What It's Like to Direct a Film About Your Childhood Sexual Abuse
Filmmaker Jennifer Fox opens up about the decades-long process of writing her story for the highly-anticipated "The Tale."
Photos courtesy of Sundance Film Festival
Jennifer Fox isn’t new to Hollywood—the accomplished documentarian has directed and produced many of her own docs and supported others work as well. She can count Hollywood legends like director Brian De Palma and Oren Moverman as friends and mentors. (Both of whom were more than willing to call up Laura Dern on her behalf.) Though many would be apprehensive to divulge their personal histories on film, Fox was excited to do so with The Tale.
Premiering on HBO this Friday, May 26, The Tale tells the true story of Fox’s own childhood. When Fox (played by Dern) was 13, she wrote a short story documenting her relationship with an older man. When her mother Nettie (Ellen Burstyn) discovers the story decades later, Fox is forced to take a hard look at her childhood sexual abuse and the memories she twisted and repressed.
The Tale is gut-wrenching and tough to watch, but with Fox’s deft hand as a documentarian and a towering performance from Dern (who De Palma told Fox was the only actress to have the guts to take this role), it is a complex and unflinching look at the stories we tell ourselves in order to survive.
Broadly spoke with Fox over the phone to discuss directing The Tale, the #MeToo movement and what it’s like to have icon Laura Dern play the movie version of you.
BROADLY: Were you apprehensive about making this painful experience of your life into a piece of art?
JENNIFER FOX: Oh my god, I think it's sort of the opposite. I had the good fortune of being an artist and for me, when I set out on a film, it's an exploration. Writing the script was a journey to explore and figure out how to transform an event in my life for other people to understand.
I really loved how you explored the topic of memory and how we can be our most unreliable narrators. How did you go about portraying that?
That was the key to the film that for me, it really was about the stories we tell ourselves.There were many things that I thought when I started this process to write this film and many of them were debunked as I was going through it. One of the things I thought when I set out on this journey was [that] my memory is fact. Since I remember a lot from my childhood—I never forgot this event—I thought therefore everything was right. One of the big shocks was just how much I had changed around in my memory. Not the facts of it, like, there was a relationship, there was sexuality, but the details were shifted to fit my needs, or collapsed. It was a real surprise to me.
A lot of the reviews of the film called it a movie of the #MeToo movement. Do you see it in that way?
I think in terms of timing, the film is just blessed to have come out after the engagement of the #MeToo movement and Time's Up. It's like the door has been cracked open about assault and sexual violence in adults, and we have to remember [that] five minutes ago, child sexual abuse was the ultimate taboo. So if the door hadn't been cracked open prior... I just don't think audiences would have tolerated how complex and deep this film is, and in fact I was afraid from the very beginning.
Here I am making this film—because I started to write the script 10 years ago—here I am making this film and for me it was a deal breaker if we didn't have the physical scenes, because that was really important to me. But I had no idea if the world was ready for it or would tolerate it. I think it's only because the dialogue is opened, it's only because we've become aware that when the film came out at Sundance, people were ready to go through this difficult journey and appreciate it.
Why was it important for you to have the rape scene happen on camera?
I have to be honest, when I initially wrote it and I knew I wanted that, I didn't really have words for it, I was just, like, this is going to be in the film and it’s not a discussion with producers. Also, we have to note, the language of Bill is straight from my memory and the language is very difficult to stomach. It was really important that that was there, too, and I think now I can say what the real reason for all this is that sexual abuse is such a taboo subject and we're used to: the lights fading out before the event, a door closes and...
I really feel that it's time, basically, to look this straight in the eye and see just how ordinarily horrific this is. This is not some Lolita story that we can somehow justify because she seduced him. This is a kid and this is an adult, and let's look it straight in the eye and not turn away. I've actually heard from a lot of people that it's the first time they've actually understood literally what this looks like. I think understanding it makes us able to prevent it, but also help the survivors.
How was directing those scenes? They're obviously harrowing and upsetting, and you're directing something that happened to you. Was that a weird, surreal experience?
Not in the way you'd think, because there's still [movie] magic going on. The whole thing was broken down into individual bits. Jason Ritter, who's just fantastic as the man you would leave your child with, he's so sweet and kind. He was working with a body double who was 22 years old.
Isabel Nélisse, who is just extraordinary, plays the prepubescent Jenny. She's not even in the room with him, so she's on a vertical bed, her hair is splayed out to look like she's laying down. I was feeding her nonsexual cues, like act like a bee stung you, act like you're running, act like you're being chased by a dog or something. We were just cycling through these cues that we had rehearsed that had nothing to do with the scene. The scene was, and even previously, heavily shot listed. So, I don't think it had the emotional content for me that you would think.
The cast of the film is absolutely insane. What was it like having Laura Dern play you?
She's just like an acting vessel. She just sort of rocks everything. She's so physical and so intuitive. That is how she did it, but I think she got parts of me and also brought new aspects that are not me, which is what's so great. We talked about that a lot when we were creating the character. Some of the script is literally verbatim transcript, but other parts of the script are improvised by Laura or whoever she's with. Like, with Common, some of the fight scene was an improvisation.
How does your family feel about you making this film?
First of all, my mom pushed me hard to make this film… My mom was the one saying you have to make this film, you have to make it now. She'll say now [that] getting me to make this film was in lieu of prosecuting, in lieu of killing the real Bill, which she couldn't do, but she figured, let me get her to make a film and help other people at least. She was always on board, and she read the script and we taped conversations to go into making the character of Nettie. My brothers and my father are very behind it. I have a great family in the sense that they just really, really believe in creative autonomy. Like, no one ever says to you, you can't do that. My mother never said, you can't put that in.
What kind of advice would you give to other women who want to put their stories out there and tell them in a way that impacts people?
My big advice first of all is tenacity, tenacity, tenacity. We're fragile and we think if people don't come onboard a project it's not good, but often if you're doing anything interesting, you're ahead of the curve, but people won't recognize it. That would be one thing: go bold or bravely, but smartly. Bring together your tools, keep augmenting your craft. The other thing is: don't be afraid of fundraising. Most great directors are people who know how to raise money, and if you can't raise money you often can't make your film, so be muscular at fundraising. That's something that women are often a little more passive than men. Don't be passive.
One thing that really stuck with me while watching the film was the repetition of the line, "What story are you going to tell?” I wanted to know what you want your story to do for people who watch The Tale.
I think helping people understand the way they deal with trauma on a big level and the protective nature of memory, not just in a bad way but sometimes a necessary way to make people survive. Helping them to be able to open up that very messy, complex box of trauma and say, it's okay. Then, of course, to open the conversation about child sexual abuse. It's not black and white the way the media would like it to be. It is complex, it is nuanced, and it is messy, and until we allow for the grey area of the conversation, of the contradiction of love and abuse simultaneously, I don't think we can really prevent child sexual abuse and I don't think we can help people heal.