A little over 30 years ago, on the crumbling pavements of the East Village in New York City, four women teamed up to shoot a script by a rookie screenwriter.
Their movie, Desperately Seeking Susan, was both a New Wave Feminine Mystique and an urban fantasia featuring New York as a graffiti-tagged Emerald City. In it, a suburban homemaker named Roberta (Rosanna Arquette) becomes obsessed with — and mistaken for — a Lower Manhattan con artist named Susan (Madonna). The two women casually try on each other’s identities — not to mention each other’s clothes.
The film’s making coincided with the making of Madonna, whose song “Into the Groove” is used in the movie. During production, the singer went from being mistaken for Cyndi Lauper to requiring security when her second album, Like a Virgin, dropped.
Mostly shot under the radar, Susan was a low-budget, low-expectations affair that captured the downtown Zeitgeist. It grossed more than five times its $5 million budget and proved that women could make a movie that everyone loved. In 1984, I was on the set and interviewed the producers, the director, and stars Arquette and Madonna. Last week, in anticipation of the anniversary of the film’s release on March 29, 2015, I again spoke with everyone but Madonna (who’s busy with her new tour) about the movie and their memories of two young women out to take a much grittier Manhattan.
Susan’s beginnings: “Only women and gay men liked it.”
Screenwriter Leora Barish was influenced by Jacques Rivette’s 1974 film, Celine and Julie Go Boating, itself inspired by Alice in Wonderland. In Barish’s original 1979 script, Susan was a free-spirited world traveler. In 1981, Sarah Pillsbury, a former UCLA film-school student who won a 1980 Oscar for the live-action short Board and Care, and Midge Sanford, a schoolteacher and script reader, formed a production company. Desperately Seeking Susan was their first project.
Leora Barish (screenwriter): I liked the way [the Rivette fim] plays with reality in an offhanded, barely perceptible way. [In Susan] the two women from different realms are curious about each other. … Each is drawn to look beyond her own world and experience the world of the other.
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Midge Sanford (producer): This screenplay totally stood out. There was a bidding war, but once we got the option, there was little studio interest. Our list of most-wanted directors included Hal Ashby, Jonathan Demme, Walter Hill, and Louis Malle.
Sarah Pillsbury (producer): When we circulated the script, only women and gay men liked it. Barbara Boyle at Orion loved it. But at the time, there was no female executive who could greenlight a movie. The project went into turnaround, and we set it up at Warner Bros.
Sanford: After two years at Warners, another turnaround. We went back to Barbara Boyle at Orion. She told us that [Orion executive] Mike Medavoy’s stepdaughter told him he should make it. That news kept us going for months.
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