Leading up to the Oscars on Feb. 24, we will be highlighting the nominated films that have appeared in the magazine or on the Website in the last year. Ray Pride interviewed The Savages writer-director Tamara Jenkins for the Fall ’07 issue. The Savages is nominated for Best Lead Actress (Laura Linney) and Best Original Screenplay (Tamara Jenkins).
Note-perfect, Tamara Jenkins’s The Savages was one of Sundance 2007’s stellar surprises. Where another unlikely gem from the festival, Once, was bittersweet in its simple romance, Jenkins’s long-in-coming sophomore directorial entry (after 1998’s Slums of Beverly Hills) is a complex mesh of tones and social observations. The film is witty about neurosis and unblinking about mortality and is filled with the sort of melancholy humanism we only get from European features these days. Yet it also is imbued with the observational precision and winning performances of the best American comedies.
Jenkins’s Savages are a scattered clan. Father Lenny (Philip Bosco) approaches his own sunset in Sun City, Arizona; semi-estranged daughter Wendy (Laura Linney) is a New York City playwright who, after many years, is surviving on temp jobs and her brother Jon, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, is an academic struggling with an epic book on Bertolt Brecht. The two siblings are brought together after their father acts out against his nurse in a scatological way and they have to find him a new home whether their own or one in assisted living. There are nicely nuanced side characters and witty bits, but The Savages belongs to these three actors, who are at the top of their game. The film boasts some of the most formidable comic dialogue of the year and Jenkins’s screenplay is lovingly structured. A sampling of her ear for dialogue: “We’re not in therapy right now, we’re in real life” and “I’m not leaving you alone, I’m hanging up.” Mostly though, what Jenkins gets down is behavior, and it’s exquisitely performed. We spoke in late summer at a café near her apartment in New York City’s East Village, which she shares with her husband, screenwriter Jim Taylor (Sideways, About Schmidt), and talked about casting, tone, finding ways around writer’s block and what it’s like to have so much time pass between features. Fox Searchlight opens the film in late November.
Filmmaker: At film festivals, I’m not one of those people who rushes to weigh in after premieres, but after the Sundance press screening of The Savages, I sat cross-legged in the Holiday Village and posted a few notes right away. I called it an unlikely mix of Annie Hall and…
Jenkins: The Death of Mr. Lazarescu. The [publicists] e-mailed it to me and I was like, that is fucking hilarious. Obviously you were responding to something about the dialogue…
Filmmaker: Where it’s witty but not necessarily a punch line. Where it’s character observation.
Jenkins: I appreciated that because, well, it’s been an interesting thermometer. Some people say [the movie] is so funny, and some people say it’s so sad or depressing. I was grateful you appreciated the language of it, and that these are sort of hyper-articulate people having to do something that being hyper-articulate doesn’t help you with.
Filmmaker: I always find it auspicious when a film like this can deal with essential human pain, mortification, embarrassment and humiliation, and then find a way to laugh at it without humiliating the characters. And one of the cruel things in your movie is the title. Was this family always going to be the Savages?
Jenkins: I can’t remember when that happened.
Filmmaker: It sets up that you’re going to deal with people reduced to elemental, primal things they don’t have defenses for. These Savages don’t know how to make nice.
Jenkins: Well, also there’s something about just taking old people and putting them in buildings and not dealing with them — the sort of savagery of old age and the way it ravages you and strips you of anything that would be perceived as civilized.
Filmmaker: The Savages opens and you have this geriatric dance number of sorts — it’s like the June Taylor Dancers from the old Jackie Gleason show — and we meet Mr. Savage, Philip Bosco. Within five minutes, what does he do to act out? He writes “shit” on the wall. This scene, like so many others, is very complicated tonally. Was the movie a tonal nightmare to edit?
Jenkins: Its scary tone is the trickiest thing in the world. So many ingredients have to accumulate to create tone. It could be music, it could be the tone of the comedy and the tragedy and how you let them live inside the same vessel and not undermine each other but instead support each other. I’m very attracted to holding funny and sad [together]. It’s an accumulation of all these little details that you are putting into the same stew, hoping that you can keep them within the same vocabulary and that [the result] is not jolting and melodramatic when it becomes serious. As long as the material is truly driven from character — if it truly is organically growing out of character — you can get away with it.
Filmmaker: Considering how wonderful Laura Linney and Philip Seymour Hoffman are, it’s almost like after casting them as the two siblings, your work as a director was done.
