The star of "Girl Friends," Melanie Mayron, propped her eyelids open with spoons. The morning was very young, and the coffee hadn't been served yet. But Mayron was willing to lose the extra sleep for the sake of "Girl Friends."

Mayron and director Claudia Weill, who accompanied her star to Washington, have sacrificed more than sleep for "Girl Friends." This low-budget, low-key movie about a young photographer and her friends and lovers in contemporary Manhattan opens here tomorrow and in about 30 new theaters each week for the next three weeks, but it wasn't nearly as easy as it looks. Attention is now being paid, perhaps because its makers are riding the wave of "women's films," but the wave took a long time to catch.

The movie was made sporadically over two years, growing from a 10-minute short into a feature picked up by Warner Bros. Weill went into such debt that she couldn't even see her daily footage - the lab wouldn't release it.

When the movie opened in newspaperless New York, Weill and Mayron and others paraded on the sidewalks in front of the theater, passing out fliers to publicize the film. When one man crumpled up the flier Mayron had just handed him, she badgered him into giving it back to her and then presuaded him to see the movie.

Weill denies that she was trying to make a female buddy-buddy movie or any kind of women's film. The title, she says, refers to the many meanings of the term "girl friends," to the girl friends of men as well as the girl friends of women. Examining one of the Warner Bros. press releases, Weill frowned when she noticed one of the male characters in the film described as "insensitive."

"We should all be so lucky" to have such boy friends, she says.

"Girl Friends" is a women's movie, says Weill, only to the extent that it took a traditional male genre - the picaresque story of a young man's initiation - and used a contemporary woman in the lead. Weill's idea of a female buddy-buddy film is "Julia," not "Girl Friends," and she maintains that Susan and Anne are roommates more than they are friends, at the beginning of "Girl Friends."

Weill brushes off any suggestion that "Girl Friends" has much to do with herself - although Weill comes from the same New York Jewish, photo-snapping background as Susan. Weill went from still photography into documentary filmmaking, directing "The Other Half of the Sky: A China Memoir" about the adventures of Shirley MacLaine and friends in China, "Joyce at 34" and 20 films for "Sesame Street."

Now, she says, she's "sick of documentaries, of hanging around waiting for people to say what you want them to say or manipulating them to say it, of attending conferences on whether it's possible to be objective as a documentary filmmaker." And with the release of "Girl Friends," Weill has been rewarded with a two-film deal with Warner Bros.

She does concede that some of the details of "Girl Friends are autobiographical, but not the characters and not the narrative. Besides, she says, "I could make a film about a grapefruit and it would be autobiographical on one level, on the level of how I see a grapefruit. When you make a film, you reveal yourself." It's not hard to see why Weill would be bored by discussions on whether objective documentaries cna be made.

Mayron is less hesitant about acknowledging resemblances between herself and Susan. And she has made extreme career decisions in order to make "Girl Friends" and movies like it, instead of being locked into a TV contract.

She could have been the costar of a "Happy Days" spinoff with Ralph Malph and Potsie, she says. She turned down leads in the pilots for series based on "Sheila Levine" and "What's Up, Doc?"

Mayron considered one TV project for which Fred Silverman had reportedly guaranteed a time slot. She would have played a waitress who becomes involved in "Pygmalion" fashion with a doctor. Then she was told that the doctor would be a proctologist and her character was supposed to be "good in bed." She bowed out.

Actresses are told to become TV stars so they can become movie stars, she says, but she had already been in movies - "Harry and Tonto," "Car Wash," "Hustling" and others - so she wasn't convinced. And now, with "Girl Friends," she's a bona fide movie lead, not just a supporting player. Yet she still gets most of the laughs.

Weill didn't realize "Girl Friends" was funny until the first audience saw it - at a film festival in Rotterdam. At first she thought they didn't understand English well enough, but then American audiences laughed in the same spots. Now she laughs too: "It's humor of observation, of people seeing themselves. It's not line humor. It's accurate."

Mayron was perhaps more aware of the movie's comedy as it was being made. "I try to slip shtik into reality," she says. Sometimes it's not hard.

There was the old woman who came out of the New York theater after seeing "Girl Friends" and asked Mayron, who was busy passing out the fliers, about her love life.

"Do you have anyone now?" asked the woman.

"I'm still looking," replied Mayron.

"Well," said the woman, "I have this grandson . . ."