Catherine Called Birdy may share the same ye olde time period as Game of Thrones' fantasy take on the Middle Ages — but the similarities end there.
"It is totally, totally different," says Bella Ramsey, who stars as the titular Birdy and rose to fame as Lyanna Mormont on Thrones. "Even if it's in the same time, they're opposite ends of the spectrum. There's some scripts and characters that you read, and you feel like they're already in you. That was definitely the case with Birdy."
Catherine Called Birdy follows the eponymous young woman, a 14-year-old girl who lives in the 13th century and seeks to preserve her quirky personality in spite of her father's attempts to marry her off to a financially advantageous match.
ALEX BAILEY/Prime Video Bella Ramsey in 'Catherine Called Birdy.'
Dunham read Karen Cushman's novel of the same name at 10 years old and has been obsessed with adapting it ever since. But she ultimately found the work of making a historical film not all that different from her experiences with contemporary-set stories.
"[I made this film because of] my love of this book, coupled with excitement about trying something that was going to push me as director and as an artist and push me into new parts of the world," she tells EW. "What I love about films that necessitate research is you feel like you're going back to school. I felt like I was getting a Ph.D. in medieval history and also a Ph.D. in different kinds of filmmaking. What I didn't anticipate was that, in a lot of ways, once you get the costumes and the sets and the world, it really does feel like directing any film that is about people. There's something beautifully eternal about interacting with people and trying to create a naturalistic, emotionally clear scene."
That's evident in the first trailer for the film, which dropped Wednesday, showcasing Dunham's winking, tongue-in-cheek style alongside the story's medieval trappings. One place that's exceedingly evident is in the casting of the adults in Birdy's world, including Andrew Scott (Fleabag) and Billie Piper (Doctor Who) as Birdy's parents. Dunham purposefully wanted to upend expectations of a medieval marriage-minded father as a gross or brutish figure.
"In the book when you read him, he's this brute," she says. "It felt like it would be really interesting to have like a more genteel version. And also, to remember that while Birdy sees her parents as these controlling elders, in the reality of the Middle Ages, they would be really young. So, what would it look like for them to actually just be young, cool, attractive people? The text group that I had with Billie and Andrew was called rock & roll parents."
ALEX BAILEY/Prime Video Andrew Scott and Bella Ramsey in 'Catherine Called Birdy'
Ramsey says she instantly connected to Birdy's rebellious personality. "She's not much of a rule follower," she explains. "She's bold and she doesn't quite fit the mold. She's not particularly normal, especially not for her time. I've always been a bit weird and Birdy was a bit weird too — and in a way that was so joyful and celebrated."
That idiosyncratic approach to life was a major reason Dunham cast Ramsey as Birdy. "Whether it's her Instagram or the work that she does with mental health with other kids her age, Bella proudly lets her weirdo flag fly in the same way that Birdy does," the director gushes. "Not to be a total cheeseball, but these are the young women that I needed when I was that age. Bella battles against shame in this amazing way, and it would have given me such an incredible sense that the world had a place for me. That's Birdy's goal too. Bella may be a little bit more gentle about it, but they refuse to be ashamed — and they also make space for other young people to really be seen."
Ultimately, Dunham discovered that not only is filmmaking the same no matter the era, but, for better or worse, so are human beings. "So much of the film was about the fact that the world changes — its attitude toward women and its attitude toward queer people and its attitude toward marginalized people — but it also stays the same," she reflects. "So much of this film is about bodily autonomy. You will see Birdy attempting to assert the fact that her body belongs to her."
"The recent news around Roe v. Wade has only affirmed that being born with a female reproductive system puts a certain target on your back," Dunham concludes. "It's really painful to see that 1,000 years ago, that was the truth, and in a certain way, it's only become more rigid. Back then, it was a little lawless and wild and now it's literally written into law. It is very sobering. But the hope is that this movie continues the very important dialogue that's happening about female bodily autonomy and about supporting people with uteruses and being able to make choices about their bodies."
Watch the trailer above for more. Catherine Called Birdy opens in select theaters Sept. 23 and arrives on Prime Video Oct. 7.