"Desperately Seeking Susan."
In the film, Roberta, the young New Jersey housewife sitting bored under the hair dryer, pores longingly over those words in the personal ads in the newspaper and circles them in red ink.
Who is Susan? She becomes obsessed.
Desperately Seeking Susan.
In real life, Susan Seidelman, the young New York filmmaker, looking for a project, read those words in the title on a script.
Who was Susan? She became superstitious.
"Well, if I got a script called 'Desperately Seeking Susan,' " said Susan Seidelman, "I thought, 'How could I not do this movie?' "
Seidelman was in Washington recently when her new film was shown at Women Make Movies IV, a festival of films by women directors at the American Film Institute. "Desperately Seeking Susan" opens today at area theaters. "We had just finished the mixing two days before I went to a theater and saw the trailer," Seidelman said. "It was spooky."
She was nervous about the reviews, superstitious enough not to want to talk about whatever advance word she'd heard. Wrapped around her right wrist was a white silken cord brought back from Brazil by her boyfriend and knotted three times. According to the lore of Brazilian magic, Seidelman said, when the cord falls off, you will get three wishes.
"Desperately Seeking Susan" is Seidelman's second feature, her first studio film and her most lavishly budgeted. At $5 million (extremely modest by studio standards), it cost 62 times what it took her to independently make her first feature, the highly praised "Smithereens," a gritty story about a down-and-out 19-year-old woman drifting through New York, dreaming of being a punk rock star. That film, made in 1982 for $80,000, was the first independent American feature to be accepted into competition at the Cannes Film Festival. It catapulted Seidelman from the obscure ranks of independent filmmaking to the spotlight on up-and-coming young directors.
With "Smithereens" in hand, Seidelman basked in the glory -- and the sun -- of the international film festival circuit as she made her way from Cannes to Cairo to Cartagena. Back home in New York, scripts came her way -- Diane Keaton, she said, brought her one -- but Seidelman declined them and kept trying to find something that, as she said, she could put her touch on. A movie that turns out badly is tough for any director, but for a woman director, it's often a death knell in a business that historically has rarely welcomed women.
Seidelman spent a year reading "a lot of bad-to-mediocre scripts": "They were teen comedy-type stuff or things that I just didn't think were right for me."
Then "Desperately Seeking Susan" caught her eye.
"There was just something about it," Seidelman said. "It had a flair to it which I thought was interesting. I liked the idea of these two different kinds of women, one becoming obsessed with the other one's life and following her around and then becoming her . . . In New York, I take a lot of public transportation. I'll be sitting on the subway and I'll see somebody, usually it's another woman -- it's not sexual or anything -- it's just that you become obsessed with looking at this person and wondering, 'I wonder where she's going, why she's dressed like that, what it must be like being her.' "
In the film, Roberta (played by Rosanna Arquette), drawn by her obsession, goes to the meeting place that the desperate seeker of Susan posts in his ad and watches for Susan (played by Madonna), who turns out to be an outrageously dressed, smart-talking hustler. Roberta follows Susan and eventually, through a comedy of errors, ends up being mistaken for Susan and is whisked into the downtown world that Susan inhabits.
"I don't know whether that's a particularly female fantasy," said Seidelman. "I think men -- I don't know if they have it. There're probably some other fantasies that they have."
So is Susan Seidelman really Susan? Or Roberta?
"I identify with both," she said. "In some ways, I certainly know where Roberta's coming from, because I grew up in a suburb of Philadelphia and that could have been my life. I've never had a life like Susan's, but living not exactly sure what you're doing in life -- and ambling around -- is something that I could relate to."
Seidelman, 32, said that for a while, her parents -- her mother is a teacher and her father is a businessman -- worried about her fate. "They tend to be somewhat practical in their approach to life, and they were wondering what am I doing? 'Well-maybe-can-she-teach' kind of thing." A sister is a lawyer, a brother is a doctor in Washington. Seidelman went to Drexel University thinking she would become a graphics designer, but film attracted her. "I wanted to make the graphics move," she said brightly. She enrolled at New York University's Graduate School of Film and Television where she wrote and directed three short films. Seidelman started "Smithereens" three years out of film school.
