By Lena Dunham’s own account, her newest film, Catherine Called Birdy, might have had a very different tone if she’d made it a few years ago. Based on Karen Cushman’s 1994 novel, the medieval times-set movie follows the eponymous teenager (played by breakout Game of Thrones star Bella Ramsey) as she faces the prospect of being forced into marriage by her well-meaning, but cash-strapped mom and dad (Doctor Who‘s Billie Piper and Fleabag‘s Andrew Scott respectively). Meanwhile, behind the scenes, Dunham was living out her own marriage story, embarking on a whirlwind romance with musician, Luis Felber, that culminated with them walking down the aisle in September 2021 — nearly a year before the movie’s premiere at the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival.
“It’s funny, I got engaged literally two weeks after we wrapped the movie,” the writer/director tells Yahoo Entertainment now. “And I’d spent a few years making this movie about the oppressive nature of marriage!” But Dunham credits her fast-moving relationship with Felber — who serves as Catherine Called Birdy‘s executive music producer — with lightening that formerly “oppressive” mood.
“That very romantic monologue that Andrew Scott delivers to his wife as she’s in childbirth,” she explains. “That very much came after I’d met my husband, and I was like, ‘Maybe being married wouldn’t all be suffering and pain! Maybe there’d be some really nice stuff too.'”
Dunham has been exploring love, sex and the challenges of committed relationships in all of her work, from HBO’s Girls to her recent Sundance hit, Sharp Stick. At the same time, her own real-life romances have also been very much in the public eye, with the press reporting on her various relationships and break-ups. Now that she’s married, she doesn’t plan to stop drawing on her own lived experiences for her art.
“The stuff that I write now is still asking questions about marriage and monogamy in a different way … It’s asking questions about whether these conventions are still useful, what’s meaningful about them. In the case of this film, it was really interesting to go back in time and push some of the same questions I’ve always been asking in my work in a medieval setting and with an eye more towards speaking towards the younger audience. It made me develop my own ideas as an artist and as a person in totally new ways.”
As a member of the movie’s target audience — not to mention its star — Ramsey, who recently celebrated her 19th birthday, naturally has a lot of thoughts about what marriage means to her generation. “I was talking with Andrew recently, and he was describing how marriage back then was a business arrangement… it’s only recently become a romantic thing. It’s a bit of paper that like legalizes two people being together.”
“But then I was speaking to someone who got married just a few weeks ago,” Ramsey continued. “She said that actually she feels this sense of being settled and of being secure … that she didn’t expect to feel. I don’t have particularly strong feelings [about marriage] at the moment. I just find it fascinating.”
While the institution of marriage has changed a lot since Birdy’s 13th century days, there are still parts of the world — including in the US — where arranged unions are still commonplace. More seriously, there are also cases where young women have been pushed to marry as part of forced marriages. Dunham says that she does not have specific objections to arranged marriages provided that it is consensual for both parties, and is definitely opposed to marriage being forced upon women.
“Some people culturally want to enter into an arranged marriage, and they think it’s the most useful way to meet someone,” she says. “But the idea of forced anything is a problem, and I think that’s what the movie is saying — it’s a very live and let live movie. Do it any way you want to as long as it comes with the dose of freedom.”
Like A Knight’s Tale and Marie Antoinette before that Catherine Called Birdy takes a decidedly modern approach to depicting the past, incorporating contemporary slang and songs into its period setting. Ramsey says that influenced her performance as well. “In the initial audition tape, there was a little paragraph about how if Birdy existed in 2021, she’d have a weird, niche meme page on social media with like five followers,” the actress says, laughing. “She’s just a very curious person and I think she’d be amazed by modern technology.”
As for Birdy’s future, both Ramsey and Dunham think that she may never settle down. “We’ve wondered if maybe Birdy is able to shrug off marriage and develop a life,” the director says. “Could Birdy be the first older eccentric woman in her area who figures out having her own prosperous farm and does exactly whatever she wants? Or maybe Birdy does fall in love with someone and does decide that marriage on her own terms is something she’s willing to do.”
“It’s a choice and she’s made that decision for herself,” Ramsey adds of her alter ego. “I think all she wants is to have some choice and freedom and control over her life, because she feels like she has zero.” Either way, she offers up her favorite piece of dialogue from the film as evidence of why Birdy is such a special character. “I loved saying the line, ‘I am not a lady sir, and cannot mimic one.’ I think that sort of encapsulates her whole feelings throughout the film, and I felt those words very deeply.”
— Video produced by Kat Vasquez and edited by Schuyler Stone
Catherine Called Birdy is currently playing in theaters and premieres Oct. 7 on Prime Video