This Movie Changed Me

Karen Corday

Career Girls

Last Updated

October 8, 2019


Career Girls is a love letter to the friendships that shape us in our formative years, and the nostalgia that accompanies us once we’ve grown out of them. The indie movie follows Annie and Hannah, college friends who reunite for the first time since they graduated six years ago. Karen Corday, a writer, was the same age as the characters when she first saw the movie. She says it helped her feel seen and comforted to know that her experiences “just living as a person in the world” were worth exploring.

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Image of Karen Corday

Karen Corday writes about feelings, songs, movies, relationships, memories, old things, karaoke, and books. Her writing has appeared in publications like Brooklyn Magazine, The Washington Post, and Brit + Co. You can find the beautifully insightful piece she wrote about Career Girls on her website karencorday.com.

Transcript

Lily Percy, host: Hello, movie friends. I’m Lily Percy, and I’ll be your guide this week as I talk with writer Karen Corday, about the movie that changed her life, Mike Leigh’s Career Girls. You probably haven’t seen the movie, but don’t worry, we’re going to give you all the details you’ll need to follow along.

[music: “Pictures of You” by The Cure]

The first time I saw Career Girls, I was 15 years old and going through my first break-up. And this wasn’t a romantic break-up; it was my first best friend break-up. My best friend at the time was going through some very hard family things, and was getting into drugs and a lot of crazy things that I just couldn’t follow her in. And the break-up was sad and messy and painful, and I carried all of that in me when I went to see Career Girls. But what the movie showed me was that friendship was more than just about the end result — that it didn’t matter if my best friend and I at the time would get back together, or that we would overcome all these obstacles that were keeping us apart. Career Girls showed me that once you make that connection, it’s for life. Your love for them doesn’t go away just because your friendship ends.

[excerpt: Career Girls]

[music: “Pictures of You” by The Cure]

Career Girls is about two friends, Hannah and Annie, who after years of not seeing each other, meet again for the first time. They were first friends and roommates in London in their college years, and they’re now in their 30s. And yet in many ways it’s like nothing’s changed.

[excerpt: Career Girls]

Every time I re-watch Career Girls, I am blown away by how it accurately represents female friendship. The mundane moments where you’re just hanging out and nothing else is going on, listening to music, barely saying anything to each other. These moments of daily life are what writer-director Mike Leigh is known for. The dialogue in his movies is often completely improvised, which adds a quality of real life and intimacy that wouldn’t be there otherwise. This is what Karen Corday was drawn to when she first saw Career Girls — like her experiences, just living as a person in the world, were being reflected back to her and held up as something that was important, interesting, and worth exploring.

Ms. Percy: You wrote that before seeing Career Girls, you had never seen a Mike Leigh movie before, and that, you said, you didn’t know it was possible to create an entire body of work about average people and their feelings, fears, and relationships — which is totally what his work is about.

Karen Corday: Yes, exactly. So the poster for Career Girls was what — I was on a term abroad in London in 1997. And the poster, which is just two women just with normal clothes and hair and just sort of average-looking —

Ms. Percy: It hangs in my bedroom. I know it.

Ms. Corday: [laughs] Oh — oh, my gosh. That’s beautiful. So I was like, oh, what’s this? Who are these regular people starring in a movie?

Ms. Percy: Isn’t that fascinating, that you were drawn to literally just seeing women who looked like women?

Ms. Corday: [laughs] Yes. Sad, but true.

Ms. Percy: Wow.

Ms. Corday: But yep, and so in I went. And it blew my mind, just from the get-go. It’s a very quiet, slow movie, just day-in-the-life of two friends who met in college, and now they’re getting together again for the first time as adults. And then the movie is shown in modern, 1997 times, and then flashbacks to 1987. And that’s it. And I just watched, completely transfixed, through the entire thing.

[excerpt: Career Girls]

Ms. Percy: So I don’t know if you know this or not, but Mr. Fred Rogers, who’s one of my heroes, when he accepted his Lifetime Achievement Award at the Daytime Emmys, he got up there on the stage, and he asked everyone in the audience to take ten seconds to think about all of the people that had brought them to where they were today. And I won’t ask you to do that, [laughs] because we’ll just start crying.

