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The Protein of It All: A Conversation with Tamara Jenkins, BendFilm Festival’s Indie Woman of the Year

Filmmaker Tamara Jenkins.

When the 19th BendFilm Festival held its in-person screenings this month in Bend, Oregon, one of its guests of honor was Oscar-nominated filmmaker Tamara Jenkins, who was honored by the programmers with the title of Indie Woman of the Year. Two of her films—her 1998 debut feature, “Slums of Beverly Hills,” and her latest work, 2018’s “Private Life”—screened downtown in the beautiful Tower Theater. Since “Private Life” had been released exclusively on Netflix, it was a great treat to experience it on the big screen and savor the brilliant performances by Paul Giamatti and Kathryn Hahn as Richard and Rachel, a middle-aged couple whose lack of success with in vitro fertilization (IVF) leads them to ask their niece, Sadie (Kayli Carter), if she will donate her eggs. 

Jenkins previously directed Philip Seymour Hoffman and Laura Linney in 2007’s equally marvelous “The Savages,” about adult siblings navigating the painful realm of nursing homes in an attempt to aid their elderly father (Philip Bosco). Jenkins was joined at the festival by her husband, Jim Taylor, who collaborated with Alexander Payne on the scripts for such cinematic treasures as “Election,” “About Schmidt” and “Sideways,” and her young daughter, Mia, who sported a splendid suit that she had made herself. On the final day of the in-person festival, Jenkins generously carved out time to speak with me about her extraordinary work, her desire to excavate topics of interest and a few of her favorite films at the festival.

One of the great gifts of cinema is its ability to make people feel less alone in their challenges, and that is what both “The Savages” and “Private Life” have given me in numerous ways.

That is really nice to hear. I’m like the emotional Frederick Wiseman in how I explore the industries of infertility and elder care. [laughs] Of course, I’ve never thought about it that way. It’s really nice when films are honest, but I still find and hope that my films are neither documentaries nor message pictures. What I am most concerned about is having an emotional accuracy and truth in my work, and comedy is a part of that. Combining the comic and tragic is what I find to be the most truthful, though “dramedy” is my least favorite word on the planet. 

Comedy and tragedy are never completely bare of the other, and they are so contingent on each other that it’s essential to include them both. People always ask whether I write a comedy draft or if I write a dramatic one and then braid in the comedy afterwards. Sometimes I do the latter to lighten something or look for its complexity, but in most cases, they come together in the tone of a script. I always thought “The Savages” was a comedy, probably more than the average person. The comedy comes from the behavior of these characters in these extreme circumstances.

I always think of the siblings caught going to the snack table. What was it like working with Philip Seymour Hoffman?

I just feel so lucky and grateful that I had that chance. I had originally offered the role to Paul Giamatti, but I didn’t write it for him. Sometimes when I’m writing, I can hear certain actors delivering the dialogue. After you’ve listened to the rhythms of an actor for so long, it stays in you, and you can sense how they would legitimize dialogue as you write it. It becomes a sort of neural pathway. I feel like I have these different performance rhythms in me that I can call up.

Gauging rhythm is a key part of both writing and editing, and it is all anchored in the truth of a given scene.

Right. One of the great things about editing is realizing that movies are like music. When there’s a movie you love that you’ve seen millions of times, you can watch it almost like you’re listening to a song. You know the rhythms so well that you can turn it into your own “Rocky Horror Picture Show” where you read every piece of dialogue out loud. It enters you in this very intense way. We just took Mia to see “The 400 Blows,” at the Film Forum in New York. It’s one of my favorite movies, but I wondered how a black-and-white French film from 1959 would play for her. Just seeing it in a movie theater, I was struck by how specific the rhythm of the film is—it’s like a song. 

The score is by Jean Constantin, an eccentric composer who wrote goofball songs and was almost like a novelty act. During the opening credits of “The 400 Blows,” the music starts out very florid, and then the beautiful theme for the film’s main character, Antoine Doinel, emerges. It just kills me. Another work that has that kind of quality is “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” You can listen to the score and dialogue altogether as if it were a piece of music. I’ll never be able to have it go away—it’s in my bloodstream. That’s the way I feel about a lot of movies in that they get in me. It’s like having a dormant virus that can come out. 

