'Girls'' Lena Dunham interned at Soft Skull, not at Melville House
In screenwriting, they call it the "inciting incident." That's the thing that happens that gets the plot rolling, and in the sensational HBO series "Girls," that incident is Hannah (actress and show creator Lena Dunham) getting fired from her internship at an independent publisher. "She was making the story work in a fictional context," said Richard Nash, who was the independent publisher Dunham interned for -- without getting fired. "It was autobiographical in the vaguest way."
Bookish geeks who saw the show couldn't help but notice that the books lining the wall beside publisher Alistair (Chris Eigman) came from Melville House. That wasn't just a smart move by an art director -- the Brooklyn-based independent publisher has developed a unified, bold cover style for its books -- it was the filming location. Publishers Weekly reports Tuesday that "Girls" filmed in the office space and rented books to put on the background shelves.
But while Publishers Weekly speculates that the use might be some commentary on Melville House and its publisher Dennis Johnson, that's unlikely, considering she interned at independent publisher Soft Skull in 2006, then run by Richard Nash. Nash brought her on after one of his authors, Lynn Tillman, told him the daughter of a friend of hers was looking for an internship.
"Oberlin kids were always smart and industrious," said Nash. "My bestselling authors were from Oberlin: David Rees, Matt Sharp... you basically said yes to Oberlin students when they wanted to intern."
Dunham's character, Hannah, has spent a year after college interning and fails to make it turn into a job; Nash explains that's more fiction than fact. "She was great as expected," he says. "The stuff she was doing on the side was all film." Plus, she was just there for the summer, after which she went back to school.
Maybe she was taking notes. "It got the atmosphere, the broad strokes of things perfectly right," Nash says. And as for the comment that the previous intern got hired because she knew Photoshop? "That struck me as the sort of thing any independent publisher would have said," said Nash. "Around 2006-2007, if an intern knew their way around Quark and Photoshop they were gold dust."
"You always want to feel like your interns are going to go on and do great things," Nash said. "I don't think Soft Skull can take the slightest credit for Lena's success, but it's always fun when interns become writers and publishers and things like that" -- things that now include creating a popular television show.
There's a practical reason "Girls" didn't shoot in Soft Skull's offices: The press was acquired in 2007 and is now run out of Counterpoint in California. Melville House is an independent publisher still operating in "Girls" stamping grounds, Brooklyn.
-- Carolyn Kellogg
Photo: Lena Dunham's character, Hannah, has dinner with her parents after losing her publishing internship. Credit: Jojo Wilden / HBO