Ms. Corday: [laughs] Right.

Ms. Percy: But I will ask you to think back to that first time you saw Career Girls and then just take the ten seconds, and I’ll chime back in when the time is up. And just think about that. Think about that first time you saw it.

Ms. Corday: OK.

Ms. Percy: So how old were you at the time, and also, what memories came up for you right then, when you were thinking about it? How did it make you feel when you first saw it?

Ms. Corday: I was 21 years old when I saw it. It made me feel seen. It made me feel, for the first time, my experiences just living as a person in the world were being reflected back to me on a screen and held up as something that was important and interesting and worth exploring.

Ms. Percy: So at 21, you were actually living, in many ways, what they were experiencing in those ’80s flashbacks, in college.

Ms. Corday: Yes, yes. The movie starts, pretty much — it goes into the flashback pretty quickly. And I think the first time that I was just completely struck by the movie is that the apartment that they rent together — one of them, Hannah, is already in an apartment with a woman named Claire, and they’re looking for the third roommate, Annie — and the apartment actually looks like a college apartment.

Ms. Percy: Yeah, it really does. [laughs]

Ms. Corday: [laughs] It’s very dingy and dark, and there’s just posters and —

Ms. Percy: Just hung up with gum, it looks like, just tacked on the walls.

Ms. Corday: Yeah, and I think also — I don’t know enough about moviemaking techniques to know this for sure, but I think the way that the flashbacks are filmed are purposely made to look a little grubby and shaky, not only to reflect that college is kind of a grubby, shaky time, [laughs] but then obviously, I didn’t have memories of college during that time …

Ms. Percy: Because you were in college.

Ms. Corday: Because I was living it. Right. [laughs] But I have them now, and those memories are kind of grubby and shaky themselves. [laughs] I can kind of piece them together a little bit and remember very strong feelings and moments, but it’s all a little off-kilter and hazy and weird. So I like to think now that that was also on purpose. I think Mike Leigh knew what he was doing with that.

[excerpt: Career Girls]

Ms. Percy: So you touched upon that feeling of being in college and seeing yourself reflected. And whenever I watch this movie, which I’ve done many times, I’m really struck by all the various themes that are running through it, like the complexity of female friendships and, also, the idea of our chosen family, the family that we make out of our friends and that we choose. And then there’s a kind of sadness that also permeates all of it, because it’s also talking about growing up and how hard that is, and how awkward and uncomfortable all of those experiences can be when you’re figuring out your identity and who you are.

And the thing that came across to me this week, watching the movie again, was the importance of living in the moment, of being grateful for that friend that you have in that moment, for that moment that you’re sharing, because it’s gonna be gone, and you know that looking back, but you don’t know that when you’re living it. And I just wonder, since there are so many things and so many possible lessons that you can learn from this movie, what you took away from it.

Ms. Corday: Yep. You just said it perfectly. I think further takeaways for me is the importance of that kind of mindfulness, of recognizing and respecting and appreciating the small, seemingly inconsequential moments of your life — that’s what actually makes a life, overall. There’s a few giant life-changing moments throughout our lives, but most of it is pretty — just the day-to-day interacting with other people and continuously learning how to be a person.

Another thing is that the key to human relationships, for me, is constantly exchanging that “You too? Me too!”

Ms. Percy: That synchronicity that they talk about in the movie.

Ms. Corday: Yes, which is the main focus of the movie. I just started writing in public a few years ago. I didn’t publish anything until I was 38 years old. And the best part about writing in public for the first time, after a lifetime of writing in private, is when people read something that I wrote, just like you did, and say, “Oh, I really thought I was the only person that felt this way. You’ve expressed what I feel.” That’s the most important thing in the world to me. And I think I have Career Girls to thank for that, ultimately — [laughs] among other things, but that’s a big influence.

