Jennifer Fox discusses The Tale, which tells of her own experience as a woman in her forties who finds herself flooded with long-buried memories of the abuse she suffered as a child.
Trigger warning: sexual abuse, paedophilia, rape
While so many films use sexual abuse as a plot twist or something that happens to side characters who need to be avenged, Jennifer Fox’s The Tale is about the experience of a survivor, told from her perspective — literally. This is a fiction film, but the character played by Laura Dern is a clear, direct stand in for Fox herself, telling her own story. When a writing assignment from when she was 13 years old resurfaces, Jennifer (Dern) finds herself flooded with suppressed memories of a summer camp friendship that was much more sinister than she’d convinced herself it was.
Perhaps because this is a film made by an actual survivor, The Tale deals with the uncomfortable topics of sexual abuse and paedophilia with a clarity and intelligence rarely encountered in cinema. It is a film we can all learn a lot from, not in terms of ‘how to recognise a paedophile,’ but in our own relationship to abuse and trauma — as Fox says: “I don’t see this event as horrific in the way you see it as horrific. I see it as part of my life.”
We sat down with Fox at Sundance London to discuss her desire to make a film about this experience, a survivor’s perception of her own abuse, as well as the film’s quiet rhythm and subtle performances.
The film is now streaming on HBO.
Seventh Row (7R): Laura Dern plays Jennifer, a documentary filmmaker who is a sort of stand-in for you. But when she has these realisations about what happened to her when she was young, she doesn’t decide to make a film about it, while you did. I was wondering why that is, and why you chose to make a film about this discovery you had.
Jennifer Fox (JF): That’s an interesting question. In terms of within the film, I think it would just have been too meta to have her do it. Like Ellen Burstyn in the role of Nettie, my mother pushed me to find the people and face them. She did that exactly, but she also said “and make the film.” Because, in lieu of being able to prosecute them — or kill them, as a mother would want to do — she actually thought “use your skill and talent, and make a film that will change the world.”'In reality, my mother pushed me to find the people and face them, but she also said “and make the film.”'Click To Tweet
In the film, the woman played by Laura Dern could only make a documentary, not a fiction film, and the people she wants to confront would never allow her to film them. You know what I’m saying? That’s exactly why I didn’t make a documentary. Nobody would ever come on camera and speak.
7R: She talks to the people as they were back then, not as they are now, like a documentarian interviewing her subjects.
JF: We set her up in the beginning as a documentary filmmaker. For me, it was just to find a device in which you could see the character do what we all do, which is talk to ourselves in our mind. Since she’s a documentary filmmaker, I thought she would be investigating in the same way she does in her work.
7R: There are very tragic things revealed in the film, but they’re not signalled in a very flashy or dramatic way. These revelations just sort of happen. All these things just pile up progressively; there’s a quiet rhythm to the revelations. Jennifer in the film is not freaking out. How did you decide on that structure and rhythm?
JF: It’s a film about what happens in your mind, and it was very important to me, conceptually, to make the present and the fantasy seem like they were happening in the same time. We didn’t make any big changes between past and present. There’s no big camera change between time periods, everything looks kind of ordinary.
I wanted to show the way we function as human beings, where in fact, we can be thinking about the future, the past, or imagining something — and it’s all the same to us. It’s all real. The past and the present are as real as fantasy.
When you tell people about sexual abuse, they think: “Oh my God! It’s so horrible!” Or they have this perception of a person who is sexually abused as someone crying in a corner, and it’s a big drama. For me, as a survivor, it’s not like that. You live with something in a very, again, ordinary way. It’s part of you. I don’t see this event as horrific in the way you see it as horrific. I see it as part of my life, and I’m investigating a narrative in my life, not something from a horror film. So I wanted to show the ordinariness of it all.'We can be thinking about the future, the past, or imagining something — and it’s all the same to us. It's all real.'Click To Tweet
In fact, with the actors, sometimes I really had to sit on them and say: “No!” “You are not screaming at your mother, you guys aren’t angry,” for the scenes with Laura Dern and Ellen Burstyn. “You’re actually two people who have gone beyond anger and now have a good relationship, and you can say anything to each other.” A lot of the time, I was holding down the big, dramatic emotions.
7R: The film features representations of abuse that, compared to other films, are very explicit, even just in the dialogue. Because these scenes are in the film at all, I assume that you always really wanted them there — I imagine that because of their nature, you had to fight hard to keep them in the movie. I was wondering how you worked to construct those scenes in a way that would be both respectful, and, as you say, not very intense or Hollywood. Did you watch other films that represented such abuse?
JF: I don’t think there are any other films doing that!
The main focus was the acting: to keep it real and authentic, and to work on the two characters. We cast Jason Ritter — who’s the nicest human being in the world, and such a beautiful actor, and so respectful — and we worked to bring this three-dimensionality to the character, to show that in the mind of Bill (Ritter), he was doing a good thing. In the role of the young girl, we cast a very authentic child actor, so that it would stay very quiet and uninflected.'I don’t see this event as horrific in the way you see it as horrific. I see it as part of my life, and I’m investigating a narrative in my life, not something from a horror film.'Click To Tweet
It was indeed a deal-breaker not to have these scenes in. It was really important that the audience see the ordinary horror of it. It isn’t screaming and crying; it isn’t rape as we usually think of rape. It’s actually very subtle and revolting but in a very ordinary way.
7R: To come back to Jason Ritter, many of the actors are quite big names. Was it important for you to have famous actors, or were you just lucky to have them? I can imagine that some actors might not want to be in a film about this topic.
JF: Because it was a rather large script — in the sense that there were horses, stunts, body doubles — it wasn’t a classic low-budget film. Because of that, we had to have actors of a certain standing. But the aspiration was also to find the best actors possible. Very early on, my producer came on to help cast the film, and he has really good connections with actors. Actually, Brian de Palma is a friend of mine, and he was the one who reached out to Laura Dern for us, sent her the script, and basically pitched me to her. She came on very early on, a year and a half before we had financing.
7R: How was it working with Laura Dern? She has so much to do for this character, and such subtlety. Did you talk a lot about it, or was it all in the script?
JF: It was a lot in the script, but Laura is someone who likes to improvise. So we talked a lot, and she had a lot of influence on the film. Sometimes, she would change lights; sometimes, she would change the blocking. She’s fantastic to work with. All of the actors were extraordinary. We were so lucky.'Sometimes, Laura Dern would change lights; sometimes, she would change the blocking.'Click To Tweet
7R: Were there any challenges in making this film that were specific to it being a fiction film? You’ve only made documentaries before.
JF: I think it’s very different in its look. I’ve written scripts before, and the research into the writing is similar to making a documentary. But filming fiction is just completely different: there are a hundred people on the crew. I’m used to shooting alone in an environment with a camera…
7R: Are you planning on making another fiction film?
JF: Yes, I’m looking forward to it!