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June 15, 2017

Moving Behind the Camera

As her hit show Portlandia draws to a close, the multi-talented Carrie Brownstein embraces life in the director’s chair.

Brooke Carlock Miller
  • IFC
  • Tina Barney/IFC
  • IFC
  • IFC
  • IFC

There doesn’t seem to be much that Carrie Brownstein can’t do. 

She first rose to fame as the lead guitarist and singer of Sleater-Kinney, the widely acclaimed all-female indie punk band that epitomized the 90s “riot grrrl” movement.  From 1995-2005, the band released seven albums containing songs filled with an impassioned social consciousness. 

When the band took a hiatus, however, Brownstein switched gears and reestablished herself as a formidable writer, comedian, and actor. 

She is perhaps most well known for Portlandia, the idiosyncratic comedy she co-created with SNL alumni Fred Armisen.   Brownstein writes and stars on the show, which just ended its seventh season on IFC and will enter its final season in 2018 having earned a Peabody Award, Writer’s Guild award, four Creative Arts Emmy Awards, and 17 Primetime Emmy Award nominations during its run. 

While enjoying Portlandia’s success, Brownstein somehow also found time to write a memoir titled Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl, guest star on hit shows such as Amazon’s Transparent, and get back together with Sleater-Kinney for a reunion album and world tour. 

Perhaps it is only natural that Brownstein has decided to test her talents even further, creating new art from behind the camera in the director’s chair.  She has helmed episodes of Portlandia and the Hulu show Casual, as well as a short film for the fashion label Kenzo.  Most recently, Brownstein has signed on with MGM studios as the director of Fairy Godmother, her first feature-length film.

2018 will be the eighth and final season of Portlandia.  How did you know it was time to wrap things up, despite the show’s success?

It’s really tricky with something that we all still enjoy doing.  I think part of it is just feeling like we want to go out while we are still in that space of really appreciating what we’re doing and never approaching it from a place of obligation, or even worse, resentment.  We want to look at the show with gratitude and enthusiasm.

Fred Armisen and Jonathan Krisel (the co-creators) and myself are starting to get busier and our time more diffused, so we thought, “Well, this could be one of the last years when we can really hyper-focus on Portlandia during this time.”  We don’t feel that this is necessarily the “end-end,” but I think there will be a cessation of the show.

People in the Portlandia fandom have been clamoring for a movie version.   Has there been any talk of that?

We occasionally bat the idea back and forth, but I don’t like art that feels like folly - that just feels like a lark.  It’s okay to be motivated by an affection for something, but I always like to create from a place of need and urgency, and unless we really feel the strong desire to make a long-form story of Portlandia characters, I think we will probably avoid it.

Do you find it harder, with the current political climate, to poke fun at “hipster” culture?  It seems like there’s more and more of a divide with respect to caring about the environment, eating organic food, and championing women’s rights, which are all things that you both embrace and satirize on Portlandia

From our perspective, it’s not necessarily that we’re satirizing “hipster” culture as much as examining people’s relationship to place and where they live and how their good intentions run up against hypocrisy or just the difficulties of actually executing well meaningfulness.  In the current climate, there is almost a sense of protectiveness about these characters. 

We’re trying to infuse, without making it too married to the current time, a sense of collective anxiety or concern into the stories.  It think that feels important and would sort of ring false if we weren’t trying to merge that with what we’re doing.

After creating, writing, and acting in previous seasons, you directed two episodes of Portlandia in season seven.  Was it awkward directing people you had been working with for so long?

It was actually such a pleasure to step outside of the world and see it from a different perspective - especially with someone like Fred, who I think is such a nimble, versatile performer.  In some of the scenes that I was directing, when I wasn’t in the scene with him, it was really amazing to get to watch him as an actor and see his range and just the depth of his humor and how his brain works.  So yes, I truly enjoyed it. 

Your schedule must have been brutal, having to write, act, and direct.

I did prefer to direct things that I was not in; it was just an easier task.  I couldn’t stay away from acting the whole time, of course.  It wouldn’t really serve the show to write me out of sketches completely, but I tried to give myself a couple of opportunities to just be behind the camera. 

It is definitely an all-encompassing experience I think to direct and act, but I relished it.  As far as writing, when you write a script and hand it over to a director, you are never really sure how they’re going to elevate it or interpret it visually.  Just to see it from the beginning - write the script, and then act in it, and then direct it - you really have so much control over the outcome, and I enjoyed that.

Did you find that you have a certain style of directing?

I think I have a holistic approach.  I think a lot about story and character and not letting the directing get in the way of those things, but to amplify them. I feel like I’m always fighting against how fast-paced comedy is and how so much of television is, at this point, trying to serve the needs of our short attention spans. 

I’m interested in letting moments linger, and in the natural discomfort that’s created via duration and via stillness.  I like to let things sit and settle, so that when things quicken up or get faster it feels earned.  Basically I really just try to honor the tone of the show but hopefully find ways to be innovative within that world as well.

How was directing the show Casual different than directing Portlandia?

Well, certainly the main difference was that I didn’t write on that show and I wasn’t in it, either, so it allowed an objectivity to sit with the script and really break it down and figure out how I wanted it to look, feel, and breathe without being concerned about where I, as a person, stood in that scene. 

I really enjoyed that freedom and I also liked the collaboration with the writers on the show, knowing that I was there to fine tune and interpret their work in a way that both served and elevated the story.

You also recently directed a short film called The Realest Real for fashion line Kenzo.  How was that experience?

Carol Lim and Humberto Leon, the creative directors for Kenzo, contacted me to direct their campaign for the Fall of 2016.  I liked their ethos and their clothes and just their whole creative approach, which is very much in line with mine.  It’s sort of populist, but at the same time elevated and aspirational. 

They gave me a lot of creative freedom, so I wrote this short film dealing with some of the more absurd elements of the ways that we communicate and project and perform our online selves.   I was able to cast some really amazing actors, including Mahershala Ali and Natasha Lyonne, so it was a great experience. 

It was just announced that you will make your feature film directorial debut with MGM’s Fairy Godmother.  Are there any details you can share at this point?

Not really, but I’m feeling fortunate, and I also have a sense of eagerness to move forward and cast the project and get started.  It will be a huge undertaking and I’m very much up for the challenge.  I think it’s a really wonderful script-- sharp, and feminist, and funny, and unexpected.  I’m mostly just filled with total enthusiasm for it and I can’t wait to get it made!

So… being a rock star, writer, actor, creator, and now director… do you have a favorite side of yourself?

I would say that I enjoy each of those things differently.  It’s interesting because I think there’s a way of gleaning pleasure from things in a retroactive way, in terms of writing.  I don’t necessarily enjoy the process of writing, but I love having written, which is basically a paraphrase of Dorothy Parker, but it’s true!  When you’re done, if you are happy with it, there’s a sense of contentment. 

But with performing music live and directing - those are two things that I really enjoy in the moment.  I was very surprised by that with directing - that it was the only thing I had ever done that emulated that sense of exhilaration that I felt playing music live. 

It’s just kind of orchestrating a room and hoping that all of these different elements cohere in a way that is transcendent, so yeah… right now I would say that directing is probably my favorite, with performing live as a close second.

Is there anything that you haven’t accomplished that’s still on your list of things to do?

Of course!  I wouldn’t necessarily say they are in the realm of work or career, but yes… there are always things to work on to better myself and hopefully make life more interesting.  Maybe I’ll learn to cook, or something.

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