Jenkins: I was done — I didn’t have to do anything! No, the process of casting in general was a long thing, but in terms of getting Laura and Phil and them just being so… [Jenkins smiles]. We had very little rehearsal, just a couple of days in my apartment. There is a certain truth about actors that when you find the right person for the part, and the dynamic between them is working… all three of them really, Bosco too, I just felt when they came over to my apartment, and we were just reading through the script, I was like, “Wow!”
As in, “Wow! Who wrote that?”
Filmmaker: It wasn’t that the material was so brilliant, but the dynamic it just felt like it would be believable, like I will believe this. You can always just throw three people together and put them around a table and call them family. I see movies where people are playing family members and something doesn’t feel right.
Jenkins: The larger feeling I took away from the movie is the evocation of two siblings approaching early middle age who are still unformed as people. They’re still incomplete. Do you think in these big terms when you write? Or do you just write the characters and let the larger themes emerge?
Filmmaker: It’s about how quickly you become conscious of what you are doing. I feel like the whole process of writing is sort of being unconscious and then becoming conscious. Unconscious, conscious. If you are too pre-determined at the beginning, then you are writing an essay [instead of just] letting it go and then interpreting the tea leaves of all this stuff that [bubbles] up.
Jenkins: You’re putting things on a clothesline, but you wouldn’t see any relationship unless they were all pinned there together.
Filmmaker: Yeah, filmmaking is so like that anyway because that’s all you’re doing, putting one shot next to another shot, one frame next to another frame. The form is structured like that. But there was a conscious moment at a certain point [in the writing] about those siblings being kind of like Hansel and Gretel. You know that book, that Bruno Bettelheim book….
Filmmaker: The Uses of Enchantment?
Jenkins: I’ve had it forever. There’s something brilliant about that book. I remember working on the script and there were many siblings — a whole crew of them. I was stripping it away and then I came up with the idea of just these two going on this journey, and then I was like, “Oh, like Hansel and Gretel!” I grabbed Bruno Bettelheim and wrote in my notebook something like, “their journey through old-age land.”
Filmmaker: So it’s a terrible fairy tale unfolding in front of them?
Jenkins: Yes. Bettelheim talks about how that story is about confronting mortality and that Hansel and Gretel are thrown out of the house into the woods and into the darkness. They lose their parents and have to make their own way. And I was like, “Oh, that’s what this is — they’re thrown into this surreal weird world of old-age land.” It became the way they became grownups, or truly whole people, complete people, which is sort of what Bettelheim talks about, individuating and stuff like that. It was an interesting little guiding principle, “Oh yeah, they’re like these neurotic modern Hansel and Gretel. Yeah!”
Filmmaker: So, where are the missing movies, Tamara, the last eight or nine years?
Jenkins: All those pictures?
Filmmaker: You have Slums of Beverly Hills, this one film largely about a teenager, and then you’ve got the one that’s about middle-age siblings and an old person. Where’s the twenty-something bohemian movie? Where’s your Laurel Canyon?
Jenkins: [laughs] Laurel Canyon, that’s funny. I know Lisa Cholodenko really well. But I don’t know what to say. I spent a lot of time writing, and I worked on a project for a long time that never happened.
Filmmaker: You’ve made a living, but a frustrating one?
Jenkins: In terms of trying to make motion pictures, I mean, I made a living in various ways. I wrote for hire, non-credited rewriting things. But I didn’t direct a feature as we know, because it would have been heard of! I worked on screenplays that I thought I would be able to make that didn’t happen for one reason or another. One in particular was a nightmare and many years of wasted time. I didn’t own the project; the producer had it. Then [The Savages] took a really long time. I know that that’s going to become a question — like what the hell have you been doing — and I guess I’ve been writing.
Filmmaker: Why did it take so long to make The Savages?
Jenkins: I feel like I know so many people who have made movies and then struggle so hard to get their next movie happening. This almost didn’t happen like 100 times. Just getting the financing…. [First] it was at Focus Features, and they really liked it, they financed the writing of the script, but then they were dissatisfied with the casting, which was crazy. And then we were out. They gave it [back] to us so we could shop it around, which took forever. We couldn’t get anyone to finance it, even with Laura and Phil. People were scared of the subject matter. I mean, try to get The Death of Mr. Lazarescu financed in the United States. Forget it! And there’s still a lot of anxiety about anything that’s dealing with…. People had primal-like reactions when we sent it around to all the various financiers. People would get very personal about it, like, “Well, my father died and it wasn’t like that” kind of thing. I guess it pushes buttons for people because there’s something about putting a parent in a nursing home and confronting that part of life that really flips people’s lids. Or people have done it in a different way, or people might say something like, “Well, why would Jon and Wendy help their father? He was such an asshole, I don’t believe it.” Anyway we had a really hard time getting it going, and it took me a long time to write it, too.
