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“Desperately Seeking Susan (Seidelman)” : High Times (May 1985)

Madonna - High Times / May 1985

Madonna looked as though she had just stepped out of the shower. Her hair was still wet as she bolted into her trailer dressing room from the car that delivered her, late, to the set. Earlier, actress Rosanna Arquette had spent several hours getting out of a cab and walking into the Magic Club, a camera and film crew recording her every move.

“They are two different kinds of women, almost a classical division of the bad girl and the good girl,” says director Susan Seidelman, discussing her new film Desperately Seeking Susan.

“Madonna, the notorious “Boy Toy” chart topper, is making her film debut as Susan, a funky city girl who has a knack for getting by with a little help from her friends. “She’s manipulative and lives on instincts” Seidelman says of Susan. “She’s not terribly concerned about how she gets by, she just cares about getting by. You are fascinated by the way she is so clever and able to survive.” Seidelman pauses and nods. “Madonna plays somebody who I’m sure she could relate to.”

Arquette, who appeared in John Sayles’ Baby It’s You and Martin Scorsese latest film, After Hours, is one of the freshest and busiest rising stars of the screen. (She was also the real-life inspiration for Toto’s hit single, “Rosanna”) She plays Roberta, a bored New Jersey housewife drawn by the mystery and excitement of Susan. “In some ways Roberta represents the good girl, almost too good, and Susan symbolizes the street girl.” says the 32-year-old director.
“What the script is about is integrating those two aspects of somebody’s personality into one, a sort of synthesis,” Seidelman adds between sips of green tea in a fashionable Soho boite, where “Like a Virgin” is playing loudly on the racio. “Is that Madonna?” she asks.

Susan Seidelman did not grow up eating, drinking and sleeping film. Her decision to become a director came late. While studying to be a fashion designer, she needed an extra course in order to graduate. She took a film criticism class that led to a decision against a career in fashion: “I didn’t want to sit around, sketch clothes and sew.” Working at a television station outside Philadelphia as a programmer, she realized that scheduling reruns of I Love Lucy stunted creative growth. “On a lark I applied to film schools,” she says, and eventually chose New York University.

Madonna - High Times / May 1985

There, she won a Student Academy Award for her film, ‘And You Act Like One, Too,’ a satire about a married woman in a domestic rut. She later received a grant from the American Film Institute and directed ‘Deficit.’ Soon after that, she won a Silver Plaque at the Chicago Film Festival for her direction of ‘Yours Truly, Andrea G. Stern.’ After graduating, Seidelman began work on ‘Smithereens’ in 1980 with a seven-week shooting schedule and an $80,000 budget. In 1982, with ‘Smithereens,’ the 29 -year-old Seidelman was the only American independent and female director in the Cannes Film Festival main event.

Seidelman says she directs film as a way of exploring different personas. Her characters, the “good girls” and “bad girls” are to be aspects of herself appearing on the screen. For Smithereens, she choose from among a hundred actresses who auditioned for the lead role of Wren, another “Susan,” Susan Berman, who could pass as Seidelman’s sister. About the lead characters in Desperately Seeking Susan, she says. “I can connect with both Susan and Roberta because there’s a bit of me in each of them.”

In both Smithereens and Desperately Seeking Susan, the main characters are from New Jersey and want to be somewhere else. Seidelman grew up in a Pennsylvania suburb, a place where she felt she did not want to spend the rest of her life.

A fascination with bad girls was at the heart of Seidelman’s first feature, Smithereens, a low-budget independent film that brought the former fashion designer and television programmer immediate critical acclaim and high praise at film festivals such as Cannes. It also paved the way for the deal she now has with Orion Pictures.

Smithereens focused on the misadventures of “Wren,” a street-wise girl desperately desiring celebrity in the punk world pulsating in lower Manhattan. Wren is aggressive, abrasive and engaging. Her dream is to sit by a swimming pool in Southern California, eating tacos and signing autographs. Seidelman says, “Wren’s story is the fragmented nature of life in the 1980s”… or as David Lee Roth would say, ‘It’s a dog eat dog world, and you have to decide if you’re going to be a hot dog or a weenie.'”

