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A New York Story: Tamara Jenkins on Private Life

“I'm good. I just came from doing my Terry Gross interview and now I'm wandering the block in front of my house, so my husband doesn't have to listen to me talk about myself.” This is what Tamara Jenkins, the writer/director of Netflix’s pitch-perfect “Private Life,” playfully tells me on the phone, the day after her film’s rapturous New York Film Festival screening, months after it opened the 2018 Sundance Film Festival to unanimous praise. Luckily however, we will get to hear her talk about herself this season, as the filmmaker has liberally poured a lot of her personal reality into her latest. A deeply generous and specific New York film about a 40-something husband and wife battling with fertility and IVF treatments, “Private Life” publicly honors a whispered-about emotional struggle middle-aged couples, who have delayed having children due to various contemporary social and economic factors, weather in their marriage. 

Starring Kathryn Hahn and Paul Giamatti as an arty East Village couple, and Kayli Carter as their helpful and intellectually curious step-niece, “Private Life” is Jenkins’ first film since “Savages” in 2007—another familial story anchored in relatable, heartbreaking truths. And she was busy during that decade, dividing her time between writing for hire, teaching and being a new mother, the successful outcome of her own experience with fertility treatments. She spent four years of that time, as she explained during the post-screening Q&A at NYFF, working on the film she was meant to make. She wrote and perfected her script in a remote office she had to rent, having transformed her second bedroom from a home-office to her daughter’s room. “Virginia Woolf was right,” she remarked after the screening. “You have to get a room of your own. Out of the house, so you don’t drift into domesticity and distractions from all the things you’re supposed to be doing in your office.”

Below, we delved deep into Jenkins’ process in making a timeless New York movie about a marriage, both hilarious and profoundly emotional at equal measure.

This movie comes from a deeply personal place for you, as you went through your own experience with fertility treatments. 

Yeah, my husband and I went through our own fertility saga. At the time, I certainly wasn't cataloging it [as] great material. Although I think that there's a part of writers and artists [that is] collecting things all the time even if they don't know it. There's a third eye keeping track of things that might be viable at some future date. When I was in the thick of it myself, I had a friend, Rebecca—she's a filmmaker, a documentarian, and she was my confidant. When I would relay to her what was going on in all of the trials of either IVF or adoption or whatever things we were pursuing (we were pursuing international adoption as opposed to domestic adoption, which is what happened in the movie), she would say to me, "This is really good material. You should be writing this down." And I was horrified. I'm not making a movie about this stuff. But, here I am and I have a movie about it. 

I think time went by and one thing that happened was that I started [hearing] a lot of people in my circle (including my friend Rebecca), who started having their own fertility drama. Many people I know, because of the nature of their lives, delayed having kids because of work and the kind of careers they had. Then [they] found themselves later pursuing parenthood. So I realized that it wasn't my singular problem. You go to those waiting rooms and you look around and you're definitely not the only one. I just started thinking that there was something I was being given permission to explore the subject beyond the things that the story of my own. 

It was a successful procedure for you, yet your film is about a couple that doesn’t succeed, which, I thought, is really a generous way of honoring and sympathizing with people who went through the same battles as you did, but weren’t as fortunate as you. 

I feel like there are [already] a lot of these stories and then at the end there's the happy baby ending. Even though the movie is about trying to have a kid, [about] that pursuit, to me it was always a story about a marriage and the existential crisis that this couple goes through and a mutual mid-life crisis story. That's always the way I thought of it. The ending of the movie is about them and how they weathered this. And that, to me, was more important from a narrative point of view. And then, on another hand, I just felt like when I read other stories or memoirs and at the end it was like, "Hello! We got it!" I just found it fucked up. 

Most of the time, it doesn't work. Statistically most of IVF, as we'd have to look at the numbers, doesn't always work. And also, they'd had as many tries as they had. Who knows what happens in the future with the couple? We just leave them at Applebee's, sitting there waiting for a potential birth mother. So we don't really know what happens. For sure, many cycles fail. In the course of the movie, we see two failed cycles: one with one IVF cycle with their own eggs, and then a donor egg IVF cycle. And I think that was realistic. And then adoption isn't simple and easy. Basically, if you're not getting a baby the old fashion way, it's hard. 

I can't remember the last time I went from crying to laughing and back to crying in a movie this sharply and frequently. You struck a wonderful balance between comedy and drama and tragedy. Can you talk about your writing process, ping-ponging between the two?

That's a high honor to think that I succeeded in doing that. I think it's something that I'm just naturally [after]; that is my place of where I want to go. There's an in-between place between the comedy and drama that shimmers. That's where I strive to go, because I believe that it's a more authentic landscape for talking with experience. I don't think that anything is truly dramatic or truly kinetic. That's what I'm attracted to in literature or movies or art.

I'm also wondering if you set out to make a timeless New York movie—“Private Life” immediately feels like one. As predictable as this might be, the marriage of an intellectual, slightly neurotic New York couple inevitably draws Woody Allen comparisons. 

I felt that these characters grew out of the soil of the way that they live [in New York]. I totally see what you’re saying with the Woody Allen comparison, although its view of economic reality is different than a lot of his portraits. This is [an] East Village version. They're holding on to their apartment by their rent-stabilized lease. The economic realities brought them to this place where they are when the movie starts; informed the choices that they made in their life. Leading the kind of lives that they have is so unstable economically that it probably informed why they delayed pursuing having a kid in the first place. They had a small apartment. What are they gonna do? They didn't have health insurance. To me, that was really important to help inform who these people were. They're freelance New York people, [they are] artists.

Every New York freelancer knows a thing or two about that, yes.

It might be a familiar world. It's an unstable place.

I love the line in the movie Rachel and Richard are looking through the profiles of potential donors, they say, “Oh, she's a film and journalism major. That's why she's probably selling her eggs.”

