Lena Dunham on making 'a movie about sex without any female nudity in it' and mourning Roe v. Wade

·Senior Writer, Yahoo Entertainment
·13-min read
The cast of Sharp Stick. (Photo: Courtesy Utopia Distribution)
Lena Dunham writes, directs and appears in her latest film, Sharp Stick. (Photo: Utopia Distribution)

As the creator and star of the hit HBO series Girls, Lena Dunham is no stranger to overseeing — and participating in — boundary-pushing sex scenes. But for her latest feature film, Sharp Stick, the filmmaker decided early on that she was going to set a new challenge for herself when it came to making audiences feel hot and bothered.

"I knew this was going to be a movie about sex that didn't have any female nudity in it," Dunham tells Yahoo Entertainment. "With Girls, there was always a lot of discussion about the nudity, and I wanted to remove that discussion and just have a discussion about the emotional content of the scenes. But that doesn't mean they're not intense ... and it doesn't mean they're not graphic."

Much like Girls in its heyday, Sharp Stick's approach to sex became the subject of intense debate when it premiered at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year. Those conversations will almost certainly continue as the film finds its way into theaters on July 29, with a national rollout on Aug. 5, and a VOD premiere on Aug. 16. While Dunham has a supporting role in Sharp Stick, the spotlight belongs to rising star Kristine Froseth as Sarah Jo — a 26-year-old woman whose affair with a married man (Jon Bernthal) kicks off a sexual journey that's akin to an internet-era Emmanuelle. Taking charge of her own sex education, Sarah Jo uses online porn — becoming particularly enamored of one specific porn star, Vance Leroy (Scott Speedman) — and hook-up apps to design a "curriculum" where she's always the one in control of her body and whom she chooses to share it with.

Kristine Froseth stars in Lena Dunham's new movie Sharp Stick. (Photo: Courtesy Utopia Distribution)
Kristine Froseth as Sarah Jo in Sharp Stick. (Photo: Utopia Distribution)

Both Dunham and Froseth credit two other members of Sharp Stick's creative team with being equal partners in emphasizing the empowerment of the film's sex scenes: director of photography Ashley Connor and intimacy coordinator Chantal Cousineau. Dunham says that Cousineau's presence was particularly instructive, and calls the role of an intimacy coordinator a "wonderful innovation" that she wishes had been around when she was making Girls.

"As a director on Girls, I always tried to be as sensitive to the sex as I could, but I never had a partner in choreographing those scenes," she says now. "What's so amazing about having an intimacy coordinator is that they're not just a partner like a stunt coordinator for a fight scene. They are also a safe place for the actors to go if they have any concerns. As someone who has performed many, many sex scenes — and not just in my own work — I feel really glad they exist."

Dunham remembers the most important lesson about directing sex scenes that she learned from Cousineau: always have a safe word. "Chantal said to me, 'If there's a moment where any scene is giving you anxiety or fear, say your safe word,'" Dunham remembers, laughing. "I panicked and just yelled, 'Coconut!' It's so much pressure to just choose a safe word. I would be a terrible BDSM partner."

In a wide-ranging conversation with her star, Dunham discusses the larger themes of Sharp Stick, how TikTok helped inspire the movie and why the Supreme Court decision to overturn Roe vs. Wade was one of the "darkest days" she's experienced in her life.

Lena, it's been ten years since Girls premiered, and that series captured such a specific time and a specific group of women. When you went to write Sharp Stick, how did you wrap your mind around what women in their twenties are like now?

Lena Dunham: It's funny, this was during the pandemic and we all were doing what we could to cope. I ended up on TikTok a lot and it made me feel so old! I would try to do a TikTok and send it to a younger friend, and they'd be like, "That's not a TikTok." [Laughs] It was so embarrassing! I went from being of the zeitgeist to being this weird millennial saying things like, "Iconic" and "Go off, queen!"

I knew that I needed to try to write about young women in a way that isn't like a millennial who's making judgmental commentary about them, but instead looking at the allowing technology that's infiltrated their lives. Even when we were doing Girls, the concept of being an influencer was very new — like that couldn't even be a career goal. Hannah wanted to be a personal essay blogger as if that was still a booming industry. So I was trying to look at this story in the same way that our characters on Girls were being affected by the changing landscape of technology and the way that young people related to each other.