[excerpt: Career Girls]

[music: “Lovesong” by The Cure]

Ms. Percy: Well, it’s amazing — you write, actually, in that piece about Career Girls, “We all carry around so much pain and despair, and when we’re young, we don’t know where and when it’s safe to share this pain. We don’t know who’s gonna look at us like we’ve grown two heads, like they don’t know what we’re even doing here, the way Claire does to Hannah and Annie several times throughout the movie.”

Ms. Corday: Yes, exactly. I think that there’s an ongoing discussion about vulnerability in the movie. Hannah, in particular, talks about how she is so afraid to show any sort of vulnerability, and she envies Annie the fact that she can be vulnerable with people, and that vulnerability, to her, equals weakness. And then in preparation for this movie, I actually read some interviews with Katrin Cartlidge and Lynda Steadman, who are the actresses that play Hannah and Annie. And Katrin Cartlidge talked quite a bit about that and said, particularly for women, it’s hard to live out that vulnerability and strength. The world is not hospitable to that. So to find another person who sees that about you and encourages it is huge.

[excerpt: Career Girls]

[music: “The Caterpillar” by The Cure]

Ms. Percy: Who’s the Annie to your Hannah? That’s the question we’re reflecting on in our This Movie Changed Me newsletter — we’d love to hear your thoughts. Join in on the conversation, and if you haven’t subscribed yet go to onbeing.org/tmcmletter.

[music: “Friday I’m In Love” by The Cure]

Ms. Percy: Yeah, and in so many ways they represent those two — often, the way — the two sides of women that are portrayed. Either you can be tough and hide your emotions, or you can be all emotion like a raw nerve. And that’s Hannah and Annie.

Ms. Corday: Yes, exactly. And it’s funny, they have that dinner scene where they’re processing all this stuff that’s happened to them during their day, and they say, “Oh, if we were combined, we would be the perfect woman.” And I’m just like, “Well…” [laughs] I consider myself a combination of the two of them. I, like Hannah, in my entire life have been told that I’m too aggressive. The scene where their friend Ricky is [laughs] discussing their cardinal traits, and he says to Hannah, “You’re very aggressive. You’re always coming forward” — I can’t even tell you how many times I’ve heard that. [laughs] So that was like, oh!

Ms. Percy: I can relate, yeah. [laughs] It’s called being direct, people. That’s all it is.

Ms. Corday: Yes, exactly. Live it. But then, unlike Hannah and like Annie, I am a big crier. When Annie says, “I started crying when I was 8, and I’ve never stopped,” that’s another moment where I’m like, “Oh…” [laughs]

Ms. Percy: That’s me.

Ms. Corday: Me too. [laughs] So I don’t know, sometimes I feel like it’s easy for me to be like, “Oh, I’m actually the worst parts of both of them,” but of course, the whole point of the movie — well, one of the points of the movie is that the things that you think are your worst traits are also what makes you, you, and gives you strength. So try and keep that in mind too.

Ms. Percy: So true. I love, also, that you pointed out how the film is really just filled with all of these very mundane scenes of them just hanging out together and talking together, because I think what struck me the first time I saw it was how that’s exactly what a female friendship is — that’s what friendship is for everyone, but I can only speak as a woman.

Ms. Corday: Yes, right, exactly.

Ms. Percy: When you meet that person who you have that synchronicity with, your whole friendship is filled with these moments. And that’s what you remember, is the time you woke up really early and were making breakfast together, and you had that conversation about your parents, and you were both struck with the similarities. And I can’t think of any other movie that does that so well.

Ms. Corday: No, yeah, I think it’s pretty singular in that way. And I also love the fact that the two scenes where they are hanging out together and are being the most vulnerable with each other is when they’re eating: in the college, when they’re preparing that tea, tuna and spaghetti …

Ms. Percy: [laughs] Yeah.

Ms. Corday: That they like and Claire hates — Claire’s all upset that they’re making a tea that she doesn’t like.

Ms. Percy: Because of the smell.

Ms. Corday: Yes, exactly. And then the second time is after they’ve had that whole day together, and then they go out to eat. So that also speaks to my relationship. I’ve had a lot of big, soul-baring conversations with other women over food.

