My Life… As I Repressed It: Writer/Director Jennifer Fox on Her Explosive New Film about Sexual Abuse, The Tale
In 1992, award-winning documentary filmmaker Jennifer Fox began round-the-clock filming of an interracial couple living with their two daughters in Flushing, Queens. Over 17 months she accumulated over 1,000 hours of footage documenting their daily lives. In 1997 An American Love Story aired as a nine-hour miniseries on PBS, described by The New York Times as “the most ambitious, exhaustive documentary about private life since An American Family.” The film, as I recall it 20 years later, was an enthralling and intense examination of love, middle-class aspirations, race relations and the failings of America to create a truly integrated society. Fox’s degree of intimacy of her with her subjects was unnerving, and the resulting portrait deeply moving and provocative.
Twenty years and many award-wining documentaries later, Fox has now turned the camera on herself in an even more provocative examination of another American crisis, that of sexual abuse. Her controversial new film, The Tale, which she wrote and directed, premiered this week on HBO after an explosive festival premiere at Sundance. Even bolder than sleeping in her subjects’ home to capture private moments, Fox returns to her own bedroom to unflinchingly examine a deeply repressed childhood trauma and interrogate the machinations that led to a profound denial. Using as source material what she remembered as a “relationship” — which was in fact unconscionable acts of sexual coercion and abuse wrought upon her by her adult coaches, “Bill” and “Mrs. G.” — Fox has produced an ambitious investigation into the haunting and labyrinthine nature of memory. But in a dramatic departure from her previous projects, The Tale is a fictional narrative starring Laura Dern as the adult documentary filmmaker, Jennifer Fox, and Isabele Nelisse as her 13-year-old self. The line between fiction and nonfiction is not just blurred but shredded in a narrative based on Fox’s own childhood story written in 1973 as a school assignment and read out loud to her class as a love story that she claimed was fiction. The film begins 35 years later, after her mother finds the story, with the adult Jennifer suddenly having to reckon with this horrific chapter in her life. She does so with the exacting documentary skills Fox herself has harnessed for three decades as she tracks down all the original, actual players, imploring them to help her find out “what really happened,” while simultaneously absorbing the shattering implications of their revelations and withholdings.
The Tale continuously swings seamlessly, purposefully, between 1973 and 2008, repeatedly reconstructing the details of Jennifer’s abuse to accommodate the malleable nature of memory, and using multiple formal conceits to illuminate its elusive psychic operations. Fox is successful at navigating directorial impulses often at odds — the desire to communicate to a broad audience about a deeply urgent subject while simultaneously insisting on its conceptual and emotional complexity. In doing so, The Tale moves beyond a #metoo trend to a complex exploration of the multi-dimensional, cross-generational impact of trauma, set against the backdrop of an 1970’s America that in retrospect seems far less “free” than we recall.
Fox is a skilled, sensitive narrative director, whose ability to render and navigate cross-historical plot lines belies her “first-time” status. Laura Dern as adult Jennifer is spectacular in her relentless efforts to find the truth of her past while unraveling under the weight of her discoveries, and Isabelle Nelisse beautifully navigates young Jennifer’s conflicting independence and vulnerability. Ellen Burstyn, Common, Elizabeth Debicki and Frances Conroy are all excellent, but especially Jason Ritter, who’s terrifyingly convincing as Jennifer’s empathetic seducer, or rapist, depending on whose interpretation, and when.
The Tale is currently screening on HBO, and we spoke just before its release.
Filmmaker: To begin with, I’m curious about your transitioning to narrative filmmaking after such a deep immersion in nonfiction for the past three decades. What was the difference in process between your documentary filmmaking and your first fictional feature narrative?
Fox: Well, as you know from The Tale, I’ve been a writer since I was a kid. I’ve written [fictional] screenplays, and I do an enormous amount of research for the screenplays in my documentaries. I shoot my research and then edit it. In the screenplay for The Tale, I didn’t shoot my research, but I would audiotape or take extensive notes, and I would take notes on my thoughts, as if I was doing research on myself — like, what are present events that would trigger a memory? I started to investigate memory in myself. I amassed hundreds of pages in the way I would have amassed hundreds of hours of footage and then edited it in the way I would edit a documentary. I edited the writing into a screenplay.
So the writing was not new for me. What was totally unique was that I had never worked with actors. I’ve done a lot of work with real people, but [working with actors] was a very weak link in my skills. And so years before I ever directed The Tale, I did anything I could with actors. And while I was turned down for every American workshop, Europe served me well. I did the Binger Lab for directors and there did a lot of work with acting coaches — directing acting coaches.
Filmmaker: Did you work with Adrienne Weiss? I love her.