In this case, it was funny to feel closer to the mother character than to the daughters! I'm sure I failed in some of my linguistic pursuits around describing things. Even in the first scene where Sarah Jo's sister [played by Taylour Paige] is filming a TikTok, it had to be explained to me how to do that!

Kristine Froseth: That was mainly on Taylour's end, because I was in Sarah Jo's world, and she doesn't keep up with this stuff. Her sister is constantly getting annoyed at her for holding the camera wrong and things like that. Taylour taught us all a lot — she came in with all the knowledge about social media. The funny thing is that her own Instagram is so wholesome! She's so different from her character in every way possible. [Laughs]

NEW YORK, NY - APRIL 04:  Zosia Mamet, Jemima Kirke, producer Lena Dunham and Allison Williams attend the HBO with the Cinema Society host the New York premiere of HBO's
Zosia Mamet, Jemima Kirke, Dunham and Allison Williams at the New York City premiere of HBO's Girls in 2012. (Photo: Dimitrios Kambouris/WireImage)

Kristine, what do you feel you brought to Sarah Jo beyond what was already on the page in Lena's script?

Froseth: I mean, so much of it was already on the page. It was so alive, and so visual in terms of the dialogue. I think getting into costume was a huge moment: feeling the socks that she pulls up all the way, and the headbands and the way she eats her yogurt — which Lena had written in the script — all these mannerisms came to me. And then it was about wanting to connect to the script beat for beat, and how I can just make Sarah Jo feel genuine through my own connection with it all.

Did you also appreciate having an intimacy coordinator on set for the intense sex scenes you had to perform?

Froseth: Oh yeah, Chantal created the safest environment. We had tons of conversations beforehand about what exactly the scenes were going to be, and how they were going to be shot. Lena also gave me a long list of movies to watch ahead of time that focused around sexual exploration and it being empowering, and she had also written a thesis about what she wanted to explore. So I already knew going into it that it was going to be a safe space and empowering space. I've had experiences before where it would kind of be improvised on the day, but here there were no surprises. I also had a wonderful partner in Jon who was so loving and respectful.

Dunham: Aesthetically, I really wanted to have these very composed frames, almost as if you were just shooting a landscape or a conversation. Sometimes sex scenes are shot with this kind of roving eye where the camera moves around the bodies. But I wanted to make sure we were shooting them the way we would shoot any other scene and that it wouldn't feel like the camera was ogling Kristine specifically in any way. It was also really important to have a female cinematographer. Ashley is a genius, and her gender doesn't define her work, but I think it does bring a special sensitivity to the way she approaches engaging actors. She never treated any of the actors as props — she really like engaged with their humanity.

Lena, did you ever actually use your safe word during filming?

Dunham: I did not, but there were definitely close moments! It's interesting because the moments that I found to be the most intense for me as a director were the moments where Sarah Jo was sort of expressing her pain around her illness and her body. [In the film, it's revealed that Sarah Jo had a hysterectomy as a young girl; Dunham had the same procedure performed in 2018.] Those were the scenes that were for me the most emotional, because even though Kristine asked me so many smart questions about what it's like to be in chronic pain and to have bodily invasions and scars, she was able to express it in a way that felt familiar.

I don't even know if I've said this to her yet, but one of the gifts of getting to see people perform your work is that sometimes if they're performing something that's close to you, it gives you a certain kind of empathy for yourself that maybe you didn't have before. So I was able to feel some empathy for my younger self and some of her experiences through Kristine, and that was really special and very healing.

Kristine Froseth and Jon Bernthal in Sharp Stick, Lena Dunham's first feature film since the end of Girls (Photo: Courtesy Sundance Institute)
Froseth and Jon Bernthal performed Sharp Stick's intense sex scenes with the aid of an intimacy coordinator. (Photo: Utopia Distribution)

There's a larger debate going on right now over online porn, and some of the abuses within the industry. The movie takes a more nuanced view and suggests that it's helpful in terms of providing young people with a chance to learn about what they might like when it comes to sex. How do you hope Sharp Stick fits into that conversation?