Ms. Percy: [laughs] It’s no coincidence.

[excerpt: Career Girls]

Ms. Percy: So we’ve kind of talked about this, and how Career Girls has a sadness that hangs over it, all throughout. It’s like the sadness that comes with nostalgia, and looking at the past and who you once were, and also the discomfort of watching two awkward people be vulnerable with each other and insecure with each other.

Ms. Corday: Ugh, yes. They’re so awkward. [laughs]

Ms. Percy: [laughs] But they’re also really funny, right?

Ms. Corday: Oh, yeah. Yes.

Ms. Percy: And I think Hannah, in particular: she has all those impersonations she does, and one-liners, and this is why she’s my favorite character, apart from the fact that I relate to her and her fear of vulnerability. But I just wonder, what are the lines that really stand out for you, those moments that you always go back to and play over and in your head?

Ms. Corday: I love their ongoing joke about the Brontës.

Ms. Percy: “Oh, Miss Brontë, Miss Brontë.”

Ms. Corday: [laughs] Yes. “The Brontës. We always get the brunt of everything.”

Ms. Percy: [laughs] Yeah. And we should explain that it’s because they use Wuthering Heights almost as an oracle, a guide, where they ask it a question, and then they flip open to the page, and then that’s the answer to their question.

Ms. Corday: Yes, exactly, so I love — and then there’s a little side note about how they went to — I don’t remember which Brontë sister; maybe it’s her. But they went to her house on a vacation together.

Ms. Percy: Yes, because it was close to Annie’s house,

Ms. Corday: [laughs] Yes, exactly.

[excerpt: Career Girls]

Ms. Percy: So I want to read for you — I don’t know if you’ve ever read the forward to the screenplay for the movie …

Ms. Corday: Oh, I don’t think I have.

Ms. Percy: And Mike Leigh wrote this forward, and I just — I think you’ll appreciate it, and I — it’s just really beautiful.

Ms. Corday: All right.

Ms. Percy: So he wrote this in 1997. I think upon the release of the movie, they also released the screenplay as a book. So he says, “As old and as wise as you get, or as much as you age, it’s still the same old innocent baby tucked away in there. Run into an old friend, years later, and very soon, those encrustations of time fall away. Time moves forward and yet stands still, simultaneously. Some ‘time journeys’ are longer than others. The ones between 30 and 40, or 40 and 50, are far, far shorter than the long trek from 20 to 30.”

Ms. Corday: Ugh, yes.

Ms. Percy: “When you’re around 20, you’re a seasoned grown-up, in many ways, but you haven’t quite made it out of your innocent childhood. Most of us at that age are still sorting out the jigsaw puzzle of who we are and who we think we want to be, and how to be who and what we think we should be. Like Hannah and Annie and the others, we’re still experimenting and struggling with our identity, even if we don’t know or admit it. But by the time you’re 30, you’re definitely a grown-up, and you’ve got it sussed. Or have you? In High Hopes,” which is another film that he did, “Cyril says, ‘From 25 to 35, best years of your life, ain’t they?’ Perhaps those years also contain one very special, particular Rubicon: the real end of your childhood.”

So I wonder, as you’ve gotten older and kept watching this film, how it’s changed for you, how you’ve grown with it.

Ms. Corday: Oh, my gosh, that’s a really good question — especially since I think I pretty — I am — when I first saw the movie, I was the age they are in the flashbacks, and I was like, “Oh, that’s kind of sad that by the time they’re 30, they’re really these shadows of themselves.” [laughs] That’s how I saw it at first.

Ms. Percy: Yes, the perspective of a 21-year-old, exactly.

Ms. Corday: Yeah, it’s like, oh, they just have these jobs that they don’t really care about, and they live…

Ms. Percy: It’s depressing.

Ms. Corday: And I think my career’s maybe been slightly better than theirs, but maybe now only because I’m 40. So maybe when I was 30, I would’ve said the same thing. But the life that you think you’re going to lead is very different, when you’re younger. And their evolution into I guess what Mike Leigh calls the “beginnings of being a grown-up” has rung very true for me. And I think I would’ve been a little disappointed in myself if I had seen down the line when I was 21, but in retrospect, I’m not. I’m pretty happy with the way that my life has turned out. But it’s that realization that not everyone is going to set the world on fire. [laughs]

Ms. Percy: Yeah, but you still have your place, and you still have your role.

