November 13, 2018

Bringing an Extremely Personal, Harrowing Story to the Screen: Jennifer Fox on 'The Tale'

This powerful story of a filmmaker confronting sexual abuse could only have been lived in. 

The confronting of a memory (and the subsequent recontextualizing of it) is at the heart of Jennifer Fox's narrative debut feature, The Tale. A harrowing look at a young girl who was sexually abused and who, in her adult life, went on to seek clarity while identifying and addressing her former abusers, the film is unique both in its presentation and backstory.

The Tale stars Laura Dern as a documentary filmmaker named Jennifer Fox. If you haven't already realized, Jennifer Fox is also the real-life writer and director of The Tale, meaning that what we're watching is a narrative portrait of a filmmaker's coming to terms with her own abuse.

Meta in its conception, the film acutely takes us through the painful upbringing of the 13-year-old "Jenny" (Isabelle Nélisse), a young girl who was taken advantage of by a female horse trainer and a male athletic trainer whom she met innocently enough at the older woman's home (where Jenny stayed on weekends). Identifying herself less as a victim than as a willing participant, it would take Jenny years (and perhaps even this film) before realizing what she had been victim to. The Tale, based on a recounting of the story Jenny wrote at the age of 13, is concerned with both the origins of the abuse and the filmmaker's coming to terms with it in her adult life.

No Film School spoke with Fox about how she embarked on her first narrative film, finding a visual balance between the past and the present, what she learned about directing actors for the first time, and the best practices for working with child actors on sensitive subject matter.

No Film School: How far removed from this horrific experience had you been before you started working on a narrative feature based on its events?

Jennifer Fox: Well, it's important to note that almost everything I really care about, I try to make films on. The story only resurfaced in my mind, in a very strong way, when I was making the series, Flying: Confessions of a Free Woman, which is not at all about sexual violence. It's really about women embracing their own pleasure and freedom. But as I traveled around the world talking to women everywhere, it just seemed like one-out-of-every-two-women (and women that I never expected to) had stories of sexual abuse or assault or rape. I was just so floored at the numbers and then the story of the sexual abuse just architecturally sounded so much like an event that had happened to me, an event that I had always called a relationship

I think I was in my mid-40s and just ripe enough to revisit that telling of the story to myself. I was ripe enough to emotionally see it from a different lens. As soon as I realized, "Oh my God, it was sexual abuse [that I had experienced] and I just never told myself that," or "I told myself only half of the story," which was the good side, not the other half, almost immediately I thought, "Okay, now I'm ready to make a film about this story."

"I needed the present tense Jennifer to have an action. I needed something (also physically)  for her to do to give the story a spine."

NFS: There's a case made throughout the film that your being a documentary filmmaker had helped provide you with an investigative nature (or perhaps your investigative nature lead to you becoming a documentary filmmaker), seeking out additional subjects and interviewees. How do you feel your work as a documentary filmmaker prepared you to investigate this personal story in your adult life?

Fox: Well, it's funny, as I would say that in some ways it prepared me a lot and in some ways, it didn't prepare me at all. I think my work gave me certain skills but not others. The researching of the story, like going and meeting people and talking with them, and the writing of the story, is something that felt very familiar to me, something that was inherent in the skills I already had. But remember, it was my mother (here played by Ellen Burstyn) who was the one who pushed me to meet the people in the first place. 

I needed the present tense Jennifer to have an action. I needed something (also physically)  for her to do to give the story a spine. Just thinking pragmatically, my mother really, really pushed me to find the real people and she really pushed me to make a film about it. I just took that part out of [the finished film].

Finding and talking to people are, of course, real documentary skills, like creating a rapport, making people feel comfortable, and all of those things. But my skills were not so great as to ever get the realness, to share the real deal, to talk directly [with the people who did this to me] about what had happened. That's where I had to use my fiction tropes of fantasy, i.e. "Well, what would they say if they would answer my question?"  I began to imagine imaginary interviews with them and I did the same for my child self because I realized that I really no longer understood why she did what she did, and of course, there's nobody to ask. I began to imagine how that would be.

