HBO's 'The Tale': Director Jennifer Fox on Why 'There is Nothing in Documentary Like Directing Fiction'
Jennifer Fox reveals how her doc film career did—and didn't—prepare her for her feature debut.
Jennifer Fox, director of the much-buzzed about The Tale, is used to taking risks. At the age of 21, the director left film school at New York University after one year, in order to follow the story of an aristocratic family living in a two hundred year old mansion amidst the destruction of a civil war. In a conversation with filmmaker Kitty Green at the Australian Screen Forum in New York, she revealed, "When I went to Lebanon, everyone thought I was completely crazy....I'd never made a documentary before. The little I'd studied was about how to make fiction films."
The resulting film, Beirut: The Last Home Movie, won multiple awards, including the Grand Jury Prize for Best Documentary at the Sundance Film Festival. To Fox, the film was "a meditation about a family that had lost their way, and [who] through the war finds meaning." She discussed how the film was carefully planned, "shot-listed the way you might do a feature," and edited over a series of years. Notably for a documentary, especially one by a first-time filmmaker, Beirut secured a theatrical release, and established Fox's reputation.
Over the next ten years, Fox produced many films, and in 1999 directed the 10-hour series An American Love Story, though it wasn't until she made 2006's Flying: Confessions of a Free Woman that the producer/director began to think of herself as a "female filmmaker." During the making of Flying, she also came to realize that no matter where she was, and regardless of the background of the film's participants, "one out of every two women....had a childhood sexual abuse story, or a rape story." This led Fox to revisit her own story of childhood sexual abuse, and it was this process that led, eventually, toThe Tale.
Though she had tried, for many years, to work on the story of her adolescent abuse at the hands of a coach, she had always done so as pure fiction. Now, when she went back the story, "the script was fictionalized, but I left my name in." Part of the reason for this, which resulted in what she called "memoir filmmaking," had to do with the fact that the film features graphic, physical, scenes between the abuser and Fox's character, and she felt as though the film "needed the backup of the director saying, 'this is her story,' and if you have any questions, you can ask."
"In documentary, the editing is like writing the script. There is nothing in documentary like directing fiction."
Fox, who had never directed a feature film, said that, "In documentary, the editing is like writing the script. There is nothing in documentary like directing fiction, so really, I was way over my head." As a director, Fox's focus was on "authenticity and acting. If we can get the performances, somehow this is going to work."
The film, which jumps backwards and forwards in time, had "something like one hundred and forty nine setups to be shot on a low-budget, which meant all I did was yell at my producers that we needed more days." Fox said that one of her biggest assets is that she has been a producer herself. Coming from the world of low-budget documentary, her attitude of, "If there is not the money, I will find it," helped to get the film made.
"Ten years ago," she said, "no one thought you could do a film about sexual abuse," though it was "total luck of the draw" that the film's premiere coincided with the height of the #MeToo movement, and awareness of stories of sexual abuse. "If it came out a year ago," Fox said, "it might have fallen into a crack."
The Tale was acquired by HBO Films at Sundance, which Fox admitted was unusual, since "HBO doesn't buy films, they make films," and while she admitted that as a director she wanted all her films to have a theatrical release, as a producer, she realized that in the U.S., many films "that do well theatrically, even art films, are 'feel-good films.' I didn't want to do two weeks in New York, two weeks in L.A., and then disappear." And considering that HBO believed so strongly inThe Tale, she felt that the project would be in good hands there, while also having the strongest chance of its message getting out and, she said, being able "to do the most good."