After graduating from NYU's prestigious Tisch School For The Arts, Tamara Jenkins directed a few acclaimed short films before embarking on her debut feature, the semiautobiographical comedy Slums Of Beverly Hills, in 1998. In the years since, Slums has amassed a significant cult following, but Jenkins herself seemed to drop out of the scene just as quickly as she'd arrived. Nearly a decade later, she's returned in excellent form with The Savages, a painfully funny comedy-drama about grown-up siblings (Laura Linney and Philip Seymour Hoffman) who are forced to take care of the demented, irascible father (Philip Bosco) who abandoned them. Jenkins recently spoke to The A.V. Club about her long absence, the difficulties of pitching an unpitchable movie, the test-screening process, and how much of her life goes into her films.
The A.V. Club: So what's with the Terrence Malick-like interim between movies?
Tamara Jenkins: That's so funny. Someone just recently said, "God, it took a long time," and I said, "Yeah, it's the Terrence Malick schedule without the masterpieces." [Laughs.] I spent a couple years working on a project that didn't happen, so that was one little Bermuda Triangle of maybe two and a half years. And [The Savages] probably took four years, so that's six years, and the other three, I was probably doing things like directing theater. Little projects—not feature-film projects—you know, theater things, writing things, and jobs like doing rewriting for money, stuff like that.
I don't recommend it. It's not a schedule that I'd want, although it was really good for me in a lot of ways. I became a better writer. By the time I came to this subject—or whatever you want to call it, this idea for this movie—when I finally landed on it, I was so resolute about it, and I was just a better writer. Like this piece that I worked on for a long time that never happened, for various reasons—it was owned by somebody else, it was about [photographer] Diane Arbus—I went to this artist's colony that I've gone to three times in my life, called Yaddo. Most of the writers there are novelists, fiction writers, short-fiction writers, and poets. There's other disciplines, too—painters, poets, stuff like that—but I met a woman there and she said she was working on this novel, and she said, "You know, my last one, it didn't get published. It's like some 400-page book." And I'm thinking to myself, "Oh, my screenplay…" And she just sort of shrugged and said, "It's making this one so much better." And maybe that sounds like making lemonade out of lemons, but I think it's true, and it's a practice. Personally, I became a better writer because I was writing a lot.
AVC: Did the existence of the other Arbus project cause the problems?
TJ: No. [Producer] Ed Pressman had a book about Diane Arbus—it's the only biography that exists—and there had been many Diane Arbus scripts. Many. I don't even know how many over the years. And it's sort of a cursed project, for lots of reasons. There's probably some pile somewhere of all these weird attempts, all these portraitures that can't get made. And [Arbus'] family hated the book. Mine was a movie about somebody trying to write a portrait of her and not being able to do it. That was the structure of it, and eventually, Ed Pressman had somebody else make the movie—that wasn't my script, obviously. I've never seen Fur [Steven Shainberg's 2006 Arbus film]. I don't know anything about Fur except that it wasn't my script and somebody else did it. But I was very attracted to her, and it was a totally different treatment. So I spent a lot of time on it, not only writing it, but running around talking through various production issues. All this crud, and then it didn't happen. There's a lot of time-wasting stuff that happens in life with movies. I was younger—not chronologically, but experience-wise, I think—and I don't think anything like that'll happen again.
AVC: The dilemma of how grown-up children care for—or don't care for—their parents when they're old and infirm is common to just about everybody, but there are very few films on the subject. Tokyo Story is the only one that springs immediately to mind.
