Backstage with... Lena Dunham and her new medieval film that feels 'maddeningly close' to the real world

·4-min read

Lena Dunham became a household name thanks to her show Girls which she both created and starred in.

About four young women living in New York it tackled themes of feminism and was acclaimed for giving a fresh perspective on modern society.

Now her latest movie - Catherine Called Birdy - which Dunham wrote the screenplay for (it's adapted from a novel of the same name) and directed, looks again at issues faced by young women, but this time the setting is medieval England, and her protagonist is the teenage daughter of a greedy lord, trying to avoid being married off for money.

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But despite the film being set centuries ago, Dunham told Sky News' Backstage podcast its subject matter is pertinent today.

"We like to think that we've improved upon history and this is almost 1,000 years ago and yet so many of the themes of the film continue to be relevant today, with the recent sort of political changes in the US, it's something that feels maddeningly close," she said.

"And this idea of bodily autonomy being so important to Birdy, and something that she's fighting for, feels very, very familiar - and it's the struggle that every, not just woman, every person in the US I know is engaged in and thinking about.

"It's always frustrating when a historical piece feels so current because we like to think that we've made changes that make history seem brutal, when in this case it doesn't really."

Birdy is played by Bella Ramsey, who many will recognise from Game Of Thrones.

The actress says the film examines how strange a concept it is for women not to have a say in their own lives, adding: "Birdy's fighting for bodily autonomy, but doesn't realise that that's what she's doing.

"It's just a basic instinct is to have some form of control over your own life and your own body, and she's not doing this as a political movement, it's just a basic need."

"And so I think that's also what a lot of people are feeling is just like - it's so outrageous that it's not the case".

Dunham agreed: "You're so wise because the fact that you're a 19-year-old person who's able to say this isn't a political situation, this is just a basic human need is - I mean, you understand more than most male politicians five times your age."

While Dunham is perhaps better known for her acting or writing than directing, she says it's something she very much enjoys doing.

"My goal with directing is always to have a really clear sense of what I want to do visually and then be able to also, within that, give the actors a lot of freedom," she said.

"I sort of think about what I appreciate as an actor and while I like to learn from, whenever I'm on a set, I really like to learn from the way that director does their thing - something that I have always enjoyed is sort of being entrusted with freedom and confidence, and so I try to do that for the cast while also being pretty in control, hopefully, of what the aesthetic is and having a really clear sense of what I want the movie to look and feel like.

"And I really, I love directing and... writing is sort of the well it all springs from, and then directing is this really thrilling extension of being able to tell stories in that way, and I'm really glad it's become more central to my professional life."

Dunham has assembled an all-star cast for the movie - which is a comedy, despite the serious subject matter.

Along with Ramsey, who is in almost every scene, Andrew Scott, Billie Piper, Joe Alwyn and Russell Brand are among the actors who were tasked with improvising in order to find the humour in Birdy's situation.

Ramsey says Dunham created the right atmosphere on set to allow that to happen, explaining: "You have to feel safe and protected in order to allow yourself to be vulnerable with improvisations because it is something that's more vulnerable.

"And, and so Lena definitely created that environment of safety and validation and like you could try things and it was safe to do so and celebrated as well.

"It was fully, fully open arms, just like, 'go for it' and encouraged - [Dunham] really cultivated that atmosphere on set, not just for the cast, but for the crew as well."

Catherine Called Birdy is out in cinemas now and will be available on Prime Video from the 7th of October - hear our review on the latest episode of Backstage - the film and TV podcast from Sky News.