Filmmaker: You did performance art earlier in your career, which is an art form that provides immediate feedback. What sustained you as an artist during the process of developing this film and then trying to get it made?
Jenkins: I have a really good friend named Eric Mendelsohn who is a person who made a lovely movie many years ago called Judy Berlin and should also be making more movies. I guess I have a group of friends, and you know, I spend time at writer’s colonies and stuff like that. Yaddo was very helpful for this movie and for me. It’s a great place, and I was surrounded there by [other kinds of writers]. As a screenwriter you always feel like you’re not really a real writer, that real writers are novelists, especially when you’re in a place like that where John Cheever, Philip Roth and Sylvia Plath — real writers — come from. I spent six weeks there about four years ago. I had all of this stuff assembled [for The Savages], all these ideas and miscellaneous scenes and stuff that was also building toward whatever the screenplay is, and I went there for six weeks and kind of indexed my brain. That really was the beginning of figuring out what this movie was in a concrete way. It’s almost like accumulating scraps and not really ever having the [example to finish until] I was around real writers. When I got stuck I would pretend the screenplay was a novel, because screenplays are such haikus.
Filmmaker: Poetry and carpentry together.
Jenkins: Yeah, and you’ve sucked out all the descriptive juices because that’s what you’re going to see and that’s what people are going to do. It helped me when I got stuck to just pretend it was just a novel, to just keep going and write this stuff that I eventually would rip out, stuff that had to do with describing internal states — things that you would never really be able to have in a screenplay. And it was really long — the first draft of the script was 200 pages. In a weird way, I felt like I wrote a novel and then had to do an adaptation of the novel to turn it into a screenplay, which brought it down to 120 pages. I spent a year going from 200 pages to 120 pages, and it took me years to get to the 200 pages. So a year to kind of, what’s it called, reduction? When they do that to a sauce, the reduction sauce?
Filmmaker: What you’re saying about changing forms is interesting. You were tricking yourself.
Jenkins: It really helped me. It freed my friggin’ brain. A screenplay is a distillation of this other thing. It would be writing the essence of something before you know what the something is. If you don’t know what it is yet, let it just be fat and sloppy and not the distillation, and then find what you really [mean]. It’s a slow [process], though.
Filmmaker: Keith Gordon says he considers his job to be a fund-raiser and every five years he takes three months off to shoot a movie.
Jenkins: Yeah, it’s really hard to get them made. It’s demoralizing and exhausting. You’ve got to be a real lunatic. There are moments when it’s pretty bleak out there, especially when you really are committed to one [project]. The first person at the company likes it but then it has to go upstairs, and then it’s like, “Well, he didn’t like it,” and then you go to the next one. It’s just so much of that: “We sent it, we’re waiting, so and so really liked it, but the guy upstairs….” I don’t know if and when it gets easier. I guess you have to make something that really makes some dough or something. You have to be such a dog with a bone about it that you must be strange — I mean, I think filmmakers are pretty strange people. There’s something about when you’re tenacious and intrepid and probably bizarrely so. Like a normal person would take the hint that this isn’t happening, but no, you don’t. I mean, is it delusional to be running around and trying to get your screenplay made for a couple of years, or is it just that it’s so hard to get these things made? I live in the East Village, and I’ve lived here for a really long time, and I guess [the character of] Wendy was some sort of riff on people who come to New York City and have to do something to support themselves but [still] have these dreams of making it in the arts. How long can you sustain that double life when it’s not really happening?
Filmmaker: You worked on the script for a long time and then suddenly you are making the film. Tell me about your shooting schedule after all that waiting.
