'Desperately Seeking Susan' Turns 30: An Oral History of the Downtown Classic

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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.

Watch the original trailer:

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.

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.

Pillsbury: Midge and I were in the Orion waiting room for a meeting. I told her, “I’m nervous.” Midge says, “Why? Nothing ever happens in these meetings.” Then Barbara [Boyle] comes out and says, “We can do this!”  Turns out she stood her ground and said to the male execs, “I don’t know why you hired me if you don’t listen to me.”

Susan takes shape
The producers eventually settled on director Susan Seidelman, who’d just made a splash with her 1983 debut feature, Smithereens, about a young woman in the punk scene.

Pillsbury: At one point, Jonathan Demme wanted to make the film with Diane Keaton as Susan. At another, Diane Keaton and Goldie Hawn were considered as Roberta. Mike Medavoy suggested Barbara Streisand.

Sanford: Then we saw Smithereens, and thought, “This is someone with a clear visual style.”

Susan Seidelman (director): When Susan came to me, obviously, I loved the title. I knew I could have fun and deal with themes that were important to me, namely: living and exploring the person you want to be and changing your lifestyle to something more interesting and fulfilling.

Sanford: When Orion agreed to go ahead with the film, they wanted a name actress, and Rosanna was it. [She had recently appeared in John Sayles’s Baby, It’s You and in The Executioner’s Song on TV.] She said, “Sure, I’ll do Susan” and we said to her, “We want you as Roberta, the lead.”

Rosanna Arquette in ‘Susan’ (Everett)

Rosanna Arquette (Roberta): I loved the idea that the producers, director, screenwriter, and studio executive all were women. I liked the fact that Roberta had a character arc, that she changed and grew.

Seidelman: When I first got involved, the characters were of a different generation. Susan was more of a hippie traveler — Diane Keaton in an embroidered shirt. The downtown Susan story, pyramid jacket, and Nefertiti earrings came later. During the first casting talks, Keaton and Goldie Hawn were considered. When Susan was restyled as a New Wave/punk figure, we considered Melanie Griffith, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Ellen Barkin, and Kelly McGillis.

Sanford: We couldn’t get Kevin Costner or Dennis Quaid to read for Dez [the city guy who romances Roberta, a role that ultimately went to Aidan Quinn], because with two female leads, some actors didn’t want to be third fiddle. Bruce Willis was a possible candidate for Jim [Susan’s boyfriend, who was eventually played by Robert Joy].

Seidelman: Years later, I ran into Bruce, and he thanked me. Because he didn’t get the part in Susan, he moved to L.A. and was cast in Moonlighting.

Madonna was on the verge of mega-stardom (Everett)

Madonna before she was Madonna
When Seidelman suggested the future Material Girl as a possible Susan, Madonna was best known for her music videos “Holiday” and “Borderline” on MTV. Her only previous feature film experience was a cameo in the movie Vision Quest.

Seidelman: I pulled for Madonna — I knew her from living downtown. Studio execs had never heard of her, so [director of photography] Ed Lachman and I went to Union Square to shoot her audition reel. I remember someone walking by, pointing at her and saying, “That’s Cyndi Lauper.”

We sent Orion the audition tape, and Boyle was on my side. So was Mike Medavoy’s son. He had seen Madonna on MTV and thought she was cute.

Madonna (Susan, on set in 1984): I shared a lot with Susan. She charms her way into every situation, gets guys to take her to dinner and girlfriends to let her stay in their apartments. She borrows their clothes and trades and swaps and barters. She’s a clever con artist and doesn’t let you know when you’re being conned.

Madonna and Seidelman on set (Everett)

Seidelman: On the first day, when Madonna walked down the street, only a few people turned their heads. By the last week of shooting, Like a Virgin had dropped and we needed security. Her rising fame overshadowed many aspects of the film.

Seidelman (on set in 1984): I deal with Rosanna as an actress and Madonna as a personality. With Rosanna, I discuss character — and she expands on it. With Madonna, it’s about trying to get her not to act, but to be.

Madonna (on set in 1984): Sometimes what I do has nothing to do with acting — it’s cheating for the camera while remembering to perform all these choreographic moves.

Filming fast in NYC
The production was fortunate that Woody Allen had completed The Purple Rose of Cairo: That meant a lot of his crew members were available for the Susan shoot.

