The Story Behind Lena Dunham's First Tattoo (and How It Turned Into a Documentary)
Lena Dunham still loves her first tattoo, which she got at the young age of 17. It's on her lower back, and it is of her favorite children's book character, Eloise. Thanks to a new documentary produced by and featuring Dunham, that tattoo is getting more attention than ever expected. It’s Me, Hilary: The Man Who Drew Eloise debuts on HBO March 23rd, and re-introduces 88-year old Hilary Knight to the world. Knight illustrated the famed Eloise books with writer Kay Thompson in the 1950s, though legal struggles have kept his amazing artistry largely unrecognized. Dunham befriended Knight a few years ago, and then solicited her friend, documentary director Matt Wolf (pictured below with Dunham), to help tell his story onscreen. I chatted with Dunham and Wolf at the Sundance Film Festival about their amazing journey into world of a little girl named Eloise and her eccentric creator.
AM: How did this project come about? LD: Matt and I have been friends for a long time. Film-making friends. And I’ve always been obsessed with Eloise. I have an Eloise tattoo as you see in the film. Hilary Knight found out about my tattoo and wrote me a letter and sent me some books. I made contact with him and went over to his house for dinner. It became quickly apparent to me that there was some work of art needed to be made about his life and its eccentricities and complexities. Matt, whose work I’ve always loved, seemed like the right person to take on that job. So I called him and he came over to meet Hilary with me. It became very clear that they connected and that he was the right person to make the film.
AM: So it all began with your tattoo. How long have you had it? LD: It was my first tattoo. I was 17. My parents came with me because I was not of legal age. My obsession with Eloise was a notable personality characteristic of mine, from the age of about three. My dad was like, "I might not be supportive of you getting a tattoo, but you have been obsessed with Eloise since like the minute you opened your eyes."
AM: It wasn’t exactly a fad. LD: No. I mean I was the person who was still collecting Eloise dolls when I was 16. Also, because I had no friends, I spent my 12th birthday at the Plaza with my dad. MW: Was it disappointing? LD: Well, it wasn’t what I thought it would be, because the Plaza had already undergone its renovation. It’s not the place that Kate Thompson lived anymore. Even the Eloise room is very corporate. With all those pink balloons and tea parties, it’s not really in the spirit of the character of Eloise.
AM: Was Hilary Knight open to the idea of being the subject of a documentary, or did you have to talk him into it? MW: I think a big part of his story is that he hasn’t been in the spotlight. And so much of the legacy of Eloise is attributed to Kate Thompson. So for him, I think it was a thrill that these young people were interested in revisiting that time in his life and paying tribute to his legacy.
AM: Lena, in the documentary you are on-camera as the interviewer. Was it odd to be in that seat, rather than the interviewee? LD: It was interesting. I really did feel like I was a device for Matt’s storytelling. Matt is not a visual presence in the film, so I was really just a kind of avatar for his lines of inquiry. I definitely wasn’t a Barbara Walters. But I love asking questions. My mom always says that when I was a kid, she would literally have to put her hand over my mouth ‘cause I wouldn’t stop asking adults questions. MW: We did this conversation between Lena and Hilary because of the rapport they have as friends. And then I interviewed him for six hours afterwards. You know, he’s 88. I didn’t know if he could handle it. But he was ready to go much longer than that. He could have gone on for ten.
AM: He looks pretty good for 88, I have to say. LD: He really does. I do think that the youthful vitality of what he does has kept him young, at least spiritually. And I have to say that I it was very educational for us to really become close with someone of that age. I mean, Hilary has seen so much in his life.
AM: Why did you choose to focus only on this short period of his life, when he was making the Eloise books? LD: The thing about making a short documentary is that there’s only time for so much. There’s a whole other movie to be made about a young gay illustrator being sent off to the Navy. But we didn’t want to touch on anything lightly. MW: It’s also like, with an 88-year-old, the lifespan is so long. There’s so much there and I think for us, the focus of the film became more about the pathos and power of collaboration and friendship [with Kay Thompson]. This was the defining relationship in his life. It’s kept him enchanted, and in some ways haunted, into his adulthood. As someone who collaborates with friends, it’s an intense theme to think about. LD: It was funny, because as we were making this movie I was like 'oh god, if I give Matt a bad note, are we gonna have a Kay and Hilary breakup?' [laughs]
AM: Kay Thompson does come across as a little nutty. MW: She’s a wack-a-doodle. LD: She’s a wack-a-doodle and an incredible talent. I mean, believe me--there's films upon films to be made about her. There’s a great biography about Kay Thompson, which is called From Funny Face to Eloise. It's worth it just to read about Kay’s multiple marriages. But for us, we were really interested in the impact that she made on Hilary. MW: But also, in collaborations how do people play different roles and complement each other? Who’s bad cop, who’s good cop? Who’s the outside extrovert, who’s an introvert, you know? LD: We wanted to be kind to [Hilary] because we love him, but also honest because you know, everyone is an imperfect person. And artists, especially, struggle with ego and affirmation. All of that is there in this story.
Tune into Dunham and Wolf's film, It's Me, Hilary, The Man Who Plays Eloise, on HBO March 23rd.