Moment of Conception
“All it takes is one good egg.” This refrain is uttered more than a few times throughout the course of Tamara Jenkins’s Private Life, her first feature since 2007’s The Savages. A meditation on marriage, middle age and the haves and have-not’s of fertility, the film stars Kathryn Hahn and Paul Giamatti as an artist couple—she’s a writer, and he runs both a theater group and an artisanal pickle company—desperate to conceive in their 40s.
While the pair loads up on IVF hormones and diminishing hopes, they must also make room in their realistically cozy East Village apartment for their step niece, Sadie (Kayli Carter), a 25-year-old Bard dropout whose wayward tendencies have grown old to her Type-A mother (Molly Shannon).
As in her previous features, Jenkins toggles between the characters of her intergenerational ensemble with aplomb, sloughing off any extraneous subplots while faithfully exploring all that the central narrative has to offer. She isn’t interested in grand theses or pointing fingers—refreshingly, Rachel (Hahn) and Richard (Giamatti) each have fertility setbacks of their own—but the comic and cohesive properties of rejection and belonging. In other words: family.
Filmmaker spoke with Jenkins about the shifting distribution landscape throughout her 20-year career, her transition from performance art to film and why shooting for a streaming platform like Netflix has no affect on her approach to filmmaking.
Filmmaker: So, you used to act?
Jenkins: Yeah, I did.
Filmmaker; Because theater, it’s figured in two of your movies pretty heavily. Did you want to direct theater originally?
Jenkins: I moved to New York because I was making performance art, and that came out of doing experimental theater. The first couple of gigs I had were at P.S. 122. The East Village was on fire—amazing, weird stuff cropping up everywhere; bizarre people performing in living rooms; people performing in basements. I lived next door to this very well-known downtown theater artist named Jeff Weiss, and he painted on the front of his tenement in giant letters, “Jeff Weiss. Actor.” It was just a different time.
Filmmaker; How did you make the transition from performance art to film production?
Jenkins: I used slide projectors in my performance. I was making my own history of cinema—like I was using slides, and then I would make kind of these dissolve units and have things move. It was almost an Eadweard Muybridge [motion study] of myself, you know what I mean? I would interact with the slides. My very first piece I performed in movie theaters. There’s this great theater that still exists in Cambridge, the Brattle Theatre, and they have rear projection. So, I did a bunch of performance pieces there so I could have rear projection and be in front of [the screen] and not cast shadows. The very first thing that I did involved these family photographs that look like Weegee stills—like noir pictures. My father owned a nightclub when he was younger, before I was born.
Filmmaker: In LA?
Jenkins: No, in Philadelphia, which is where I was born. It was a strip club, and all of the photographs from that period are amazing flash photography, black and white. I projected them, and they looked like these incredible film stills, like a Humphrey Bogart movie or something. So, I think that I always had a film fixation and that the slide projectors were sort of the beginning. I would write narratives around all of these pictures. Then, I worked with a photographer. It was almost like a poor man’s cinema, a poor woman’s moviemaking. It was before I knew about American independent film. I very vividly remember seeing Stranger Than Paradise and saying, “Oh my god, you can do that? A movie can be personal and idiosyncratic?” I couldn’t believe it. It was mind-blowing. And then, I was like, “I want to make a movie. I am sick of dragging my slide projectors all over the place.”
Filmmaker; So, you put down the slides and picked up a camera?
Jenkins: I put down the slides, yeah, and went to film school. I went to graduate film school.
Filmmaker: Do you find it hard to still live here in New York City?
Jenkins: Yeah, it’s weird. I probably do a thing not unlike the characters in the movie where they’re outgrowing this place. That’s one of the things that I was interested in—becoming middle-aged and [still in] the place where you moved when you had a whole different relationship to the city. I feel like I know all those people, the marooned people, who still have the rent-stabilized apartments they got as young people and who are now older. They can afford the city but by the skin of their teeth.
Filmmaker: One of the things I appreciate about this movie is that it’s a realistic depiction of what it’s like to be a working artist in New York. In movies, you always see people living in the most insane places.
Jenkins: That was high on my list—wanting to nail the socioeconomic reality of these kinds of people. It’s very specific.
Filmmaker: Another thing I appreciated about the film is that line that Richard says about how their life has just become IVF. You never do see much of them at work or existing outside of their quest for conception. Did you have a mandate as the screenwriter that you were going to let anything that didn’t have to do with their attempts to conceive fall by the wayside?