On that film, she drove her own film to the lab, made coffee and let the cast sleep over at her apartment during the filming.
Two years ago, when she was in Washington, she bunked in a loft bed at a friend's place. This time, she was put up in a Watergate Hotel suite overlooking the river. She's even making money from "Smithereens" with its sales in home video form and to cable television. And her parents bestowed favorable reviews after they attended the New York screening of "Susan."
"It doesn't feel that different," she said. "I'm still friendly with the same people I was friendly with. I have the same boyfriend I had then. My clothes are no better."
She owns a SoHo loft in New York and revels in ferreting out odd places in the city. But she said her next feature film, unlike the last two, will not be set in New York's East Village. "There are some other worlds I'd like to look at," she said. "There's actually a book I read which I liked that was set in the '30s. There was another book I read that I really liked -- 'The Color Purple' -- but I found out that Steven Spielberg had the rights to it."
Seidelman credits Orion, the studio that produced "Desperately Seeking Susan," with allowing her a lot of free rein.
"There are more compromises involved when you're doing a studio movie," she said. "In 'Smithereens' . . . there were often things we just changed on the spur of the moment -- a line of dialogue or anything. Here, because they put money in a project -- it wasn't my money -- you can't just say, 'Well, I'm sorry, I woke up today and she's not going to be from New Jersey. She's going to be from California' . . . It doesn't work that way."
But basically it's her film, she said. She successfully fought to keep the location shooting in New York rather than move it to Canada, where it would have cost less to film: "It would have been another movie."
"The film is substantially different from the script," Seidelman said. "The original Susan was much more of an ethereal character . . . more wispy and airy. I just felt that she should be a little more street and a little funkier and maybe a little bit not quite so good. I think the way Susan has to get by, you've got to be a conniver and you can't glorify that . . . I think they were a little bit nervous in California that she was going to be hard and trampy. I like the fact that she's not a good girl."
Seidelman deliberately populated the movie with a mix of Hollywood and downtown New York -- professional actors and punk characters. Rosanna Arquette ("Baby, It's You") is the biggest professional name in the cast. There's also Aidan Quinn ("Reckless") and Laurie Metcalf, who was in the Steppenwolf Theatre Ensemble production of "Balm in Gilead."
Seidelman cast Madonna before she became famous as a singer. "She's got a spiciness to her that I think comes across on film," Seidelman said. " . . . Literally I think most of the people at Orion never heard of her. Or maybe somebody's kid had heard of her . . . I'd just seen her around in New York."
There are lots of cameos by people of note: Richard Edson of "Stranger Than Paradise" crops up once; a former Sid Vicious bodyguard, Rockets Redglare, plays a taxi driver. And more.
"I thought the funkier people that were around made the Hollywood people a little bit more casual . . . and the professional people made the downtown people more professional," Seidelman said. For a big club scene, filmed at New York's Danceteria, Seidelman hired as extras many of the people who frequent the club.
"My own personality is probably a little darker than the movie," Seidelman said. "The movie is sweeter than I think I am. My sensibility is more ironical . . . So probably if it had been totally my own movie, it would have been a little darker. The humor would have been more tongue in cheek."
Seidelman set up two different physical environments: Roberta's suburban world and Susan's steamy downtown world. "One was done in pastel colors and the other was done in fluorescent green.
"It was structured to be almost like a fairy tale -- like 'Alice in Wonderland,' " Seidelman said. "An innocent person who sees this curious creature and then follows that person into that other world."
Seidelman, like many young filmmakers, decries Hollywood's fixation with teen comedies ("I'm getting really nauseous of movies about groups of young guys coming of age"). But she said, "Without the movie industry there wouldn't have been an 'Amadeus.' That's a movie you can't do independently. I'm glad there was an industry to make that movie. Same with 'Killing Fields.' "
Seidelman would like to see the two forces influence each other. "I think that independent cinema can learn a lot from . . . the technical sophistication and maybe narrative sophistication of Hollywood cinema," Seidelman said. "And the studio cinema can learn a lot about taking some risks and casting and just ways of telling stories from independent filmmakers."