Academy Award-nominated filmmaker Tamar Jenkins discusses the journey of a female filmmaker, her purposeful lengthy writing process, and the importance of trusting your instincts and artistic expression.
As the world seems to grow considerably complex, there are still subjects that remain taboo, as we strive to solve them through technology rather than bringing them out into the open, so we can find support and understanding. Fertility is one of those subjects, and it was recently tackled by Academy Award-nominated filmmaker Tamara Jenkins in her latest film, Private Life, which premiered on Netflix this month.
Private Life is the funny and moving story of Richard (Paul Giamatti) and Rachel (Kathryn Hahn), a couple in the throes of infertility who try to maintain their marriage as they descend deeper and deeper into the insular world of assisted reproduction and domestic adoption. From painful IVF injections to nerve-wracking adoption interviews to the humbling search for an egg donor, Rachel and Richard have to come to terms with their choices, crying, laughing and fumbling their way through some of life’s toughest questions about fertility, marriage and what it means to be in control.
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Lately, no matter the topic, it's hard to keep conversations from veering toward a dissection on a woman’s place in the world, especially when that conversation occurs between two women filmmakers. Does a woman’s voice matter any more? Will she be given the space she needs to be understood and heard? And will her truth be deemed valuable?
At the start of our conversation, my focus began with standard questions on her craft and how she approaches writing and directing:
- How much of her film is auto-biographical vs research? (She had her own personal experience with fertility but isn’t making a documentary. She’s interested in the emotional core of the subject or the experience.)
- Where do her characters come from? (She doesn’t go out formally in the world with her notebook and her pencil behind her ear, but once she’s in the zone, the world opens up to her and she starts seeing things everywhere that apply to her story.)
- How do the characters change as you move from writing to directing? (She feels like the actors are filling in a kind of humanity you try to get on the page. It’s like working in a laboratory, and in each scene, she’s setting up an experiment. She takes her dropper and drops in Paul and drops in Kathryn and sees the reaction. And it works if she does her preparation well enough and sets up the right parameters on the page.)
- What gets her excited about making a movie? (The laboratory experiment of human behavior and how humans are going to behave in a given situation)
Getting to the core of Private Life
Enviably the conversation shifted to the topic of fertility, which is the subject at the core of Private Life.
“I felt the issue of fertility is equally a male and female thing. So I’d write little things around my office to help order all my thoughts in the process of writing. At one point, I wrote “the biological battle of the sexes” and stuck that index card over my desk. I always wanted it to be not just her. It was both of them. They are both late bloomers. They both waited. I wanted both of them to be on equal terrain.”
Despite Jenkins’ film’s balanced view of the topic from both genders, fertility has been traditionally classified as a female issue (even though we both agreed that this isn’t really the case). Did her film have any pushback?
“I didn’t develop this in a normal way. I just wrote it myself on spec, in my office alone. It didn’t go through the normal development steps as I wanted to avoid that [pushback] as much as possible. Often you feel you’re going to be put in a little-league zone because [your film] is from a female perspective. I think that happens all the time. Is this as important as other movies?”
Reclaiming the female perspective
At a time when women creators are standing up and screaming to be heard, I asked Jenkins what we can do. How do we change that point of view? How can the female perspective be deemed just as important as any other point of view?
“I don’t know. I think it’s really a deep thing. The movie is 2 hours and 3 minutes long. Somebody recently told me—oh so and so really liked it but they thought it was too long. I’m looking around, and I’m seeing the length of these movies by men that are just gigantic movies. Why is this movie too long?
Narratively, I don’t really feel like it’s too long. I don’t think that it’s fat. I really felt like it was some kind of unconscious prejudice, that it wasn’t considered important enough to be 2 hours and 3 minutes. If this movie was shorter you’d think it was too long because you don’t think it’s valuable enough to take up that much space. On some level, it’s like manspreading, like it’s OK to take up that much space on the subway but a woman has to have her knees tight together holding her purse on her lap.”
This feeling of double standard is sadly not a surprising one. Why shouldn’t Private Life take up space like anything else? Is it because people are uncomfortable to talk about the secret things in our own lives? The film is aptly called "Private Life." It’s about a secret in a couple’s life that shouldn’t be secret but current societal norms deem it so. And Tamara Jenkins deems that subject something that should be talked about, a complicated gender-partative issue that deserves air time.
“Maybe it started 20 years ago when I was writing 'The Slums of Beverly Hills.' I went to a writers lab where all these grown-up screenplay writers were reading it and giving their insight. I’ll never forget this man who’d done these giant Hollywood movies (nothing like this kind of movie), read my screenplay.
In the first scene, there’s a girl being fitted for a bra and the first thing he said to me was: “Oh my god, you can’t spend 5 pages on that. We don’t want to sit there and see that for that long,” and I was like, wow. It was the same thing. Like it wasn’t worth the time. It’s too long. You can’t start your movie with a girl being fitted for a bra. Which, you know, is like normal. He was like you can’t spend all that time and I’m like it’s about an adolescent who’s body is taking over. But it wasn’t worth the time.
