Lena Dunham Sharp Stick
Lena Dunham and John Bernthal in Sharp Stick courtesy of Utopia

Over the summer of 2020, Lena Dunham began rewatching some of her favorite classic films of the ‘60s and ‘70s: from Jerry Schatzberg’s 1971 drama The Panic in Needle Park, starring Al Pacino as a heroin addict in love, to Luis Buñuel’s 1967 romance drama Belle de Jour, starring Cathrine Deneuve as a woman who does sex work during the day while her husband is away, to Barbara Loden’s 1970 crime drama Wanda, about a woman from Pennsylvania coal country who goes on the run with a bank robber. Dunham began to form the first seed of an idea for her second feature, Sharp Stick.

“I was just really meditating on how amazing some of these female characters of the ‘70s were, and the kind of journeys they got to take, and how odd it was that we seemed like we had almost bounced backwards from our representation of women then,” Dunham tells MovieMaker.

“But at the same time, a lot of those women ended up sort of punished for their sexuality in a very specific way,” she says. “So I was like, ‘Is there a way for me to tell a story like this, in which there was a real psychological justification for everything the woman is going through, and then also where she isn’t basically killed or given some other terrible destiny for — in ‘final girl’ style — exploring her sexuality?”

With this in mind, Lena Dunham wrote the script for Sharp Stick rather quickly.

“Suddenly, there was a movie,” she says.

Since its Sundance debut, Sharp Stick has drawn attention because of the vehicle through which Dunham’s protagonist, Sarah Jo (Kristine Froseth) discovers her sexual power: porn. In the film, Sarah Jo begins to idolize a male porn star named Vance Leroy (Scott Speedman). As Dunham explained at Sundance, she believes porn has the potential to be healing.

“Even for me as a feminist, I grew up in a household with first- and second-wave feminism ideas in which porn could never really be a choice for anybody,” she says. “It was really an education for me when I sort of started talking publicly about feminism and really started hearing sex workers and people in the porn industry talk about what that had meant to them.”

The child of painter Carroll Dunham and artist and photographer Laurie Simmons, Lena Dunham won the Independent Spirit Award for Best First Screenplay for her 2010 directorial debut Tiny Furniture. In 2012, her hit HBO series Girls premiered, with Dunham behind the wheel as creator, writer, star, and often director. She began to change her stance on porn after Girls ended in 2017.

Also Read: Sharp Stick Shows That Porn ‘Can Be Really Healing,’ Says Lena Dunham

“I started to realize that actually, the scenes that I was depicting on Girls — while they were body-positive, they weren’t necessarily sex-positive,” she says.

Watching Fleabag showed her that she could allow her characters to have more pleasure, and that learning about sex workers gave her a new understanding of the stigmatization of porn.

But she adds: “I’m not a big porn person myself, just to be totally honest.”

Lena Dunham Sharp Stick

Bernthal as Josh, Dunham as Heather, Liam Michel Saux as Zach and Forseth as Sarah Jo in Sharp Stick courtesy of Utopia. 

The purpose of a sex scene, she believes, “is always to tell us something that we didn’t know about the character, and sex does reveal some of the deepest truths about us.”

She adds: “What’s always been important to me with sex scenes, even before intimacy coordinators were a thing, was to really block it out and make sure everybody knew what they were doing beforehand because it really does have to feel expertly choreographed. I’ve heard somebody compare it to a fight scene. It does have to be that, and that’s always how we did it in Girls. You’re not randomly kissing someone’s neck or randomly grabbing someone’s shoulder. You know the moves that are going to be made, and that was always important to me.”

She was extremely precise with her intentions while directing sex scenes in Sharp Stick — and there are many — and an intimacy coordinator helped the actors communicate their levels of comfort.

“I almost tried to do it like a doctor was doing a procedure, because I know when I go to the doctor’s office, I want them to go, ‘Okay, we’re going to take blood, it’s going to hurt a little, this is what it’s going to feel like.’ I want that level of specificity so no one’s ever surprised.”

Dunham was actually getting blood drawn when she got the idea for the title of the movie.

“In England, which is where I live with my husband, when you get your blood taken, which I do a lot because I have health issues, they always say, ‘Okay, it’s going to be a sharp scratch,’ and they take your blood. And in my head, I twisted it and it became Sharp Stick,” she says.

“By the time I remembered that it was really ‘sharp scratch,’ after getting a lot more blood taken, I was like, dang it, that was a misnomer. But it had stuck, and it was the story of the movie to me now… the initial idea was predicting pain before it happens. Like the doctor telling you, ‘It’s gonna be a sharp scratch,’ and so you’re able to go, ‘Okay, I can handle this, I know what’s coming’ — and how there’s something about that in first love, too.”

Dunham didn’t even notice the phallic undertones in the title until it was specifically pointed out to her.

“Maybe because I was raised in a house full of phallic painting metaphors and artist parents, it took me a second to realize I had fully injected a penis metaphor in the title,” she jokes. “That’s how dense I am. The first time someone said it, I was like, ‘Wow.’”

Dunham recently hit a milestone she’s been anticipating all her life: turning 36.

“It’s the age my mom was when she had me,” Dunham says. “Obviously, a lot of really amazing things have happened in my life, but I’m not in the same place that my mother was.”

She used Froseth’s character in Sharp Stick, Sarah Jo, to work through some of those complicated feelings.

“While Sarah Jo is not me, we share the reality of infertility, we share the reality of certain health challenges. So it was a way to talk about coming of age,” she says. “I feel like even though I came of age early in certain ways professionally, I came of age late in other ways, and that’s all sort of expressed in here.”

Lena Dunham produced Sharp Stick through her production company Good Thing Going, which she runs with her manager and producing partner Michael Cohen. And she’ll release her third feature film, Catherine, Called Birdy, later this year. She’s also interested in getting into theater and podcasting and making more TV.

“I’m never going to be that sort of takeover-the-world businesswoman because I need way too much time by myself,” she jokes. “I want to keep making features and television. I’m working on another book. I mean, really, it sounds so basic, but storytelling is my life, and so whatever form I get to do that in, I feel very lucky.

Sharp Stick opened in theaters on Aug. 5 from Utopia and is now playing.

Main Image: Lena Dunham and John Bernthal in Sharp Stick courtesy of Utopia.

This story originally appeared in the Summer 2022 print issue of MovieMaker Magazine.

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