During an intimate gathering in New York City, Oscar®-nominated director Susan Seidelman ’73, Hon. ’91, spoke with alumni and guests about her journey in the film industry over the course of three decades.
Initially enrolled in the fashion design program at Drexel, Susan suddenly found herself on a different path when an aversion to sewing caused her to re-think her plans.
“I was 19 years old and the thought of sitting at a sewing machine just didn't work for me,” she said. “At that time, not knowing what to do but knowing that I loved movies, I started taking film appreciation classes.”
Susan went on to explain that one of her film professors turned her life in another direction by introducing her class to foreign films – films that Susan said she never had the opportunity to see growing up going to the local mall cinema.
“It opened my eyes up to this other world and this other way of making and thinking about movies.”
Though Susan says she never imagined that she would someday be a film director, she decided on a whim to apply to film schools after graduating from Drexel. She was accepted into NYU's fine arts program, one of the few schools that actually had a hands-on production department. According to Susan, once she started to make films everything in her life clicked.
Upon graduation, Susan and some of her classmates decided to pool their resources, forfeit any hopes of making a profit, and make a feature film which they titled Smithereens. Susan joked that they each gave themselves a salary – on paper.
“We had no expectations about what would happen with the film but it actually got picked up for distribution by New Line Cinema and, for a low budget feature film, it ended up doing well at the box office.”
As a result of her first film's success, Susan said that she was able to get an agent who began sending her scripts.
“I knew that because my first movie had gotten some critical acclaim, I had to be smart about the next project that I did. It was the 1980s and there weren't many working female directors at that time. The few that I had heard about that made an interesting independent film were never heard from again if their second film flopped. I was really aware that there was a difference between how women and men were treated in the industry. So I waited two years until I got the script for Desperately Seeking Susan.”
“When I look at scripts, I want to find something that I think I can do better than anyone else. And when I got Desperately Seeking Susan, I felt I could give the story a unique point of view. That's why I chose it.”
There was much interest from the group in Susan's relationship with one the films leading ladies, Madonna. They asked, how did Madonna get the part? Did you choose her wardrobe? Do you and Madonna keep in touch?
Susan hasn't seen Madonna in about 15 years, but she vividly recalled for everyone what it was like to work with her on the set of Desperately Seeking Susan.
“We auditioned a lot of people for the role of Susan – Melanie Griffith, Jamie Lee Curtis, Ellen Barkin. Some of them were very good but there was just something about Madonna.”
She continued, “It was the beginning of her music career so I knew a little bit about her and she actually lived down the street from me in New York. When I suggested her, the studio didn't know who she was so we had to do a screen test. I remember filming the screen test with Madonna and the cinematographer in Union Square Park and people passing by began to look at us and you would hear them say, ‘Wow, that's Cindy Lauper!’ It just goes to show how much times have changed.”
Susan said that though she can't take credit for Madonna's style, she likes to think that she was smart enough to recognize that Madonna's fashion sense was really cool at that time. She talked with the costume designer on the set of Desperately Seeking Susan and suggested that they go to Madonna's home and look in her closet for inspiration. Consequently, a lot of what Madonna wore in the film actually came right out of her closet.
The conversation shifted gears, and guests began asking questions about Susan's directing style and her preferences regarding actors and actresses.
“On one hand, sometimes I'll cast based more on personality,” she said. “In casting Madonna for Desperately Seeking Susan, I wasn't expecting her to be a technical actress; I just liked something about her persona and my goal as a director was to capture that thing that made her so interesting.”
“On the other hand, I've had the opportunity to work with some really amazing technical actors, like Meryl Streep. With them it's not about capturing persona, it's more about just guiding them through the scenes because I know that there is no way I could even try to tell Meryl Streep how to act,” she laughed.
All this talk about her experiences and adventures in directing led someone to wonder if Susan had any regrets that she could share.
“You never know if something is going to be successful or not. I was offered the movie Big and I turned it down,” she winced, but quickly shrugged it off saying, “Who knows, maybe if I had directed it, it wouldn't have been such a hit.”
Some 2009 Drexel graduates who had just moved to New York City with big dreams of success in the film and media industry asked Susan if she had any words of wisdom for them.
She simply responded by telling them to “get your foot in the door and be around filmmaking.”
“Be good at whatever it is that you do. Sets are crazy and if you are the ones who people can count on to be competent, level-headed and dependable, you will rise up the ranks.”
Throughout the years, Susan has seen much change in the film industry which she likened to a fast-moving roller coaster. She spoke a little bit about the way technology has changed the industry over the years.
“The internet has absolutely changed the industry as far as advertising and distribution goes,” she said. “It costs a lot of money to pay for newspaper and television ads, and the interesting thing about viral marketing and the internet is that people can now target audiences and spread the word about films inexpensively or even free online.”
She explained that technology has changed the industry a lot over the years in terms of the types of cameras and equipment used, however having a great movie all boils down to having a great story which, she says, ‘has nothing to do with money or technology.’
And when moviegoers find that great movie, Susan encourages them to get out and support it.
“If you go out to the theaters and support a movie that you love and get your friends to do the same, Hollywood will recognize that, and will want to make more of that kind of movie,” she said.
Susan is currently living in New York City and working on a stage musical version of her 2006 film, Boynton Beach Club.