s just so clearly a star in the movie. It just captures her charisma so beautifully — and in a way that a lot of other movies after tried and failed to do. Why do you think that thing, which you got right off the bat, proved so elusive for other films?
Well, I was also very lucky that she wasn’t a star at the time we were filming. So I wasn’t, and the movie wasn’t, capitalizing on a famous person’s persona. It was just something about her as a person, and the qualities that would make her a star later on, that we were able to capture.
But the good thing also about working with somebody who would be such a big star, is that later on they do have agents that are hanging out on the set, they do have their team, their managers and makeup artists and everyone kind of hovering around, giving input, looking over the director’s shoulder at the monitor, and giving notes — we had none of that. Which is just a wonderful way to work.