I think that set me off on a course of noticing that no one thinks that deserves space, but I do, and I think it does. We’ve watched so many movies by men, and read so many books by men, putting yourself in the shoes of white male protagonists. Then when the shoe is on the other foot, and they have to put themselves into the shoes of gender or race, they’re uncomfortable. They don’t like it.”
Taking time: is it process or the system?
Private Life is Jenkins’ third film as writer/director, and though her films have brought her varying degrees of success, there’s been at least 10 years between each one. Statistically she’s beating the odds, as 80% of women directors are one-and-done after their first film (according to the 2017 Inclusion in the Director’s chair study from USC Annenberg’s Media, Diversity & Social Change Initiative).
“I don’t want to spend another 10 years for the next one. The older you get the more dangerous it is.”
And the study agrees. 65% of films directed by women in the past 10 years were made by women under 50. So even with success under her belt, why does the filmmaking process take this long for her?
“Some of it is my own problem and some of it is the system that isn’t that open to making my movies very easily. It takes me a couple years to write the screenplay. I don’t know how normal people do it, but it takes me two years to write anything of value. They’re always too long. They’re 200 pages and then I spend a lot of time reducing it to it’s proper screenplay length and structure. The first draft is everything (including the kitchen sink) and then I have to distill it. I think—oh I wrote a novel, and now I have to adapt my own thing and make it into a screenplay.
I was ready to make this before, but it took a long time to get it really made. There was time wasted. There was a couple of years where it could have been made, and it wasn’t. And I felt like I was watching the seasons go by, and I was trying to get this thing made. I don’t know, maybe if it were someone else they could hand in a script and it’d be like, ok let’s go, here’s your green light. I just feel like every time I’ve made a movie, it gets stretched. Once I start interfacing with the studios, it doesn’t happen quickly. Maybe it doesn’t for anybody.
But each time when you realize how hard it is to get them made, you have that “Oh my god I’m really going to go through all of that again?” moment, and I don’t even have the energy to think about starting a new one. That’s kind of embarrassing to admit, that resistance of going through it again.
It’s so hard: you spend years trying to convince people—this is valuable, this is valuable, this is valuable—and they’re saying—not really, not really, not really—and that really wears you down. But you have to be so crazy and obsessed, and you almost go into an obsessive-compulsive state.
You just stick with it, you keep going and arriving at the door saying:
“Please take this seriously.
Please take this seriously.
Please give me money for this.
This is valuable.”
And eventually something happens. But to get yourself up to that state is a lot of work. And also, I don’t know how healthy that is. Should I bang on the door to get this movie made or pick up my daughter from school? It’s complicated.”
Changing as a filmmaker
As a filmmaker who's worked in the business for over 25 years and Private Life as the first film Jenkins’ shot digitally, the biggest change hasn’t only been the technology she’s worked with.
“I feel like I’m a better filmmaker. For each movie I become more demanding, and I don’t bend to things easily, I really fight for things. And you have to learn that to be a director. Everything is very difficult. To make a movie is very hard. You’re pushing against this gravity all the time, and you have to keep the belief and stick by your guns. It’s very easy to have your vision chipped away at. Not because people are mean, but there’s things that are getting in the way of your vision all the time, and you have to defend your vision. The way you really wanted it to be and not compromise.
That to me is the biggest learning curve. And maybe it’s extra as a female person, as some women have a problem with asserting themselves—the whole is the female director being a bitch or the male filmmaker being a visionary thing. I feel like I’ve really had to practice that, and I’ve become more fiercely protective of the vision of the movie.
I didn’t understand how much you had to do that at the beginning. I didn’t see all the ways your vision could be chipped away at. It’s very insidious. With each compromise, it just starts chipping away: Oh well, they don’t want that actress, so we’ll go with that actress; oh, we can’t get that location, so we’ll use this location; oh, we don’t have enough time to do that—you really have to defend the material, and you have to defend it to the bitter end.”
After such candor, I finished by asking Jenkins for some words of advice.
“If anybody tells you that you’re not allowed to start a movie with a girl getting fitted for her first bra, don’t listen to them. That should be on a T-shirt. It was so easy to be ashamed by that, by being told your experience wasn’t valuable enough, like it’s embarrassing. You have to hold that thing in your head and don’t listen to people. Don’t think that something you’ve never seen before in a movie isn’t valid. It’s probably more valid.
People always want to see something they’ve already seen. One of the good things about being a female filmmaker is that you get to put things on screen that haven’t been seen, because no one has had a chance to show them yet. So instead of thinking of it as a negative, you can flip it and think of it like there aren’t enough movies by women, so whatever I write, the things that I’m interested in, are different, therefore novel and therefore valuable. And maybe that’s a healthier way of looking at it. That it’s actually an asset.”
Just as Private Life ends with the two leads waiting for their future to begin, Jenkins leaves us with a ghost in the room at the end of this interview, whispering to us to tell our stories. Though the industry still hasn’t shifted substantially over the past few years to make more room for women and people of color, we have our mission to defend our vision and not compromise. That our stories can take up space, deserve space and those subjects that may be everyday to us are still novel on screen and will be more and more valuable as we move forward.