10 to Watch Filmmakers in 2018: Jennifer Fox

Jennifer Fox Makes our 10 to Watch list for The Tale.

Jennifer Fox, director of The TaleJennifer Fox makes our 2018 10 to Watch list with her first narrative film, The Tale, which is a visual memoir that depicts Fox’s investigation into the memory of sexual abuses she experienced at the hands of her track coach when she was 13. Fox’s past work has been in documentary, including Beirut: The Last Home Movie, An American Love Story, and My Reincarnation.

Fox says that she had called the experiences “my first relationship,” and it was only when she was in her forties, shooting the docu-series Flying Confessions of a Free Woman, that she suddenly realized she could no longer see this childhood experience as “my own private little narrative. It was the first time I used the words ‘child sexual abuse’ on myself.” According to Fox, “it seemed that every other woman—regardless of class, culture, or color—had an abuse story to tell. Their stories floored me, because they had a system or a paradigm that looked like what happened to me as a child, but which I had never named. I knew it was time to investigate what happened in the open space of a fictional film. My goal was not to ask, ‘Did this happen?’ because I always remembered it. It was, ‘How and why did it happen? And how and why did I spin it as a positive story?’

The Tale premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and was the Opening Night Film at Sundance London. It also screened at Tribeca, the Munich Film Festival, and the Oslo Film Festival. HBO Films bought The Tale at Sundance, representing the first time HBO purchased a completed film at a festival instead of developing their own work. The Tale premiered on HBO on May 26th, and is currently available for streaming.

The Independent’s Daniel Joyaux talked with Fox about her film.

Daniel Joyaux: Because The Tale is an investigation into memory, do you feel like the very act of writing the screenplay helped continue that investigation and open up further access into your memory?

Jennifer Fox: The writing was an act of remembering for sure. It’s not that I ever forgot what happened to me, it’s just that I sort of preferenced certain aspects of what happened. So, it’s not just an investigation into what I told myself, but also into the parallel narratives that I didn’t choose to focus on or look at.

Jennifer Fox, directs The Tale; Photo by Kyle Kaplan

DJ: What do you think was the biggest difference between the first and final draft of the film’s screenplay?

JF: Well, the first thing I did was just write it as a linear narrative, and then put it away for a while. And when I eventually reread it, I just thought, that is not the film I want to make. It just didn’t interest me. And that was the point where I realized that what really did interest me was memory and the creation of self. And that began this sort of investigation into, well, how do you talk about the things in your mind?

DJ: Where in that journey did you decide to incorporate a dialogue between your past and present self, to the extent that the two actresses occasionally share physical space in the film?

JF: That was a real turning point. I don’t remember exactly where it was in the writing process, because I wrote for several years. But it was when I realized that I was such a different person now that I couldn’t access her [Fox’s younger self] anymore, so I decided to create these fantasy conversations. And part of that was this eventual realization that I would never actually find out why. Like, why did he do this? Why was he attracted to this kid that was completely undeveloped? So that’s when I started to imagine different conversations.

DJ: In the casting process, how important was it to you to find actors that in some way evoked your memory of the physical selves they’d be playing?

JF: That was honestly much less important. But there were iconic things. Like in my memory the real Mrs. G was absolutely beautiful. Did she look like Elizabeth Debicki? No. But Elizabeth had the stature that we all idolized. With Bill… The world has this idea that most abusers can be spotted, as though they’re dark and nefarious. And I was committed to the idea that, statistically, 93 percent of kids know their abusers. They’re people who parents like, and they’re esteemed by their communities. I wanted to cast somebody who’s the guy you would leave your child with and wouldn’t think twice about it. But frankly, we were turned down by every actor in the book. It was only because Laura Dern said Jason Ritter would be perfect and that she would reach out to him personally, that Jason said yes. And because he has a lot of heart and is very committed to the issue. But he looks nothing like the real Bill.

Laura Dern was actually cast by Brian DePalma. We were meeting just as friends and he looked over my list of possibilities for the Jennifer character, and he immediately said, “Oh, Laura Dern is the only one that can play her.” And he called her and sent her the script. She agreed to come on the film like a year and a half before everybody else.

DJ: There have only been a few times in film history where the star of the film was essentially portraying the director of the film. How does that change the normal director/lead actor relationship? Obviously the director is trying to lead the actor toward the film’s emotional truth, but in this case it’s also your own emotional truth.

JF: Laura and I talked a lot about the film over a long period of time, and I told her I didn’t want her to play me as much as her version of this character. There were certain things I was very strident about, but also a lot of things she created. Quite a bit of dialogue is straight from Laura’s improvisation. So, we agreed very early that this would be a fictionalization.

Jennifer Fox, director of The Tale; Photo by Kyle Kaplan

DJ: Scores are such an important element for our memories of films. And because this film is about memory, that would seem to place even more importance on the score. When you were writing the film, did you have a sense of what style of score you wanted to use? And how did you go about finding it?

JF: I don’t think I did, frankly, and I was really helped by my first editor, Anne Fabini. I had mentioned that I didn’t want a score that would be maudlin or that told the audience what to think. And she put in temp music from Gustavo Santaola, and I was just so happy with it. I felt that really worked. Then our third editor suggested Ariel Marx, based on that temp music. Even though [Marx] had only done one film, we really liked her work so we wanted to give her a chance. She was incredibly responsive and sensitive to what we were trying to do. She was a miracle worker.

DJ: You’ve said that you see this film as part of a new genre that you call “Issue-Based Fiction.” Can you name some things that you see as sort of cinematic antecedents to this film or this category of film?

JF: I think it’s important here that we look at how films are funded. For example, The Tale was funded with one third philanthropic dollars. And we should also look at memoir. We’re used to books being memoir, but not films. In that sense the one that’s probably closest to The Tale was Sarah Polley’s documentary, Stories We Tell.

DJ: Do you think the experiences you went through as a 13-year-old that are depicted in this film helped create your desire, or your need, to be a storyteller? Or do you think that was innate within you, regardless of experience?

JF: I think that I was always a writer. I was writing long before these events happened. But I intuitively used writing and storytelling to make sense of the chaos. So if I’m being honest, I think that my need to tell stories definitely predates this event. I come from a complex family background, and I was constantly trying to figure out what was going on. And this event just became another thing I was trying to grapple with.

 DJ: At the time you started this project, you couldn’t have known that the finished film would arrive in the wake of the #MeToo movement, and the Larry Nassar trial, and so much else. And those things will undoubtedly help make your film more timely and give it a larger profile than you may have ever imagined or been emotionally ready for. How do you prepare yourself differently for the audience size and cultural cache this film is likely to have?

JF: I’m thrilled. When I was developing this film, I was terrified that it may be almost blacklisted. I didn’t know if audiences would accept the degree that it’s explicit, but I felt like that was a deal breaker for me—that we had to have those scenes in the film or I wasn’t going to make it. So I was terrified that it would never make it out of the gate. Instead #MeToo and #TimesUp sort of broke the ice and people are suddenly ready to face this ultimate taboo of child sexual abuse. And I’m grateful for that.

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