Seidelman was involved with all aspects of making Smithereens. To finance the project she used up her savings and “begged, borrowed and stole” from friends and family. She also convinced the crew (mostly her New York University Film School compatriots) and cast to work on a deferred salary basis. Two weeks into the filming, Berman fell off a fire escape and broke her leg. But Seidelman’s resolve remained unbroken; she used the four-month delay to raise additional funds. Her resourcefulness came in handy for many sequences in the film. For the shots in the New York City subway, she and the crew sneaked in at 2 A.M., hiding a camera in a travel hag and avoiding transit cops. If that weren’t enough, she had to take the film to the lab and provide refreshments for cast and crew. “I was nice enough to make the coffee.”

Now Seidelnman has other people to make the coffee. She has the backing of a major Hollywood company, Orion, to the tune of $4 million, and a seasoned crew. But Seidelman remains nervous. “It was the first time I had worked with the union,” she recalls. “My impression of the crew was that it was going to be a bunch of sixty-year-old guys smoking cigars and not really caring about the product. I was incredibly impressed by the fact that the crew was as cooperative and into the movie as they were.”

The crew’s involvement came out on the set. Makeup artist Ridiard Dean, who had just finished work on Francis Ford Coppola’s Cotton Club, explained, “In film, the question is continuity.” In one scene, Madonna is riding in a cab driven by Rockets Redglare, a sometime comedian who appeared briefly in Jim Jarnsusch’s Stranger Than Paradise and was Sid Vicious bodyguard at the time of the ex-Pistol’s worst misfortunes. “At the time of shooting the scene, he had a very ripe pimple on his cheek,” Dean said. “Susan decided the pimple would add to his character, so I didn’t put any corrective makeup on it. After a few days we decided to reshoot part of the scene, but his pimple had popped — so I made an identical pimple.”

Dean, who is the staff makeup artist for the TV programs Saturday Night Live and Late Night with David Letterman, discussed the subtle psychology behind the makeup for Desperately Seeking Susan. For scenes shot in the fictitious “Magic Club,” “the waitresses’ and dancers’ makeup is never blended or finished. Some of the characters forget to put foundation on their necks. That’s all intentional. It’s a kind of defiance, because they hate their job.”

“With the principal characters, we apply eyeliner, mascara and a mauve shadow,” Dean explained, illustrating his point on Madonna. She looked tough, wearing an orange T-shirt that exposed her belly, black spandex pants, fishnet gloves, shades, a TV/radio/everything-but-the-kitchen-sink watch and a silver star pinned to her flame-colored headband.

“Don’t forget my orange lipstick,” Madonna instructed Dean with a suggestive finger to her lips.

Madonna - High Times / May 1985

“Madonna brings a certain aura of innocence and coquettishness to Susan,” says Seidelman. “She has an incredible face, almost like vintage movie stars like Garbo and Dietrich. A face you would like to look at blown up 50 feet high and 30 feet wide.”

A crowd that had gathered outside the Magic Club seemed excited by the chance to watch Madonna make her move from video vamp to screen legend.

The Magic Club has been set up in the old Audubon Ballroom, a dilapidated but spacious three-story building near Harlem that received its footnote in history when Malcolm X was shot to death there in February 1965. Twenty years later, Seidelman and crew are shooting Madonna and Arquette. The neighbors seemed pleased.

Madonna and Anna Levine, who plays Chrystal, sat together on a green davenport. Seidelman stood in front of them while they rehearsed their lines. The scene looked a lot like a cigarette commercial — Madonna the sensuous blonde with legs crossed and a cigarette in hand. The image was dispelled when Madonna threw the cigarette to the ground, saying. “Cigarettes are disgusting.” You’ve come a long way, bad girl.

Not often will you find a producer lurking about a movie set. On that score. Desperately Seekinging Susan is decidedly different from most films. “We didn’t want to just hand the script over,” explained co-producer Midge Sanford. “We also have a concept of the movie and didn’t want to throw it away.”

