Susan in Wonderland

Susan Seidelman on her memoir, films, Billy Wilder and Smithereens

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Susan Seidelman with Anne-Katrin Titze and music producer/99 Records founder Ed Bahlman: “Music has always been important in my movies.”
Susan Seidelman with Anne-Katrin Titze and music producer/99 Records founder Ed Bahlman: “Music has always been important in my movies.”

In the first instalment with Susan Seidelman on her memoir, Desperately Seeking Something (St. Martin’s Press), and her career as a filmmaker, we start out discussing the jacket choices for Susan Berman (Wren in Smithereens, opposite Richard Hell and Brad Rijn), Madonna (Susan in Desperately Seeking Susan, with Rosanna Arquette, Mark Blum, Aidan Quinn), Ann Magnuson (Frankie in Making Mr. Right with John Malkovich), and Emily Lloyd (Cookie in Cookie with Peter Falk, Dianne Wiest, Jerry Lewis, Brenda Vacarro).

Susan Berman as Wren in Smithereens and Madonna as Susan in Desperately Seeking Susan
Susan Berman as Wren in Smithereens and Madonna as Susan in Desperately Seeking Susan

We move on to the influence of Jacques Rivette’s Celine And Julie Go Boating, her love of Billy Wilder films (Christoph Waltz is set to play the director, opposite Maya Hawke, John Turturro, and Jon Hamm in Stephen Frears’s Wilder & Me, produced by Jeremy Thomas, based on Jonathan Coe’s novel Mr. Wilder And Me), being named after Susan Hayward, the significant support of music producer and 99 Records founder Ed Bahlman with his addition of ESG’s Moody (99-04EP, produced by Martin Hannett, mastered by Ed Bahlman) and Devious Women (from Singers & Players War Of Words, 99-002LP, produced by Adrian Sherwood, mastered by Ed Bahlman) to the bar scene in the final editing of Smithereens, and we conclude with Adele Bertei and the passing of James Chance (founder of the Contortions) in New York on Tuesday, June 20, 2024.

From the countryside in New Jersey, Susan Seidelman joined us on Zoom for in-depth conversation on her memoir and impressive career as a filmmaker.

Anne-Katrin Titze: Hi, Susan! I see you are not in the city!

Emily Lloyd as Cookie in Cookie and Ann Magnuson as Frankie in Making Mr. Right
Emily Lloyd as Cookie in Cookie and Ann Magnuson as Frankie in Making Mr. Right

Susan Seidelman: No, I’m out in the countryside in New Jersey. When the weather’s nice it’s nice, but I’m nostalgic still about New York.

AKT: When preparing for our conversation, I thought about what images come to me first when I think about your films. And what came to mind were the jackets. I think you are the filmmaker who has the most prominently featured backs of jackets of women.

SS: I know the pyramid jacket. And in Smithereens the pink fuzzy jacket.

AKT: And in Cookie, Emily Lloyd has a patchwork collage of faces and words on her jacket. And Ann Magnuson in Making Mr. Right has these strange shapes on the back of her boxy bolero jackets.

SS: Yes! Clearly, I mean, I had wanted to be a fashion designer when I was young and you can clearly see that in my films. I also have a lot of feet, feet shots. Shoes, feet, walking, from a high angle.

AKT: That’s the Cinderella thing - going places. You have to go out in order to capture something.

Wren (Susan Berman) with Eric (Richard Hell) in Smithereens when ESG’s Moody (99-04EP) is heard
Wren (Susan Berman) with Eric (Richard Hell) in Smithereens when ESG’s Moody (99-04EP) is heard

SS: That’s true. People are always rushing off to do something. Sometimes they don’t know exactly what it is they want to do, but they seem to be eager to do it.

AKT: Desperately so, to quote your title. What I like so much in your films, and you bring it up in your memoir as well, is something I think many women share, that is a fascination with the lives of other women. Sometimes it’s just a glimpse of someone and your thoughts wander into all kinds of directions. I like when it happens, you see someone on the street and never see them again, but you are suddenly touched by the life of another. You capture that beautifully!

SS: I don’t know if it’s just a female thing, I tend to think women do it more than men. But I’ve always known this. Even as a little girl there’ll be some other girl in class, or some girl in the neighbourhood, something about them would fascinate me. Sort of like a girl crush, but not sexual. Just this interest in what they were doing or imagining myself being them.

Part of it is also maybe that as a film director we are all a bit voyeurs. So that idea of looking into other people’s lives, imagining what it might be like, what their lives might be like. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen - it’s not readily available - but I did a film called The Dutch Master, a short film.

