Susan Seidelman on Directing the ‘Grittier’ Pilot for ‘Sex and the City,’ Casting Madonna in ‘Desperately Seeking Susan’: ‘She Loved Being Provocative’

It’s New York City, 1989. Susan Seidelman is in the delivery room, in labor with her son. “Siskel and Ebert” plays on the TV, and in between contractions, the two critics are tearing apart her new movie “She-Devil.” “Watching them review my film literally with the doctor’s hand inside of me telling me to push was very strange,” Seidelman recalls.

That surreal scene is just one of the memorable moments the trailblazing director recounts in “Desperately Seeking Something: A Memoir About Movies, Mothers, and Material Girls.” By turns reflective and celebratory, the book covers the surprises and setbacks of a career carved out at a time when women filmmakers were a rarity.

More from Variety

When Seidelman first realized she could aspire to become a movie director, she could barely find a role model. Outside of Elaine May, there was only a small handful of women directing. But Seidelman kept at it, discovering the revelatory work of Lina Wertmuller, then wrangling her first film, the scrappy micro-budget “Smithereens.” The young filmmaker’s career took off when she took a chance and submitted her debut to the Cannes Film Festival, where it was invited into the main competition alongside films by Werner Herzog, Wim Wenders and Jean-Luc Godard – the first American independent film accepted into competition.

Now, 42 years after she walked up the Palais steps as a first-timer, Seidelman is looking back at her eventful life as a trail-blazing director. Along the way, there were triumphs like “Desperately Seeking Susan” and the pilot for “Sex and the City,” along with spirited misfires like “Making Mr. Right.” In her new memoir “Desperately Seeking Something,” Seidelman considers her varied career in the hopes aspiring young filmmakers might glean some insight from her ups and downs over four decades in the trenches.

“I didn’t set out to write a memoir,” she says. “I set out to, well, to deal with the pandemic.” During the Covid lockdown she started keeping memos in notes on her phone, then started shuffling them around the way she would with script notes, and realized they could be a book. Seidelman was also motivated to take stock when her friend Mark Blum, who played the Rosanna Arquette’s husband in “Desperately Seeking Susan,” was one of the first names in entertainment to die of Covid.

Growing up in suburban Philadelphia in the early ‘60s, directing just wasn’t on her radar, so she majored in fashion and art. A film appreciation class changed her trajectory, and she entered NYU as a graduate film student, then managed to scrape together the funds for her first feature.

“Smithereens” is an endearing relic of the fast-disappearing Lower Eastside scene of the early ‘80s, starring real-life punk pioneer Richard Hell alongside Susan Berman as aspiring musician Wren, a runaway who gets what she wants through larceny and seduction.

“Smithereens” cost $40,000 to make — $60,000 counting the blowup to 35mm so it could play in Cannes, since it was shot on 16mm. “On a whim, I sent it off to the Cannes Film Festival, never anticipating that that would change my life,” she says.

Along with a who’s who of European greats in competition that year, “There was ‘Shoot the Moon’ by Alan Parker, with Diane Keaton and Albert Finney and Costa Gavras’ ‘Missing’ with Jack Lemmon and Sissy Spacek,” Seidelman remembers. “So we kind of felt like this little group of scruffy misfits. That made it a lot of fun and surreal.”

After the unprecedented Cannes debut, she started getting offers to direct. But not many screenwriters in the early ‘80s were writing the kind of material Seidelman was interested in, incorporating complicated and spirited female characters.

“They were kind of dopey cheerleader girls or babysitter horror movies and I knew I had to be really smart about what I pick next,” she says. “I had heard some unfortunate stories about a female director who had made one low budget movie that was lauded and then tried to make another movie with a heavy-handed producer and was not happy with the way it came out.”

When she came across the script that would become the seminal 1980s New York movie “Desperately Seeking Susan,” she knew had finally found something with a sensibility close to her own. “It was about reinvention, and about coming from one kind of living a certain kind of life, but wishing inside that you could maybe be living another life or be somebody else, which is essentially the theme of ‘Smithereens’ as well,” she says.

For the role of Susan, she auditioned a young singer who wasn’t yet widely known. In fact, Madonna had to convince Orion production executive Barbara Boyle she could handle the part.

As Seidelman recounts in her book, Madonna pleaded with Boyle, “I’ll do anything to get this part.” Boyle shot back, “Sorry, I’m heterosexual.” Madonna parried, “How do you you know until you try?”