TJ: There are a couple of films. I know Tokyo Story is based on an American movie called Make Way For Tomorrow, which I had only learned because I had never seen Tokyo Story, even though I was a grown-up person and should have it in my arsenal of film-history knowledge. But when I was writing my script, it was playing at Lincoln Center. I'd never seen it, which was an embarrassing glitch. And it's about something that my movie's about. So I went and saw it—and was completely and obviously blown away by it—because it's a great film, but also I was like, "This is so weird, because the children are kind of bad, and the parents are sort of great and loving, and why did they produce these awful children? Oh, I guess this is metaphoric of traditional Tokyo and modern Tokyo." But it bothered me. I mean, I love the movie, so it's such a dumb thing, but maybe because I was in my own movie that was dealing with a similar subject, I was viewing from the opposite end of the telescope. It was very useful for me to see it. Just the way that the children were so awful, and the parents were so good, bugged me. And in the case of my movie, it was from the children's perspective as opposed to the parents' perspective. I loved the movie, and then started reading about it, and discovered that [writer-director Yasujiro] Ozu's screenwriting partner [Kôgo Noda] had seen an American movie called Make Way For Tomorrow. It's a 1937 movie by Leo McCarey, and it's an adaptation of that. Make Way For Tomorrow is such a great title, because the children… That's what it means: Move over, old people, we're here! And it's a great movie. You can't believe it was made in America. Well, it was a different time in moviemaking, but it's so gentle, and so is Tokyo Story.
AVC: What was the process of convincing people to make The Savages?
TJ: Oh, it was an easy sell: Nursing home? Dementia? Brother-sister? Buffalo? Sexy! [Laughs.] Yeah, it wasn't easy, and there was obvious resistance. People weren't like, "Yeah, we have to make this film!" I wrote it as a little deal at Focus Features, and [Focus head] James Schamus and the Focus people really responded to the script, but ultimately, we couldn't agree on the cast. So they let me go into the world with the movie and with Laura and Phil, and so then I was really knocking on people's doors.
AVC: How could they not agree on Philip and Laura? That doesn't make any sense.
TJ: Call Focus. I don't know. Their foreign sales were a factor, meaning stars have to have a certain price on their head in European territories, or something? But really, I don't know. It was mysterious to me.
AVC: It seems like such a strange thing to want bigger stars than Laura Linney and Philip Seymour Hoffman for a project like this.
TJ: When people find that out, they're so baffled, and I'm like, "I know!" I mean, I love James Schamus. I think he's a great person and I like him a lot, but we just couldn't agree on the cast. And when I finally hunkered down and said, "I think these guys are great," then I met Laura individually and I met Phil, and I went back, and after other discussions about other actors, and meetings, and going through the chain of the process, I at one point just came back and said, "These guys are great." And they said, "Well, if that's the decision, then we should let you go." But they were kind enough to let me go with the material. They didn't put it in a vault and say "Too bad!" So then I went knocking on other people's doors for money, and it did not come easily. It's not a movie that you can pitch well, frankly. Financiers are risk-averse. They're scared, and the film was dealing with a subject matter that people don't want to deal with anyway.
AVC: You couldn't say the movie was funny?
TJ: I did! I said it was funny, and I think that's why Fox [Searchlight] said all right. Ultimately, I was like, "No, it's funny! I know it's about something quite serious and hard, but it really is funny, too." Not with some cheap, stupid layer of gags on it or something, and I think that they understood that, ultimately.
AVC: What kind of experiences did you have with nursing homes or assisted-living facilities before working on this project?
TJ: I had the experience of having my grandmother in a nursing home at the end of her life, and had dementia set in with my father. He was in a nursing home with dementia at the end of his life, but it happened for me personally 10 years ago. My father was much older than my mother, so I experienced it as a pretty young person. People's parents die at various ages, but my father died of mortality. He died of being an old person. Illness and stuff happened, but essentially, he was old and he was going to die. And in terms of my peer group, nobody's parents were dying of old age. There was no dialogue to have among friends.