Roberta (Rosanna Arquette) with Dez (Aidan Quinn) in Desperately Seeking Susan
Roberta (Rosanna Arquette) with Dez (Aidan Quinn) in Desperately Seeking Susan

AKT: I know about it because it was produced by Regina Ziegler, but I have not seen it.

SS: It’s all about a woman who is leading a very mundane life but imagines herself going into a 17th century Dutch painting and getting involved with all the characters. A lot of it is about voyeurism, about watching people and being curious about them.

AKT: There isn’t really a name for it. You said girl crush, it isn’t really a crush, but you have been, I think mirroring this from many different angles. Cinema is of course also a part of it. Movie stars are all about that allure and trigger this fascination.

SS: The movie where that’s most obvious is Desperately Seeking Susan, and what is interesting is that not only was it about the character of Roberta, Rosanna Arquette, kind of becoming obsessed with watching or being the Susan character, but also at the same time unexpectedly the whole world became obsessed with Madonna. And those two things just happened to coincide at the time we were making the movie.

AKT: I remember vividly seeing the film in Paris with French subtitles, with two of my girlfriends, one of them a Susan, called Susi Pietsch [pronounced “peach”].

Susan Seidelman on when she was filming Desperately Seeking Susan: “The whole world became obsessed with Madonna.”
Susan Seidelman on when she was filming Desperately Seeking Susan: “The whole world became obsessed with Madonna.”

SS: That’s a good name! That’s a good character name!

AKT: Spelled differently, though. I was the link between the two, they were not really friends, and I remember how they bonded over Aiden Quinn’s very blue eyes. But I wanted to get to Susan Hayward, now that I know you were named after her. Do you have a favourite film of hers?

SS: I think it might have been called, I Want to Live [directed by Robert Wise]. I forget titles, it’s been a while, but it was about a woman who ends up in prison and is getting executed at the end.

AKT: I found a book on her that I bought a very long time ago. I will look it up.

SS: Oh wow! My mother had a fascination with her, hence my name. Apparently she was an interesting, strong woman. You know, the idea of good girl and bad girl, and she combined them both.

AKT: Is it in Desperately Seeking Susan that you have a clip from Rebecca?

SS: Yes!

Dean Martin with Kim Novak in Billy Wilder’s Kiss Me Stupid
Dean Martin with Kim Novak in Billy Wilder’s Kiss Me Stupid

AKT: There’s another very interesting doubling.

SS: Well the whole film is really about doubling, isn’t it? There’s a lot of that going on in the movie. I’m wondering if you were familiar with the movie Celine And Julie Go Boating?

AKT: Yes, Rivette, absolutely.

SS: That being an inspiration for Leora Barish who wrote the script. Weirdly around that time I happened to see that film and was mesmerised by it at the New York Film Festival. That idea of a woman following another woman, the idea of magic, the idea of, in a way, Alice In Wonderland, which has always been an inspiration to me. Not only in film, but also my life. In some ways I always felt like what am I doing here? How did I get here? This is an amazing world I suddenly found myself popping into.

AKT: Because you were looking, maybe not knowing what for. And that’s Alice. In the context of Desperately Seeking Susan, I also had to think about Billy Wilder’s Kiss Me Stupid.

SS: You know, I love Billy Wilder! I love Sunset Boulevard, Some Like It Hot, and of course The Apartment. My water broke when I was pregnant while I was watching that movie! So I just think Billy Wilder is brilliant and so is Joseph Mankiewicz. But I never saw that movie.

Susan Seidelman with Ed Bahlman at Powerhouse Arena
Susan Seidelman with Ed Bahlman at Powerhouse Arena Photo: Anne Katrin Titze

AKT: It is a very very strange film with Dean Martin and Kim Novak. The part about the men is less interesting, but there is something fascinating about the women who wish to change places. One is a housewife and Kim Novak plays a waitress in a place called The Belly Button or something like that. The housewife ends up spending the night with Dean Martin who plays a Las Vegas star who lost his way. It’s a strange film, many people hate it, but I always liked it somehow because of the women and what is exposed about traps and desires.

SS: Now I am going to see it! Because I love all his films, even some of the later ones that weren’t quite as successful.

AKT: Fedora?

SS: There was one about Coca-Cola with James Cagney?

AKT: One, Two, Three!

SS: Yes, but there’s always something interesting going on. I mean, I had such an American experience growing up and lived in a very typical suburban environment as a child. But there was always a side of that outsider quality I recognised in Billy Wilder films, him being from Germany, Austria?

AKT: The Austro-Hungarian Empire and later Berlin.