Jenkins: No, there was probably a little more of it at different iterations—the first draft was 200 pages—but it became superfluous. You know what they do. You know that she’s a writer. You get that. But it’s not like you’re going to see her sitting at her desk, although you do, actually. The whole idea is that their life is hijacked by this process—it consumes them.
Filmmaker: I think of your films as having nothing extraneous in them. There are no subplots for the sake of it. That’s part of the reason why The Savages was so successful to me—because it didn’t pursue the obvious question, “Why are these two people so fucked up by their dad?”
Jenkins: The best writing is when you drop characters in a situation and the way they behave reveals where they were before or what they’re coming from. I always use the example of one of my favorite movies, Dog Day Afternoon. You see these guys aren’t good at this bank heist thing. They don’t know what they’re doing. Eventually, you find out his reason for doing the bank heist, which is to get his lover a sex change operation. But you’re dropped inside of it, and you catch up. I like that.
Filmmaker: Like your other two films, I think of Private Life as being both character driven but also situation driven. Which came first, the story or the characters?
Jenkins: The characters. I was interested in writing about marriage, middle-aged marriage, and about hitting up against this ceiling of what your expectations were and where you are now—that zone. And then, in vitro, dealing with fertility and stuff, was something that I had dealt with myself. When I was doing my own IVF, a very good friend said, “Oh, you should really write about this.” I was like, “I am not ever writing about this. Forget it.” And then, of course, here I am because it became just the perfect metaphor.
Some people are probably more conscious about the way they start writing, but I am not. I’m sort of unconscious, or self-conscious. I have a general sort of thing, and then I start going after it and then what exactly I’m interested in starts revealing itself. It’s like mining or looking at tea leaves—writing material, finding these characters and then trusting the rational part of your brain that something’s going on in there. Eventually, a structure starts revealing itself. One of the things that I realized that the movie had in a structural way was an exploration of women at biological moments in their life and how it impacts them as people. There’s a woman in menopause, Molly Shannon, who’s dealing with an empty nest thing. There is an insanely fertile [woman who does] not have any interest in having a child, and then there’s a person who’s hitting the end of that [period]. I remember writing a pretentious note to myself: “The biological tyranny of the female condition.” I was like, “Oh, that’s what the movie’s kind of about.”
Filmmaker: Was it important to you to challenge the popular conceptions that a lot of infertility issues stem from women?
Jenkins: Because [the problem lies with] both [the husband the wife]?
Jenkins: I like that it was both of them. It was important to me that it wasn’t just her. It was like a biological battle of the sexes. Yes, usually it’s all the women’s fault because she’s got old eggs. But actually, the truth is that that’s not the case anymore—“old sperm” and all that.
Filmmaker: So, your previous movie, The Savages, came out in 2007. When did you begin this film?
Jenkins: I don’t make that many movies. I feel like every time I come up like a groundhog: I look around and it’s like, oh, it’s different now. If you were in a coma and hadn’t made a movie, which is pretty much me, you come out and you’re like, oh my god, what do you mean, you can go to Amazon to get financing for a film? This is actually my first movie that wasn’t made in, like, an old-time studio. Before The Savages, I spent a lot of time working on a project that never happened, this Diane Arbus thing, which was a couple years out of my life. The one thing about things falling apart is that you become so insanely enraged that you become incredibly focused. So, it set me off for doing The Savages exactly the way I wanted it, without talking to anybody. I was just like, “Leave me alone, I’m doing this thing.”
When I was trying to get The Savages financed, I was also trying to get pregnant. I recently discovered this notebook in my office, and in 2008 I had written some [initial] notes. Do you know who Lynda Barry is? She’s a great cartoonist. I went to this lecture of hers in 2008, and she was talking about things that she does with her students, like, she tells them to buy three-ring notebooks and shitty paper. She does a lot of her art on yellow legal pads. And immediately I knew exactly what she was talking about. If you buy a really nice journal, you’re scared to write in it. It constipates you, and you can’t work. So, I always write on yellow legal pads. When I started writing, I would do little sessions with myself where I would say, “All right, I’m just going to write for 15 minutes.” In the very top of the notebook I found, it says “2008,” and I wrote something about IVF. And that’s how I know [when I started writing this movie].
Then, I had a baby in 2009, in December. Then, I didn’t make anything. I did some writing jobs. My husband and I wrote some versions of Juliet, Naked, which there were ultimately more writers on. That actually went on for a long time, and it was the first time that I was writing while having a child. That was a big psychological shift because I didn’t write in the apartment anymore. There are two bedrooms, and one was my office, and all of a sudden, [my daughter] was living in that bedroom. So, I got a space for the first time, which was kind of amazing. Virginia Woolf was totally right on. She knew what she was talking about.