Fox: I did. Adrienne was amazing, and I also worked with an LA-based coach through the Binger Lab, Judith Weston, and I highly recommend both of them. What I learned was to use actors to refine the screenplay. Things that weren’t working became immediately apparent. Like, the translation from my memory of what really happened to a scene shifted because the truth sometimes was too apparent to an audience. So I had to pull some of my scenes back so that you wouldn’t know what was going to happen too soon.
One thing I realized is that as a documentarian I have enormous skills for listening, for empathy, for merging in and becoming, not invisible, but moving into the background of an event in somebody’s life. And fiction directing is 180 degrees the opposite. You actually direct: “Put your foot here, say this this way, do this this way.” You have to be ready to intervene in a scene, and that is a skill that I had not developed. So, the biggest thing for me was forcing myself out of this position of receiving into a position of action.
Filmmaker: How many days was the shoot?
Fox: We ended up with 29, but they were hard-fought 29. I think originally it was budgeted at 22, and I said absolutely not.
Filmmaker: That would have been impossible.
Fox: We barely made it. But my documentary background made me very flexible. You know, Laura Dern came in a year and a half prior, and then we disappeared to raise money and bring in other actors. When we got financed, Laura Dern was booked to the tee. I said, “We’re ready to shoot, we have the money.” She’s like, “Oh my god, I don’t know if I can do it. I don’t have the time. I think you have to recast.” But I really believed that she was the right person for this part. So I flew to LA, sat down with her and said, “What will it take?” And she said, “Well, one, you need to move the shoot closer to LA because I’m a single mom now, and I can only do two weeks. Can you move the whole thing to LA?” We couldn’t move the whole thing to LA. Long story short, we broke the shoot up into three shoots to fit her schedule, and we shot over the course of six weeks in L.A. and Louisiana. These were things that for me were really comfortable to do because in documentary we do think like that and we shoot for long periods. But in fiction nobody does that. I think everybody was freaked out except for me.
Filmmaker: I imagine that on top of the pressure of making your very first narrative on an unusually large scale for a “first-time” director, you’re also on set every day revisiting and explaining what I assume was one of the most profound traumas of your life. Thus must have added pressure on the process that’s quite different than directing something that’s entirely fictional, or at least not autobiographical.
Fox: I mean, I know people think, oh, this must have been so much harder. I actually think it’s a little different. I had made Flying: Confessions of Free Woman and put myself as a subject of a six-hour miniseries about women around the world. After making that, I felt I had the muscle to distance myself from my own story, so the autobiographical nature did not really faze me as you might think. In fact, I think what it did is give me a lot of strength in the face of other people’s ideas of sexual abuse and trauma. I mean, many things Laura brought to the script are fantastic, but she and I did not agree on some of the interpretation of my character. I think Laura would have thought that I would have been angrier in my investigation, and so I was able to say, “No, this [investigation] is not coming from that place. This is coming from curiosity.” Or, when Laura and Ellen Burstyn, playing Jennifer and Nettie, were having these conversations as mother and daughter, both of them wanted to make it more of a fight, and in fact it wasn’t a fight at all. In the kitchen scene, where Ellen is trying to say, “Well, why were you so promiscuous, and, why did you keep going back to them,” it took me a lot to get those two to not make it an angry fight but [instead] about two adult women coming to terms with each other. And the only reason I could authentically move them [as actors] is because I was the expert. I knew what the scene was about, and I couldn’t be moved off my soul seat, which might be different if it was a fictional interpretation. So I think there’s a way that it being an autobiographical story actually helped me direct the scenes and get through the shoot. I don’t think it was traumatic as people think because I had already learned the skills of objectifying and fictionalizing my own story.
Filmmaker: I’m interested in the formal design of the film. It seems to me that what you were trying to do is mine the way our minds work to deal with the past, in particular with trauma. The Tale moves between past and present, repeatedly shifting and remaking different interpretations of the past, as well as presenting different Jennifers. As Jennifer’s adult perception shifts you have your characters confronting each other across time and even sharing the screen, so the story keeps changing according to different perspectives and timelines. Could you walk us through how you landed with the structure? You started with hundreds and hundreds of pages of notes. You said, you’ve written screenplays, but this must have been on a whole other level. I’m imagining walls of Post-It notes…
Fox: Well, first of all, I very strictly adhere to the idea that the form should follow the story. And the story was absolutely about memory and the creation of self through the narratives we tell each other. So what I was looking for was how to show that.
Filmmaker: And there are so many clichés of how people have done that.
