Despite the onslaught of rave reviews for Desperately Seeking Susan, Susan Seidelman is fretting about the fate of her first studio film. The 32-year-old director sits on a gray sofa in her stylish SoHo loft, whose clean lines and antic ’50s furniture reflect an obsession with detail. Even her rakish sweater dress, socks and high-heeled boots echo the pink-and-turquoise color scheme. She describes the mood of her opus as Girls Just Want to Have Fun, but that is not a subject Seidelman knows as well as she’d like.
A lot is at stake here, and Seidelman realizes it. After scoring a conspicuous succès d’estime with the gritty Smithereens, which she made for a rock-bottom $80,000 in 1982, the NYU film-school graduate waited two years before taking on another project. “A lot of women directors haven’t been given another chance after doing movies that failed, and I didn’t want people to think Smithereens was a fluke,” she says.
Seidelman doesn’t need to worry. Starring Rosanna (Baby, It’s You) Arquette as a bored housewife named Roberta, and Madonna as the amoral temptress of the title, Desperately Seeking Susan has made a strong showing at the box office, and Madonna‘s pubescent fans haven’t been its only champions. The New York Times declared it one of the year’s most idiosyncratic films. Some of Susan’s edge came from its wildly heterogeneous cast—and some from the creative tension that reportedly marked the 10-week shoot. Madonna, whose acting experience had been limited to videos, has been described as a “great white shark in goldfish clothing,” according to one associate. But Seidelman says she was no problem: “She was glad to have the part. I liked her sense of humor; she didn’t take herself or the character too seriously.” Arquette was another story. She and Seidelman went public with their differences. Rosanna told reporters that Susan was cowed by the pressure of her first high-profile project. “Rosanna’s a wonderful actress,” Seidelman observes, “but she’s very emotional. She and I banged heads a little, but I think that tension may even have helped the movie in the end.”
Unlike many of her contemporaries, Seidelman isn’t the sort who teethed on film noir. The oldest daughter of a hardware manufacturer and a teacher, she was raised in the suburbs of Philadelphia, where she spent her adolescence at shopping malls with girlfriends. Going to the movies meant catching Hayley Mills in The Parent Trap. Her interest in filmmaking didn’t take focus until she attended Pennsylvania’s Drexel University. Bored with design courses (“I couldn’t imagine spending the rest of my life behind a sewing machine”), she took a few film classes and put in time as a production assistant at a local television station.
None of it prepared her for NYU’s competitive filmmaking program, which she entered in 1974. “I was intimidated,” she remembers. “Everybody else had seen 50 billion German Expressionist movies, so I started going to five or six movies a week to catch up.” Success came with And You Act Like One, Too, her satirical short about a housewife’s first affair, which won a student Academy Award.
After getting her graduate film degree, she did free-lance editing, assisted on Jordache commercials and scraped together the money for her first feature, Smithereens. Seidelman made coffee for the crew when she wasn’t coaching actors or pleading with the owners of Manhattan’s Peppermint Lounge to let her stage scenes in the club. Bad luck and red tape didn’t daunt her. When actress Susan Berman (who plays a drifter much like Madonna‘s Susan) broke her leg rehearsing a fire-escape scene, Seidelman used the four-month layoff to work on the script and woo investors. And when the city refused to allow her to film in the subway, she concealed a camera in a carry-on bag and stole shots in the dead of the night. Says Berman, a close friend, “Susan is very endearing, but she’s one of the most determined people I know.”
After Smithereens was screened at Cannes, Seidelman traveled for a year—promoting it on the festival circuit and “eating a lot of lunch” with L.A. moguls. Discarding a flood of teen-movie scripts, she held out until Desperately Seeking Susan turned up. Overly superstitious (the strip of silk tied around her right wrist is a Brazilian magic charm), she reasoned, “How could I not do a movie with that title?”
“Part of me,” she adds, “is like Roberta. My roots are in the suburbs, and her life could have been mine. And part of me is like Susan. I’m not as free spirited as she is, but I find her existence appealing on a fantasy level—very romantic and unbourgeois.”
Indeed Seidelman’s life may have a certain upscale quality—she has stuck with the same photographer-boyfriend for years, and she cooks in a kitchen that is a suburbanite’s dream. But she is drawn to arty night spots like Area, and she has lived downtown ever since she moved to New York. Part of both worlds, she belongs to neither. “I’m an outsider,” she declares.
The afternoon light is dimming. Jumping up from the sofa, Seidelman fetches the Times Travel section from a long lacquered dining table. “Bahia, in Brazil,” she announces, brandishing a clipping. “I’m going away for a vacation, and I keep staring at my globe and wondering where.” When she comes back, like responsible Roberta, she plans to buy a new sofa and attend to her stack of new scripts. Like Susan, she’ll try not to take any of it too seriously.