Jenkins: It was very short preproduction, six weeks. That’s all we could afford to pay people. Then we had 30 days to shoot. The irony is you work on a script forever and try to get it financed forever and then you have to do it NOW!!! We got the film financed in January and then we shot at the end of March. We needed to shoot quickly because it needed to look like winter in New York City and in Buffalo. We shot every exterior first to avoid foliage, green and [signs of spring]. We were very lucky — it snowed in April in front of the nursing home in Buffalo! So we managed to have a winter movie in April and it worked out okay. The 30-day aspect of it wasn’t fun. Five more days would have made life easier. But the adrenaline [needed for that shooting schedule] can be kind of great. Sometimes pricey Hollywood movies, they’re D.O.A. They are too prepared, and there’s no energy. As much as I can complain and wish I had more time… there’s something about that capturing of [real] life [on a quick shoot], and that’s the most important thing — that sort of lived-in feeling among these characters, a messy, imperfect aliveness. Just having it feel alive. When you see it in a movie, a flicker of life, it’s so startling. Oh my God! That’s life, actually life as it happens! They’ve captured something human! It’s not part of the repertoire of things that we think are real because we’ve seen them in movies.
Filmmaker: How did you talk about color and framing to your d.p. and production designer? Are you a look-book person?
Jenkins: A friend had given me a book by Larry Sultan, this great photographer, called Pictures from Home. It was for the Arizonaish part of the movie. And I also found that scouting and taking digital photographs myself was a huge aid in figuring out how the movie should look. I had gone scouting in Buffalo prior to meeting a d.p. and I had taken tons of pictures of branches against the sky, heavy clouds, traffic lights. They show up in the movie when Phil’s character is driving on Percocet –— there are these loping low wires and bare trees against the sky. I took pictures like that while we were in the location van driving around. Everything I saw out of the corner of my eye became a reference. Location photos are usually like a picture of a room, but these were like my periphery, this track that was running through my mind that I documented with this little cheap camera. I took pictures constantly of anything that was interesting. It could be an abandoned hospital where left on the bulletin board would be a Christmas ornament or a horn of plenty. These little details — leftover, found things.
Filmmaker: Were there any films that you looked to for inspiration?
Jenkins: There’s a movie, I don’t think we utterly achieved the look of it, The Beat That My Heart Skipped. Such a good film. It’s a very specific kind of handheld-looking movie. It’s available light, and it goes dark [at times]. There’s something about its organic [quality] and the way the camera [views] the bodies of the actors. We achieve [this quality] in certain places, I think. We had a really great camera operator, Peter Agliata, who handheld a lot of the movie. When he would swing from one head to the next [during panning singles] in a dialogue scene, he had this enormous intuition about the drama of the scenes and a great sense of when [the camera] should swing [to the other person]. It was like he was in the scene with them. He would sit there and read the scenes really closely, studying them so he knew where the dramatic points were, and he really paid attention during rehearsals. He was an enormous asset.
Filmmaker: The opening of the movie sets a tone that’s quickly belied, with all the elderly people doing what’s almost an old-fashioned TV variety-show number. I understand that a chunk of that scene resulted from necessity rather than planning.
Jenkins: We never found a location [for that scene]. There was this weird band shell in Sun City [that we wanted,] but they refused to let us use it. We were only in Sun City for a very short time and we madly tried to book these clubs [of senior citizens] — water aerobics people, golfers — and coordinate [their schedules with ours]. [While shooting] we had our trucks parked by a church we were using for a home base, and I turned around and there’s this crazy hedge! I thought, what if [the senior citizens] come out from behind it? I dragged my d.p. over and I hid behind the hedge and appeared, and [the scene is] now so much better than what it would have been. It looks like something you’d art direct, but everything was really found, as eccentric as that looks — the hedge, the women’s costumes, the 90-year-old woman tap-dancing on the asphalt. I guess that’s a big directing thing — you get something in your head, a location, and it just doesn’t work out. Sometimes something’s sitting right in front of your face and you don’t think about it until some limitation is placed.
Filmmaker: Orson Welles once said that a director doesn’t take advantage of accidents, a director presides over accidents.
Jenkins: There is something to that, something about the balance between aggression and passivity. Aggressively trying to get everything you need, and then being able to sit back and let things happen. Finding that balance — it’s like a Zen state. I think it’s an ideal state in life [laughs] and directing. And I think the more you direct, the better you are at that. My [student] short films are these tight, controlled little things. These perfect little frames. I like them very much, but they’re stylized tableaux. They’re very theatrical. They have a certain esthetic and whatever, but as you grow up, you start to figure a way of letting go while keeping your eyeballs open for things that crop up.
Filmmaker: You’re also keeping the writer locked up back in the writing room. It’s the director’s job once you’re on the floor.
