TheWrap magazine: “I wish that when he left, he’d have taken that big pile of junk on Fifth Avenue,” says the subject of the docuseries “Pretend It’s A City”
This story about Fran Lebowitz and “Pretend It’s a City” first appeared in the Race Begins issue of TheWrap’s Emmy magazine.
Fran Lebowitz has been a chronicler, raconteur, eloquent grouch and professional New Yorker for decades now, and the 71-year-old writer is on full display in “Pretend It’s a City,” a Netflix documentary series from her longtime friend Martin Scorsese. Drawn from conversations with Scorsese as well as footage of Lebowitz dating back to the 1970s, it’s a sardonic portrait of a woman who can’t stop complaining about the place where she lives, but would never consider living anywhere else.
TheWrap’s Steve Pond caught up with Lebowitz to talk about “Pretend It’s a City.”
I know you don’t like watching yourself on screen, but I imagine you had to watch “Pretend It’s a City” in the editing stage.
Right. I mean, one million times. I’m sure you’re aware of how much Marty edits. I can absolutely promise you that if they hadn’t taken it away from him, he would still be editing “Taxi Driver.” The editing process for “Pretend It’s a City” was, like, two years. Some of it was before the pandemic, so I saw many parts of this in Marty’s screening room at his office. And then after the pandemic, I actually met the editor, David Tedeschi, once in Washington Square Park, where we sat 60 feet away from each other and I watched it on his iPad, which is very hard to do. I really saw it more than was humane.
Were you able to get over the fact that you were watching yourself and make creative suggestions?
No. I could not get over that. I mean, I actually have never gotten over anything and I don’t think I would start now. But I could be objective in this as… Maybe objective is the wrong word, but I could say, “I don’t think this thing works.” I definitely made suggestions, some of which Marty took. But Marty is, I believe, really coming along as a director and he doesn’t really need my help.
I don’t remember any instances where I said, “Oh, my God, I never should have said that — take that out.” I am not young enough to make those kinds of mistakes, and I know when I’m being filmed. But at the beginning, we were shooting at the Players Club. There is a club next to the Players Club called the National Arts Club. My whole life, I have gotten the entrances to these places mixed up. So the first time they filmed me walking in, I started to go into the National Arts Club and then realized it was wrong and went to the Player’s Club. Marty loved that. He left it in. I kept saying, ‘Take that out.” But Marty left it in because he thought it was funny, and I had to see it during the editing process a zillion times.
The series shows you talking in many different venues—sitting at a table with Marty, but also in various theaters and other locations. How did that come about?
Well, initially it was just going to be me walking around New York, because I walk around New York all the time. Marty’s initial idea was, let’s walk around New York and film our conversation. Well, Marty hates to be recognized and he is always recognized. I said, “Marty, we wouldn’t get two feet without someone stopping us.” So he saw the wisdom of that pretty quickly. In fact, I only remember Marty being there once when we were shooting in the street. It was in SoHo, and within nine seconds Marty was literally hiding in a doorway because people had seen him and noticed him.
But some of that footage that they used, the editors found it. I forgot what you call it. Footage from a long time ago, there’s a word for it.
Yes. Thank you. It’s, by the way, not a very happy thing to discover you are old enough to be archival. People don’t think of that as an age. They think adolescence, middle-aged, but now there’s the age I am, archival.
You said you walk around New York a lot. How have things changed in the last year?
I walk around New York as a form of transportation. I walk to get places. But during the pandemic, there were no places to go. Within the first 10 days, when the city was completely shut down, I went for a very long walk, and it was shocking to me. I walked across 25th Street, up Fifth Avenue, across 42nd Street, down Seventh Avenue. Passing the New York Public Library, Times Square, the Empire State Building, Penn Station, Macy’s.
When I got to the library, I was so stunned to see the doors closed. I knew it was closed, but I had never seen those doors closed during the day. I was shocked and I was furious. Like, “What’s wrong with you, library? You can’t close!”
And I noticed something that I only noticed one other time in my entire life: I could hear my footsteps on the pavement. I went out in New York at night after September 11, 2001, and I heard my footsteps. And it of course reminded me of that. Like everyone, I think that New York is too noisy — but I’ve learned that when it’s quiet, there are some very bad reasons for that.
How is New York right now? I’m in Los Angeles and it feels as if everybody is trying to pretend that things are getting back to normal, even though most of them are wearing masks.
Well, I was in L.A. two weeks ago, and L.A. is a ghost town compared to New York. New York is much more open. I’ve certainly got out quite a bit in the last few weeks. Truthfully, once I had both vaccines, I would have gone anywhere if there was anywhere to go. I would eat dinner inside restaurants. I went to some people’s houses. I went to an art opening, and I hadn’t been to an art opening in over a year. I went on a plane to go to L.A. — and by the way, it was even worse than going to L.A. without a mask. What could be worse than eight hours not smoking going to L.A.? Doing it wearing a mask — that would be worse. So I found out that no matter how bad you think things are, they could definitely be worse. But it’s an amazing thing, this vaccine. I don’t think this (interview) is probably the venue for it, but in case anyone’s listening, get vaccinated.
During the last year, when people were stuck at home, lots of them took refuge in watching Netflix and other streaming services. Since you don’t have Netflix, what did you do?
I certainly read books I would not have read before. I would not have read a thousand-page book of the letters of Cole Porter if there hadn’t been a pandemic, even though I love Cole Porter. One thing, and I don’t think I’ve mentioned this to anyone, so this is an exclusive: I started doing crossword puzzles, something I never did in my life, ever. I don’t like games and it’s a kind of a game, but I started doing them. That is a bizarre habit to pick up at this age. That’s the only new habit I picked up. And it’s the most benign habit I have, probably.
Have you found yourself watching more TV?
Not really, because the TV is in my bedroom. I don’t read in the bedroom, I read in the living room. And I’m also very lazy. In fact, I’m so lazy that there’ve been many, many times in my life where I’m lying on the sofa thinking, “I’m so thirsty. Why doesn’t a glass of water walk over to the sofa?” I might die of dehydration lying on the sofa because I don’t want to get up to get a glass of water. So I’m certainly not going to get up off the sofa to go watch television.
As a New Yorker, are you happy that Mr. Trump appears to have mostly left the city for Florida?
Well, I certainly feel that Florida deserves Donald Trump, and that New York never deserved Donald Trump and Donald Trump never deserved New York. Donald Trump wasn’t ever a New Yorker to New Yorkers. He was, like, a New Yorker to people who have never been here. And I wish that when he left, he had taken that big pile of junk he built on Fifth Avenue with him.
New York has a mayoral election coming up. You’ve said in the past that you would offer to be the night mayor of New York if somebody else took the day shift. What would your priorities be if they took you up on that?
You know, New York is really in terrible trouble. By which I mean, New York is broken in many ways, and this is not the time to have a frivolous choice. We really need a great mayor, even though we’ve never really had one. So, you know, I think that I still could be the night mayor, but we’d need a really, really, really good day mayor. Really, the person we need to be mayor of New York is Franklin Roosevelt. But I don’t see him on the horizon.
Read more from the Race Begins issue here.
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