‘Girls’ Producers Judd Apatow and Lena Dunham Explain The Vomit Pass

By  · Published on April 12th, 2012

Lena Dunham’s new HBO show, Girls, fits right into producer Judd Apatow’s wheelhouse: it’s funny, awkward, honest, and never afraid to show characters at their ugliest. The lead, Hannah (Dunham), is a young 20-something looking for direction, similar to plenty of Apatow’s characters in TV and film. Hannah and her friends aren’t the nicest or the most admirable of characters, but they’re about as real as a group of friends can get.

Hannah is one of those phases that plenty of artists ‐ such as Dunham and Apatow ‐ could relate to: being young and struggling. In usual HBO fashion, Girls is a show that pushes the pain, never letting its characters off easy. That, amongst other topics, were discussed between Apatow, Dunham, and I the day after its terrific premiere at SXSW.

Here’s what Lena Dunham and Judd Apatow had to say about the movie-like structure of the show, writing vomit drafts, and personal comedy:

The first three episodes are somewhat painful to watch. Do you find it cathartic exploring these pretty uncomfortable ‐ and possibly personal ‐ situations?

Dunham: It’s incredibly satisfying to be able to tell stories like that and then also give it the ending that you couldn’t give it in real life because it was real life and you didn’t know what to do because everything terrible is happening at once. So yeah, I find it incredibly cathartic. And then you also have to sort of remove yourself from it a little bit and think about it as a story and not just your own personal demon exercising session.

So you do come up with a fantasy ending, like, “This is how it should have been”?

Dunham: I wish there was more, like, “This is how it should have ended.” I would have been taken in a carriage to a beautiful destination.” Just like, “This is how it should have been.” But it would have been even worse.

[Laughs] It’s interesting how the first three episodes play as standalone pieces. Is the whole structure of the first season like that?

Dunham: We sort of talked about it where we wanted each episode to almost feel like a little movie.

Apatow: Well, with a television show, you never know when people are going to see it for the first time, so you don’t want people to feel alienated by it if they happen to watch the third episode first. People always say the first few need to all feel like the first episode so you can catch up.

I remember I didn’t watch The Wire until years after it was off the air. But as I would turn on an episode, and I had never seen it before, and instantly I would go, “Oh, this is too complicated. I gotta start from the beginning. I don’t have enough time to catch up!” So we’re trying to avoid that trap a little bit, at least until Omar returns.

[Laughs] Did you go about Freaks and Geeks and Undeclared that way?

Apatow: Yeah. I remember the people at the network used to say even hardcore fans of the show only see one and four. [Laughs] I don’t know if that’s true anymore because people TiVo everything. But back then they used to say that.

I talked to Paul Feig a while ago. He said one of the complaints that he heard was that the show was too painful. Being on HBO, is there no limit to that? They really push pain on that network.

Apatow: They want more pain! They just want you to go deeper emotionally. With the network, they want it to be fantasy fulfillment, at least back then. That was 1999.

Dunham: They want it to be something that you could never imagine having happened on any other network.

Apatow: It also was the era of a lot of soap opera type shows with really good looking kids. So just to try to do a show about normal looking kids, real problems, and marijuana addictions, or Star Wars memorabilia addictions didn’t seem that sexy… [Laughs]

Dunham: Was Freaks and Geeks coming out like right around The O.C.?

Apatow: No, it was Dawson’s Creek. A little bit after Dawson’s Creek. There were a lot of shows like that at the time. So Paul just thought, “I’d like to see a show about what me and my friends were like.” That seemed like a shocking idea at the time. Now it doesn’t seem that way because I think he knocked on the door for a lot of types of TV shows. Also, there wasn’t much single camera television back then. Other than The Wonder Years, there was almost nothing on network television in terms of single camera comedy.

Would you ever hear on Freaks and Geeks, “Make this more like that one episode of Dawson’s Creek”?

Apatow: No, but it would say, “We’d like more eye candy,” things like that. Or, “Why can’t they win more? They need more victories.”

It’s all about failure.

Apatow: Yeah, that’s what we said. The show is about how you handle failure and how it bonds you with your friends.

