Telling your own story on film can be challenging no matter what, but for Jennifer Fox it was a particularly vulnerable process, as she sought to unpack the tangled web of memory surrounding her own childhood sexual abuse.
Her own story mirrored that of the one depicted in The Tale, premiering May 26 on HBO, which follows Laura Dern playing a fictionalized version of Fox herself (with the same name). After re-discovering a story she wrote as a 13-year-old, Jennifer begins to question everything she thought she knew about the sexual relationship she had with a 40-year-old man at the age of 13. Through the process of sifting through her own memories and talking to others from her life at the time, Fox comes to grapple with the fact that her experience was sexual abuse and what that realization means for her past, present, and future.
Fox, a documentarian, turned her process of discovery into her first narrative film. In the era of #MeToo, it’s a raw tale of the daily horrors that pervade the lives of so many women, as well as an exploration of memory and the stories we tell ourselves to survive.
In advance of the film’s premiere on HBO, EW called Fox to talk about how she turned her own trauma into a film, why she was insistent on using her real name in the story, and the fortuitous nature of the film’s release in the midst of a social and cultural movement aimed squarely at exposing sexual misconduct and abuse around the world.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: This film is highly personal and constructed from your own memories, experiences, and a story you wrote for English class as a 13-year-old. You are a documentarian, so you’re used to probing the personal to unlock truths and construct narratives. How soon after re-discovering the story did you decide to make it into a film? Or was gathering “interviews” something you were doing as a way to make sense of things that you then later decided to turn into a film?
JENNIFER FOX: It’s a funny thing because I think from the moment I wrote [the English class story] it was an attempt to start to process it. When I started making films in my twenties, I always thought this was a film I’d like to make. It wasn’t until I was 45 and making this film about women’s sexuality and women’s freedom that something really changed in me and that was the film Flying: Confessions of a Free Woman. I was looking to make a film about freedom, and yet, I heard so many stories about sexual abuse that I was floored. I would have told the story before that moment as if it was my relationship that I had with a 40-year-old man at 13. But once I heard all these other women’s stories suddenly there was a paradigm shift in my mind. I realized that it was sexual abuse and that I had never called it that because I couldn’t tolerate the concept of that. This is also fiction, and so, I combine a lot of events in a simple way to give the impetus for the journey of the character. So it wasn’t until I was in my 40s that I was ready to tell this story.
Did you ever consider making a documentary? What was the impetus for making this a narrative film?
No, it was always a fictional story for me. Never once, ever, did I ever think of it as a documentary. I think because it’s really an investigation of memory, and there are no witnesses. That’s the thing, it’s just myself and the real Bill [played by Jason Ritter onscreen]. And I knew he would never speak, and there’s no images of what happened. You know the film is really a visual investigation of myself, fictionalized. I don’t make such a distinction between documentary and fiction that many people in America do. For me, there’s a more fluid cross between the two types of storytelling. Documentary uses a lot of narrative skills, storytelling skills, so I don’t make this big divide that we do in America. You really find the language that fits the story you want to tell. And for me, it had to be fictional and also use a lot of fantasy and experimental language.
It’s an extremely brave thing to share this story and this interior journey in such a naked, vulnerable way. What prompted you to do that? Were you ever tempted to not reveal it was a true story, use your real name, direct it yourself — all of things that automatically mean you had to engage with it more directly?
For me, first of all, I’m a director, and then I’m a writer, and then I’m a person. A film for me isn’t finished until it goes onscreen. So the idea that I wouldn’t continue to develop and craft it across writing to the shooting to the editing to the post is just inconceivable. I’m also very pragmatic and pretty early on, I settled on using my own name. I went back and forth. Sometimes in the early days I was using a fictional name, but I really felt very strongly. Remember, I started writing this film 10 years ago, and as I was writing I was very afraid that it would never ever be accepted if I wasn’t there to stand up and say, “No, this really happened.” People would very easily say, “You’re making it up. It can’t be like that. A little girl can’t love the man who abuses her. Memory doesn’t work like that.” I was very committed that the physical scenes between Jenny and Bill had to be in the film, and I was really afraid that if I didn’t leave my name on the film there would be nobody there to argue why they had to be there. As a survivor, I felt like you had to show people what it really looks like. There’s no fade to black and they walk into a room. That it really is, in a very ordinary way, horror. Little Jenny is throwing up after every encounter. And she’s in pain. She’s manipulated, and it isn’t what we like to fantasize or what we’d more like to just blank out on. Child sexual abuse is horrible, but it’s also a huge manipulation. Even the words that Bill [speaks] in the scenes are the words I remember from the real Bill. They are verbatim pieces of what I heard.
