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Film Maker, Not A Deal Maker

April 02, 1985|DEBORAH CAULFIELD | Times Staff Writer

If critical praise for "Desperately Seeking Susan" spells fame and fortune for director Susan Seidelman, she's the last person who wants to think about it. Subjects such as fame, fortune and Hollywood tend to be avoided by the 32-year-old film maker.

For instance, she didn't want to think about the difference in budgets between her first (and critically acclaimed) film, "Smithereens," made independently with a cast of unknowns for $80,000, and her current $5-million Orion Pictures release, "Desperately Seeking Susan," Seidelman said in an interview.

The story of mistaken identities and juxtaposed life styles stars Rosanna Arquette ("Baby It's You") and rock video star Madonna, in her screen debut. Arquette is a bored New Jersey housewife who acts upon her fascination with Susan (Madonna), who is desperately being sought in personals ads. The movie represents a leap for the New York-based Seidelman, not only in budget but in Hollywood visibility.

"I couldn't think about the budget," the petite brunette confessed recently over breakfast at Le Mondrian hotel. "If I had to think--during filming--about what things were costing or that it was a 'studio movie,' I would have been intimidated. I just tried to think about what I had to do each day and get it done."

Seidelman talked with quiet candor in a voice that quavered occasionally. She seemed pleased with the generally good reviews the film had already received; yet they brought up another thing she wanted to avoid thinking about: "I get really nervous reading reviews or what people write about me, whether good or bad," she explained. "I don't want to think about--if I start getting too self-conscious about what other people think, I'll start to second-guess myself; I'll be afraid to trust my guts."

Seidelman's "guts" told her that there was potential in "Susan" when she first read the script by Leora Barish.

"Obviously, I was intrigued when I saw the title," she admitted with a smile. "But what caught my attention was the idea of a sort of love story between these two women--not in a sexual way; rather the idea of a woman obsessed with another woman she doesn't know. That really appealed to me."

Seidelman, in turn, said that she appealed to producers Sarah Pillsbury and Midge Sanford (see related story by Michael London) because "they felt that having a female director would put a bent on it that a man somehow would have changed." She shrugged, adding, "But I don't know. If a man had directed it, the movie might have been as good, or maybe better."

Finding the perfect project after "Smithereens" (the story of a punkish woman's adventures in the East Village) was important to the design student-turned-film maker for several reasons.

"I didn't want to get caught in the Hollywood trap that got other women directors in the mid-'70s," she explained, declining to get specific. "Some of their movies were quite interesting, but they didn't do as well critically or at the box office. As a result those people never got a chance to make another movie."

She shook her head. "I thought that was so unfair, given the fact that there are so many male directors who make mediocre or not-bad movies and then continue to make not-bad movies for the rest of their lives. Not every movie has to be a hit for a director to keep working, but it seemed like with women, the executives said, 'Well, we gave her a shot; she can't direct--the movie wasn't a huge success.' "

One pitfall she skirted was the Hollywood Development Deal, (i.e., doing a lot of talking and very little movie making). "I really love making movies more than deals. I want to avoid getting into a thing where you're just developing projects that never happen." She also declined studios' offers to direct teen comedies saying, "I think there are enough out there already." Seidelman's main reason for doing "Susan" was that "directing is really hard. If you're gonna get up at 5:30 a.m. every morning for two or three months and go to bed at 1 a.m., you better really believe in the thing, because it's not worth the aggravation."

One of her greatest moments actually came before shooting started, when she made the requisite application for membership in the Directors Guild of America (necessary for any studio-made film). "Three members had to recommend me for membership," she recalled. "The signatures on my application were from Marty Scorsese, Woody Allen and Mike Nichols, all directors I admire but had never met."

She said she didn't really know how the application found its way into their hands. "I thought to myself, 'Even if this movie is a bomb, I'll take this application form and sell it for a lot of money,' " she said jokingly.

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