Dunham: It was really important to me that the film not embrace any kind of judgment around online porn or any kind of anti-porn feminism. Obviously I am not a part of the porn industry, so I can't speak to the experiences of actors in adult entertainment. But I think that there's abuses in every industry and in every industry there are also people who are given the opportunity to freely express themselves.

Sometimes in my younger life, I took the second wave feminist way that I was educated to talking and thinking about what porn was doing societally. It's easy to say that it's separating us from our bodies, and it's giving men false expectations. But it's just as easy to say that it allows women and queer people and trans people a space to be safely engaging with sex that doesn't make them feel threatened in the ways they do when they're in their bodies. That was the stuff that was on my mind.

And with Vance, I wanted to have a character who changes the way that we think about what a male porn star can be. In his videos, he's trying to show women that there is a way that they can be dealt with that is more tender and engaged. I loved the idea that a porn star is ultimately kind of the emotional hero of the movie, and just comes in and shows Sarah Jo that it's OK for her to be herself. Scott was amazing: He was down for the ride and down to play with this character and down to surprise himself. I grew up up obsessed with Felicity and I was certainly Team Ben. I mean, I was Ben crazy! So the fact that Ben gets to be the male hero of my film — and also happens to be a porn star — is definitely a pinch-me moment. [Laughs]

Kristine, do you hope that young women who see Sharp Stick are inspired by how Sarah Jo approaches her own sexual autonomy in the film?

Froseth: I definitely hope that audiences take away that they can have agency over their own bodies, but also just on a more basic level of what sex means to them and what pleasure means to them. That they can have complete ownership over what that is for them, and it's never about the other partner, but it's their own self-exploration.

Scott Speedman plays an empathetic male porn star in Sharp Stick. (Photo: Courtesy Utopia Distribution)
Scott Speedman plays an empathetic male porn star in Sharp Stick. (Photo: Utopia Distribution)

Lena, you made the film last year before the recent Supreme Court decision that overturned Roe vs. Wade. That has put a renewed focus on the ways that the Court and the extreme conservative wing of the Republican party could seek to exert more control over women's bodies. Are you scared of where we are right now and what might be coming next?

Dunham: I'm terrified. I grew up with a mother who was part of the Downtown Women's Action Coalitio that went and held hands around abortion clinics to make sure that women could enter and exit safely without being harassed by protestors. I was also raised to say "anti-choice," and not "pro-life" for people who advocate those views. They are anti the livelihood of people with female reproductive organs. What makes me hopeful is the incredible uprising of dialogue happening that destigmatizes abortion, and making it clear that bodily autonomy is essential for all people. And when people who are assigned female at birth don't have bodily autonomy, we don't have a free society.

So those are my beliefs, and I think that it's my job and all of our jobs to do everything that we can to make abortion accessible and affordable. And to make sure that people who are in these states that are locking down are going to have support of people who are in states where there is more freedom to get where they need to go and make the choices to live free lives. My life exists because I've been allowed to have bodily autonomy. My ability to have and pay for a hysterectomy allowed me autonomy because I no longer lived in chronic pain. It's a topic about which I could speak ad nauseam, but I think that was probably one of the darkest days that I've experienced in my life in terms of my terror around what's happening in this country.

Writer/director Lena Dunham in a scene from her latest film, Sharp Stick. (Photo: Courtesy Utopia Distribution)
Writer-director Lena Dunham in a scene from her latest film, Sharp Stick. (Photo: Utopia Distribution)

You're a divisive public figure — do you expect to be criticized or attacked for any of the material in the movie?

Dunham: I think it's inevitable. Even out of Sundance, people had divisive reactions to the movie and that's a very specific industry population. I think it's funny because I don't make things in order to stir up controversial dialogue. I make things because they feel true to me. My dad teases me, because he's like: "How do you make a movie like Sharp Stick, put it out and then expect everyone to be 'La, la, la.'"

But to me, these topics aren't controversial. It's just what it means to be a person on your journey, working things out. The thing that I've come to learn after many years of this is that if people are having a response to the art, and they're having a conversation about the art and it brings up different things than that can never be a negative. I welcome any conversation that comes out of that, and I also don't necessarily have to engage in the conversation that comes out of that.

Sharp Stick premieres Friday, July 29 in theaters and Aug. 16 on most VOD services.

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