In the 20 years since arriving in Hollywood with her feature film debut Slums of Beverly Hills, Tamara Jenkins has been considered a writer-director with a perspective and attitude worth hearing from. All her films have borrowed elements from her real-life, from her teens in Beverly Hills inspiring the darkly comic Slums of Beverly Hills to taking on the role of caregiver to her father inspiring the dramedy Savages. Tonally falling somewhere in between her previous two, her new film Private Life focuses on the painful, sometimes absurd, experience of trying to have children later in life, starring Paul Giamatti and Kathryn Hahn as a couple hoping to become parents and Kayli Carter as their step-niece and potential egg donor.
Lesley Coffin: When you start working on a project, do you think about the best tone, in terms of how to mix the comedy and drama, to approach the subject matter?
Tamara Jenkins: No, I’m not someone who takes a comic approach to a script to try to punch it up. I think that I always aspire to find the in-between, because I think one often comes from the other.
Lesley Coffin: I wanted to ask about your specific writing process. Are you someone who takes a long time writing and editing scripts?
Tamara Jenkins: I do, I realized that I had notes for the screenplay going back to 2008. I couldn’t believe it, why did I stop at just two pages? And then I realized that in 2009, I had a child and returned to it years later. I realized recently that I think I take about two years to write a first pass, I wouldn’t even call it a first draft, and it’s usually incredibly long. In this case it was over 200 pages. But I then spent time carving and chipping away at that to kind of find the film’s essence. And I go through so many drafts, sometimes making tiny changes and sometimes completely changing the structure of it. But I find the first thing I have to do is put all my ideas on paper, create a stuffed turkey that is too full and then shape it.
Lesley Coffin: I do the same thing, and I had to learn to accept that you will write more than you need as part of the creative process, even if it feels counter-intuitive.
Tamara Jenkins: Exactly, you don’t want to stop yourself from generating something which could lead to something great. That generative stage is so important, and then you can move into the editorial stage. But if I start and stop myself I feel like I’m less productive.
Lesley Coffin: Do you take the same approach as a director, film more and trying things on camera so you have more choices during the editing process?
Tamara Jenkins: I’m not a director that likes to throw spaghetti against the wall. If there are a lot of takes, it’s because we’re looking for something we haven’t found yet. I don’t like to just keep doing takes to be experimental. Sometimes, if there is a scene we’re really struggling with I might try to be a little radical and crack it open. Generally, I do multiple takes to be more precise and we rarely radically change directions or try something out of the blue.
Lesley Coffin: Between writing those pages in 2008 and coming back to the idea after having your daughter, did you notice a change in your process?
Tamara Jenkins: Two years after our daughter was born, my husband and I took some writing assignments to make a living and when I finished one, I felt incredibly hungry to write something on my own. And it was the first time I was going to start my own writing project since having my daughter, and couldn’t approach it the same way. Her room used to be my office, so I took Virginia Woolf’s advice for a room of one’s own to the streets. And I rented an office. And that was the first time I tried writing outside my residence, I’d never had a separate space to just go and work. I’d drop my daughter off at school and walk to the office.
Tamara Jenkins: The film isn’t a memoir or anything, but there are things which are certainly taken from real-life. I had a friend who went through an adoption scenario very similar to the one we tell in the film. She and her husband developed a relationship with the birth mother, went to Arkansas to meet her, and she never showed up. I lifted that pretty directly. I’d done IVF years before writing in my notebook in 2008; I don’t even know if I’d committed to writing a screenplay about that subject. But the core narrative is really about two people who assume they’ll be able to do something that everyone’s seems entitled to do and then realize it’s just not working, I wanted to explore the feeling of having to turn to things like adoption or technology. And I was also really interested in exploring a middle-life marriage and saw it as a film about a mutual mid-life crisis. That’s exactly what’s happening, they are having a midlife crisis, when you find yourself at that certain stage in your life and your expectations don’t match your reality. That was really interesting to me and I felt that the infertility prism is a very good way to look at a marriage in that state.
Read FF2 Media’s review of Private Life.
(C) Lesley Coffin (10/19/18) FF2 Media