by John Bucher (@johnkbucher)
Jennifer Fox has had a long and successful career as a documentary filmmaker, scoring numerous Emmy nominations, the Cinéma du Réel Award, and the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival for her film, Beirut: The Last Home Movie. This year at Sundance, she was again nominated for the Grand Jury Prize for her film, The Tale – her first narrative feature film. The Tale is an investigation into one woman’s memory as she is forced to re-examine her first sexual relationship and the stories we tell ourselves in order to survive. It is based on Fox’s own journey and experiences and stars Laura Dern, Ellen Burstyn, Jason Ritter, Common, and Elizabeth Debicki.
LA Screenwriter’s John Bucher sat down with Fox to talk about adapting events from her own life into The Tale as well as what advice she has for writers wishing to do the same.
John Bucher: I was deeply moved by your story. It connected with me on a number of levels, but one of the things it really connected with me on was this idea of memories and the way that we create narratives based on the memories that we have about certain situations. The way that you execute that in this story is really interesting. Can you talk about the relationship between memories and processing narratives in our lives?
Jennifer Fox: I think that was my most important goal with this film — to investigate how the story I had told myself created me. How this young girl thirty, forty years ago had decided that she was going to be a hero. Because of that she created this adult. If she had decided she was a victim, I would probably not be here today. It was so interesting when I realized that, and the kind of fierce desire I had to survive at all costs. In a funny way, too, I realized that she or I saved myself. Maybe because I was so fierce in my survival skills, maybe I could’ve saved other girls, but that would’ve killed me. It’s a really interesting investigation. For me, the film is really mostly on the top level about how we survive and how we use our stories to create ourselves.
The thing that makes me very angry… There’s a way in the western world, there’s this fantasy that you can live without trauma. It’s just a lie. Everybody deals with trauma and suffering. That’s human existence. The question is only how you deal with it and how you get around the roadblocks that will always confront you in life as you grow up.
John Bucher: You have a significant celebrated body of work before this film. Why now was it time for this story? This is a story you could’ve told at any point. Was there anything within you that said it was time to tell this story?
Jennifer Fox: I actually couldn’t have made this film sooner. It’s a story I always wanted to turn into a film, but my perspective only began to gel in my mid-40s. I was shooting this film, Flying: Confessions of a Free Woman, which is not about abuse. I was talking to hundreds and hundreds of women. From the beginning it just shocked me. Every other woman had an abuse or sexual violence story. I was just floored because that was not the film I was making. Meanwhile, I heard so many stories of child sexual abuse, and suddenly what I had always perceived was a relationship I had when I was 13… all of a sudden there was this ding in my head — Oh my god, it sounds like these other women’s stories. The first time I used the term “sexual abuse” was… I think I was 45. Until you’re ready to hear something you really, you just… that’s just the way it is. What it really tells you is that I couldn’t tolerate having been “abused” until I was 45. I couldn’t tolerate that new narrative. Up until that time I could only tolerate a narrative that was consensual because the other narrative was too painful.
John Bucher: So many people that create great stories don’t have the burden of it being something they lived and went through. How do you become okay with compressing time and making different creative choices in telling a story that’s going to be a two-hour film, based on this huge span of your life? How do you process that and still feel like there’s emotional truth here?
Jennifer Fox: Well, the first thing I would say is I want to beg to differ with you. I think most artists are telling stories that resonate profoundly with their own stories. I think most work is autobiographical, even if you can’t recognize it. That’s our privilege, and what we give as artists. We explore the things we need to, and we translate that and give it to the world. I get to play in a sandbox of my own ideas and thoughts and drama, frankly, and create art with it, and hopefully, create something that can help other people.
John Bucher: You have such a successful career in different types of storytelling. What advice can you give those who want to be writers?
Jennifer Fox: You know there’s two sides of it. One is the work, which is really hard and you need to never give up. Creativity is so funny — you have to create a safe space for yourself to get stuff out of you before you destroy it. So, it’s this work walking on two hands which is like, one, to nurture creativity and allow yourself to do things out of the box from your own voice, and that really takes trust, safe space, getting the critic out of your way. And then the other thing is not falling in love with your work and being able, once you’ve got it out, to craft and criticize and be relentlessly perfectionist.
And I think the first step is harder, because we learn to be critics way too much in our world, so the ability to actually trust and walk on water and do things that haven’t been done before, before you kill them, is really, really important and requires a lot of a core self-belief. But everything you say can also be a pitfall for you, too. So, if you love your work too much and you’re not critical enough, then you also have a problem. It’s working with two hands. I am a big dreamer, but I’m also a big perfectionist, and I worked hard to give myself space. You know when I wrote The Tale, I think I ended up with like a 250 page screenplay and allowed myself that wild freedom and then relentlessly cut, shaped, edited.
I believe in both legs of the journey. And I also believe in never giving up. I don’t judge myself by the industry. I judge myself by my work. My main goal in life isn’t fame and fortune, it’s to do authentic work. And I believe when you do authentic work, the world changes around you.
The Tale debuts May 26 on all HBO outlets.
John Bucher is a writer, speaker, and story consultant based out of Los Angeles. He is the author of several books including The Inside Out Story and Master of the Cinematic Universe: The Secret Code to Writing in the New World of Media. He has written for entities ranging from HBO to U.S. Ambassadors. He teaches at The LA Film Studies Center and has conducted story seminars on five continents. He can be reached on Twitter @johnkbucher and through his site, tellingabetterstory.com.