Whereas Giamatti’s character is letting go of the past at the end of “Sideways,” he’s letting go of the future at the end of “Private Life,” which is suggested by the smile he gives just before the credits start to roll.

Right, yet I remember somebody saying, “Just cut to black after he smiles,” because soon after that moment in that footage, the characters are sort of questioning again. You can see them going in and out of doubt and togetherness as the credits roll.

It feels more real not to end this story with a happy button, as with the last shot of “The Graduate.”

Yes, because there’s more! The scene keeps going after that, as the characters begin asking themselves, “Now what?” It’s such a 70s kind of impulse that I’ve always liked. I remember the final shot of “Five Easy Pieces” that lingers on a gas station and traffic until the credits materialize on top of it. Those sorts of cinematic gestures feel very emblematic of the period in their openness and lack of a compulsion to put a button on it. Sometimes buttons are fantastic, but it depends on the film’s tone. In the case of “Private Life,” the tone is more observational than authorial.

Roger went to the mat for “Sideways” and really wanted Virginia Madsen to win the Oscar for it, but there are so many politics involved in the awards race.

It’s so nice that those politics aren’t happening here at Bend. It’s a really refreshing thing. I’m probably having a different response to it because usually you go to a festival with your new movie, and you’re filled with anxiety to the point of vomiting. You see a critic and you just want to run into a bathroom stall and lock it. Even though you don’t really want to be a part of that sense of competition with other filmmakers, you have these weird feelings that you’re in some kind of race, and when you’re not doing as well, it’s an awful feeling. 

So festivals can feel like business conventions. At Bend, I’m just here as a guest of honor, so I don’t have any stake in it, yet the nature of this festival feels so antithetical to that competition, even though there are awards. It’s like what Telluride must’ve felt like at the very beginning. Telluride doesn’t have awards, which is part of why it had that moniker, that stamp on it of being a filmmaker’s film festival, but now it feels different because everyone perceives it as the first stop on the train for festivals that moves you towards awards. It’s not their fault, it just has become that.

The spirit at Bend is very akin to Ebertfest.

It feels really special. Everything I’ve seen here has such a specific, personal quality that is unique. They are torn from the filmmakers’ souls at some level in terms of the intrepidness with which they made them. The obsessive documentation of the brothers’ childhood in Reed Harkness’ documentary “Sam Now,” where they are playing with cameras and making movies, is just beautiful. It’s such an incredible storehouse of feeling. And then the film becomes an investigation or excavation of their family that is very unusual.

I was reminded of Maggie Gyllenhaal’s “The Lost Daughter” in how “Sam Now” portrayed the complexity of the mother’s decision to leave her family.

Yeah, it makes you debate and think about behavior. The grandmother is so weirdly sage-like, but then Jim pointed out that she is still tamping down her emotions. The scene where the filmmaker is in front of the family and trying to get them to talk about the journey he and his half-brother embarked upon to track her down is incredible. The family’s saying, “Yeah, that’s an amazing odyssey you went on,” but nobody really wants to talk about it. It’s so interesting that he was making films as a child and that filmmaking was such a part of their childhood and a form of catharsis. Then it becomes evidence, and ultimately, a methodology for them to understand their family. 

Mia was really into Jude Chun’s “Unidentified,” which I loved. It is very wild and has so much invention in it. I also thoroughly enjoyed Sara Gunnarsdóttir’s animated short, “My Year of Dicks.” I had no problem with my daughter watching it because it’s from a female point of view and it’s perfect. I loved “The Diary of a Teenage Girl” and I love Sara’s animation in it. I had no idea that she’s some famous animator. I think my favorite part of the short is when the dad is talking to his daughter about sex, and every time the film cuts back to her, she turns into a Picasso-style contortion. The horror of a parent talking to you about sex and the way he was talking to her about it is conveyed in how she breaks apart. At one point, her ear starts to bleed and she hurls it against the wall. Animation is just the greatest form in which to show that kind of horror.