Dunham: I was re-watching Dawson’s Creek for some reason and I just noticed that Dawson, who is supposed to be 15, literally…I know he was not old, but he literally looked 35. It was just like a 35-year-old…

Apatow: By the end, yeah. That happened on Freaks and Geeks where I started realizing what everyone’s true ages were, because a lot of people lied about how old they were to get the job. And I thought, “Wow. Five years in they are all going to be 30 years old. And are they still in high school…?” I guess Glee is contending with that at this point.

Dunham: Yeah, seriously.

[Laughs] Mr. Apatow, was the personal storytelling side of the show what appealed to you?

Apatow: That’s my favorite kind of art is just when you realize whoever is making it isn’t kidding. So I always equate it to Kurt Cobain or Eddie Vedder, and every once in a while they sing a song and you’re like, “Oh, they’re not messing around. They just told me something that felt like something they’re very passionate about, or even a secret.” That’s what this felt like to me.

This is Lena’s view of the world and I understand it and relate to a lot of it, but she’s not screwing around. This is her world view. It’s not something that’s been created to appeal to people. We’re certainly aware of that part of it, but it’s more about her voice.

And I hear you don’t have to do that at HBO. I’ve heard they don’t do test screenings and how they’re very hands-off. Has that been your experience so far?

Dunham: It’s been amazing. When they do have a note, it’s like a brilliant note. When they do have a note, you actually want to listen to it because you go, “Oh, you are the people who made The Sopranos, and the people who made The Wire, and the people who made Curb Your Enthusiasm, and you seem to know what you are doing….” So you don’t just brush it off. Like, you really take it seriously. They don’t give a note for a note’s sake. It’s a pretty remarkable setup.

Interesting how you said her world view kind of appealed to you. I think guys could see themselves in these characters, just little details.

Apatow: Yeah.

And it’s because it’s one of those shows that portrays little things you don’t see often or talked about much. When writing, are you constantly using ideas you’ve seen happen or heard of?

Dunham: I think that oftentimes I’ll register something and go, “That might be an interesting moment in an episode.” And oftentimes, you know, it just pops back into my head during the shower I am taking between writing sessions. It’s just sort of like the fabric of your life finds its way into what you are doing. Also, I love the way that Judd thinks and the way that Jenny thinks, which is both comic and very visual, so we’re kicking around ideas.

I remember talking about our season finale, and this is what we ended up doing, where Judd was like, “What if she gets of the train and she’s just lost in a sea of people in suits?” I just loved the way we were thinking visually and thinking about the small moments. I’m also learning a lot. My writing process is changing from working with new people, which is exciting.

How has it changed?

Dunham: I think I’ve opened up to new ways of doing it. I used to be super private about my drafts. I would write and write until I thought something was perfect and then show it to people when I didn’t think I could go any further. And just sort of being comfortable enough with people to show them something at an early stage has been amazing, because writing can be really lonely. So to have people enter into the process earlier, it’s a joy. Like my dad is a painter and he always says how jealous he is because he spends all day in a room alone to make his work. He says, “I love the fact that you can do what you want to do surrounded by your friends.”

When you are in those lonely moments when you are writing, how do you get through it?

Dunham: I always make a rule for myself where I’m like, “I am going to finish writing this even if it’s not good. I am not going to stop. And then afterwards, I am going to read it.” And usually, I read it and it’s like…even if it’s still bad, it’s 10% better than I thought it was, and so it’s OK.

Isn’t your process similar? I heard that you always get everything out on first draft, even if it’s terrible.

Apatow: The vomit pass.

Dunham: Vomit pass! I literally have so many documents now just labeled like “vomitpass.fdx”.

Apatow: There’s some simple theories about writing. One of them I read in a book was just the down/up theory: get it down, then fix it up. You can’t do that at the same time. You want to allow yourself to write freely and not judge it, and then pick another time to judge it.

Dunham: I once took a writing workshop at the Sundance Screenwriters Lab from the guy who wrote Rebel Without a Cause. And it was amazing. He was talking about like when he was a child he had no paper, so he would write on birch bark. He was truly such a writer. He does automatic writing where he’ll just write three hours at a time, not let his hand come up from the page, not even know what he’s gotten, and then look down and there it is. Somewhere in there is what he wants to use. Although I’ve never written for three hours without taking my hand from the page, or for five minutes without eating something, I was inspired by that.

Do you ever write just for the sake of writing?