Seidelman: At the time there were three production crews in New York: Woody Allen’s quirky gang, Sidney Lumet’s more regimented one, and the Mike Nichols guys. We were lucky that Woody wasn’t making a film, because we got his team. Most of the unions were father/son affairs — we got the sons. From the Woody team we got [executive producer] Michael Peyser and [costume and production designer] Santo Loquasto, who coordinated costumes with sets. Santo went to Madonna’s place and rummaged through her closet, selecting some of her own clothes for the film.

Reid Rosefelt (unit publicist): New York at the time was one of the greatest places to be — so much going on at CBGBs and the Mudd Club. The casting directors brought all these fresh faces aboard, like Laurie Metcalf, John Turturro, Richard Hell, Ann Magnuson, and Steven Wright.

Ed Lachman (director of photography): It was an asset to work with so many first-timers because people were not set in their ways. I didn’t get this concept of a 1940s screwball comedy shot in the 1980s. As I saw it, Madonna’s world was dark and foreboding; Rosanna’s was one of light and pastels.

Rosefelt: The first day we shot on 2nd Avenue and St. Marks Place — this was my first day on a movie set — we removed the people on the street and replaced them with people who looked exactly like them. When Madonna sashayed down St. Marks, it was like John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever.  

Arquette: There was this scene I struggled with and blurted to Susan [Seidelman], “Does Roberta have amnesia at this moment?” If she still had amnesia, she wouldn’t remember what she’s talking about. And then, there we were, Susan, Midge, Sarah, and me, arguing and crying.

Sanford: There should be more crying on movies sets. It’s the female version of yelling. People should feel passionate about what they’re doing.

Waiting for the Susan tsunami
Postproduction was rushed because Orion moved up the release date. Early audience previews were disastrous, and the studio was at a loss for how to market it.

Rosefelt: The eight-week shoot was finished before Thanksgiving in 1984. There was almost no postproduction time. Orion wanted a March opening because people there thought Madonna’s career might be over by the time it came out.

Seidelman: I remember one preview in particular: It was just after Purple Rain had come out, and Orion was trying to position it in that niche.

Sanford: Orion’s idea for posters included one with Madonna standing in front of a brick wall and Rosanna peeping over it. Another had Madonna’s face reflected on a toaster and Rosanna’s on a piece of toast popping out. “We didn’t make Mr. Mom,” I said. All the people in the room were middle-aged men who didn’t get the movie. What about those pictures Herb Ritts took of Madonna and Rosanna? A marketing guy looked at the slide and said, “If you put two women on a poster, people will think it’s a lesbian movie.” [The Ritts shot was used for the poster.]

Orion eventually went with the indelible Herb Ritts photo for the poster (Everett)

Pillsbury: I don’t remember one positive thing said about the film in the distribution meeting. There wasn’t a lot of enthusiasm. Fortunately there was a marketing genius, Blaise Noto, who took the ball and ran with it, creating pins, lace gloves, rubber bracelets.

Seidelman: I remember sitting with Midge and Sarah the night Susan opened, March 29, waiting for the box office numbers. They were good. [The movie ultimately grossed over $27 million.]

Three decades later, and we’re still seeking Susan
Thirty years after its release, Desperately Seeking Susan looks like a time capsule, capturing a scene, music, clothes, and an attitude that share little with the gentrified New York of today.

Rosefelt: It’s a record of a lower Manhattan that no longer exists.

Madonna uses the facilities at Port Authority (Everett)

Seidelman: The abandoned streets where we shot Rosanna running around with the birdcage probably now have NYU dorms on them.

Barish: Sometimes women tell me [the movie] gave them an alternative possibility of how to live their lives and even inspired them with the confidence to live those lives. Of course, they didn’t need the movie to feel that, but if the movie helped in some way, well, that’s the legacy I hope it has.

Seidelman: Susan said you can be a woman filmmaker and make a commercial movie and said that you can have female leads in a movie and that men would see it.

Matthew Rettenmund (Michigan-born, Manhattan-based author of Encyclopedia Madonnica): When I first saw Desperately Seeking Susan, I was already into Madonna. But the movie had another star for me. With all due respect to Rosanna Arquette, that star was New York. I saw the city as a fantasy getaway, where people could be themselves. Now the only way to catch a glimpse of the downtown scene is to watch the movie. I’m still glad I moved here, but, man, I wish I’d moved there instead.