Award-winning Director Jennifer Fox and NYWIFT Board President and Producer Simone Pero Discuss the Making of The Tale
Since the #MeToo movement, people are finally feeling safe to tell their stories of abuse, and coming together in an effort to heal. More importantly, society is finally accepting these stories and giving survivors a new platform for their voices. The Tale is a film based on the true story of award-winning writer-director Jennifer Fox.
The film stars NYWIFT Muse honoree Laura Dern and chronicles one woman’s powerful investigation into her own childhood memories, as she is forced to reexamine her first sexual experience – and the stories we tell ourselves in order to survive.
Eight years in the making, Fox’s first narrative feature film is finally making its way across the nation thanks to a league of extraordinary women, many of whom are NYWIFT members, including: Gamechanger Films and NYWIFT Muse Changemakers, Regina K. Scully and Abigail Disney. The Tale is an honest film that bravely goes beyond the boundaries of conventional storytelling to create a much needed dialogue.
NYWIFT’s Board President, Simone Pero, is a producer on The Tale and she shares with us their experience in a conversation with Jennifer Fox. Read their discussion below and look out for more conversations with cast and crew in our upcoming podcast.
Questions from Simone Pero to Jennifer Fox:
PERO: I’d like to start with your creative process. The film is beautifully constructed. What influenced your process of breaking through the fourth wall visually and in the script?
FOX: For me, once I realized the film was an investigation of memory and the construction of one’s identity then, all the rules came off. I started exploring, ‘how do I represent my own mind and my experience?’ I examined my inner world deeply and began finding ways to express it in the outside.
I began investigating who I was as a girl and realizing that I had changed. I wanted to find out, ‘how do I get to know her, that 13-year old girl?’ Then, I imagined talking to her and what those dialogues would be. Our main character is also a documentarian, so we used her skill of interviewing people in her mind as if they were in front of her.
I really felt like I wanted to represent the mind, our everyday, what we do all the time and what happens in our daily life. And it all looks the same — present, imagination, and past all look very similar.
On the fourth wall and fantasy interviews, we used techniques like making the characters look very realistic, using voice over, and having the actors off camera, for example Laura might spy on herself in the mirror. The technique of documentary and interviewing subjects is a lot of what it looked like.
PERO: How much preparation went into character building with the cast before shooting? Each cast members’ acting is superbly natural and authentic, did they bring this to you or vice versa?
FOX: Each of the actors and I talked a lot about their characters and their motivation. We also dived into the look and tone of the film, which was naturalistic. To prep, each of them were sent files and files of original materials. They watched one of my previous films, Flying: Confessions of a Free Woman, which my mother and I are both in, as a predecessor to this journey on The Tale.
We built each character off the real people. Laura Dern, Jason Ritter, Elizabeth Debicki, and Isabelle Nelisse were sent the letters, photos, diaries, and the original Tale story which was in the film. Each actor also dived deep into the authenticity of the character. For example, Elizabeth worked for two weeks in Australia with horses and she also learned the exact British dialect of Mrs. G. Isabelle took horse riding lessons on set. Ellen Burstyn learned the accordion.
I also brought the actors playing the older and younger characters together to work in pairs. For example, the older “Rebecca” and “Beccy” met. Laura and Isabelle were on set or on Skype often. I was looking for identifying body movements for both characters, i.e. share a walk, share an expression, an eye movement. When we were rehearsing, we did a lot of getting to know each other.
We also focused on casting characters who are known to be naturalistic in their work. They were each extraordinary.
PERO: When developing the characters, how did you handle the concerns working with a young child actor dealing with traumatic issues?
FOX: We carefully cast the ‘young Jenny.’ It was of utmost importance to me that I thought Isabelle could handle the material and that I felt comfortable that her parents understood what they were getting into. It was so clear that her parents knew how to support their daughter.
Isabelle read the script alone, she and I then Skyped for an hour. I got that she felt very grounded about the script and she had really insightful questions. She was deeply interested to know how I handled the real life experience.
On set we took a whole bunch of measures to protect her. For one, we brought her dog for comfort. Jason and Elizabeth hung out with Isabelle and spent a lot of time together. They went trick-or-treating, all to make her feel comfortable. In the making of the film, there is no physical contact with Isabelle. Jason is always working with a body double. Isabel is on a vertical bed. We had a SAG rep, psychologist, her mom, and the producers on set and we were all on microphone during the entire shooting of the scene. I gave her cues that would elicit expressions that might be representational in the physical scene like, ‘act like you are eating something sour’.
PERO: Did you find making this feature story easier because of your work as a documentarian, or more difficult and why?