[Laughs] “She majored in film and journalism, with like a minor in cinema studies. Or a double major cinema studies and journalism. No wonder she's selling her eggs, she can't get a job.”

That New York-ness you're talking about—the best description of it I can think of is lived-in. I just loved that messy, chaotic, but kind of organized/chaotic apartment that they had. Kathryn Hahn's beautifully messy hair, those bulky sweaters and layered clothes … 

That makes me really happy that you felt that way, especially as a New Yorker and feeling that it was an authentic portrait. The language that you just used, lived-in, that was the language that me and the Production Designer and the Costume Designer and the Cinematographer [used]. That’s how we talked about getting the feel and the look that we wanted for the movie. The production designer Ford Wheeler [and I] (we had a limited budget) poured so much of our attention into that apartment and getting that apartment right, because it was such an extension of their character. All their history is kind of evident in the books on the windowsills, and the exposed radiator. All that was so important to tell the story without words.

And your cast had a special kind of chemistry that achieved that lived-in feel. Did you do any rehearsals to prepare them appear as a family?

We had a very limited rehearsal period, but I got Paul and Kathryn together once. Once, several months before, we shot by accident. Kathryn was arriving in New York to do press for “Bad Moms,” and Paul was about to fly out to Eastern Europe to do a movie. There was one night that they were in the city at the same time, so I got to get them in advance of the production schedule kicking in. That was fantastic and it was the first time they'd ever met in their life. They got to go through the script and I made dinner. I gave them a couple of acting exercises. One of them was washing dishes, which I thought was a good marital acting exercise. It's that truly domestic cap that echoes in marriages all the time. And we read through the script. Oh, I had them go on a donor egg website and select an egg donor. Then so many months later, we had three days of rehearsals and Kayli entered the picture at that point. I think we were lucky that there was a really natural connection between everybody. Then there was something also really great about Kayli. She is a relatively unknown actor. So her relationship to Paul and Kathryn as actors really reflected her relationship to Paul and Kathryn's characters in the story, the way that she admired them. There was something about that that just kind of worked on two different levels that was pretty nice. 

There's such innocence and wisdom in her performance. 

She's so incredibly open. There're moments where I remember doing her close up, like the scene where they ask her point-blank if she would like to be their egg donor and she's eating the burrito and sitting on the floor, and feeling like it was catching lightning in a bottle. She was so alive and we were just capturing this beautiful lightning buzz. She was pretty astonishing. 

I also responded to the fact that her relationship with her mother was a part of the story. Then it became not only about different generations of women, but about women from different socio-economic realities, too. The intellectual New Yorkers versus a suburban mom, who might not be the most sympathetic at first, but we understand where she's coming from.

I remember being worried about that with the Cynthia character. A friend of mine read the script and she was like, “Oh my god, I love Cynthia, she's such a bitch.” And I thought, “Oh shit, like she can't just be a bitch.” I think that she's dimensional and I don't want her to just be this brittle, super bitchy mom. So when the idea of Molly Shannon came to my mind, which was really like great burst (I saw her in “Other People,” where she plays a cancer mom), I thought, “Molly Shannon, Molly Shannon, she'd be perfect because she is so likable and approachable.” It was around the time that she had won a Spirit Award I think. I felt that she would help find the humanity in that character and she really did.

For what it’s worth, I never viewed Cynthia as a villainous character. Her concerns are valid. And she's trying to protect her daughter.

They're totally valid. My goal as a writer, which I guess is every writer and actor’s goal, is putting myself in each person’s shoes and believing their truth. And I just feel like I’m all three of those women easily. They're all different. From each one of their perspectives, I can see why they feel the way they do about what's happening. 

Slightly off trail, but I’m thrilled about the way you weaved in Bach, especially The French Suites, in your film’s soundtrack. I felt they perfectly aligned with the rhythms of that couple’s relationship. 

Well, I love The French Suites. I'm really ignorant about classical music, but those, performed by Glenn Gould, are so beautiful. I don't even know how I came upon them before this movie; I liked them for years. I didn't think in advance, “Oh, I'm gonna use all this Bach.” But then I said to my nephew, the kid who plays the piano in [the] Thanksgiving [scene], “I want you to be part of the Thanksgiving scene, we'll have you come and you'll play the piano just like you would do if you were visiting my apartment.” (Although my piano is much smaller. But this is a suburban house.) And my nephew is really good. And now he composes music. I said to my nephew Nate, “Give me a list of songs that you could play. We want to make sure that they're in the clear [so] we wouldn't have to pay for them if we ended up using them in the movie. So he gave me a list of songs and one of them was the Bach piece, Invention 4. 

And so it was not part of The French Suites. But it's a beautiful piece and I loved it, so I looked at all the pieces he suggested. And that's what he ended up playing when we shot the scene. When I was in the editing room, I think that must have set off the Bach frenzy and I just said to my editor, “Oh, you know, there's these beautiful French Suites, why don't we start popping them in various places?” And it was really informed by my nephew. He did it. He started the whole Bach thing. There's just something that feels so right about that rhythm. When we were finishing the movie, there was concern about the fact that because they're [performed by] Glenn Gould, they're much more expensive than if they're by somebody else. So there was a discussion about having different renditions. And I just couldn't bare it. His interpretation is iconic. The attachment I have to it is like … [imagine] having somebody do covers of a Beatles song. So we ended up being able to work it out financially.

Tomris Laffly

Tomris Laffly is a freelance film writer and critic based in New York. A member of the New York Film Critics Circle (NYFCC), she regularly contributes to, Variety and Time Out New York, with bylines in Filmmaker Magazine, Film Journal International, Vulture, The Playlist and The Wrap, among other outlets.

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