Filmmaker:A Room of One’s Own. Did you feel like you were able to have more separation of—
Jenkins: Church and state? Domesticity and writing? Yeah. It was also just different. You don’t drift off and wash dishes. There are still electronic dishes you can wash—answering emails or whatever.
Filmmaker: Do you write a draft from the perspective of one character in an attempt to flush out who they are? To find their voice?
Jenkins: Yeah, I do. I do any trick in the book. [Writing] is a state. You have to find this state, and it’s like meditation. It has to do with ritual and returning back to it. When I’m stuck, I’ll do anything by any means necessary just to keep stuff coming out. So, I’ll abandon screenplay format, for example. I find that very oppressive. I go back and forth a lot between handwriting and my computer. Then I have index cards, but I don’t use them in any of the ways that normal people do. Yes, I stick things on the wall, but it’s more like for an ADD reason and not structure. And I started doing this thing I stole from Twyla Tharp. I remember reading a book about creativity, and she talked about writing down ideas and throwing them in a big box. I was excited by that idea because I’m not very linear—I’ll be writing something, and then something else will come up, and I used to put those things in the margins, and then I couldn’t remember where they were. So, I have a huge pile of index cards. And when I’m writing and something else comes up, it can be a line of dialogue, it can be anything, I write it and throw it in a box. And then, I sift through that box, and I find things, and it’s very good for my kind of scattered brain.
Filmmaker: Forgive me for not knowing this, but have you ever wanted to do something more experimental and less narrative?
Jenkins: Like a true experimental film?
Filmmaker: Yeah. Given your background.
Jenkins: I think that, as I got older —and maybe because I became more conservative or something—I became very interested in dramatic structure. It doesn’t mean that I’m anti–avant-garde things, but I think I almost learn backwards. I started doing weird performance art-y writing and monologues, and then I started becoming more and more interested in character, emotion, and behavior. I mean, the heart of drama is how characters behave in their dramatic circumstances.
Filmmaker: There’s a little experimental film of sorts in Private Life—Sadie’s student film, which was shot on an iPhone. I thought you made kind of an interesting decision to show it as a Super 8 film.
Jenkins: Yeah, because that’s a real app. Do you know that app, 8mm [Vintage Camera]? Someone would say, “That doesn’t make sense, she should use Super 8.” And I was like, “I’m sorry, she happens to have that app.” All of her references are of [Richard and Rachel’s] era, like Sam Shepard, Serpico. In my mind, she took a class on 1970s cinema at Bard. The way that she romanticizes nostalgia, that period, the past, is the reason that she would have the Super 8 app on her phone. It’s an app that a lot of young people use, also. You know what movie was shot using that app a lot? That great documentary Searching for Sugar Man. It’s an amazing app. You should get it.
Filmmaker: Did shooting this film essentially for a streaming platform affect your approach to cinematography?
Jenkins: Do people not use wide shots when they’re shooting TV? I was making it somewhere else, and we left that [financier] because they weren’t giving us enough money, and then [Netflix] swooped in and rescued the movie because we had the actors’ dates and everything set up. It wasn’t like I went, “Now I have to rewrite my script to shrink it or something.” Ingmar Bergman was making movies for TV: Fanny and Alexander, Scenes from a Marriage. Fassbinder made films for television.
Filmmaker: And it didn’t affect their style.
Jenkins: Yeah, it’s not like they stopped using wide shots. I’m like, what would it be [to shoot for streaming]? You just stay close? [Home] screens are gigantic now.
Filmmaker: Do you subscribe to the idea of shooting comedy wide?
Jenkins: There is some truth to it. The truth to it has to do with the fact that [what’s comedic] is actually happening, as opposed to being constructed, so you’re actually seeing a pratfall or something. And there’s something awkward and dorky about seeing people’s full bodies. It’s very hard to create comedy through cutting—I think you can feel the manipulation. Sometimes, reaction shots not done as a cut are really funny, too. Like you can have a reaction shot within a frame.
Filmmaker: I’m thinking about the opening sequence in that fertility clinic, and you have wide, extreme framing that places Rachel and Richard in specific, alien relation to their surroundings. It works well to introduce the situation.
Jenkins: Yeah, and the idea of that place, the notion of all the waiting rooms, felt to me like almost the essence of the title, which is about something private having to happen in public. Everyone knows why you’re there. It’s the opposite of where those things are supposed to happen, which would be under blankets. Instead, you’re in this place where you know everybody’s going to be in a collection room with their sperm count and all that. It’s very weird.