SS: It’s a certain way of looking at the world that for some bizarre reason I always related to. So I’m definitely going to check out that movie!

AKT: Ed would like to say a quick hi!

Ed Bahlman: I wanted to congratulate you on the success of Smithereens! We never hooked up again when the movie came out!

Desperately Seeking Something inscribed by Susan Seidelman to Ed Bahlman
Desperately Seeking Something inscribed by Susan Seidelman to Ed Bahlman Photo: Anne Katrin Titze

SS: You know, I’m doing screenings now with book signings. That’s what the next couple of weeks are going to be about. Last night, I was there for Smithereens, I couldn’t sit through the whole movie, I’ve seen it a thousand times, a lot of times. I came in for the last ten minutes and I saw the credits roll and I saw the 99 Records credit on the screen and I thought about you.

EB: I went to the editing room with you twice while you were editing, because I wanted to see the scenes where you needed the music. Then I came back with Moody ESG and Devious Woman from Singers & Players. It fits so perfectly.

SS: Yeah, so perfectly! So perfectly!

EB: Everything exactly right, the guy coming out of the stall, moving to it. It almost looks as if he’s singing and moving to Devious Woman. In your book you mention the Yiddish theater screening with a bunch of people you didn’t know. You invited me and I brought ESG to the screening. What happened is, they had Moody at the wrong speed.

SS: Really?

EB: Because it was a 45 [rpm] 12 inch and they put it in your film at 331/3. I didn’t say anything that night. There was so much applause after the screening when you came on stage. But I called you the next day and said it needed to be fixed.

Smithereens music end credit roll
Smithereens music end credit roll

SS: And it got changed?

EB: Yes! You were hesitating and said, oh no.

SS: Because I had no money. But then I got the money and I’m glad I got it changed. And thank you for your help!

EB: The titles of your chapters [named after songs], I could sing every song to Anne-Katrin until I got to the ninth chapter.

SS: What was that?

EB: Dazed And Confused. I was paralysed. I couldn’t sing anything from Dazed And Confused by Led Zeppelin.

SS: Really? Now you have to learn!

AKT: It is a curious choice to have songs as chapter titles! How did that come about?

SS: Music has always been important in my movies. So I decided either they related thematically or because they were from the Fifties when I was young. Or the Sixties during my hippie college days. When you hear a song you are instantly transported back to wherever you were at that time. I feel the same way about music as I feel about fashion. When someone is wearing something and they walk into a room, you instantly get an impression. It’s like a shortcut.

AKT: The song titles foreshadow what is to come. You let the readers make up in their heads what they think is going to happen to you in each chapter. We make our own little mind-films before reading.

Devious Woman from Singers & Players War Of Words (99-002LP) heard in Smithereens
Devious Woman from Singers & Players War Of Words (99-002LP) heard in Smithereens Photo: Ed Bahlman

SS: Absolutely.

AKT: The filmmaker in-training for the readers!

EB: Did you hear that James Chance died last week?

SS: I did. Did you know Adele Bertei?

EB: Yes, sure.

SS: She was with the Contortions, right?

EB: Right, with Pat Place too from Bush Tetras.

SS: And Adele was the little tomboyish short …

EB: … tough girl type, yeah!

SS: As you get older, you keep reading about people, oh that person has left the planet.

EB: It was great seeing you at POWERHOUSE Arena!

Susan Seidelman: “I heard you got Anchovy’s autograph! ”
Susan Seidelman: “I heard you got Anchovy’s autograph! ” Photo: Anne Katrin Titze

SS: It was fun being there! I’ve been doing a lot of podcasts and interviews and stuff, but the screenings, I had my first screening of Smithereens Saturday night and I’m doing the IFC Smithereens screening, which I’m feeling kind of nostalgic about. Because the IFC Center used to be called the Waverley Theater. That’s where Smithereens had its American premiere on November 18th or 19th, 1982. That’s kind of cool to be back there.

AKT: Full circle! Thank you! Great to see you!

SS: Thank you, guys, thank you so much! Nice talking with both of you!

EB: All the best with the memoir!

SS: Thank you, Ed! Thank you again 40 years later for the music! I appreciate it.

AKT: And say hi to Anchovy, whom we met at the book launch!

SS: Yes, I heard you got Anchovy’s autograph!

AKT: Yes, a little nose kiss on the page!

SS: Thank you guys!

Coming up - Susan Seidelman on Dianne Wiest and Emily Lloyd in Cookie, her Sex And The City pilot, fairy tales and their dark side, friendship and fashion, the passing of Mark Blum, and the lack of role models in the past.

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