Fox: Sure. But this is again where although the industry doesn’t acknowledge my past 30 years of working, I have worked unconventionally, maybe not so obviously, with narrative and storytelling in all my documentaries. That’s a muscle that was there. One of the biggest muscles is learning how to call off the dogs, which is to call off the pressure to have a result — to allow yourself to swim in the unknown. Here’s how that applies itself. The first draft was totally in the back history — [set in] 1973, chronological, a very classic film. I wrote that and then put it aside. And when I read it again, I was like, oh shit, this is not the form I want to make! How boring! It’s all about abuse — not interested! That’s when it really became clear that what I was really interested in was the creation of self and that the film had to be about memory. So I threw out screenplay one, which was less hard for me than you would think, and I said, “Okay, all the rules are off. I know narrative structure like the back of my hand, I’ve read every book, I’ve taken every class, but this is not that. I’m just going to start with couplets.” I started to write down couplets of memory — I’d write them, and then I would write them in script form, and I had pages and pages of that. At the same time, I was taking the documentary approach. Because the character of Jennifer would have a real narrative journey, I wanted to use real research as the backbone of that journey. I’m very much about authenticity. So I researched, took notes or recorded conversations and created a real investigation that I didn’t know the outcome of. I went and met the kids from back then, and the real Mrs. G., and I found the real Bill. I would meet them, and then I’d get in the car and verbatim regurgitate into my iPhone what was said, and then I would type that up. So that became a layer of the script. And then there were surprises for me. Going through all my diaries as a child, and the letters of the real Bill and Mrs. G., and the tale itself — I realized that I actually didn’t know who that 13 year old was anymore. Who is she and, and why did she make the choices she did? When I approached the script, I had this idea that consciousness is a continuum and that we are the same person now as we were when we were children. And one of the big surprises that hit me writing the script was that I not the same person. I’m a different person now, and I don’t know that 13 year old. She felt like an alien to me. So then I had this idea that the only way to reach her was to imagine her, and that was the idea for the fantasy interviews with her. I had these long conversations in my mind with my 13-year-old self. I’d type it up and then reduce it into units and scenes. I used that same technique to investigate the real Bill and Mrs. G., and some of those imagined investigations went into the fantasy interviews that you see in the film. And the reason the style of the film is very simple [regarding the distinction between] the past and the fantasy is that I wanted to show that all these things exist in your mind as if it was the same time. I wanted those interviews to look like they were real, and I wanted the past to look like it took place in the same time as the present.
Filmmaker: Could you talk about the production design and the 1970s periodization? I love the subtlety and specificity as you shift between 1973 and the present. You didn’t do such obvious things like shooting in one format for the past and another for the present. Your periodization was also so specific, both in design and even in the actors’ performance. Like the type of physical stretches they did before they jogged is very period appropriate — no one stretched like that in 2008.
Fox: Given that this was my first fiction, the acting was the biggest part of my energy. I put most of my focus there and almost everything else got second place. I had an amazing set designer, Debbie DeVilla. I didn’t know anything about production design, and she just really, really nailed it. We did of course talk about colors and specific things. She came to my loft once to have a meeting and she recreated my loft in LA.
Filmmaker: You know, I’ve been to your loft. And I was like, oh my god! It’s exactly the same!
Fox: I have no idea how she did that! People see it and are like, “Did you shoot in your loft?” And I’m like, “You guys, my loft is one fifth of the size of that space. Are you kidding me?” And the conversations I had with [DP] Denis [Lenoir] were really about not making this film have a documentary-esque look. It’s a very formal frame, static, and the only time you have handheld camera is primarily when you’re doing the fantasy interviews and even then, not always. But we have to give a lot of credit to Ivan Strasberg, because Denis had a family emergency and left two weeks into the shoot. Ivan flew in on a weekend and started shooting Monday, and he was our actual main cinematographer. So he shot more than Denis shot. We actually had three cinematographers on this film — for the third shoot Ivan wasn’t available — and we had three editors on the film. Everything that could go wrong did go wrong! But anyway, I think the film is very simply and cleanly shot, and that’s what Denis really worked on. It’s all prime lenses, and there are no zooms.
Filmmaker: The reviews of the film coming out of Sundance were almost unilaterally positive, but one criticism that I’ve heard repeatedly was that you almost “cross a line of decency” in depicting a child being coerced into sex despite the fact that you never see her body. Like one critic even said that obviously everyone was turned on — that that was the elephant in the room.