Sanford and Sarah Pillsbury are making their debut as producers with Desperately Seeking Susan. They acquired the script three years ago from their friend, Leora Barish. She created the character of Roberta with the fantasy-prone Pillsbury in mind. They chose Seidelman to direct, because “Susan has a strong visual sense,” according to Sanford. At times, however, the producers and the director disagreed. A minor altercation occurred over the removal of an earring along with a bouffant wig — the issue being whether the earring should be attached to the wig or not. “She makes offbeat choices; they are beautifully interesting,” Sanford says. But, she adds, “The choices would be safer if she were a mainstream director.”

The idea of becoming a slick Hollywood director makes Seidelman fidget. After all, she fancies films by French New Wave director Jean-Luc Godard. “I like the energy and rawness of his films. The thing about Desperately Seeking Susan is that raw element. When movies are too packaged, I’m often bored.” Like many of those early ’60s New Wave directors, Seidelman shot Smithereens in 16mm and later blew up the film, a process which gives the film image a raw texture. Other New Wave techniques are prominent in Seidelman’s work: improvised scenes, natural lighting, handheld cameras and a jagged, elliptical style of editing.

The title Desperately Seeking Susan, ‘was there before I was ever involved with it. I was shown the script. I’m superstitious, so I thought. maybe I should do this movie.”

Seidelman was drawn by its plot which juxtaposes the lifestyle of a suburban housewife with that of a savvy ingenue in Manhattan’s East Village. Roberta, the housewife, follows a love affair carried out in a newspaper personal ad by a young man “desperately seeking” a woman named Susan. Roberta becomes curious. In an attempt to witness a rendezvous of the lovers, the housewife becomes caught up and eventually begins to believe herself to be Susan. “The idea of a woman taking over another woman’s personality — in kind of an identity transfer — appealed to me. I couldn’t do anything if I didn’t feel personally involved with it.” Does Seidelman read “personals”? She only smiles.

Madonna - High Times / May 1985

“The tone of the movie is the most important thing, the feeling of the whole piece,” Seidelman points out. “In Desperately Seeking Susan, I didn’t want to be realistic. I wanted its characters to be very real but the situations they find themselves in to be unreal.

“Someone once told me that the difference between comedy and farce is that in comedy, you have real people in unreal situations. In farce, you have unreal people, like cartoons, in real situations. For example, Bill Murray in movies like Caddyshaek or Stripes. The characters he plays are bizarre cartoon-like people in supposedly real-life situations. That appeals to me less. I prefer real people on the screen and the world around them a little bit off-centered.”

Seidelman refers to the scene on the couch. Madonna as Susan consoles her friend Chrystal, who has just been fired from a job at the Magic Club. This private moment takes place in the middle of Broadway on a busy afternoon with both characters oddly dressed. “Throughout the film, we tried to find situations that, by the way we shot them — using colored filters, for example — or by the kind of clothing worn, or just the tone of the scene, make the scene somewhat twisted.”

Seidelman has been praised for her use of oddball characters in subsidiary roles. Among the performers who bring their unique personalities to the new film in small parts are Anne Carlisle, who played the female and male leads in the new wave sci-fi cult classic Liquid Sky; Richard Edson from the band Konk, who plays a leading role in Stranger Than Paradise; and Richard Hell, whose bad attitude and recording career were emulated by Wren in Smithereens.

Seidelman is also recognized for her ability to depict unadorned female characters. About Desperately Seeking Susan, she says, “The one thing I find really interesting about the project is that there is obviously an awful lot of women involved in the production, but it’s not coming across like a heavy, feminist, we-have-got-to-make-a-statement-about-women-struggling film. It’s much more playful. The best way to get across a point anyway is with humor and irony.”

“I have a female sensibility, but I wouldn’t want to lock myself into just doing films about young women from New Jersey,” she laughs. Her next project involves a girl group, along the lines of the Shangri-las. Chances are they won’t be from New Jersey.

Seidelman has achieved much of what her heroines set out to do. She has successfully transplanted herself from a Pennsylvania suburb to a loft in Soho, the Beverly Hills of New York’s vibrant art community. She lives only a few blocks from Madonna, who has worked her way up from the squalor of a tenement on Fourth Street and Avenue B to a spacious Soho apartment with a view of a postmodern Mona Lisa mural painted on a neighboring building. Seidelman’s success shows that a woman does not have to bump along the bad-girl route to reach her Shangri-la. The trip can be … just like a movie!

© High Times