You were merging fiction and reality. It’s based on a true story, but are there any scenes/situations that are totally fiction — the confrontation at the end, for example?
A lot of the scenes are a combination of memory transcript, transcript with real people like my mother or meeting the characters in the present, and also fictionalization and crafting either by just cutting them way down or giving them twists. Mrs. G, who I met with right away, as you see in the film, the diner scene and going to her house are actually right from reality. The confrontation scene, some of that dialogue is straight from conversations I had with Bill, but the real energy of it came because in the beginning, Bill would pick up the phone when I finally got his number from the P.I., but he would never meet me. Years went by, and I just got so angry at a certain point, that I wrote this scene with an anger that I had never felt up until then. You won’t give me the space to meet you and discuss what happened and this rage came out of me, and that’s how I wrote the scene. Some of the lines are from dialogue I had on the phone. The scene is based on something I found on the web, which is he was a highly feted athlete, coach, and he was given many, many awards — wings of universities are named after him. I built it around an event that had been put on the web. It’s a real amalgam of truth and fantasy. When I make documentaries, I’m crafting narrative all the time and choosing what narrative to preference and what not to preference. Reality is so thick. In any given moment, there’s usually hundreds of narratives you can choose, if not 10 or three, and as documentary filmmakers, we decide on which one we want to play. The creation of story is very similar, [but] the methodology of the work is different and they’re new skills I had to learn. But not the idea of crafting narrative from an amalgamation of truth and fiction — that I’ve always done.
The film makes such a unique use of voice-over and point-of-view, particularly in how it flits between your younger self and adult self and really demonstrates how we see ourselves and the stories we tell ourselves (for instance, the switch from how you see yourself then to how much younger you were in actuality). How did you arrive at that narrative approach?
I was really interested in the mind and how basically the child spun the adult she wanted to be. That child, Jenny, spun the fact that she was going to survive and not only that, [but] survive feeling even better about herself because this adult had fallen for her. I was really interested in that story that had propelled me to be who I am. I’m seen as fearless. I went to Lebanon at 21 to make a film in the middle of a war. I’ve had quite the fearless life on the outside. I’m not saying I believe in that. I was really interested in that process and also the process of what happens when those narratives begin to disintegrate and how do you find out why and how something happened? I said, “I’m not going to think of a three act structure. I’m just going to find these units of memory,” and I did that. Also, pushed by my mom, I went and found the children around me now who are adults, the real coaches, and the Iris girl who was around when I was there and also interviewed my mom. So I amassed all this material of present tense and then began to weave it. I ended up with something that looked like a monster, three-eyed and 200 some pages, and then I began to shrink it and focus on how to convey certain ideas. It was really process oriented.
Laura Dern is playing a version of you. What did that mean for her, and did you ever have to coax her out of something since you’re there on set watching?
Laura came on the film very early, a year and a half before we had financing. When we got the financing, we began to sit and work with the script. She did have really clear ideas and some things I rewrote with her thoughts in mind. She was very much a partner. One of the things that Laura and I talked about a lot and worked with a lot is she was a lot angrier than I was. We really had to talk about how the character she plays isn’t angry at the time. Even her relationship with her mother, with Ellen Burstyn, we had a lot of conversations with the two of them on set that they are at a place in their life where they had passed beyond being angry at each other. They were really good friends at this point, and they could say anything to each other and it wasn’t really provoking anger. It’s about a really mature relationship. They’ve gone through a lot. They’ve come through the other side and now they’re basically trying to figure out what happened. To her great credit, she played it as I asked, her version of it. And on the other hand, the confrontation with Bill, she really intentionally made it more private than I wanted it to be. She held it down under the lid until the very end when she turns around at the door and that was something that she brought to it that I went with. All my actors just had great influence on me and the script. On the other hand, I’m not a wilting flower, and I have really strong opinions, too. That’s the best of both worlds, frankly.