Ms. Corday: I do; and I also — like I said, I did — I had always been a writer and kind of always dreamed of being a writer, and I didn’t dare do anything about it until I was in my very late 30s. So that’s not something that I would’ve predicted when I was younger. So there’s been some great surprises too.

Ms. Percy: And I think you’re talking about a satisfaction that also comes with growing more into yourself, becoming more yourself. And I think that’s one of the things that has always struck me, whenever I’ve shown this movie to people, especially to girlfriends — they’re always like, “Ugh, this movie’s so sad.” And I’m like, really? At the end, I actually feel like it’s really hopeful, because they’ve grown, and they’re still friends. What’s sad about it is the passage of time and how you can’t avoid that. But they are still who they are, and yet, they’re better. And they’re happier. And I think you see that in the present-day version of them.

Ms. Corday: Yes, I think so too, and that they can look back at things that have happened to them and say, oh, this is why I am the way I am.

Ms. Percy: Yeah, and accept it.

Ms. Corday: Exactly. They become more self-aware, as the movie goes on, and in the best possible way.

Ms. Percy: Well, and I love, too, toward the last scene of the film, you see Hannah and Annie on that platform, and she’s getting back on the train to go home, and this is in present-day, when they’re 30. And yet you see both of them revert slightly to their old quirks and their —

Ms. Corday: Oh, yes.

Ms. Percy: Because that’s still there. That part of themselves is still there. And they — I think, in some ways, they only feel safe bringing it out with each other, because they know there’s no judgment, and they know that they had — they share that time together.

Ms. Corday: Exactly; yes, they have that shared history. They have that language that nobody else speaks. Do you think that they do actually keep up with each other after that visit? This is the thing that kind of haunts me …

Ms. Percy: That’s the big question, I know. Honestly, no, I don’t.

Ms. Corday: Yeah, same. And that’s …

Ms. Percy: It’s true to life. [laughs]

Ms. Corday: It’s true to life, yes. Yes, like that could very well be the last time that they ever saw each other.

Ms. Percy: And that doesn’t lessen it at all. It doesn’t lessen the experience they had or the love they have for one another. It’s just the reality of distractions and getting older and becoming busy.

Ms. Corday: Yes, and life, yeah. Yes.

Ms. Percy: And life.

Ms. Corday: Yes.

[excerpt: Career Girls]

[music: “Let’s Go to Bed” by The Cure]

Ms. Percy: Karen Corday writes about feelings, songs, movies, relationships, memories, old things, karaoke, and books. Her writing has appeared in publications like Brooklyn Magazine, The Washington Post, Brit + Co — and you can find the beautifully insightful piece she wrote about Career Girls on her website karencorday.com.

Channel 4 Films and Thin Man Films produced Career Girls, and the clips you heard in this episode are credited entirely to them. 20th Century Fox most recently distributed the movie in the US — so please petition them to re-release it!! We want to see this movie more. The music you’ll hear in the movie, and that we featured in this episode, is by Hannah and Annie’s favorite band, The Cure.

[music: “The Lovecats” by The Cure]

Next time on This Movie Changed Me, we’ll be talking about the epic tale of genius, jealousy and deception: Amadeus. You’ve got a week to watch the movie before our conversation — and fair warning: you might not be able to get Mozart’s crazy laugh out of your head once you’ve seen it.

The team behind This Movie Changed Me is: Maia Tarrell, Chris Heagle, Tony Liu, Kristin Lin, and Lilian Vo. This podcast is produced by On Being Studios, which is located on Dakota Land. We also produce other podcasts you might enjoy, like On Being with Krista Tippett and Becoming Wise — find those wherever you like to listen or visit us at onbeing.org to find out more.

I’m Lily Percy, and I’m off to start the campaign to get Career Girls re-released.

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