Apatow: Yeah, I should do that. I don’t do that. I’m bad that way. I’ve thought about that lately, like writing for an hour or two a day no matter what. I’ll make notes and email myself thoughts for a year and then write it in a month or two. I really should be writing every day. It’s a bad thing.

Dunham: I binge write. So I’ll go a couple days and just be like feeling guilty about it, and everything I do is imbued with a terrible guilt that I’m not writing, and then I’ll sit down and write for like 11 hours and then kinda feel sick. I haven’t figured out an adult, responsible way to do it yet.

Apatow: My writing’s always built on procrastination. I would get up, watch like 11 episodes of The Real World, and around 5:00 start, write for three hours, then eat an enormous amount of chicken or garlic pasta. And then I would get so tired that I couldn’t judge myself anymore. I was just in a haze; a food haze. Like, all the blood would leave my brain and go to my stomach, and then I would write till two in the morning. You can’t do that when you have kids. You have to say, “I’m going to write from 9–12,” but try to put the freedom program on your computer so that you can’t get on the internet.

What’s phase one for you both? Do you outline heavily or do you just get an idea and let it flow out?

Dunham: It depends. If it’s an episode another writer is doing, we’ll outline. If it’s an episode I’m doing, we’ll just kinda kick around ideas and then I’ll go off and play and then send them the vomit pass. I’ll write a scene…when I write with somebody else, I’ll write a scene, he’ll write a scene, we’ll see what happens when we put it all together. It’s a free process and there isn’t like a crazy stringent set of rules about how we get it done, as long as it gets done.

What about, say, after you get to the vomit pass and you’re just stuck at a scene where you have writer’s block and you don’t know how to approach it? Do you just ask other people or what do you do?

Apatow: Yeah, then we give the drafts to everybody on the staff and we all just do…sometimes we give it the network and see what they think, and take a deep breath and start on page one again.

What about for theme? The show is covering that interesting phase of being a young and broke artist. I’m sure both of you probably had that phase. Does that just come out naturally while writing?

Dunham: I think we just thought about this specific time of life and the themes of it are sort of really clear, because your whole life you are dealing with change, and you are dealing with transition and uncertainty. But this is a moment where it is particularly vivid. So I think the themes emerge pretty naturally from the period of time that we’re dealing with.

Apatow: If you don’t think about the themes at all and just write about what you are thinking about, you can always figure out the theme later. It’s always going to be there whether you like it or not, it might just be a different theme.

Dunham: It’s true.

Apatow: It might be the “I hate myself theme” or the “about to murder my parents” theme.

Dunham: I know! “When you thought what you were doing was the height of an artist” theme.

Well, say, for like Funny People. That movie is a lot about failure and success. I’m sure you think about that when you get older and obtain commercial success. Does it just come from what you are thinking about at the moment?

Apatow: Yeah. Because at the time I was working on that, there were a lot of people that were sick in my world, and you just start thinking, “What’s the point of any of it? What’s the point of this work? What’s the point of the sacrifices we make for approval?” When you are really wounded and something traumatic happens, like someone getting sick happens, you are forced to assess all your theories about your life.

Not that I’m in that mode now. [Laughs] You know, why do we want to get a laugh so badly? What does it do for us? Is it just some really sick narcissistic thing? Or is there a way to be creative and giving, and is there a way to share your life with people that makes people, you know, feel, as Lena said before, the world is a smaller place and we’re all together. So there is a way positive way to create and then a really selfish, crazy way to create. You might get a good movie or a good record out of either of them.

Dunham: I just like that you did you that instead of having that experience and crawling into bed and not coming out for a year and going, “What’s the point of even eating food?” Like, to me that’s what’s inspiring. One of the reasons I loved Funny People is it clearly came out of a place of…I mean not to project, but it clearly came out of a painful place. And a comedy made from that perspective, to me, is the most interesting thing, and the most generous thing that a person can do.

That’s a good point. Like your films, the show isn’t afraid of showing characters in an unfavorable and honest light. How far do you always try to push that?

Apatow: That’s why HBO is great, because you don’t have to clean it up for anybody. You don’t have to resolve any storyline. It is why the end of The Sopranos is so great, because life does just go on. And with movies a lot of the time, it so desperately wants to be told that everything is going to be OK. And when you make a movie that says everything is going to be like it always is, or maybe it will be a little better but it’s still hard, sometimes you get disappointment. They just want everything to work out and end on “the kiss”.

