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June 17, 2024

Director Susan Seidelman charts her life in new memoir, from dance parties with Jerry Blavat to movies with Madonna

The Philly native filmmaker behind 'Desperately Seeking Susan' and 'Smithereens' discusses her book, which is out Tuesday.

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Susan Seidelman book Provided images/St. Martin’s Publishing Group

"Desperately Seeking Something," the memoir from director Susan Seidelman, will be released Tuesday.

Before she directed beloved stories about New York, filmmaker Susan Seidelman was a spunky Philadelphia kid.

In her new memoir "Desperately Seeking Something," the director recalls her early life in Oxford Circle and the suburbs of Abington, where she was constantly getting in trouble for teen mischief. Sometimes she cut class early to head to Wagner's Ballroom, the old dance hall in Ogontz where Jerry Blavat spun records. Another time she snuck out of her family's Margate motel room to catch a beachside party — and got hauled into the back of a paddy wagon. Pinching a tube of lipstick from Woolworth's was minor by comparison.

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"My mother was not always approving of some of the things I did," Seidelman admitted.

That rebellious streak carried over to her work, as Seidelman enrolled in New York University film school and soon became known for movies and television about New York con artists and free spirits. First there was Wren, the wannabe punk rocker of "Smithereens" who roams New York with a bag of clothes and her TV set. ("Smithereens" became the first American indie film to compete for the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival in 1982.) Then there was Susan Thomas, Madonna's lace-gloved schemer in the mistaken-identity comedy "Desperately Seeking Susan," released at the height of the singer's fame. And there was also Carrie Bradshaw, the "Sex and the City" writer and occasional disaster. Seidelman directed some of the earliest episodes of the HBO hit, including the pilot that started it all.

Seidelman covers her experiences on all these sets and others in "Desperately Seeking Something," which hits bookshelves Tuesday. Ahead of its release, the director spoke to PhillyVoice about the two cities that shaped her life, working with Madonna and the complicated dynamics of making woman-centric films in the 1980s.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

PHILLYVOICE: You wrote in one of your first chapters that even though you lived in New York for 43 years, a part of you will always be a Philly girl. What do you think makes someone a Philly girl?

SUSAN SEIDELMAN: You know, people think New Yorkers are tough. I think Philly girls are tough — in a good way. Down to earth tough. I think where you grew up, especially your early childhood, does form you. I think I still have a bit of a Philadelphia accent. I love to dance. Certainly when I grew up in Philadelphia in the '60s, that was a huge part of Philadelphia culture. ... I love Philly food. I think Philly food in some ways is even better than New York food.

PV: Can you tell me about your memories of Jerry Blavat? You say you went to dances he hosted at Wagner's.

SEIDELMAN: Absolutely. That was the highlight of my life as a teenager. My mother was not always approving of some of the things I did, but I would go with my girlfriends on a Sunday. You know, sneak out and go take a bus down. Jerry Blavat had the coolest dance party at the time. And I kind of stayed in touch with him because he had a bit part in my film "Cookie" playing a DJ. He was such a Philadelphia icon, especially for anyone who liked music.

PV: You write that the first thing that stood out about Madonna was her naughty sense of humor. How did that come out?

SEIDELMAN: Just her whole attitude was so cheeky. When I first met her and she came in to audition for the role, she arrived by taxi and she didn't have money to pay the taxi driver. To hop in a cab and know you don't have the money to pay was a pretty gutsy thing to do. And she came up to the casting office to borrow money from one of the casting assistants or the receptionist behind the counter. Certainly getting a cab driver, especially back then, to wait by the curb for you to come back out of the building to pay means you had to have a certain amount of charming cheekiness, should I say? I don't know if whoever lent her money, if they were paid back. And I don't know whether the cab driver was ever paid. But it was certainly an impressive way to make an entrance.

PV: For "Desperately Seeking Susan," you said it was hard to find an actor willing to play second fiddle to two leading ladies. Was that a problem you had on your other films?

SEIDELMANI think back then, in the '80s, there was a flurry of buddy-buddy movies. You know, like cop movies. But putting together a female buddy movie and then trying to cast the leading man was a bit challenging. At first we went out to a bunch of male stars at that time. And if they were a recognized young male star, they didn't wanna do it because they, you know, read the script. And it really was about the the two women. So we had to find a male star that wasn't quite yet an established star, but was up and coming. We heard about Aidan Quinn because he had just made a biker movie ("Reckless"). It wasn't a hit, so he suddenly was eligible to star in this female buddy movie.