Fox: I don’t need to answer to critics. I think everybody’s entitled to their opinions. Obviously, they are very difficult scenes, but you’re talking about child sexual abuse, which is the ultimate taboo in society. I felt really strongly that we couldn’t fade to black, we couldn’t close the door, we couldn’t pretend. These scenes were burned into my mind and the dialogue in these scenes, which is almost more grotesque than what you see, is straight from my memory. I felt it was really important to show just how uncomfortable, just how revolting [it was] — I was throwing up afterwards. And that’s where the harm is — it’s not in the befriending of the child, it’s in the physical boundary being crossed. I have to be honest: those scenes were deal breakers. If they weren’t in the film, I wasn’t going to make the film. But I was operating on an unconscious level, and I think I only have language for it now. Now, the thing that I think is ironic is that in a world where we show grotesque violence —
Filmmaker: — against women.
Fox: — against women. We show horrific bloody affairs daily. We show sexuality in every form possible, and yet anybody would dare to say that this is crossing a line. I think it’s ironic. It just shows you what a taboo child sexual abuse really is. Now, I think, I’m hoping that this film allows for deeper discussion of the horror of it that. I had a man, the head of NGO called Promundo say, “You know, for me the message of this film is that you cannot look away.” He felt like it was the hand of the director holding his head to look. And I’ve had many, many people say to me, “Good work.” Even [those who work in child abuse,] said, “I didn’t understand until I saw these scenes.” So I feel like, yes, they’re hard. But I think people should try to proceed in order to understand the horror of it.
Filmmaker: You talked at the HBO screening I attended about how it often takes decades to process trauma and how you believe you saved yourself, in a way, by your denial and the selective memory you maintained. You said you didn’t think you would have become a filmmaker if you had gone down the road of a victim. And in interviews you’ve talked a lot about how calling a survivor of sexual abuse a victim revictimizes them. I understand — personally and politically and creatively — that no one wants to be accused of being perceived as weak or damaged or broken. And I see in the film that Jennifer’s ultimate drive is really more the pursuit of the truth rather than a more typical “healing of her wounds.” You depict a really successful documentarian with a great understanding boyfriend and a great career, a resolved relationship with her mother, and a beautiful home. But in my experience with people who have gone through such horror, even when they have all those things, there are still very debilitating consequences. In your film, you don’t really represent the long term consequences of abuse. The film still remains a hero’s journey. Do you think you are doing your audience a little bit of disservice by not sharing the consequences more? I do wonder in the writing if you were in a certain way protecting yourself because you’re so against the idea of being a victim.
Fox: First of all, I agree with you, the film is not about what the trauma did. The mother says, “You are promiscuous, you didn’t marry,” et cetera, but, I agree, that’s in the future of the narrative of this character. What you basically get is up to the point where she admits that she was abused. Where I disagree is that I don’t think that you see the repercussions of trauma in the way that you think. I mean, you may have experienced it. I’ve spoken to a lot of women all over the world — and I’m talking “a lot” because of Flying — and they have been through sexual abuse and rape, and nobody would ever know it. I think people work things out in their own private way between themselves and God and their partners, and they’re having children and all the things. So I’m not sure that I agree that it is noticeable and that it would have affected because I probably seen more women than you have having made a series about sexual freedom.
Filmmaker: I don’t mean visible, I mean more internally.
Fox: Yes, I do think there is trauma. The film just gets to the point of recognizing the events — that’s why it ends on an inconclusive future. They’re sitting there, the past and the present together. What will happen now is to be determined. Of course there are effects, but this film isn’t as much about that as much as it’s about why it was coded the way it was and why a child would spin a story. I’m more than happy to talk about the effects of child sexual abuse on me, and I think it’s in the film. It’s just not in the film the way we’re used to it being in the film.
Filmmaker: I’ve just seen the trauma from sexual abuse have such long-lasting effects so different than the ones presented here in the film, which seem very minor, if at all. Aside from the mention that she hasn’t had kids and has never gotten married — which, by choice or circumstance, is the case for many successful women — Jennifer just seems so remarkably undamaged.
Fox: Right. And the question you never know is, is it from the abuse or is it just the choice as a woman because you can’t manage both? What I do want to say is, you know, ultimately this is, you know, a character in her late forties and it’s based on my life — [someone] who has been through a lot of experiences, a lot of relationships, a lot of therapy, a lot of life-changing events that got her to where she was. That’s where we’re picking up this character. We’re not picking up this character at 17 or at 25. A film can’t do everything. And in this case, I agree, the film doesn’t really unpack deeply the psychological trauma that can occur, and, frankly, this is problematic for me because I think I have trauma from a lot of things and people would like to paint it only as from this event or primarily from this event. But life is full of trauma. I think I’ve been both traumatized and strengthened by my life events. I also think I was blessed that despite whatever problems we had in my family of origin, I have very supportive parents who allowed me to keep going away and growing and were always there with me even though I wasn’t dealing with the sexual abuse. Not every survivor has the kind of family support that I have. So there are a lot of things at play here, but mostly you’re picking up a character in the script at age 47 who has already done a lot of work.