Tamblyn spoke to EW about writing the piece and making her directorial debut with 'Paint It Black'

By Maureen Lee Lenker
October 03, 2017 at 11:00 AM EDT
Astrid Stawiarz/Getty Images

Paint It Black

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Amber Tamblyn will not be silenced — following her open letter firing back at James Woods in Teen Vogue, Tamblyn spoke more broadly about women and the burden of proof in a powerful op-ed published last month in The New York Times.

Titled “I’m Done With Not Being Believed,” the piece explores the toxic effect of the tendency to disbelieve women who make claims of sexual harassment and assault, and delved further into the implications of how this engenders internal disbelief in women. Tamblyn told EW she wrote the piece because though she was tired of talking about Woods, she felt there was more to be said. “There was still something on my chest that I wanted to discuss about this broader conversation of believing women and us believing in ourselves,” she says.

Over the years the actress has been consistently outspoken about causes and issues she believes in. This is just the latest, and she assures us it won’t be the last. “There will be more where that came from, I can promise you,” she says.

One arena where she’s doubling down on her efforts to put things out into the world that express her views on feminism and depictions of women in the media is in her directorial debut. Paint It Blackwhich is available now on all major video on demand platforms, is based on the Janet Fitch novel of the same name and follows Josie (Alia Shawkat), a young woman struggling to make sense of her world after her boyfriend dies by suicide. She finds herself drawn to his mother, Meredith (Janet McTeer), a mysterious, wealthy classical pianist. The film is elegiac, relying heavily on its musical score and its poetic imagery to tell its story of two widely different women (one punk, one old-money) who hunt (and hurt) for answers they feel they can only find in each other.

Tamblyn spoke to EW about her experiences directing the film, what it took to give herself permission to step behind the camera, and why she optioned the book to turn into a film.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: It’s not uncommon for people to transition from acting to directing. Was that always a goal of yours or was there something that happened along the way as a performer that made you want to get behind the camera?
AMBER TAMBLYN: I’ve always felt like creative choices for women are never accidental because we don’t really have the time or inclination or choice to have things accidentally happen — meaning we have to choose to do them, and many times those choices are scary. This is an example of something accidentally happening to me in the sense that I had never really thought about directing. I had never wanted it. I had always thought that I would be a producer, and that I would be writing my own screenplays or my own books — that I wouldn’t always just be an actress — but directing never crossed my mind. It really, really didn’t. It was after many different conversations with a couple of different directors and my producers when it was pretty clear that I had a very strong point of view of what this film was that I wanted to make. They all very kindly and lovingly said, “You’re the one who you’re the one that should be directing this. You need to see it for what it is.'” They saw it before I did.

Now that you’ve done it, do you want to do it again?
Yeah, definitely. The moment I gave myself permission, it was sort of all hands on deck, and I became keenly aware that this was something that was very right for me. I had always watched directors, and thought of different things that I would do while watching them as far as what kind of choices I would make if I was directing the film or TV show they were making. It had always been there; I just never paid attention to it. I’ve been acting for over two decades, and I feel like I’ve been very fortunate to work with the best and the worst, so I’ve been able to see some of the greatest ideas but also the great mistakes.

In your New York Times op-ed you wrote movingly of a friend being afraid to ask for the opportunity to direct and then her fear of being capable — was that something you faced at all with this project?
There wasn’t a fear. There was just a flat-out, straightforward I shouldn’t do this because I don’t need to do this, I’ll find somebody else that’s great. That was sort of the voice in my head. Which I think is almost equally as scary as saying that you’re terrified to take on a task because it means you’re not even seeing your own capabilities or your own self in a certain way. But I think that’s an endemic behavior for women because we live so much in our unconscious minds. So much of our choices are made unconsciously, before they’re sort of made and cooked and marinated, before we really even think them. So then once they present themselves your conscious mind says, “Oh, I don’t need to do that or I’m not right for that or I don’t have enough experience for that” — even though your entire cellular body has been processing it for who knows how long before you even thought about it.

You optioned the book and worked on the script for quite awhile before you came to the point of making it. What grabbed you about the book and made you want to adapt it for the screen?
It’s funny, it’s been a little over 10 years at this point. Amy Poehler actually gave me the book — it was sort of a “hey, check out this book, I just read it, it’s so amazing” and so I got a copy and read it. I couldn’t get the cinematic version of the story out of my head. A lot of books do that though, they leave these deep impressions on us. But I really had never had a reaction like that before where it was something that I could actually seen on a screen. And that, coupled with this empty spot in my heart that I felt this book and this premise filled, was the spot of what women are denied in protagonists in modern film. We talk about “complex female characters,” but what does that even mean? What does that look like? And I really felt this story spoke to what that term means, and it really did feel complex. To me, complexity goes beyond emotionality — it goes into violence, it goes into cruelty, it goes into obsession. All of those things which are inherent to the female experience.  I feel like often times actresses have expository dialogue that’s written for them that’s meant to be emotional or they have scenes that are emotional, but where are the films that are actually emotional experiences themselves? There are some really, really wonderful ones, but there aren’t enough of them. The book resonated with me so much because it felt like a story I hadn’t seen in awhile that captured this sort of dangerous element about women that could be shown in a film.