With television, you can just end on the worst moment of someone’s entire life and people are so excited, and they say, “That was a great episode! I loved it! Did you see what happened? Everything in his life is falling apart!”

Working on TV, which is something I wasn’t looking to do at all, when it’s coming together and people like it and you are allowed to do it on a continuous basis, there’s nothing better than that. I mean this situation [xx 20:45] to make this show for a while with a lot of creative freedom, it’s the best case scenario for a writer.

I remember when Garry Shandling was doing The Larry Sanders show. It just felt like he could do anything. Any week he has a notion and it’s like, “Hey, Warren Beatty is on the show this week with this weird thing he thought of the other day!” It’s just the most fun thing in the world.

Dunham: It’s interesting, because I watched two shows Judd’s been involved…I’ve watched all the TV that Judd’s been involved with before I even met Judd. But particularly, Larry Sanders and Undeclared that I, like, watched really quickly during specifically challenging periods in my life. Like, I watched Larry Sanders when I was away at like a weird poetry summer program in Boulder, Colorado.

I was so homesick. I was so…I was literally like crying all night every night, and I bought Larry Sanders at the used video store and I watched all of it. Even though it wasn’t like sunny TV, it gave me that “everything is going to be OK” feeling. I watched Undeclared my first week of college.

So I sort of felt like the medicinal power of TV in a certain way, and that was so exciting to me. And so, when I found out I was going to be working with Judd on a show that I hoped might have that affect on girls, or even people, in this place in their life, I was excited.

You mentioned that sense of approval you always want to get when you tell a joke. Being very personal storytellers, how much does that matter to you? Like, say last night it was just crickets.

Apatow: It used to bother me a lot more. I’ve just been through every variation of it. I’ve had things go well, and sometimes that’s surprising because you think, “Well, that couldn’t have gone better. I guess that’s as happy as I get.” Like, I met the president and he had just seen Funny People and was very complimentary, and was talking about specific ideas. And I thought, “Well, there’s no more approval I could get from anyone on the planet. This is my level of happiness.” And then that’s, like, “Well this is as happy as I get. When the president likes my movie, I actually can’t get more happy than a 7 ½.” [Laughs]

And it’s the same thing with the opposite. I’ve been destroyed in certain reviews or articles, and I realize, “Oh, that’s my bottom. That’s as depressed as I’ll get if someone hates me.” And then, when you’ve been around for a long time, it starts to amuse you because you think to yourself, “It’s happening again! This is what bottom feels like! I’ve been here! You’re OK!”

Dunham: Yeah, totally! I remember I found it comforting when after I made Tiny Furniture and I started to read good reviews, or read bad reviews, or have somebody whose work I admire tell me that they admired my work, it’s sort of like mostly like the fact that good reviews and photo shoots and stuff didn’t put me in a great mood. I was like, “I’m kind of relieved to know that this isn’t the reason that I do this.” Like I’m sort of relieved to find out that I’m not…I think there was always the quiet fear that I was just a demented narcissist. If somebody took my photo I’d be totally satisfied and could just go home and sleep soundly. So it was good to realize, “Oh, I actually do this because I love this job and I’m not happy if I’m not working.” That was a relief to me to know that.

To wrap up, obviously the show is dealing with that period of being a struggling artist in your early 20s. When you were in that period of your lives, how’d you get through it?

Apatow: I just never for a second thought I wouldn’t find a way to make a living. I started trying to work…when I was 14 I was a dishwasher at a comedy club. And in my head I thought, “In 20 years I’ll be 34.” I always thought how many years it would take. So when I started doing standup I thought, “If I start at 16, in seven years I’m going to be 24 years old.” As long as you are always open to getting better and never thinking there’s nothing left to learn, I think you can do good work. I mean if you have some talent, I guess.

There’s very hard working untalented people out there. I think everybody has something to offer if you are committed to it and really give up yourself to the work and reveal yourself. Sometimes people say, “I like this actor more than that actor.” I always think, “I kinda think any actor could be incredibly interesting to watch. Any human being could be the lead of a movie.”

Girls premieres this Sunday (4/15) on HBO.

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Longtime FSR contributor Jack Giroux likes movies. He thinks they're swell.