Tamara Jenkins on the set of “Private Life.” Courtesy of Tamara Jenkins.

I recently interviewed Emily Robinson, whom you directed in “Private Life,” about her own excellent directorial efforts, “Virgin Territory” and “Hearsay.”

I’m dying to see them. Emily is so great! “Eighth Grade” didn’t exist when we cast her, so I think there was some tiny audition she did where I realized that I loved this girl. 

How do you approach directing young people like her and Kayli Carter?

Kayli Carter was really, really good. She had gone to the Savannah College of Art and Design and had studied acting—she originated a role in Mark Rylance’s play, Nice Fish—but she hadn’t done very much film. I remember saying to the casting director, “Isn’t there some amazing girl under a rock from New York theatre that just hasn’t had an onscreen role?” It’s so nice that it’s not somebody you know. When Jennifer Lawrence is cast in a movie, you know she’s going to walk through the door and be that person. That’s why it’s so fun to see foreign films because you don’t really know the status of the actors, so you don’t have an expectation of who will play what. They’re all new to you.

Anyway, Kayli is a really great actor and I can’t take credit for her work. Also, because she was working with Paul and Kathryn, they functioned as elders for her as actors. She admired them as actors just as Sadie tends to put Richard and Rachel on a pedestal—she wanted to walk in the footsteps of her cool relatives. I never felt like I had to work hard with her. When actors are working with peers who are so seasoned, it elevates everything. It’s like the film screening at Bend, Ana Lazarevic’s “The Game,” with all those amazing kids. Ana had non-actors working with an actor who is very well-known overseas, and the kids gave incredible performances. It helps less experienced actors to have a great actor that they’re acting against. 

“Private Life” is also a film of great faces. I love the shot of Sadie lying in bed with Rachel and Richard.

I had a really great collaboration with my DP Christos Voudouris. He’s Greek but he lives in Madrid and I think he’s brilliant. He’s sort of an undiscovered master. He’s not a young DP, and he does a lot of commercials, but I think that he’s compositionally really gifted. There’s a shot of Paul Giamatti in bed. It’s the first shot of the scene where they have that big argument. He hears the loud music playing in the apartment upstairs and he pounds on the ceiling. Christos framed Paul’s head so that it appeared only in the bottom half of the screen, so there is all of this headroom above him as he’s looking up at the ceiling. Most DPs would’ve simply centered Paul’s head because that’s what they think they’re supposed to do. It was such a great choice, as was the scene where Paul is deflating the mattress and his head is kept out of frame. 

The use of screen space is another great tool with which to illustrate character psychology.

Yes, to have Paul sinking into the bottom of the frame is just so expressive, as opposed to simply having a close-up. It wasn’t a generic single. You can be very cookie cutter about coverage. Everybody knows that composition is expressive, but this was an off-kilter decision that achieved the desired effect with such simplicity. When I walked into the theater toward the end of yesterday’s “Private Life” screening, I thought, ‘Oh my god, it looks good!’ Everything now looks like a digital Xerox. It’s either projected badly or you’re watching it on TV or your laptop—every option is so far away from the intention of the medium. Some movies don’t play well on TV because your brain is in such a different place, and there’s so much stuff coming at you from so many different devices. A theater screen doesn’t only give you an enlargement of the image. There is a lot of space in “Private Life,” and when you watch it on the big screen, it doesn’t feel long. Time moves differently in a theater. 

Tamara Jenkins at The Peggy Payne Theater at Film Streams in Omaha, named after Alexander Payne’s mother. Courtesy of Tamara Jenkins.

I imagine you are equally involved in the editing.

Oh yeah, and Brian A. Kates is a great editor. We worked together on “The Savages,” so we knew each other well when we made “Private Life.” I am definitely a person that’s in there every day. After “Private Life” screened yesterday, an adorable woman came up to me and said, “I was made via IVF,” and I was like, “Okay, wow.” Then her dad introduces himself and says, “We were trying to have this child for fourteen years.” I replied, “And you produced a female filmmaker! You’re really doing a good job! You had to wait until that perfect embryo worked.” It was so sweet. 