For Jason Ritter, who plays your abuser, he has to really do these terrible things onscreen and yet, he has this reputation as being a wonderful guy. How did you talk through those scenes with him? Were they something you saw him visibly struggle with?
We all know Jason is the most wonderful, kind, generous, unassuming human being. He’s a wonderful man. It was actually Laura Dern’s idea to cast him. I really am grateful to her for that because she and I both wanted to find an actor that would not be the man that you peg as a perpetrator. We wanted to find a guy that looked like, “Well, I can leave my kid with that guy.” I can’t speak to why he took the part. I know he really responded to the script. He does say that at the moment, he saw a road dividing and one road led to safety and the other road led to living by his convictions. We were turned down by a lot of men who just didn’t have the courage frankly. We worked a lot together as with all the actors. I sent them the real letters from the real Bill and Mrs. G and any diaries I had and images. I also sent in a few books that I thought spoke to different stories of sexual abuse that might make him understand. First of all, we could never have done it without a body double. Several times he had to turn away and go in another room, and I know he cried. It was just so brutal for him to think about how horrible this really was. I think it was really hard for him, and I really think he did such a beautiful job. Also, portraying what we never see which is, at least in my experience, my coach really seemed to believe that he loved me and really think he was doing something good for me. I think Jason really showed that in that mind of that person, as warped as it is, that’s what he felt. I mean I’ll never forget there’s the scene in the film where Jason Ritter as Bill picks up Isabelle [Nelisse, who plays young Jenny] to take her out. He’s taking her out as his girlfriend to an event with his track students who are in their twenties and that really happened to me. It’s the moment as an adult where you remember that event and you go, “Oh my god, he saw me as his girlfriend.” If we are really trying to understand how these things happen, we have to portray even the perpetrator as three dimensionally as we can to see how they see a child.
When the film debuted at Sundance, there seemed to be a clear divide (with exceptions) to how it was received by female and male critics. What did you make of that and was that reaction something you anticipated?
Funny, I didn’t notice. Frankly, I don’t read my own reviews. So that might be why I didn’t notice. But what I do notice in screenings is that it is often harder for men than women because we have lived [it]. Most women, if it didn’t happen to them, they know someone in their family. Sexual violence, whether it be child sexual abuse, rape, [or] assault, is never very far from any woman’s story, so there’s a way we live with this silently for generations and there’s a way we hear it. I don’t think it was a surprise for women.
This is such a personal story, and you mentioned that the story itself arose out of a documentary you were making about other women’s stories of abuse, all of which foreshadowed the cultural moment we’re having now. What do you make of this film hitting at this particular time when it’s something we’re finally all discussing and bringing out into the open?
If it wasn’t, it probably would have gotten buried because it’s too strong and it’s too complex, but we are lucky that the doors are already open so that this story can be thought about and talked about. But I do think women have lived with this, therefore it isn’t a shock. It’s not a shock it is in the way for men where it’s like I’ve heard men say, “I had no idea” — as if they were entering another planet where sexual abuse and trauma happens. Women have been living on this planet. All of us live on this planet our whole lives, and generations and generations and generations since the beginning of time. So there’s a way that we’re more familiar with it. The real issue is how can men not know? How could we have such different lives?
Do you feel that making the film has helped you to heal or find a sense of peace?
I don’t think of life that way. I wasn’t out of peace and now I’m in peace; I wasn’t unhealed and now I’m healed. For me, life is a journey and a process, and I’m not saying that to get around the question, it is really true. We all have trauma. That’s not to diminish this one, but everyone is healing and working on their wounds, trying to figure out how to live with what has happened to them. I’m in a continual process of that. I’m lucky to be an artist to be able to turn something that happened to me into something beyond myself for other people to value as well. Yes, it let me peel some layers of the onion of this story in me, and that’s something I will be doing my whole life. It’s not like now it’s over and I can go onto something else. It will always surface at moments, and I will always probably need to look at something at different moments, but yes, it has definitely taken me around a few more onion peels.