So I had that experience, and then 10 years later, I started thinking about writing about it. It's obviously an indelible thing when that happens, and I wasn't looking for material at the time or anything; it just started becoming relevant to me. And I lived in the East Village, and there's a nursing home on the corner of my block, and I walked my dog by it every day, four times a day, and thought about it. And then across the street from me is a low-income housing place that caters to elderly people. So there's just lots of people in wheelchairs around out my window, so that's one thing. And then around me, around my friends, it's starting to happen—we're all in our mid-40s, in some cases older, and they're starting to deal with their parents becoming less well, and [with] elder-care things. So all those things were just percolating, and they all just started pushing me in this direction. And I was very interested in writing about grown-up siblings, so it just started mushing into this idea.
AVC: Your films contain certain autobiographical elements. Does that make them uncomfortable viewing for you—or for people in your family, or people you know who are being referenced?
TJ: This film is way less… This is such a fiction. If I was to call it autobiography, at all, I'd be like James Frey. It would be fake. You could see seeds of it—my father's in a nursing home, I have three brothers who are all professors—so there's stuff, but I grab things from anywhere I can. For example, a very good friend of mine had told me this story about toes curling. His grandmother was at home, in a home healthcare situation, and he was visiting her in Florida, and she was really at the end of her life. He was going to go out to dinner with his friends, but he was scared that while he was out, she was going to die. The home healthcare woman just sort of said, "Oh, go on with your friends, her toes haven't curled." And he was just like, "What are you talking about?" I just thought that was so interesting, that people that deal with bodies on a much more corporeal level, like the attendants, had a whole different set of criteria than doctors, and that they had this secret knowledge of something. I thought it was strange and interesting, so I took it.
It's a whole construct of all these different things, in terms of my experiences. It's a very personal movie, but it's not an autobiography. But in terms of my family viewing my own stuff, when they do see the parallels… My little brother saw the movie in the editing room, one of my other brothers saw maybe half of it in the editing room and read the script, and at one point, when I was researching nursing homes, he and I went to a nursing home together and posed as if we were putting our mother away—as a research mission. It was great. He lived in Connecticut, and I was visiting, so we went to a nursing home nearby because we wanted to go through what I was writing. So we got the tour and the sense of the place. We didn't tell my mother about it.
AVC: After Laura Linney and Philip Seymour Hoffman committed to doing this movie, did you alter it to accommodate them or their own ideas about how their characters should be?
TJ: They certainly had ideas in terms of what they'd bring to it, but the script wasn't changed or rewritten for actors, like they do in Hollywood all the time, like "We've gotta do the Ben Stiller rewrite!" [Laughs.] Like maybe people pump up the jokes for him. I didn't customize the writing to accommodate them.
AVC: Were you thinking about them while you were writing it?
TJ: I wasn't thinking about what flesh would match these characters when I was writing. Obviously, once you're finished, you're like, "Okay, I have to make this a movie now, and I need people—bodies to play these parts, and actors to bring this thing beyond a script." But when I was writing it, I wasn't thinking of actors; I was really thinking about creating three-dimensional characters.
AVC: Do you spend much time watching your films with an audience? Are you curious to see how they play?
TJ: I did at the beginning when we went to Sundance and we screened The Savages there. I watched it, and I was just praying to God it worked, because we weren't even finished. It was an HD projection, and we were doing a temp mix we'd put together the night before we flew. I was just hoping it worked, so half of it was just, "Phew." So there's the "Phew!" viewings. And also in the process of making this movie, since it was made in the studio context, I had to do test screenings, so I had to see it. We did two with [consumer research firm] OTX.
AVC: Was it just a random bunch of people in a mall?
TJ: Not quite. That's what all these studios do: They recruit people who've seen certain films. It's this weird, fake science-y thing the studios call a "tool." That's a very scary process, because it can be used in odd ways. But then there's focus groups and stuff like that. I was so nauseous and terrified, and then you get the cards: very good, good, recommend.
AVC: Was it helpful? Did you change anything?
