It’s been about nine years since Tamara Jenkins’ debut feature The Slums of Beverly Hills garnered Indie Spirit nominations for her first screenplay and feature, and nearly eleven months since her second movie, The Savages, premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival to similar raves.
Jenkins’ combination of light drama and dark comedy, which defies more specific labels, stars Philip Seymour Hoffman and Laura Linney as John and Wendy Savage, competitive siblings in their 40’s who have to deal with a cantankerous aging father suffering from dementia (played by theatre vet Philip Bosco). The key is to try to place him in the best nursing home possible without it interfering with their own lives and relationships. While it deals with a very serious subject matter that everyone might have to contend with someday, that of an aging or dying parent, Jenkins and her cast have found a way to instill humor into even the darkest of situations, which may be why it’s so refreshing compared to the many forced Hollywood and indie films that try to blend poignancy with humor, rarely with any success.
Last week, almost eleven months after the film’s Sundance debut, ComingSoon.net finally had a chance to sit down with Jenkins to talk about her movie. After a bit of kibitzing about how well the movie still played after having seeing roughly 300 other movies in between viewings, we began a rather free-form discussion that covered a lot of topics and went well over our allotted time.
ComingSoon.net: I was coming up with questions for this and my first question was going to be about what you’d been doing since directing “Slums of Beverly Hills.” Then I read a bio someone wrote about you and it said, “One should never bother to ask where Jenkins has been during her absence from the public eye, because she would eventually emerge with another high-quality work of art.”
Tamara Jenkins: Wait, what did it say? (takes the bio from my hand and reads the last bit back again)
CS: Yeah, someone put that in your bio which means I had to scrap that question.
Jenkins: Oh, yeah, but you can ask me about that.
CS: Okay, if we have time. Now I understand that producer Ted Hope approached you to do something with the condition that it had to have humor in it.
Jenkins: Well, Ted wasn’t the person that made that rule. I mean, Ted approached me, he and Focus Features. He created this environment where I had this blind deal through some discretionary money that he had via Focus Features, and a blind deal means that you don’t have to tell the financier what you’re writing about. It’s blind, essentially, but the person who gave us the deal, the people at Focus, said, “There’s only two stipulations: one, that it’s a contemporary story, so it can’t be a period piece, and two, that it’s funny.” Then I said, “Oh, you mean like it’s a comedy?” and he said, “No, it doesn’t have to be a straight comedy but there has to be humor in it.” And I remember thinking, “Phew!” I wasn’t sure what it was exactly. I knew the material that I was approaching, but I was grateful that it wasn’t a comedy with a capitol C. With comedy, but it didn’t have to be an official comedy comedy.
CS: I assume you already knew that you wanted to deal with this particular subject matter.
Jenkins: Yeah, I did.
CS: And that might be hard to pitch as a comedy.
Jenkins: Yeah, “It’s a riot! Dementia! Middle aged anxiety!” Yeah, that would not go over I mean, just to actually pitch it to anyone, comedy or tragedy, I think it would suffer. I think if you just describe the scenario, that it’s about a brother and sister that put their father in a nursing home, that it’s a very superficial understanding of the movie.
CS: So you knew where you wanted to go and had you any thoughts about casting at that point?
Jenkins: No, in terms of the writing? Not at all. I was very committed to just figuring out who these people were on the page and making them as three-dimensional as possible. Only later did I really start thinking about it.
CS: Laura Linney was an interesting choice for Wendy. She’s played enough characters that she doesn’t have a type, but the fact she has curly dark hair rather than her normal straight lighter hair, and her demeanor here is more neurotic than the confident characters she normally plays.
Jenkins: Or they’re often confident on the outside almost, even though inside it seems like they might be groping just as much, but there’s always that exterior. It was fun getting to watch her be more out of control on the surface, if you know what I mean.
CS: But in person, she’s nothing like that at all.
Jenkins: Yeah, she’s very poised.