How involved was Janet Fitch with the project?
Part of the reason the film took so long to make was, first and foremost, wooing Janet Fitch. She’s had her book turned into a movie. She had that experience with White Oleander and then she kind of felt like, “I did that that was nice and now I don’t need to do that again.” So, it took a while to sort of woo her. I kept telling her that not only am I a third generation Angeleno from here, my grandparents are from here, my parents are from here, but also I’m a poet. I begged her if she was ever going to instill trust in a writer and wanted another book adapted, she should give the chance not to a big company but to somebody like me. Because I felt the book is so poetic and the story is so poetic, and I really felt deeply connected to it because of those two qualities about it.

This deals so honestly with the topic of suicide and how it affects people left behind. Was that a personally meaningful topic for you?
It wasn’t. I totally respect and understand how complicated it is to tell stories about people taking their own lives. And I also know it’s a dangerous medium and art because what it can do is speak to people who are thinking about doing it and telling them that’s it ok to do it. First of all, this wasn’t a story about a person who took their life, but this was a story about everything that’s left after that and how we don’t get to answer any of the questions we have about why. And, for me, that was the more powerful story — less the answers and more the questions. And letting the characters and letting this world sort of sit in what the imagination can run wild with – what the mother runs wild with in her head about what could or couldn’t have happened or the girlfriend, played by Alia Shawkat, about what could or couldn’t have happened and how they both felt like they had contributed to what happened to him. It was very, very important to me that I didn’t give any answers to why he did do it.

Paint It Black (2017) Alia Shawkat CR: Brian Rigney Hubbard/Olive Productions
Brian Rigney Hubbard/Olive Productions

You have very potent and evocative imagery throughout the film.
Some of those montage pieces, that’s what I mean by “emotional film” — meaning you have complex moments that represent emotion as to opposed to just saying to the audience “this is what emotion is.” It’s finding more poetic ways to convey feelings and thoughts of women onscreen.

There is a strong Gothic sensibility to it. Was that something inherent to the book you sought to bring out on-screen?
With my director of photography, I showed him and told him about a bunch of films I was influenced by when I was much younger. Movies like The Hunger, and Ingmar Bergman’s Persona. And then, certainly, that super weird era I grew up on of ’80s films like The Dark Crystal and Legend and Labyrinth. While this film has nothing to do with Jim Henson characters living in a dark valley with a magical crystal, it also kind of is about that. If we were going to get the tone right, which just barely touches the world of archness, then I needed to really convey that visually in certain ways. And I also needed to convey the class-ism in Los Angeles. The fact that you have so many people here that are literally separated by Sunset Boulevard. Below that, you’ve got artists, you’ve got people who are living paycheck to paycheck, you’ve got all kinds of people and then you’ve got, above Sunset Boulevard, some of the richest families in the entire world and that old money that’s been here in the city for so long. I really wanted the house to also feel like that. It couldn’t just be a gorgeous house; it couldn’t just be an ostentatious mansion. It had to be a house that had passed down through like 10 generations that it’s ridiculous that you wouldn’t believe someone would actually live in anymore. Everything about Meredith, Janet McTeer’s character, had to feel bigger than life in order for Alia Shawkat’s character to fall under her spell.

The soundtrack relies heavily on the interplay of the punk scene and classical music to great effect. Were those musical areas or scenes you were already familiar with or involved with, or how did you make those choices?
That punk scene was shot at The Smell in L.A., which is probably one of the most important punk clubs not only in the city, but in the country. White Lung played live for us at The Smell, which was really fun — we got to throw a punk show at 8 o’clock in the morning. It was pretty wild. Another thing I have a great connection to here in this city is classical music. My grandfather was the master violinist for the L.A. Philharmonic and when you hear a lot of old violin solos in old Westerns, that’s my grandfather playing the violin. That was another thing I said to Janet Fitch was how much classical music meant to me. My aunt is a classical pianist — a beautiful, beautiful concert pianist so that also ran in my veins. So I knew the classical songs I was going to pick. I knew I was going to pick the Rachmaninoff piece. I visualized from the second I read the scene, this visual of Josie in slow motion with one of the most beautiful Chopin pieces, and I like the paradox of that. I like the idea of this slow punk world against one of the most beautiful classical pieces ever written. So those are two of the different sides of that. And Mac McCaughan, who’s the lead singer of Superchunk, he actually did a predominantly original score for us. It was such a wonderful experience working with him because I really didn’t want this film to have just classical music or just punk music. Just because it’s called Paint It Black, I didn’t want there to be a Rolling Stones song in it. I wanted it to live in a sort of fairytale world, and so, the music really was inspired by The Dark Crystal, by these old weird synth-y soundtracks that almost feel otherworldly.

Lastly, on a different note, I wanted to ask about your New York Times op-ed. How did that come about? Did you reach out to them or vice versa – and how did you decide exactly what to say?
I actually had an idea for a broader piece. I’m tired of talking about James Woods. I said what I needed to say in that Teen Vogue piece and I was done. But there was still something on my chest that I wanted to discuss about this broader conversation of believing women and us believing in ourselves. And so I actually reached out and texted my friend Roxane Gay, who’s a good friend of mine and a really, really wonderful person and a phenomenal writer. I said to her, “Hey I know you write for the Times a lot — would you mind connecting me with whoever your editor is there?” And she really didn’t have to do that, but she did. And it was really sweet of her. It is not lost on me that a black woman is the reason that article happened. I love Roxane, and I’m really, really grateful for her friendship and for making that connection for me. There will be more where that came from, I can promise you.

Paint It Black is being distributed by Imagination Worldwide and is available now on VOD platforms.

Paint It Black

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