TJ: It was helpful in the way it always is when you make movies, especially with anything funny. You can find the right edit or the right beat. In terms of cutting and rhythm, I think it's essential to screen your movie before you lock picture. I remember in film school, when we made shorts, you'd sit there and screen them with your peers, which has its own flavor, because everybody's so competitive and evil, and it's a really nasty environment. [Laughs.] It's like a test screening, except you know everyone. I remember you'd just be sitting and—at least when I went to film school—we still did it all on film, and you'd be in the back mixing it live. You'd have a couple different reels of magnetic tape, and you'd have to ride the levels for various things. But you would really sense when it was working or not. It's like having a dress rehearsal: You've gotta see what's working.
AVC: Did you have that luxury on Slums of Beverly Hills?
TJ: Yes. It's funny you use the word "luxury." Ideally, I'd prefer never having to be in a test-screening environment. Some famous director said "The group is smart, the individuals are stupid," about the experience of a test screening. So the feeling of the room and what's happening—that's your information. But the individual, "I don't know, she's an unsympathetic character," or whatever it would be, that's not interesting. It's the group feeling of the audience, how they're feeling, how things flow there. And you can feel it in your ass when you're watching your own movie with a group. You can feel when the film is dying, it's just like an energy in your body. You can feel other people shifting. I don't know, there's just something with your butt in the seat. Your body is just so…
AVC: That's where the directorial instincts come from?
TJ: It's in your ass! [Laughs.] That's really where all of those are. It's true.
AVC: How planned-out do you have a movie before you start shooting?
TJ: This was very planned. I mean, as planned as we could do it. The script was the script; it wasn't improvised or anything like that, and we shot it in 30 days, which is a fast clip, and it was 120 pages. That's a lot of material to get through. We only had six weeks of prep. Once we got the green light from Fox Searchlight, it went from the desert of knocking on doors and nothing happening to "Oh my God, we have to start! It's gonna be summer soon, and we have to hurry up and shoot before the crocuses pop out." So we had six weeks of just running around and trying to pull it together. I wish I had more time. Even if you're officially doing six weeks of pre-production, which is all we would've been able to afford to pay, had it been a different thing, I would've been able to do a bunch of stuff myself in preparation. Maybe even start casting some of the smaller parts and stuff like that. It was just a tight little six weeks to find all the actors, all the smaller parts, running around Buffalo, but there was a looseness to the shooting that I liked. At a certain point—after the beginning of shooting, when we thought we had more time than we did—you really have to be like, "Just fucking document it, make it in focus, and go!" All the dreamy shots that you sit there and plot with your cinematographer in the kitchen… If you stick too hard to these beautiful shot constructions and plans, then you're really just in trouble. Basically, we were in trouble before we started, in terms of time. And eventually, we just have to function forward.
AVC: What's next for you? Do you have anything in mind?
TJ: I'm taking nine years off. [Laughs.] No, I'm just at the beginning of writing in my notebook, and it's very prenatal. I don't even know what it is. Writing is so… I don't know, it's such a practice, and I feel very unpracticed in it, because I'm not doing it every day. And I really need to do it every day. In other words, you spend all this time writing a movie, and then you stop, and then you're shooting the movie, and then you're cutting, and a year and a half goes by, because in the editing room, you're not writing. Maybe some people are; after the editing room, I go and take a nap. I'm not in the practice of writing, and I feel like I'm flabby, and I have to start arriving at the desk every day, and take off one hat and put on another one. So I'm starting, but it's very sloooow.
AVC: Starting something is always hard.
TJ: Starting is stressful and scary and hard, but also, it's just like going to the gym. You're just stiff and weird, and you can't do it as well. I feel like in that time [leading up to The Savages], because it took so friggin' long, I was writing a lot and I just got better at it. But now I feel bad again, like I haven't done it and now I'm scared, and I have to start doing it. But anyway, like I said, I'm writing a script, but it's basically a series of notes in my spiral notebook that I carry around with me.
AVC: Okay. So in four years?
TJ: The next time you see me, I'll be at the Valley View Nursing Center.