CS: How did you end up with her playing this neurotic character then?
Jenkins: I had a very tiny list of people for Wendy, and a very tiny list of people for John, and Laura and Phil were on that tiny list, but it was so much about the dynamics. No one made sense in isolation, I guess is what I mean, so when the Laura-slash-Phil idea came up–I had little circles and lines with actors’ names and charts–that’s when I got really excited. I met Laura first in Colorado, where she was living, in Telluride, and then I met Phil a week later in New York.
CS: They both have this New York theatre background, too
Jenkins: And Phil Bosco!
CS: Right, but had Laura and Phil ever worked together before this?
Jenkins: No, never. I mean, they had met each other maybe around the campus of life or whatever, but they never worked together, which seems almost impossible but true.
CS: People talk about chemistry in movies, which actors tend to shrug off as just doing their job, but the two of them have this rapport in the movie that makes you think they’ve known each other for a long time.
Jenkins: Yeah, and I don’t think it always works. I mean, there’s people that are individually brilliant that when you throw them together, it does not go to that next level, to the next power or whatever, and you don’t know until they’re in a room together, because you could independently adore them, feel that they’re right and you can speculate that they’re great together, but only once they’re in the room do you know. They came over to my apartment for rehearsal, which was very modest, as we only had three days in my apartment, and I was nervous and anxious. Laura came first and then the buzzer rang and I went downstairs and I brought up Phil, and then I was in the kitchen making coffee and overheard them talking in the living room and I thought (whispering) “I think this is going to work.” They were just sort of chatting and saying “hi” but I was steaming the milk in my little machine and thinking, “They sound good.”
CS: Well, they’re both such skilled actors, you would figure they’d make it work regardless.
Jenkins: But still, it’s just like casting a love story. You can cast great people but then you put them on screen together and it dies. It just doesn’t have that thing. I don’t think you know until it happens if it’s really going to be there. I mean, they might not have gotten along, but not only as people. It’s like putting two ingredients together and does it taste right? You just don’t know, but I think it did, and I think they really elevate each other in this exciting way and really, there was so much comfort, because they were both at the same pitch, like well-matched athletes or something. There was a relaxation about it, and a gamesmanship about it that was kind of great.
CS: That’s a pretty cool analogy, but it is good you realized it would work during rehearsals.
Jenkins: I mean, you’re crossing your fingers and you’re like, “This is working, right?” and then it started becoming more and more evident that they were good together, that they worked, and that they could really play.
CS: What about Phil Bosco? I’m less familiar with his work, but how did you come up with him?
Jenkins: He’s a theatre person. My casting director, Jeannie McCarthy, said, “What about Phil Bosco?” and I said, “Oh, he’s that guy who does all that ‘pshaw’ and he always plays these well-heeled patriarchs and lawyers and stuff. He’s too fancy!” That was my fear and directors can be really stupid and literal and forget the people are actually actors and just because he plays well-heeled judges, that doesn’t mean that’s all he’s able to do, so we actually auditioned him. He came into the room and read. I was very anxious because it was very important to me that whoever played the part, that the character was not sentimentalized, that there wasn’t that I kept saying, “I don’t want the old bastard with the twinkle in his eye. I don’t want the twinkle.” I’m saying this to my casting director Jeannie and being anxious that I don’t want him to turn into that cliché of the old codger with that twinkle thing.
CS: Well, there definitely wasn’t a twinkle there.
Jenkins: Because you know, he’s playing a guy who on the surface isn’t the most likable character in the world and then he has this extra layer of dementia and I just wanted an honest treatment, and I think that he really does that.
CS: How hard is it writing a script like this where you know that your characters are going to have these flaws that are going to make audiences wonder whether they can like them or not.
Jenkins: Well, it’s so interesting because I never think I know that’s how like .
CS: Hollywood producers?
