The Graduate

Filmmaker Lena Dunham draws inspiration from a source close to home—her parents.

Real-life mother and daughter Laurie Simmons and Lena Dunham play fictional ones in Dunham's film Tiny Furniture.

Real-life mother and daughter Laurie Simmons and Lena Dunham play fictional ones in Dunham's film Tiny Furniture.


“I don’t think of myself as a visual person,” says Lena Dunham, daughter of photographer Laurie Simmons and painter Carroll Dunham.

But she finds plenty of material in her parents’ profession. Dunham, 24, created Delusional Downtown Divas, a satirical Web series about breaking into the art world, starring herself, Isabel Halley (daughter of artist Peter Halley), and Joana Avillez (daughter of artist Gwenn Thomas). The series led to a gig performing at the First Annual Art Awards at the Guggenheim Museum, an event conceived by artist Rob Pruittthat mocked Academy Awards–style glitz.

Now Dunham has made Tiny Furniture, which will have its New York festival premiere on June 11, at BAMcinemaFEST. Named after the objects Simmons uses in her domestic scenes, the film dramatizes Dunham’s return home after college. Her character has no idea what to do with her life. And her mother, played by her own mother, isn’t much help.

In reality, however, Dunham says, “my mom is my muse.” Sitting next to Simmons in the family’s Tribeca loft, where most of the movie was filmed, Dunham explains that her mom’s film The Music of Regret, featuring Meryl Streep, inspired her to be a filmmaker.

Simmons laughs, recalling how her daughter felt about her spending so much time making that film.

“You were competitive and jealous,” Simmons says.

“I’m not competitive with people at least ten years older than me,” Dunham retorts.

In fact, the film began their collaboration. Dunham was her mom’s script doctor. They went on to write a screenplay for a musical comedy about a lounge singer with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. Then came Tiny Furniture, which Dunham wrote herself. “Laurie had a lot of input,” says Alicia van Couvering, a producer of the film. “But Lena always knew what she wanted.”

In the tender final scene, the daughter lies down next to her mother in bed.

“I don’t want to be a makeup artist or a massage therapist or a day hostess. I want to be as successful as you are,” the daughter says.

“You will be as successful as I am,” the mother replies.

Dunham is off to a strong start. In March, at the South by Southwest Festival in Austin, Texas, Tiny Furniturewon the jury award for a narrative feature, and Dunham won the Chicken & Egg Pictures Emergent Narrative Woman Director Award.

Simmons beams with pride, but reminds Dunham that as long as she lives at home, she’s got to take out the garbage.

“That’s my job,” Dunham replies.

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