"I have a list right here in my computer of the movies that I had my cast and crew watch in order to think about this one," Lena Dunham relays as she clicks into her desktop. "I'm just opening up my little document — it's in my 'Completed Projects' folder, which is thrilling."
That project is Catherine Called Birdy, which Dunham directed and adapted from the 1994 children's novel of the same name by Karen Cushman. The filmmaker fell in love with the book when she was 10 years old, and recalls, "I wanted to make this movie from the time that I knew that there were people who make movies. In a way, I feel like I've been in prep on this movie for almost 30 years."
Catherine Called Birdy is a change of pace for Dunham, who's better known for exploring modern womanhood on her Emmy-winning series, Girls, and in indie films Tiny Furniture (2010) and Sharp Stick (2022), not to mention. This is a 13th century coming-of-age story about Lady Catherine (known as Birdy, played by Bella Ramsey), a spirited 14-year-old who bucks the Medieval conventions of her time. In prepping her longtime passion project, Dunham created a movie guide to lay our her vision. "I'm the psychopath who sends everybody a syllabus," she says.
Dunham's syllabus included films like Jacques Demy's Donkey Skin ("amazing work by Catherine Deneuve, hiding inside of a donkey") and Tamara Jenkins' Slums of Beverly Hills ("I mean, that vibrator scene!"), plus Catherine Breillat's Fat Girl, Andrea Arnold's Fish Tank and more. Below, she breaks down the five movies that most influenced her approach to Catherine Called Birdy.
Directed and written by: Terrence Malick
One of the first movies that was a real influence was Days of Heaven. I felt like this was a great cinematography reference. It's lyrical, kind of golden. It's also the most incredible example of a young woman's voiceover. The voiceover that Linda Manz does in it achieves everything that I could ever hope the Birdy voiceover would achieve and more, and so that's a huge reason I wanted people to watch it.
Directed and written by: Amy Heckerling
It's a little self-explanatory, but it was the teen movie that I watched over and over and over. I wore knee socks and little backpacks to school. I love the way that the world just completely drew me in, obsessed me, encompassed me. I also feel like she's an amazing example of a teenage heroine who has the best intentions but doesn't always enact them, and that's very close to Birdy's fatal flaw. That's also part of what makes her so adorable.
Where to Watch: The Criterion Channel
Directed by: Jaromil Jires | Written by: Ester Krumbachová and Jaromil Jires
It's this mystical coming-of-age story that has an Alice in Wonderland quality. It has a theatrical tone, it has these wild fantasy sequences, and the costumes! It's something that is so completely itself. I discovered it just by watching bits of Czech films on YouTube, and one of our producers, Liz Watson, was like, "I've seen that whole movie. It's crazy and amazing." We watched it together over and over and over again. You can find it on the Criterion Channel, but it's just a wild movie that takes you on a wild ride.
Directed and written by: Stanley Kubrick
It's Kubrick's wild period comedy, lit entirely with natural candlelight. Those night shots in the dining rooms were just such an influence on the way that this looks.
Directed by: Tom Tykwer | Written by: Andrew Birkin, Bernd Eichinger and Tom Tykwer
I love the lushness and the fact that it looks like a period painting. I love Ben Whishaw's completely wild character work that he does in this. It's an incredibly unique film. I think what all these films have in common is that they completely buy into their own reality, they don't question it, and they go hard. I like sh*t that goes hard.