“Directors Don’t Cry!” Madonna, Rosanna Arquette, and the Wild Birth of ‘Desperately Seeking Susan’

Ten shots down. Five hundred and thirty-five more to go.

This would be Madonna’s first film role, and our relationship was relatively straightforward and stress free. I liked the little details she brought to the role. One of my favorite moments took place in the bathroom at the Port Authority Bus Terminal. After arriving on a bus from Atlantic City, it was scripted that Susan goes into the restroom to change her clothes and wash up. While filming, Madonna suddenly flipped the nozzle on a wall-mounted air blower and used it to dry her armpits, turning this improvisation into a classic movie moment and, years later, a popular internet GIF.

My relationship with Rosanna was more complicated. There was an undercurrent of defensiveness on both our parts. This was the first time I was working with a young Hollywood star who was probably used to more stroking than I was giving. Her on-screen fragility and vulnerability were what made her past performances so moving, and she’d just come off the set of the latest Martin Scorsese film, After Hours. He was far more experienced than I at knowing how to make his actors feel special and secure. Also, he was an older man (seventeen years Rosanna’s senior). I say that because, in retrospect, I think gender and age were a factor. Young women directing young women was still a relatively new thing, and I would later come to realize that the job involved a lot of cajoling and ego massaging to get performers to do what you wanted (or needed) them to do. I had come from the rough-and-tumble world of low-budget New York indie filmmaking. During Smithereens, the actors were newcomers. We were all in the trenches together. There was no power hierarchy, no schmoozing. I was unskilled at hiding my feelings. I’m sure that whatever was on my mind was written across my forehead.

Unfortunately, once tension between an actor and director sets in, every creative decision, every suggestion, is viewed with mistrust and suspicion. That mistrust goes both ways, and when that cycle begins, it’s like walking on eggshells. The simplest feedback can become a defensive argument. That’s something they don’t teach you in film school. It’s not always easy to communicate with actors, which is why so many young filmmakers focus on the technical aspects of moviemaking. Those are the things you can control: the camera, lighting, production design, and editing. Dealing with creative people with egos and insecurities (as well as your own self-doubt) is a tricky maneuver that involves subtle negotiation and intuition. It’s also about trust.

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© Orion Pictures Corp/Everett Collection.

I had a clear vision of how I wanted the film to look and feel, but hadn’t yet earned Rosanna’s trust. On top of that, she had signed on to star in a movie with a relatively unknown co-star when midway through production that dynamic totally changed. Madonna started to get a massive amount of attention, and the press began referring to the film as “The Madonna Movie.” In retrospect, I probably wasn’t sensitive enough to how Rosanna might have felt. I still had a lot to learn.

Then came the day I cried on set. In public. It’s unusual for me to cry in public. I’m not a crybaby and have a pretty high anxiety threshold. It would be the only time in my nearly thirty-five years as a director that would happen. “Stop it. Control yourself . . . Directors don’t cry!” I said to myself, pressing a fingernail sharply into the palm of my hand as a distraction. Then came that choked-up feeling I get in the back of my throat when I’m angry or upset . . . and I felt my eyes begin to tear. I don’t know what triggered this sudden flood of emotion. Anxiety? Exhaustion? Frustration that I didn’t know how to communicate with Rosanna?

It was the day we were filming a scene in the Port Authority Bus Terminal, where Roberta finds a key to a locker in the pocket of her pyramid jacket. If you’ve seen the movie, you’ll remember the scene. Roberta, suffering from amnesia, goes with Dez (Adian Quinn) to the bus terminal to find out what’s inside the mysterious locker.

What started the clash was a conversation Rosanna and I were having about amnesia. In real life, a person with amnesia might be terrified and totally disoriented. Amnesia is scary. But this was a comedy, so it needed to be played realistically enough to convey memory loss, but without destroying the lighthearted tone of the film. What began as a private conversation quickly escalated to a public argument in front of forty crew members and a hundred extras standing around watching. (Thankfully this was a decade before the internet. No one had a cell phone or could post a photo online!) Maybe if I’d been more experienced, I’d have understood her method and been more helpful. Certainly, we should have found a private place to talk. I was stressed. So was she. The assistant director was pointing to his watch and flashing me a cringy “let’s get moving” face. The crew and all the extras were in place waiting to shoot, and here Rosanna and I were, sitting on the floor of the bus station, stuck in an emotional loop.

Producers Midge Sanford and Sarah Pillsbury were on set that day and eventually joined in the conversation. Pretty soon we were all in tears. (Midge said: “There should be more crying on movies sets. It’s the female version of yelling.”) Long hours and a pressurized schedule can cause tensions to flare. But it was also because we all cared. We had worked so hard to get the film made and wanted to get everything right. Besides, crying isn’t a sign of weakness. It’s a sign that shows you don’t give a shit if your nose is running and your eye makeup is smeared down your cheeks, making you look like a rabid raccoon. I wonder, do male directors and actors ever cry together on set? Maybe they just punch the crap out of each other.

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