Filmmaker: The title is funny to me. It’s almost ironic, I would say, but in a clever way, because it’s not private at all.
Jenkins: But it should be, and it would be, but suddenly it’s not and everybody’s talking about your testicles. Everybody has an opinion, but also, it’s something that people don’t talk about. I mean, you see movies that deal with it, but I never think of this as a biological clock movie. There are broad comedies that are like, “It’s time for Tina Fey to get pregnant!” I love her, but you know what I’m saying?
Filmmaker: I actually saw you shooting this film one night at the Anthology Film Archives. I was coming out of a movie and you were putting up the marquee.
Jenkins: Oh, right, which doesn’t really exist.
Filmmaker: I feel like the Anthology gets a nice amount of play.
Jenkins: A shout-out in the movie? Well, it’s a place that I love. Someone saw the film the other night and said, “I wanted to go to every single restaurant in your movie.” When I wrote the script I wrote in real places because I can’t stand New York movies—
Filmmaker: That don’t make geographical sense.
Jenkins: It makes me insane. I was like, people in New York are going to see this movie, and they are going to know. It totally throws you off. One of the great things about Woody Allen’s movies that I loved was that they were real. He went to Elaine’s, and Elaine’s is in his movies. It’s the fabric of that class of people that he was writing about, that milieu. And so, when I was fixated on the socioeconomic reality of these kinds of people who live in the East Village, I was, like, these are the places it has to be. I’m not going to the Upper West Side because there’s a cheap café there and we’re going to pretend, which happens in movies all the time. I hate that, and you can feel it in the film.
Filmmaker: Did you ever work as your own editor?
Jenkins: When I was in film school. But I mean, that was on a Steenbeck, that’s how long ago that was. So, no, but I sit there every second.
Filmmaker: The editor didn’t do a rough assembly?
Jenkins: He did a rough assembly, which is always the most painful thing to look at. But then it becomes, “OK, fine. That’s interesting. Put that away. Let’s start.” I like to sit in the room because you’re always seeing things fly by, and it gives you lots of ideas. When they’re toggling, when they’re zipping through stuff, I’m like, “Wait.” I know my footage so well. But I’m kind of a freak. Not everybody does that.
Filmmaker: Do you watch dailies?
Jenkins: I did. Now you can just get them.
Filmmaker: As soon as you got home each night?
Jenkins: At night, but I’d catch up on the weekends. It’s always a day behind, at least the way we do digital stuff now.
Filmmaker: Does it inform your shooting? Are you somebody who makes changes or adjustments?
Jenkins: I’ve re-done a couple of things, like, “We’re still at this location for two more days, I want to go back and shoot that [scene or shot] we did over there one more time.” I did it a couple of times when I wasn’t happy. Sometimes [on set], you can’t figure out where you’re going, especially with performance and emotion. It can be very tricky. Sometimes, actors lean toward being too nice. Actors are better with their emotions than normal people. Normal people are more stop and start with their emotions. They don’t express themselves as fluently, because that’s all actors do. And so, sometimes, you have to pull them back and say, “No, you’re actually not showing your feelings right now. You’re holding them in, and it will be better that way.” That’s just a stupid example, but sometimes you don’t know what it is in the moment. You lean on actors’ instincts because they’re inside of things, but then you’re like, why is this bothering me? Then, later, you think, oh, they’re being too nice. They should be shocked. They should be standing inside their discomfort. A lot of people are really shut down and weird, so that’s a complicated thing to sort of balance and find. And also, people get excited—“Oh my god, the actor is crying!” And you’re like, oh great, but I don’t want the actor to cry. He’s crying because he’s an actor and he’s good at crying, but this character doesn’t know how to be good at crying. This character doesn’t know how to cry.
Jenkins: Yeah, but not just for the sake of it, not just because less is more but because human beings aren’t fluent all the time. Sometimes, feelings just explode out and can’t be stopped. Other times, they’re doing weird things with their feelings. They’re not metabolizing them. They’re pushing them aside. They’re holding them in. They spool out. They come out in all different ways.
Filmmaker: Kayli Carter is great. I’ve never seen her in anything before.
Jenkins: She’s never been in a movie like this. It’s exciting. I’m really happy that we were given permission to work with an unknown actor. That’s a gigantic thing that doesn’t happen in the real world. I mean, once in a while. But that was an amazing Netflix moment, when they said, “Yeah, wow. She’s good.”