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The Slums Of Beverly Hills may be Tamara Jenkins' first feature, but the director has had more than her share of experience in the film world. Winner of a Guggenheim Fellowship for filmmaking, Jenkins has also written and directed several programs for public television, and attended the Sundance Institute Screenwriting and Filmmakers Lab. With Robert Redford's support, she wrote and directed Slums, a semi-autobiographical coming-of-age story set in the '70s. The Onion recently spoke to Jenkins about fiscal responsibility, her Sundance experience, and impoverished life in Beverly Hills.
The Onion: So, you got your start in television?
Tamara Jenkins: Yeah, I made a short film with funding from the Independent Television Service, a congressional mandate associated with PBS to bring diverse programming to public television.
O: Sort of like a TV version of the NEA?
O: One would imagine that wouldn't be as controversial as the NEA. People just seem to have problems with people smearing themselves with chocolate.
TJ: No, there was definitely some controversy surrounding this little series [TV Families]. PBS isn't obliged to show anything. One episode dealt with homosexuality, and another was really wild. So they didn't broadcast the series in a prime-time sort of way. It was syndicated and kind of shown late at night.
O: But you had no problem getting funding?
TJ: Oh, no. I got the funding, and it won a prize at the Sundance Film Festival. It wasn't like The Last Temptation Of Christ or anything.
O: How was the transition from short films to a feature?
TJ: It's sort of a longer version of the same process, in terms of stamina and the length of time you're committed to it. But all films, even half-hour films... You have to get the mechanism in motion to get people to show up to do this thing that takes a lot of orchestration. So once you're doing it, you might as well keep doing it and make a full-length. [Laughs.] In the case of [The Slums Of Beverly Hills], the one thing that was really different was that it was made at a studio, and I employed actors who were relatively well-known. As opposed to all unknowns, which is how I worked on my shorts.
O: Did you treat them the same as any other actors?
TJ: Yes and no. They had trailers and things like that, which is something we could never have afforded on my short films. I mean, those things we would shoot in, like, my parents' house, or at my grandmother's in New Jersey. Locations we would get for free. In this case, we had a real crew and trucks, a real large apparatus. Budgets are really weird. The difference between making a movie for $50,000 and $5 million is that you're paying the people who are working on your movie. It's not like making a very low-budget film is such a noble act. It's like, "Well, I had all these people working for free to support me so I could become a successful filmmaker." Paying for labor adds up, but it's also just decent. Working on a film crew is mostly manual labor a lot of the timelifting things, cables, equipment. And those people should be paid for their work. And you do things legally, too. [Slums] was a union shoot. You're paying for people's pensions, people with families. You're not just grabbing a buddy to carry equipment and load the film.
O: What exactly was your experience with Sundance?
TJ: I had a couple of relationships with Sundance. There's the Sundance Film Festival, where I had both of my short films screened, and Family Remains won a short-film prize there in 1994. Then there's the Sundance Institute, where you're selected as a "fellow," or in my case a female fellow, to participate in a workshop environment. I was calling it the Fresh Air Fund for filmmakers, because you're plucked from wherever you areI was living in the East Village and sweltering in the summerand invited to go to Utah and work on your script. They fly you there, and you stay for four weeks in a beautiful place, then you shoot scenes from your unfinished scripts on videotape. You shoot, you cut, you project for an audience.
O: "Semi-autobiographical" is a pretty loaded term, because just about any work of art can be semi-autobiographical.
TJ: Right. There are fictional characters within the movie, but the truly autobiographical elements are socio-economic: growing up on the outskirts of Beverly Hills as a poor person. Some characters are members of my family, some aren't.
O: Will they know when they see it?
TJ: Some will. When my little brother showed up to the set in Los Angeles, and we were setting up one of the apartment [sets], he came up to me and said, "Tam, I didn't know you were making a documentary!" He was spooked by this apartment we were recreating that was identical to this memory we shared growing up.
O: But your family couldn't have been half as dysfunctional as the way you portray the Abramowitzes on-screen.
TJ: Oh, it could have been more dysfunctional. This movie is dysfunctional lite. We did not have great relationships with landlords, and we did move around a lot. So, really, a lot of what you see really happened.
O: Do you think, in the 20-plus years since you lived there, that Beverly Hills has lost the allure it once had?
TJ: Well, I was from the East Coast, and when my father moved out to this mysterious place called Beverly Hills prior to my arrival there, there was all this mythology surrounding the place. You can go to any country in the world and see a kid with a T-shirt that says "Beverly Hills" on it. You see people in airports, people who just buy these shirts with this name across it. It has some meaning for people. Living there as an outsider, without access... We really had nothing to do with the culture or the people associated with Beverly Hills. We just lived there. Actually, there was a whole subculture of people who lived that way. In fact, if you look at real-estate ads in Los Angeles, an attractive real-estate neighborhood would be called "Beverly Hills adjacent."
O: Did you go to school in Beverly Hills?
TJ: I went to Beverly Hills High for a year and a half. It was a very strange place, very surreal. The money is outrageously disconcerting, particularly if you have none. It felt like a really decadent atmosphere, but I was young and not really conscious of it. But going to a friend's house after school was not your typical outing. There were these palatial houses with servants and swimming pools, and a lot of people worked in the entertainment business. Just like you see on TV.