PV: You mentioned crying on set with your star and producers. One of them later said, "There should be more crying on movie sets. It's the female version of yelling." Do you agree with that?

SEIDELMAN: I now know a lot more female directors. But back then, I knew very few, because there were very few. When I talk to other female directors, I mean, there's a lot of cajoling that goes on. Maybe some crying. ... I mean, I've seen enough YouTube videos of explosions behind the scenes, explosions on sets directed by men. So maybe that is their way of crying, their macho way of crying is to kinda scream and throw things. But that didn't quite fit my style or my directorial style. If you feel like crying, I think there should be, you know, however you wanna express yourself. That really did happen on "Desperately Seeking Susan" and thank goodness there were no cellphones back then, or else I'd still be seeing it on YouTube these days.

PV: When you were coming up, there was such a small pool of female directors, especially with any studio support. Did you get much of a chance to interact with your peers or did you feel kind of siloed off from each other?

SEIDELMANI did. I got to know a bunch of women film directors after I made "Smithereens," but they were indie film directors. Women like Bette Gordon or Lizzie Borden. I met Amy Heckerling once or twice over the years, but she left NYU and moved to the West Coast. And I really identified as a New York film director, you know? I knew of Joan Micklin Silver, but she was a slightly different generation than I was, so I wasn't really socially engaged with her. I got to know Penny Marshall, but that was already a few years later. And of course I worked with Nora Ephron but before she was a director, when she was still a writer. So, there was a period where, besides these New York very indie filmmakers, there wasn't anyone who was making a studio movie that I was friendly with, or even knew in a personal way, until the later part of the '80s.

PV: You write about your disappointment with the direction "Sex and the City" took in its later seasons and movies. Did you sense that shift coming?

SEIDELMAN: I wouldn't use the word disappointed. I would say what I liked about the early "Sex and the City" that I worked on was that it captured the city, but it still had the grittiness of the city. It was still kind of funky, you know? In the pilot, Carrie's apartment is funky. It's really a studio apartment above a coffee shop with a neon light flashing out front. It changed as the series went on, but you can't argue with success. And it was a series about female friendship, and I'm all for that. So that's the part of the series that I think passed the test of time in a good way. On the other hand, I think the characters as the series went on and certainly reflected in the two feature films that followed. ... I mean, everyone was so f***ing rich. It gets a little hard to relate. There's a fantasy element to that that I'm sure a lot of viewers got off on. But I like the gritty version because that's the New York that I like. Kind of aspirational, kind of magical, but also still kind of funky.

PV: Are there any dream projects that you would've made with a blank check at any point in your career?

SEIDELMAN: There was a script that I got to develop with producer Scott Rudin. It was about girl groups. I mean, I loved music, I loved dancing. That was kind of my outlet. And there was a script I had worked on with a writer that was about girl groups of the '60s that I would've loved to have made. It was kind of inspired by the Shangri-Las. I thought that was interesting. That whole girl group phenomenon and how they kind of disappeared, how there was a certain amount of being taken advantage of by their male producers. So that's a film I never made I would've liked to have made. And there was a French movie that didn't come together. It was about a woman who goes back to France, who had been in France in the '60s. Now, it's like the '80s, and she's diagnosed with cancer, and she goes back to Paris to try to track down her old French boyfriend, who was like her first serious love, but she was afraid to stay in France. It's about the path not taken. The what ifs in our lives, what if we had gone down that path and not another path? What if we had taken the road less traveled? How would our life had been different? I'm a sucker for all those what if kinds of movies.

PV: Is that because there are what ifs in your life you think about a lot?

SEIDELMAN: I've had what ifs. And at this stage, I'm kind of happy with the paths I've taken. But there's so many other paths I could have taken. That's sort of one of the things I loved about making "Desperately Seeking Susan," is that I did relate to the Madonna kind of street, New York character. But on the other hand, I also related to the Rosanna Arquette suburban housewife character. That could have been me, too. So, yeah, I think there's so many variations of who we all could, or certainly who I could have been and wonder what if I had, you know, made the right turn, not the left turn. What if I had married the guy that I was engaged to when I was 28? Who would I be today? You know?

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