FOX: I think there are skills that I brought that were helpful and there were others I did not have. For example, you don’t work with actors as a doc maker. I tried to identify the things I had to strengthen in my skill box.
In documentary, you create trust with your subjects but you don’t direct them. So I started as early as 2012 in preparing. I did directing actors work, I participated in the Binger Lab in Amsterdam, and I was coached by several directing actor coaches. I also workshopped with actors. I had actors help me develop the script, to look at scenes and improvise to make the script work better.
But, nothing prepares you for having 120-person crew watching you! And that’s crazy, I had to put blinders on and move forward. We had child actors, animals, stunts, body doubles, sex scenes; 140 setups to shoot in a 29-day shoot, three times over the course of eight months.
PERO: What was the hardest part of this film for you as a director while telling the story from your own memories?
FOX: It wasn’t really traumatic for me. In the millennium, I had made a 6-hour doc series “Flying” which I put myself in and filmed and edited my own life. That gave me an enormous skill to fictionalize myself. I knew from “Flying” that I did not have a problem distancing my own story. My goal is that we end up on screen with the essential truth, not necessarily all the details. For example, Laura is blond and the real “Jennifer”, me, is brunette, but is her core character truly me, that’s what’s important.
PERO: One of the issues we hear from our members, is the challenges of being an older or “seasoned” woman in the industry. What’s your take?
FOX: At 58 years old, my attitude is basically “eff ‘em”. We have extraordinary actors, Ellen Burstyn, Laura Dern, Frances Conroy. Women blossom in second half of life. I couldn’t have written this script at 20, because I didn’t have the life experiences the craft to tell stories. I have at least a 15 years in me. I’m in my prime as I see it.
No joke, I am well aware that it’s very hard to change careers later in life. Moving from doc to fiction was seen as starting a new career, especially making a change in your trajectory when you have already established your trajectory. Hollywood has not acknowledged documentary as filmmaking. People kept asking me, ‘how are you going make it?’, as I’ve never picked up a camera before! The Tale is not my first film, for someone to treat me like a novice is ridiculous. But, obviously financing is different, crew is different, and the game is different in fiction.
PERO: So, how did you handle the transition?
FOX: I’m known in documentary, so this was scary. The hardest thing is you have to just learn to deal with the fear, anxiety and the terror. Frankly, I was white knuckling until first screening of the film at Sundance this year and beyond. I’ve been told the difference between illness and health, is whether a person can deal with fear and anxiety. I’ve learned that it’s okay, it’s normal to have these feelings.
It does get easier every time out, though. I remember how overwhelming scared I was with my film Beirut: The Last Home Movie. It was really hard, but then I was reborn. The Tale is very similar for me.. like Beirut, excruciating on all fronts. But once you get under your belt, it helps.
I also have very good parents. My father gave me a lot of good advice that helped me build strong muscles to produce and survive like quotes “reinventing the wheel’ or “if you judge success by time you will always fail”. A lot of filmmakers give up because it doesn’t happen fast. Things may take time, time is not the way you judge things. I could have given up in year three of making The Tale. I kept motoring along until we got it financed in approximately year give. I had the mindset no-one cares how long it will take just keep going, I did not think I had to make this film in two years or I fail.
My mother rose from the ashes of being a housewife and reinvented herself in her fifties. At 56 she decided that she would become a lobbyist for deafness research in Washington, D.C. and was wildly successful. My mother did it and now I could do it.
PERO: Do you think this story would have been told differently or would have faced harder challenges ten years ago before the industry’s climate change?
FOX: This film was made before this climate change and we certainly faced a lot of challenge. We were dealing with a script about a taboo topic, and despite having Laura Dern on board a year and a half before any financing, it was still a struggle to get made. Even Gamechanger Films who gave financing turned us down twice before. But, without Gamechanger coming in as we got closer, we would have never got the equity in place. Then, as you well know we turned to raising one third of the financing through philanthropic directly because of the social issue in the film and because of me and you collaborating.
Questions from Jennifer for Simone
FOX: What stood out about this film project that made you want to be involved?
PERO: Two things — Number one…your script, it’s freshness, complexity and depth. Number two… your deep understanding of how visual storytelling has the power and emotional language that can move minds and hearts toward meaningful social change.
FOX: What were the challenges faced in producing The Tale and how different is it from other projects?
PERO: First, we had an amazing team. I am one of the ten producers that got this film made and now getting it out and into the world. My lens on the project was about layering in the social impact.
So, from my perspective, the easy part was translating how your story and The Tale could be used to help people and to deepen our understanding of sexual abuse and trauma. The biggest challenge was the financing.