Is that one of the most gratifying things that can happen to you as a filmmaker?

There are different things that can happen that are moving. That family had gone through hell to get their baby, and when they watched “Private Life,” it connected to something they had done thirty years ago. The fact they connected to the film was very gratifying. 

As someone who has given viewers a great deal of catharsis through your work, is that part of what drives you to tell these stories?

When I approach a topic, there is something about it that I want to excavate, and I don’t know what it is exactly that draws me to it. It’s almost like an emotional location—it could be IVF Land or Old Age Land—and I want to see what’s in there. It’s not very clear, but I know there is something I am interested in there, like I know I want to do something with grown-up siblings. You sift through it before you eventually figure out what it’s about. With “The Savages,” I distilled a story about many siblings into one about two siblings on a road trip through Elder Care Land. When people ask whether my films are autobiographical, I’m like, “That makes it sound like I just blew my nose and there it was.” 

Working with autobiographic impulses is different from making a documentary or writing a memoir. If you are lifting from something in your life and then investigating it, it takes on a fictional version, and then dramatic concerns start pulling you this way or that way. Then it sort of becomes something else. But the impulse in those movies—including the one I’m writing now—comes from the desire to excavate something that contains dramatic potential or unfinished business. People in those circumstances are inherently interesting to me. I was in those circumstances, but it’s not necessarily my circumstances. I’m just interested in what those circumstances do to the people who are in them, how it presses against them and makes them behave in certain ways. 

With “Private Life,” that scene where Sadie is sitting with Richard and Rachel in their living room is pretty long. It’s almost like a very dialogue-heavy play, and I had this anxiety regarding how that much dialogue will play onscreen. It’s a very simple scene in terms of three people sitting around a table talking, and I just remember it unfolding with such incredible sensitivity and precision. Every emotional measure and beat was so articulated that it just lifted off the page. I felt so blessed to have the acting equivalents of Michael Jordan making this scene come alive. I didn’t have to do anything other than watch them in awe. 

A lot of directors have told me that one of the best things to know is when to shut the hell up.

Yeah, you’ve set the stage and then once you walk away, it starts to grow. I was really stunned by how they inhabited what was written in such a sensitive way and with humor. I couldn’t believe it. There are so many stressful things that happen when you’re making a movie. You’re always running behind and wondering whether anyone is going to care about what you made. So when this dream moment happened, I knew that I needed to bottle it in my memory so that whenever I feel frustrated, I can recall this instance in which I experienced grace on the set, which is pretty much the most exciting thing. You’ve spent all this time getting prepared on the page and working out the financing—and then you’re sitting there on the spot, you’re finally doing it and it’s coming alive at that level. It’s incredible. 

You mentioned on the panel yesterday that there are times where you find yourself asking, “Do I even want to do this?”, which echoes Giamatti’s line about being unsure whether he still wants a baby.

Yeah! You feel that the world might not give a shit because it’s such a battle to make certain kinds of small movies or personal art films, whatever you want to call them. They are really hard to make on the budget you’re provided, and you wonder whether it will be seen or if anyone will distribute it. All the hurdles are so exhausting and it’s easy to go, “I guess it doesn’t matter.” But then when it happens, it’s just so special. The hope is that you’re being transported in the room by these incredible actors, who are enlivening something that you’ve written and have been preparing for years. 

You know it’s going to translate because it’s being translated before your eyes as you’re capturing it. I guess it could’ve sucked later, but I just knew it wouldn’t because I could feel that it was alive in the room. Capturing the performance was almost enough, even if it was the worst cinematography—which it wasn’t. When you’re in film school, you start to learn that nothing else really matters except the performances and the dramatic intent. I mean, obviously it’s nice when it’s all coming together, but sometimes, the performances and the dramatic circumstances are enough. That’s why people go see plays on bare stages and they’re fine. It’s like the protein of it all. 

“The Savages” is available to stream on HBO Max and Hulu, while “Private Life” was released exclusively on Netflix. You can read my summation of the 19th BendFilm Festival and its award-winners here

Matt Fagerholm

Matt Fagerholm is the Literary Editor at RogerEbert.com and is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association. 


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