Also, in making documentary and fiction, you want the language of the film to fit the story and the characters. If I'm objectifying myself and I see myself as a documentary filmmaker as the subject of the film (or the protagonist of the tale), then it's natural, visually, that Jennifer would be interviewing people, while also interviewing them in her mind, so that's where that language came from. I think there's a lot in documentary that prepared me to make The Tale, but it certainly didn't prepare me to work with actors or to work with large crews or deal with the unique type of equity financing that you find in fiction that you don't find in documentary. Those were all skills that I needed to work really hard on.

Jason Ritter and Elizabeth Debicki in Jennifer Fox's 'The Tale.'

NFS: There's something very cinematic about memory throughout your film, with its use of consistent cross-cutting between time periods and breaking of the fourth wall to address the older Jennifer (and vice versa). What kind of discussions did you have with your editor about implementing both time periods seamlessly?

Fox: Well, the real math is in the script. The script reads very well going back-and-forth in time, but I knew when I wrote the script that the edit would be closer to a documentary edit than most fiction due to the use of two time periods. I knew that as good as the script was (and people thought it was quite good) that when it came to transforming it to film, cross-cuts would change. We really threw the script up in the air and, in a lot of places, re-envisioned it for the edit.

We had three editors and that was due to the fact that the film was shot over three different shoots to accommodate Laura Dern's schedule. We had three editors, first in Germany due to the co-production aspect, and then in New York, and then the second editor had to leave and the third editor was brought in. Each editor moved the film forward, but really, as in documentary, no matter what you think when you get to the edit, it's all up for grabs. I really took that point-of-view of editing, like the script was not sacred at all. We had to make it work and make the crosses work and the montages work.

It's ironic. We used every scene that was shot. It's not one of those films where there was any scene left behind, but the order was changed and shots were found, we made them work, and all of that. There are four "reframes" in the film. I call them reframes, where a new bit of information changes the way you look at something, and one example is when you realize that Jenny isn't 15 and doesn't look older than she really is;  she looks like a kid. That would be the first reframe. Those are all in the script and caused incredible suffering shooting because every scene had to be shot multiple ways (or many scenes did) and we mined every ounce of footage to make those reframes work.

"I wanted the past to look like the present. I wanted this precisely because I wanted the viewer to feel like those times exist simultaneously in the same space."

NFS: Were you looking for a contrasting visual shift as well? Or would too extreme shifts interfere with the back-and-forth between time periods your film experiences?

Fox: Well, ironically I wanted the past to look like the present. I wanted this precisely because I wanted the viewer to feel like those times exist simultaneously in the same space. The past is not black and white, it's not soft-spoken (or vice versa). The present isn't black and white or radically different. I was really hoping that you could begin to feel like the times existed on the same horizontal plane.

Laura Dern in Jennifer Fox's 'The Tale,'

NFS: What was it like working with two DPs then and what did each bring to the project?

Fox:  Well, the first DP, Denis Lenoir, prepped the film and defined its look with me, but unfortunately he had a family crisis two weeks into the shoot and had to leave suddenly. We were then very blessed to get Ivan Strasburg who happened to be in the region near Louisiana because he was supposed to start another film, which had been pushed. He literally showed up 24 hours after Denis left, and they had communicated very well and also Ivan had shot in Louisiana (which is where the main shoot was) and so he knew a lot of our crew and just jumped in with two feet and continued some of the basic ideas Denis had started on. He was a real asset.

We had an unusual situation where we had three shoots and actually, there was a third cameraman as well, and then we had three editors too, so there was a lot of changing of hands. Luckily it all worked out.

NFS: How did you map out when to include a jump cut or a match on action cut that would seep one time period into another?