Jenkins: It’s interesting where you let go and how much without losing control. Working with actors, [what is] the balance of bugging them and getting in there, and just seeing how something evolves and having the courage to shut up? It’s like, you’re called a director, I guess I should be telling people what to do all the time, but being okay with not talking is pretty important, too. The second time [the actors] do a scene, it might be twisting and changing and growing organically. If you just shut up and let it happen a couple of times, it will emerge. I’m not that great at it, but it’s something that I can see is important.
Filmmaker: Stephen Frears has said the key thing he learned on his first shoot was to make a choice, the blue shirt rather than the green one, say. Even if you make a choice and then change it later, it’s good for the crew to see that.
Jenkins: That exhibits confidence? I wish I’d had that anecdote under my belt! I don’t know if it’s a gender thing or not, but I do feel like being able to change your mind in front of a crew or be unsure until you’re sure [is important too]. I feel like a lot of stuff was very visible in terms of the making of our movie. I sat there, people could hear me talking to my d.p., changing my mind, and I wonder… maybe Stephen Frears was right, it makes you look weak…
Filmmaker: I think he was saying the air of decisiveness was the strength…
Jenkins: But the irony is, it might be perceived as a weakness from the outside if someone sees that Stephen Frears doesn’t know what color he wants, but the fact that he’s open to changing his mind is brave. I hate to say this, because it sounds so… but I’m a woman, I’m making a movie, most of the people who are making the movie, the crew, are men. There can be a difference in the way your authority is perceived if you [publicly] exhibit [your decision-making process]. It’s weird to be watched. It’s such a public job… to be thinking out loud in front of all of these people who are waiting for you. If you are writing, there are not 20 people waiting to take the next word and lug it across the room! You’re making decisions constantly when you’re writing, but no one’s watching.
Filmmaker: Film directors generally don’t have the chance, the leisure, to watch other directors at work, and like Mike Nichols…
Jenkins: Is he the one who said directing is like sex?
Filmmaker: Yeah, you’re always wondering how the other guy does it.
Jenkins: You never know how good you are because you never see anybody else do it! Exactly. Crew people and actors see [other directors], but unless you’re hanging out on sets, you really don’t. You have your own weird, idiosyncratic way of getting your way. Some people probably have a more strong-armed way, others have a more roundabout passive way of getting things.
[Jim Taylor enters; they say hellos before he goes to another table.]
Filmmaker: I guess we can talk about what it’s like living with another writer now, being married to another screenwriter?
Jenkins: Just don’t take pictures, the place is a mess! When you were asking about a community… it’s interesting living with a writer. He was a great ally on so many levels with the movie, and when I was going from the 200-page version of the script to the more presentable 120-page version, he read everything. [Screenwriting] is also such a lonely, grueling process, although he doesn’t have that because he writes with a writing partner. They have a great thing, but when you’re alone writing, it’s friggin’ lonely.
Filmmaker: So Jim was more like an editor?
Jenkins: Yeah, he was a great eye. And Alexander [Payne] too. They showed up at various stages of the editing process. And also just like the moral support of it all. When Jim and I met, I went to graduate film school at NYU, but I was leaving NYU when he was entering. His version of the story is that we met for 10 years. He’d introduce himself to me over and over again for 10 years, and I never remembered who he was. And eventually, whatever, we got married.
Filmmaker: Now that’s a montage.
Jenkins: His version of the story is that he’d seen my NYU student short, which had won prizes at school. When people were applying to school, they would give them examples of the work that students were doing, and he said based on that short that he saw, he decided to go to NYU Film School and he had a crush on me. It was a film crush, which is cute.
Filmmaker: That’s a rarefied love story.
Jenkins: It’s totally rarefied. I dunno, writing is weird and lonely and makes you grumpy and strange, and it’s nice when somebody understands that. I also have a dog. That helps. Makes you go out into the world. Then your dog’s like, “Okay, I have to walk you.” There’s something about moving and thinking. A treadmill, working out, and your brain just kind of makes connections. Moving — being in cars, trains, being on treadmills, they’re all really good for the writing brain. But I haven’t written in a long time; I have to start writing. To write you really should be writing every single day to keep the muscle going. But then if you write and make a movie, the year of working on the movie goes by and then you’re supposed to start writing again and you have kind of forgotten how. So I have to start writing. I have to buy a new journal; I have to get some nice pens.