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.
“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