Jenkins: Yeah, like “Oh, but a sympathetic character, we need to have them save a child in the first ten minutes of the movie and do something noble,” but I’m actually sort of alienated from those sorts of characters. I identify much more with people that are flawed, because I guess I am. Maybe those producers aren’t flawed and they can only identify with heroes. It’s my favorite sort of movies are sort of character-driven. I guess that’s why the cliché is that younger filmmakers are attracted to the films of the ’70s because they think that’s really what that period offered, this treatment of protagonists that were imperfect and actors that were not stars in that perfect way, that suddenly these kind of anti-hero actors and these character actors were playing protagonists that were anti-heroes and I think that’s why that was such an exciting time, and I think that’s why we’re all so attracted to that period really.
CS: As far as finding the humor in this subject matter, I’ve seen it twice, once at the Sundance premiere and once with a room full of critics, but the laughs seemed to be in the same places even though there are no real jokes in the movie. Was it hard finding those moments?
Jenkins: No, I mean it was scripted and I knew that inherent in this context, there was this latent humor, and I think that it’s honest. It wasn’t like an after-thought, like, “Oh, I’m dealing with such a heavy subject. I better leaven it or put some gags in there or nobody’s going to be able swallow it, sweeten it up or something.” I actually thought it was very integral to this frank portrait of human beings when they’re in this extreme emotional primal thing, especially people who aren’t well-equipped to handle it, I think that there’s humor that would be inherent in those situations, the struggle of it all.
CS: And Phil Hoffman has a way of making even the nastiest things sound funny anyways.
Jenkins: Yeah, I mean that was another thing in terms of the casting. It was very important that whoever played the roles, not only did they match, but I think that in both cases, the actors really needed to have the capacity to play the humor and the emotional stuff also. There is that weird thing that happens where you might get an actor who’s you know, there’s great actors who aren’t funny, and it’s just a DNA thing I think.
CS: The thing is that Phil can do both things.
Jenkins: And so can Laura! I mean, that’s a special thing.
CS: I talked to Noah Baumbach a few weeks back and it might seem you’d be in a similar position where you’ve taken parts of your life to create your characters, so people automatically assume that the movie is completely autobiographical. With that in mind, is there any sort of sibling rivalry in your own family like the one between John and Wendy?
Jenkins: No, not at all. What I tend to say is that it’s a very personal movie, because it is, it’s very personal, and at its core, I had my own experience with two family members who were in nursing homes and had dementia at the end of their life, but it’s not like a memoir. I said that if I called it a memoir, I’d be like that guy James Frye, and I’d be in big trouble, because there’s such a huge amount of fictionalization because the dramatist takes over. But no, in real life, I have three siblings and we’re not combative that way at all. They’re all three professors.
CS: Is it hard to get away from people assuming it’s all from your life since you use incidents from it?
Jenkins: Yeah, in a way I find it’s a compliment because it suggest a certain kind of rawness to the characters that feel real; on the other hand, it’s confusing because like I’ve never been to Buffalo, I’ve never been to Sun City, I have three brothers, but I guess there’s a need to do that, it’s so interesting.
CS: Your husband Jim Taylor and his long-time writing partner Alexander Payne were executive producers on your movie, so what did they bring to the mix?
Jenkins: Well, they kind of came on at the very end when Ted Hope and Anne Carey and I were really struggling to get the movie made, and Jim Taylor and Alexander have a company called Ad Hominem with this guy named Jim Burke, and Jim Burke, who is their partner, throughout this process of me getting depressed, would always send these very encouraging E-Mails along the way, because he really liked the script. So at one point, when we were floundering, Ad Hominem, they said, “Well, why don’t we come on as executive producers? Maybe it will help.” That was sort of the spirit with which they joined. We got Laura and Phil, then we were in the dark for a really long time in terms of financing, then we got a company called Lone Star, but then we still couldn’t get for a long time, and then, Alexander and Jim came on board as executive producers, like I don’t know. I felt like they were my male back-up singers. They were my guardian angels, they were just this formidable group of men that were standing behind it. Granted, one of them happened to be my husband, but hopefully, people would take their support seriously despite the nepotistic set-up. They kind of came on board that way, and obviously watched various cuts of the movie and threw in their two cents and stuff, but it was kind of guardianship.