That cheekiness was what convinced the producers she could pull off the role with charm and style, Seidelman says.

“She loved being provocative,” Seidelman says, “That’s part of her thing.”

Her landmark album “Like a Virgin” was released while “Desperately Seeking Susan” was still filming, and by the time it was ready to open in theaters, Madonna’s fame was starting to skyrocket.

But, “No one had any idea that the film would get caught up in Madonna mania, and suddenly it would be the Madonna movie,” she recalls.

“We were a little bit nervous that people would come with expectations that this was a movie filled with her music and it wasn’t, but fortunately, it was filled with her style.”

Orion rushed “Desperately Seeking Susan” into theaters to make sure Madonna’s star didn’t fall after “Like a Virgin,” and it was a box office hit.

DESPERATELY SEEKING SUSAN, director Susan Seidelman on set, 1985, � Orion/courtesy Everett Collection
Director Susan Seidelman on the set of 1985’s “Desperately Seeking Susan.”

“They didn’t know how long she was gonna last,” Seidelman says. “So they wanted to make sure that the movie was out in time to capitalize on that. Who knew that four decades later, she’d still be on tour?”

Meanwhile, the part of Madonna’s punk rock boyfriend nearly went to a young Bruce Willis. Though the chemistry wasn’t quite right, he did end up bartending the wrap party, and later thanked Seidelman for turning him down, which spurred Willis to move to L.A. and audition for “Moonlighting.”

While it was Madonna’s first major film role, Seidelman went on to work with seasoned pros like Meryl Streep on “She Devil.” On that feminist comedy, she learned the main thing was to get out of the way. “When you work with somebody like Meryl, I’m directing the story, I’m not directing her performance. There’s nothing I can tell her about acting that she doesn’t know better than me. So it’s just a different way of working,” she says.

Though Seidelman directed some movies for Showtime, she didn’t think she wanted to move into TV at first, since the age of prestige television was just dawning. But when she was sent the script for Darren Star’s “Sex and the City” pilot, something clicked.

“I liked that it was about women of a certain age, because I think you know, your mid-30s are an interesting time in your life and also an interesting time to be single in a big city,” Seidelman says.

“What I love about the show and what I love about New York, is that it is a fairytale city but it also is you know it’s got sad stories. It’s a place where dreamers come and some achieve their dreams and find Mr. Right and some don’t, so I liked that mix, happy with a bit of sad.”

The pilot has a decidedly different feel than what the show ultimately became. Her vision was a little more funky, a lot less Louboutin.

“At least in the first season, it’s grittier. You sense that the women are a bit more aspirational. By the end of the show, they’re rich,” she says.

Seidelman is pleased that women directors are flourishing in TV. But “fewer women have the op- portunity to direct feature films, and even fewer have the opportunity to direct big-budget feature films,” she points out.

When her second feature, “Making Mr. Right,” wasn’t well-received, Seidelman says she got to do something women directors often don’t get the chance to do: make another movie.

“After I made ‘Making Mr. Right,’ which was a box office disappointment. I was thrilled when I got an agent that enabled me to get another movie so I could fail upwards. Like the boys, right?’

But all along, her goal has been to “tell stories about women and make them as interesting as men have been traditionally in movies.”

“My favorite male characters have been the ones that are both good and bad, manipulative, and not always nice like Ratso Rizzo or Dustin Hoffman in ‘The Godfather ‘or all the characters Jack Nicholson played in the 70s and 80s. They’re not necessarily nice, but they’re interesting.

Take Wren in “Smithereens,” Seidelman points out. “That character is not a nice person. She’s narcissistic. She’s manipulative.”

While she was working on the memoir, the Harvey Weinstein trial was in the news, and Seidelman decided she wanted to end the book with her account of a sexual assault she experienced when she was a young woman and had never talked about. Why now, after all this time?

“I wanted to find some closure. Many women have those stories and don’t tell them, so I was lending my support to some of the women that I personally knew,” she says.

Like her #MeToo story, she hopes the rest of the book will also be a way to support women just getting started.

Reflecting on her own adventures in Hollywood, she says, “I didn’t have that book,” she says. “I hope that I can pass on some lessons learned, mistakes made, the whole roller coaster ride of being a woman in the film industry.”

Best of Variety

Sign up for Variety’s Newsletter. For the latest news, follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.