The Wall Street Journal “When Susan Was Sought”
September 22, 2010 By Bruce Bennett
Looking back on her seminal New York-set 1985 cinematic confection “Desperately Seeking Susan,” director Susan Seidelman says that it was “a weird mix of gritty and magical.” Those words could just as accurately describe a long-vanished downtown Manhattan that is the film’s uncredited co-star, alongside Rosanna Arquette and Madonna. Ms. Seidelman, along with members of the film’s cast including Ms. Arquette and Aidan Quinn, will introduce a 25th anniversary screening of “Desperately Seeking Susan” Thursday night at the Film Society of Lincoln Center.
On the phone from the same SoHo loft space she occupied while making the film, the director credited New York’s fiscal crisis of the 1970s with creating the simultaneously seedy and enchanted milieu.
“That was a wonderful opportunity for creative people who didn’t have a lot of money to kind of live in the city and exploit the city,” she said.
The Philadelphia native had tapped much of the visual and musical energy of late-70’s underground Manhattan for her 1982 independent debut feature “Smithereens.” Though empowered by the positive reception “Smithereens” received, Ms. Seidelman was wary of the realities of sophomore efforts and studio movie debuts, particularly for female filmmakers.
“I’d heard so many stories about women directors that made an independent movie that got some acclaim, did a studio movie after that, and just sort of got lost in the shuffle when the movie didn’t perform,” she said.
In search of a follow-up project, the director read dozens of scripts that were “mostly just kind of stupid teen comedies,” she said. But when her agent gave her the “Susan” script, the director said she felt an affinity from the first page.
“Of course, having my name in the title attracted my attention,” she laughed. Screenwriter Leora Barish’s screwball comedy by way of Jacques Rivette’s 1974 “Celine and Julie Go Boating” struck the director as both challenging and familiar terrain. “I had a vision of how it should look and the world it was set in,” she said. “I didn’t feel like I was venturing into territory that I couldn’t at least attempt to do well.”
The “fable-like, magical realism quality” that Ms. Seidelman pictured was something that also drew Ms. Arquette, who came attached to the property in the role of disenchanted suburban housewife Roberta.
“It’s ‘Alice in Wonderland’ in a way,” Ms. Arquette said, noting that the fable-tinged aspects went hand-in-hand with deeper character concerns of Roberta’s “metamorphosis and her becoming the woman that she really wants to be.”
With the film’s central character equation already established, and Ms. Seidleman on-board to direct, the title role still needed to be assigned. Ms. Arquette recalled the casting brain trust looking at various emerging ingénues for the part of Susan.
“They were talking about Ellen Barkin and Melanie Griffith—both friends of mine that I would have loved to have in the film,” Ms. Arquette remembered. “But when they said Madonna…”
The choice of the aspiring pop star proved auspicious—as legions of girls who cloned Susan’s signature look would attest once the film was released. “She put her whole Madonna-ness into it,” Ms. Arquette said. “She was a downtown girl and it really worked.”
The look of the film itself involved other spirited choices. Working with director of photography Ed Lachman and future Woody Allen production designer Santo Loquasto, Ms. Seidelman labored to create an aesthetic that she described as “combinations of the old, the new and the odd to take reality and kick it up a notch.” Though in part inspired by the look of Jean-Jacques Beineix’s ultra-stylish 1981 thriller “Diva,” the rich palette, authentic urban textures and dovetailing of the sordid and the exotic in “Desperately Seeking Susan” became highly influential, particularly in the nascent field of music videos.
“It really had such great colors,” Ms. Arquette said. “While we were on set you could just see that it was going to look beautiful on film.”
Ms. Seidelman also oversaw the creation of another paradigmatic fictionalized view of Manhattan when she directed the 1998 pilot episode of HBO’s “Sex and the City.” The director described the two projects as sharing a similar conceptual underpinning.
“There’s kind of a wish-fulfillment element to both of them,” she said. “‘Desperately Seeking Susan’ represents a sort of bohemian Manhattan that doesn’t exist anymore.” And Carrie Bradshaw and company? “It’s kind of a heightened version of what life could be. I don’t know too many single new York women that have that lifestyle.”