CS: Are you worried about the movie being compared to Alexander’s movies, particularly “About Schmidt” which also dealt with aging in a way?
Jenkins: Nooooo! I mean, I love Alexander’s movies and I love the stuff that they write, but somebody had said something like that, that it was very “Alexander Paynish”, and I felt that was a compliment, you know, whatever.
CS: He has such a singular style of filmmaking that there’s really few others that might ever be compared to him.
Jenkins: Yeah, I mean I guess it was a compliment. I feel like this is a very female sort of movie in lots of ways, but I thought that was interesting anyway, because it’s character-driven actually, and there’s this kind of raw treatment, that it’s not sentimental. I see why someone would say that.
CS: I think when people hear about the subject matter, they might not assume it’s something that might appeal to the 20 or 30 something crowd that would normally appreciate this kind of humor, but as someone with older parents, I could relate to it. Did you have any thoughts about what sort of audience would most appreciate the movie?
Jenkins: No, you don’t really think about the demographic as you’re writing. “What’s my demographic!?!” I don’t think I’d be able to get four words out without being paralyzed. It’s not like making a soda. It’s been very interesting because it’s a very unique window of time where you go to film festivals and you screen your movie and then you interact actively with the audience, and that only happens for a little window of time and then it just becomes this thing in the world where you don’t really know what’s happening. It’s been interesting. I think depending on where a person is in their own lifeline, they respond to different aspects of it. Like you were saying that your parents are becoming older, so that makes you think about that. I think some people think much more about their grandparents. We’ve shown it to people who’ve dealt with it with regards to their mates, husbands or wives, but I think people have a very visceral reaction to it sometimes. After screenings, inevitably someone comes up to me and spontaneously tells me a story of their own elder care stuff, which has been a very profound by-product of making the movie, very moving and it makes me feel, I dunno, it’s kind of touching and powerful to be put in the position of people feeling compelled to tell you these things. It makes me feel good and it’s just moving that it created a dialogue like that, that somebody would just volunteer something that usually people don’t talk about.
CS: So getting back to the first question, having taken some time off in between your two movies.
Jenkins: A euphemism. Eight years, nine years.
CS: Considering that, are you glad you took some time off and are you going to jump into something else now, or at least after the strike is over?
Jenkins: Well, there’s a writers strike right now so I’m not wheeling and dealing with a screenplay at all. I have some thoughts of something that I want to write, but I’m not writing. I am writing in my diary which I think is legal. WGA says you’re allowed to write in your diary, but you’re not allowed to make a deal with a studio.
CS: After the strike is over, all these diaries will be shopped around to the studios.
Jenkins: (rolling with that idea) All these journal entries! “September 18, 2008: I’m sitting in a café, it’s cold out” (laughs)
CS: I wonder who the first writer will be to sell a script for a movie that involves some sort of strike. There should be a pool of some kind.
Jenkins: Yeah, exactly. I gotta wait until my union says it’s okay, but yeah, I’m writing something. And you asked if I thought it was good taking all that time off, a lot of it was I mean, there was a lot of professional disappointment that occurred within that time, but in a way, it actually fueled a kind of need when it came to the writing of this script and really focused my intention very clearly, the way that disappointment can sometimes.
CS: Do you have any tips for someone like Diablo Cody who is getting a lot of attention for her first screenplay to avoid that kind of disappointment later?
Jenkins: I don’t think she needs any tips. I think she’s doing fine on her own! Yeah, I think she should just frickin’ keep writing. I think she’s really funny and she should not let all that chatter get in the way of her writing.
The Savages opens in New York and Los Angeles on Wednesday, November 28.