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Hunterdon Life

Susan Seidelman reflects on a career spent empowering women

The filmmaker, who lives near Stockton, releases memoir “Desperately Seeking Something” in June


In her down-to-earth, unfailingly frank and funny new memoir, “Desperately Seeking Something,” a poignant moment of reflection pops out as Susan Seidelman looks back at her trailblazing movie and television career.

“If I could pick one stage of my life to play on repeat, it would be my mid-30s. That’s when a woman is at her best,” she said.

Her career and the art she practices have inspired and empowered a couple generations of women. As the book reveals her growth as an artist it also unreels the evolving role of women.

Now, looking decades younger than her 71 years, “Here I am — a Jersey girl,” said Susan, who lives in Hunterdon County with her husband/partner, Jonathan Brett.

In the memoir, Susan characterizes her younger self as one of a line of “restless young women who come out of nowhere to say, ‘I’ll show you.’”

She did just that — as a female movie and television director, a woman who once felt invisible in a roomful of men.

Her “nowhere” was Montgomery County’s Huntingdon Valley, Pa. where she had a happy, if rebellious, childhood in a Jewish family firmly established in a suburban development.

Impassioned by her love of movies and her feminist readings as a teenager, she had vowed to tell stories “about women from a woman’s point of view.”

A course in film appreciation at Drexel University, where she also studied fashion design, changed her life, sending her to NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts where she earned a Master of Fine Arts degree and won a student award for a satirical short film about a housewife’s affair.

In her memoir, published by St. Martin’s Press and due out next month, she details her flight from the suburbs to an eye-opening Bohemian life in Lower Manhattan, a city that was falling apart in the 1970s and early ’80s.

That’s where her talent and determination drove her filmmaking career. Her first venture, “Smithereens” called “a fearless punk drama,” was the first American indie film to compete at Cannes Film Festival in 1982.

Susan had directed the low-budget film in city streets lined with vacant stores, abandoned buildings and old warehouses. She said, “I didn’t even know you needed a permit to film in the city.”

Of her co-workers, she said, “We were young and reckless and naïve. Creativity was the invisible cloak that protected us.”

“Unknowns,” from those early days who later became big names in Hollywood, wander in and out of the memoir’s pages.

Her book offers a clear-eyed view of the industry she loves.

“Making a movie is like walking a tightrope,” she said. “Everyone knows the movie industry is mean-spirited and shark-infested, but it’s also dazzling, exhilarating and euphoric, which is why everyone puts up with all the nasty (stuff).”

“Smithereens” was followed by “Desperately Seeking Susan.” The movie, which starred Madonna and Rosanna Arquette, was a critical and commercial success. It premiered at Cannes in 1985, was nominated for a French Cesar for Best Foreign Film and voted one of the top 100 films of all time by the BBC.

Susan went on to create the pilot and direct the first few episodes of the television series “Sex and the City.” It was exciting for her.

“There was no template to follow,” she said. “I could create the look and feel of a new series.”

She called it “a dark fairy tale about four women in their 30s in the city.”

It ultimately shaped pop culture and illuminated the changing roles of women.

Susan’s husband, Jonathan, is a transplanted Welshman whose entertainment law practice morphed into producing and screenwriting. He is fine with feminism.

“My mother was the breadwinner. She was a strong woman,” he said.

Susan and Jonathan met occasionally as professionals but, said Susan, “the meetings got longer and longer and we both finally realized they were about more than business.”

They worked together on “She-Devil,” a dark comedy about a woman seeking revenge on her cheating husband. It starred Meryl Streep and Roseanne Barr.

Asked about working with stars, she replied, “Meryl Streep is a professional. She knows what she’s doing. I don’t direct her. I direct the scene. Details may seem small and insignificant, but they can speak volumes about character and atmosphere.”

Susan and Jonathan produced and co-wrote “The Dutch Master,” starring Mira Sorvino. It was nominated for an Academy Award in 1994.

Susan said the film’s plot had popped into their heads at the Louvre, when they were living in Paris and thought it would be interesting to have a character invited into a painting for an adventure.

“We each brought different strengths to our collaboration,” Susan said. “Jonathan thought in broad strokes and big concepts. He approached stories like architecture. I focused on creating distinctive characters and how to make their emotions and motivations feel real.”

After what Susan calls “a nomadic lifestyle,” she and Jonathan have been living in — and loving — their 1768 farmhouse near Stockton, N.J., since 2017. It had been their country weekend retreat for years.

After they no longer had to fight the Sunday night traffic to get their son back to the city for school on Monday, Susan said, “Our weekends just got longer and longer so we finally just moved here.”

Jonathan wrote the original screenplay for “Turbulence,” the MGM action-adventure film. He also wrote and produced the psychological thriller, “Occupant.” His first novel, “Tatyana’s Odyssey,” has been acquired by French film director Luc Besson.

Jonathan cooks, Susan gardens, and they both write — in separate rooms and meet at day’s end to share drinks on a porch overlooking a hayfield.

“I’m not actively pursuing a script,” Susan said. “People don’t understand how physically demanding producing is — getting up at 5 a.m., 16-hour days of directing and watching films from the day before, and it goes on nonstop for a couple of months. At least when I write, my feet don’t hurt.”

She’s scheduled two local appearances:

She’ll do a screening of “Smithereens” and book signing on Saturday June 22, at 6:30 p.m. at the ACME Screening Room, 25 S. Union St., Lambertville.

On Saturday June 29, at 7 p.m., in Doylestown, Susan will sign books and stage a conversation with film critic Carrie Rickey at the County Theater, 20 E. State St.

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