Fox: Most of those matches were in the script because the script was so dependent on those things; they were thought out way ahead of time. For me, when I see The Tale, it's shot very simply, very basically. We also had a huge number of setups. I think it was 137 setups, which is unbelievably a lot, and we had children, we had horses, we had different time periods, we had a body double for the sex scenes with the minor, etc. It was a really complicated shoot, and I know many of the people on the crew (and the actors) felt that they'd never worked so fast in their life. We were just moving incredibly fast to get it all, and we were able to do it in 29 days of shooting. it was really fast.

"It was really helpful to have that visual distance for me. Laura Dern definitely played her own version, but sometimes I would be so shocked to see, as she's such a brilliant actress, that she did pick up a lot of traits of mine."

NFS: As you were, in many moments, directing actresses playing different ages of yourself, what was your process like directing these women? Were they encouraged to play off of each other's interpretation of Jennifer or your's?

Fox: Really early on with Laura Dern, when she first read the script, we agreed that the character would be her version of Jennifer and that she wouldn't try to be me. I think it was really helpful that she didn't look like me. I'm short and dark and Jewish, and she's tall and thin and blonde. The whole family that she then created would be blonde, blue-eyed....nothing like my family.

It was really helpful to have that visual distance for me. Laura definitely played her own version, but sometimes I would be so shocked to see, as she's such a brilliant actress, that she did pick up a lot of traits of mine. Once I watched her walk across a set and I was like, "Oh my God, that's me," or  I watched in the teaching scenes, that there was a way she talked to the students that really reminded me of myself and it made me laugh. I think it was a big combo.

Even Isabelle Nélisse (who's the marvelous young Jenny) is not shy as a person, and I myself was excruciatingly shy. I also appeared afraid of a lot of things when I was a kid. I think Isabelle played the shy child, but she doesn't play "afraid child". There was a way that Isabelle was also herself, and you just go with it as a director.

Common in Jennifer Fox's 'The Tale.'

NFS: What did you learn directing the entire cast? You came to the project originally as a documentary filmmaker, so did you have to learn a new "language" to communicate with them? What was that process like?

Fox: Oh, absolutely. I was very conscious of the fact that I knew nothing about acting, I mean, actors or directing actors. Ironically, just from my own directing skill, I've taken acting classes my whole career, but I have not directed actors. I think acting classes really help you understand how to work with people.

I realized when I was writing the script that the biggest failure first-time filmmakers experience is the acting, and it really felt like even everything else could fail, but if the acting failed, the film failed. So, I set out a good four years (as much as four years before I even shot The Tale) to beef up my skills and I took every "directing acting" class that I could.

I was also a fellow at the Binger Filmlab in Amsterdam for directors, which is a three-month fellowship in Amsterdam where the prime focus was working with actors. For the final project, you do a scene filmed with actors and then you edit it. There were very marvelous trainers there. Ironically, some of them were Americans, like Judith Weston came and taught there, and then I took more classes with Judith Weston in the States in Los Angeles, and several other people taught there, and I then took other classes directing actors in the States. I just couldn't get enough of it because I was scared, i.e. "How am I going to do this?"

When the script was in better shape, I began to workshop the script with New York actors and we'd do an improvisation to try to see if the scenes were working. I did a lot of reworking with actors. I was teaching at the time, so I was able to find actors through a lot of websites and stuff, and I would bring them to my loft and we would put up a scene and then we'd improvise it. Over and over again, I would rewrite the scenes, as sometimes the truth of what happened just didn't play. I would write a scene truthfully and then I would realize it wasn't filmic. I used actors a lot, and each time, of course, I worked with just New York actors and my chops got better. I was very focused on it.

However, nothing prepares you for working with the level of actors that I had, and I have to say it's a totally different experience to work with more green actors than to work with the likes of Ellen Burstyn and Laura Dern, Elizabeth Debicki, and Jason Ritter, for example. That was another experience. Working with them was about keeping them on track to the essence of the characters, but they were so marvelous that it was just a lot of talking. Sometimes because the point-of-view of the script is so unusual, it's not about someone who's horrified with what happened to them. It's about someone who is curious but not horrified. Sometimes I would have to bring the actors down from their natural feeling, which is maybe to play a scene more emotionally.