As this was my first narrative film, I soon realized first-hand that funding independent film is no cake walk. Besides the normal marketplace upheavals and challenges we face in getting art made and seen in this country, we had multiple other variables. Like a script with socially-taboo subjects and themes; a female-driven story; a first-time fiction director; and a project written, directed and produced by you, the film’s protagonist!
So, after the project’s initial equity financing fell out, I remember you and I sitting down or shall I say countless late night phone calls and thousands of emails:), putting our heads together and realizing that our combined knowledge of documentary, philanthropy, and social issue advocacy could perhaps be parlayed into a fiction financing model… with the right approach and components to back it up.
I recall you and I approaching the other producers, all who were quite accomplished in the narrative film arena, with this idea to help supplement their equity investor pool. Needless to say eyebrows were raised at how additional money could be raised via grants… and, in time to go into production just a couple months away.
I’ll skip to the end, because this interview would take days if we went into all the machinations on how we landed here today, 6 or so years later with an internationally distributed film. But, the stars aligned and nearly simultaneously the film had the great good fortune of bringing on it’s major equity investor Gamechanger Films and a film grantor Regina K. Scully’s Artemis Rising Foundation allowing the production to proceed as scheduled. Then, later several other philanthropic grants including Lynda Weinman who made it possible to finish the film.
While we were responding to a need and never originally planned to bring this type of financing model to the production, we had a true and detailed plan for the outreach campaign that I think made the dots connect. I am glad to see, more and more, the element of bringing on supporters to a film that believe in the larger mission and perhaps, dare I say, with the hope of changing the world for the better through art and story.
FOX: What did you learn about this production that you can share with other producers struggling with their projects?
PERO: Three words —- Nimble, Grace, and Perseverance. Plus, you need to be as highly creative in getting the film made as creating what is on screen. There is no one way to do things any more.
Also, understand what your project is about in the large scheme of things. How does your project fit into our cultural zeitgeist and know your audience inside and out. If you don’t know them, get to know them. Research, dig, network. Find the people and organizations that get your vision and bring them into your orbit.
FOX: I hear NYWIFT is celebrating 40 years of supporting gender equality. As board president of the organization, what kinds of changes do you see happening?
PERO: Change is definitely in the air. As society is stepping up with declarations of “no more, enough is enough, times up, and me too,” I see our industry recognizing big time that the status quo won’t cut it any longer. There is a definite sense that this moment in time has the potential to truly be the beginning of the end for gender discrimination.
No doubt the industry has had good progress since NYWIFT’s inception. Perhaps, most notably within the past year where we saw some real action and commitments. Television and streaming media shows made bold moves to hire all female directors for multiple episodes per season, ad agencies declared to stop the bias in their content, and 2017 broke records with box office smash hits with women-centric plots and women of color leads.
Sure, we are on a roll and it’s great the numbers are rising, but let’s not forget the real change is when we reach parity and see paradigm shifts. True systemic change will happen when everyone is on board with equality at all levels, in all positions and all industries. When occurrences like pay inequity, sexual harassment, glass ceilings and sticky floors become eradicated. When we’ve expanded how, who, and what makes up our stories and content to incorporate all voices. Today, I am more hopeful now than I’ve been in a long time.
FOX: What are you working on now?
PERO: Well, as you well know we are gearing up for our exciting HBO broadcast this Saturday, May 26th at 10 PM EST here in the U.S. and then pretty quickly all around the world, plus launching our global outreach and social impact campaign, so that’s got me pretty busy!
But, I’m also super jazzed to be working with Tom Donahue and Ilan Arboleda on their Untitled Gender in Hollywood documentary, executive produced by Geena Davis. It’s such an extraordinary time for shining light on what women have experienced both in front of and behind the camera. And, of course I love teaching and being part of the StonyBrook/Killer Films MFA in Film program which keeps me inspired and passionate for the art form.
The Tale, starring Laura Dern, Isabelle Nélisse, Elizabeth Debicki, Jason Ritter, Frances Conroy And John Heard, With Common And Ellen Burstyn, premieres nationwide on HBO, May 26th and will be available on HBO NOW, HBO GO, HBO On Demand and partners’ streaming platforms
The Tale is produced by Jennifer Fox, Oren Moverman, Laura Rister, Mynette Louie, Simone Pero, Lawrence Inglee, Sol Bondy, Regina K. Scully, Lynda Weinman and Reka Posta. Julie Parker Benello, Dan Cogan, Geralyn Dreyfous, Wendy Ettinger, Abigail E. Disney, Robert & Penny Fox, Jayme Lemons, Amy Rodrigue, Ali Jazayeri, Jason Van Eman, David Van Eman, Ross Marroso and Ben McConley are executive producers.
Learn more at thetalemovie.com.