A person might be lucky to look back and know their work resonated widely even once. Then there are careers like Carrie Brownstein’s. She has reinvented herself enough times to affect an entire constellation of creative fields, from pioneering feminist punk rock to satirical sketch comedy to acting to memoir-writing and, now, TV and feature-film directing.
The Sleater-Kinney co-founder/vocalist/certified shredder, best known onscreen as half of IFC’s hipster-skewering Portlandia duo, is at a time of transition again. After eight seasons, Portlandia will put its last bird on it and quit keeping it weird next season.
There’ll be no more of its painfully perceptive lens on the absurdities of modern American culture. (“Did you read it?” “No spoilers!”) No more haranguing about “herstory” from Women & Women First’s Toni and Candace. No more hysterics over the perils and pleasures of technology and the dumbest Jeff Goldblum-approved trends you do “knot” want to miss.
Yet for Brownstein, the end couldn’t come at a better time.
Along with comedy partner Fred Armisen, Brownstein stars in and has written, produced, and now directed Portlandia, beginning with last season’s episodes “The Storytellers” and “Fred’s Cell Phone Company.” She directed two episodes for Hulu’s Casual and two for the Comedy Central Jillian Bell-starrer Idiotsitter in the same year.
And soon she’ll helm her first feature film, MGM’s fairy-tale-subverting romantic comedy Fairy Godmother. She’s all but one wave of the wand away from the change she says she’s “most looking forward to”: a career behind the camera.
So much has changed since 2011, when Portlandia premiered. Not just for Brownstein, but for American culture at large—and the ever-lingering anxiety about fitting in and keeping up that permeates Portlandia’s most cutting sketches.
Nonsensical sputtering outrage the year of Donald Trump’s election, for instance, was as likely to come from men’s rights activists with self-invented persecution complexes as it was from Toni and Candace. Et voila: “What About Men,” a sketch in which two guys who call Reddit their “safe space” decide they’re the real victims of social injustice in America.
The sketch is incisive and brutally funny, just as the Women & Women First farces often are—and the one about going socially bankrupt, and the one about Battlestar Galactica, and…—but Brownstein maintains neither sketch is loaded with actual contempt.
“We’re always trying to approach [sketches] from a place of compassion,” says Brownstein, who directed herself as one half of the MRA pair planning a funeral for the concept of masculinity in last season’s “Fred’s Cell Phone Company.”
“We were looking at notions of masculinity and ideas about disinheritance and feeling left out by a changing society,” she says. “We aimed for being satirical but I think we don't want to make people targets. It’s more an exploration or a conversation about these phenomena or social encounters.”
“We’re not a late-night show,” she continues. “We can’t address current events on a nightly basis, or even a weekly basis. So I think the challenge has always been to not ignore or divorce ourselves from culture at large, and from moments that feel relevant or pervasive or even concerning, but to find a way of approaching them through character.”
As for the end of Portlandia itself, Brownstein sounds not only at peace, but excitedly eager to move on. “It’s a good time for it to end,” she says. “I think we never lost sight of how fortunate we’ve been to have something on the air for eight seasons, where we were given a huge amount of creative control and were able to be elastic with the genre itself and reinvent ourselves even up to this season. I feel like we’re going out on a good note.”
Decades into her career as a performer, Brownstein looks forward to settling in for longevity behind the camera. The shift comes as a natural extension of her work as a writer—why leave it to someone else to realize her vision onscreen?
“There comes a time as you continue to write and work on scripts and screenplays where you realize that you have opinions about the next step of the process, and you kind of want more control over the translation from page to screen,” she explains. “So I tried it [directing] and found it really suited my abilities to handle both the macro and micro of a project.”
Her first stint in the director’s chair came with a short film for fashion brand Kenzo’s 2016 fall-winter campaign. The Realest Real, which starred Rowan Blanchard, Mahershala Ali, and Natasha Lyonne, parodied the grotesquerie of social-media etiquette with surreal, in-person approximations of unfollows and adoring fans. Then came Idiotsitter, Portlandia, and Casual with two episodes apiece.
Brownstein is in the running for her TV directing at the Emmys this year, and a prime showcase of her talents is her Casual bottle episode, “Things to Do in Burbank When You’re Dead.” The melancholy, bitingly funny episode features two grieving siblings (Michaela Watkins’ Valerie and Tommy Dewey’s Alex) walking-and-talking through old childhood memories in their old hometown of Burbank, California.
Brownstein casts a spell over the city’s otherwise unremarkable locales: a donut shop, a high-school theater, a pool hall—each colored with deep hues and loneliness, mirroring the siblings’ grief. They’re giddy, often bitter, achingly sad, even nostalgic. And the city they grew up in, filmed here only at nighttime, never looked this romantic on film.
“[Burbank] does have some really beautiful old architecture, and the colors there are really striking,” Brownstein laughs, “you just kind of have to pick out the right spots.”
Valerie and Alex mostly hated their father, but grief doesn’t discriminate.
“There’s a regression that happens around death because that’s such a primal, frightening aspect of life,” Brownstein says. “I wanted to draw out that sibling dynamic but also have it feel childlike, and heighten the silliness and laughter that can accompany sadness. It’s vacillating between these conversations about donuts and reaching something more profound.”
Brownstein was hired for Casual (in part thanks to her friend Watkins, who introduced her to showrunner Zander Lehmann) along with a murderer’s row of indie talent, including directors Lynn Shelton, Lake Bell, and Gillian Robespierre. She also has a recurring role on Jill Soloway’s Amazon series Transparent as Gaby Hoffman’s best friend Syd, and was also featured in Todd Haynes’ 2015 Oscar contender Carol.
Still, after seven years in TV and a number of film credits, Brownstein admits she’s had the opportunity to work with only a handful of female directors so far. (It’s a frustratingly common refrain: Only 17 percent of directors hired for the 2015-2016 TV season were women, compared to 7 percent behind the top 250 films in 2016. In signing on to direct Fairy Godmother, Brownstein becomes the sixth female director MGM has hired in the last 10 years to helm a film.)
“Let’s see,” Brownstein murmurs, pausing several seconds to remember each one. “Just on Transparent, actually, with Jill [Soloway] and Marielle Heller. And a couple of times with Sleater-Kinney we had female directors for music videos. So I guess, you know, it’s maybe not as even [in number] as other people think it is.”
With Fairy Godmother, she hopes to subvert familiar fairy-tale tropes about “romance and gender and power” through the lens of a diehard romantic comedy fan. (It’s her.)
“I think when [romantic comedies] are done well, they can have this elating, aspirational, and very sort of populist quality to them,” she explains. “I think there’s something very comforting about them, but not in a way that is sterile. It can still feel like it speaks to you and have humor. It’s definitely a challenge to find that right mix of things that doesn't feel condescending or outlandish or too pat.”
The film’s still in its early stages of development, though Brownstein has her hands more than full until production kicks off: “I’m working on a book of essays, I’m developing a show, and I also want to continue directing,” she says serenely.
And the band? “I think there’s definitely plans to keep writing and put out another record,” she allows. “You know, the cycle is longer now. There was obviously a time where the band was the only thing, or one of the only things we were doing, and that facilitated an album every year or year and a half. I think as we continue, it won’t be as frequent, but we’ll definitely want to be engaged.”
In the meantime, she knows exactly where she’ll be: behind a camera, immersed. “I really enjoy the challenge and the process,” she says. “I feel like a practitioner there to service the story, service the actors, and hopefully create an emotional connection.”
No birds required.