I was so blessed with the caliber of actors that a lot of what I was doing was just trying to hold the center of the story and the point-of-view and not have it be anything more. Often the actors brought things that I never thought of, even to the blocking and stuff like that.  It was just extraordinary.

There's a shot in, I think, the last reframe, which is the reframe about Mrs. G being part of it all, where we needed a shot in which the three of them would be together, and Elizabeth said, "Well, what if I walk in and I sort of glide onto the floor between Bill and Jenny?" It really worked gorgeously, and I never would've come up with that. I could name a million things that Laura Dern did and that and Ellen did. Everybody just brought so much to the film. I was blessed. 

It's really important to note that it wasn't me who got those actors. The script, I was told, was really good, but frankly, I had really good mentors and Oren Moverman had come on quite early to produce the film because we knew each other from the beginning of his career; he had extraordinarily good pull with actors. He has a very good reputation. He helped me find a casting director. I am also friends with Brian De Palma, and when I was casting Jennifer, Brian picked out Laura Dern as the right person to play me and called her. Frankly, on my own, I could not have attracted those kind of actors to the script.

"It's your job to cast people who can really tolerate the process and the script, and so making sure you cast somebody who's a child who's really comfortable with the subject matter and whose parents are comfortable with it [is crucial]. There's an old saying, 'You don't just cast the child, you cast the parent.'"

NFS: What advice do you have for filmmakers who are working with sensitive material that requires the participation of child actors? What kind of conversations need to be had when directing the more intimate moments on set?

Fox: I think the first thing is really casting, casting, casting, because it's your job, and we do the same in documentary. I think that's what made me prepared for it. It's your job to cast people who can really tolerate the process and the script, and so making sure you cast somebody who's a child who's really comfortable with the subject matter and whose parents are comfortable with it [is crucial]. There's an old saying, "You don't just cast the child, you cast the parent." I think that's really true.

It's not like there were a million young actresses who could've played the young Jenny. I only found one, and that was after a two year search with my casting director, Matthew Maisto, and Isabelle Nélisse was the only one I felt could play it without overacting and also who could tolerate the script comfortably and wasn't shocked by it, whose parents felt comfortable with it. Clearly, we took enormous protections to protect Isabelle on set. She was not in any of the physical scenes with Jason. Those were shot separately with an adult body double. She was shot on a vertical bed. She didn't even hear the words Jason spoke, which are quite sensational. I think you really have to think out how you're taking care of the child and also who you're casting. That would be my biggest advice.

Isabelle Nélisse in Jennifer Fox's 'The Tale.'

NFS: With the film having premiered at Sundance and then going on to have multiple forms of distribution thereafter, what is it like seeing the film with an audience in a theatrical setting? Is that still something you as a filmmaker find particularly gratifying?

Fox: Well, personally, I hate watching my films. If you want to torture me, make me watch my film with an audience. I did make myself watch The Tale at the first screening. I stood in the back, ready to run out, but I think with this film, what was so gratifying was the enormous and powerful response we got from Sundance. We had five standing ovations. We had a standing ovation at every single screening.

The conversation and dialogue were at such an honest and true level that people were sharing their own stories and were talking about the craft at a very high level. I felt, and this sounds a bit strange, that by making the film, I was delivering the message to the audience that these things can be spoken about and that you can survive the telling. I felt almost like we were in church, which is very weird. I was holding this space of people suffering.

It was quite unusual, and many, many people came up to me after and (men as well) would say "This is my story." It was an extraordinary thing, and I found that replicated as we showed the film all over America and around the world. It seems to be playing universally to different cultures and people.

What is really amusing to me is that this is truly an independent feature. Before we got into Sundance, we had no idea if anybody would watch it. We had no idea if the critics would pan it. We had no idea if the film would get distribution. We were very much the little engine that could. Everything we hoped it would do started at Sundance, and I think it's just been an extraordinary ride. It's a rare thing, getting to experience something so exciting as having brought this film to Sundance at the beginning of the year.     

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