Ever since garnering an Oscar nomination for 2007’s “The Savages,” we hadn’t heard much about writer-director Tamara Jenkins, a singular talent who deserves to be seen and heard much more frequently. In fact, she’s been missing in action for ten years. The veteran indie filmmaker’s returns this weekend with “Private Life,” a rich, hilarious, biting and sad fertility dramedy.
Carefully chosen as part of the impeccably curated main slate of this year’s 56th annual New York Film Festival, “Private Life” zeroes in on a married couple (as played by Kathryn Hahn and Paul Giamatti) coping with a never-ending infertility struggle and the collapse of their marriage, as they navigate through the world of adoption and assisted reproduction. This idea may not sound particularly appealing nor fun, but Jenkins’ latest is teeming with life, charm, personality, sad/funny heartache and mounds and mounds of overflowing empathy (Molly Shannon co-stars).
On top of its terrifically humane performances from Hahn and Giamatti, there’s also a breakthrough newcomer Kayli Carter, who plays the married couple’s niece who agrees to be their egg donor. The movie tracks the personal trauma of the characters as they try and navigate through this complicated journey; being friends, family, parental figures to a young girl, and then tied together via this emotionally and physically grueling and exhausting rollercoaster ride.
Fertility and lack thereof is not exactly cinema’s most popular subject, and it’s never been depicted with this much realism on-screen before, and so it is no surprise that a lot of it derived from Jenkins’ own private life. “The core emotional experience was my own,” Jenkins told The Playlist in a recent interview, “My husband and I also [looked at] international adoption, but I of course also spoke to other people. The domestic adoption story is from a friend of mine, but the emotional core of the movie I understood because I went through my own emotional journey.”
As autobiographical as the story was initially, as much as she wanted to keep it her own, Jenkins said the requirements of drama insisted the movie pull the imagination. “Once you start writing, the narrative demands fiction to sort of takeover, and invention does need to fly in,” she explained. “Like Kayli and Molly Shannon’s characters are pure fiction, but the core of it is something that I know I was interested in exploring in ways I wasn’t when I was obviously going through the ordeal myself.”
When asked about the roots of this project’s beginnings, Jenkins says she found notes on it right after she completed “The Savages.” “I found [notes that I had written in 2008], and I thought ‘wow, that’s so weird, why did I have them for this long?’”
So, what happened? Why over ten years between films? No, Jenkins was not thrown in director’s jail, she wasn’t forgotten or thrown into the margins. As she puts it, “life just got in the way.”
She had a baby in 2009, and she continues to teach film at New York University. The actual making of “Private Life” probably took close to five years to make she said with the writing process taking up two whole years. “I have to chip away at a script,” she said. “Every time I write something it takes two years and then getting people on-board to finance it is another year. When I was ready to hand it in, I was ready to shoot it but just because I want to shoot a movie it doesn’t mean the world wants to follow my lead.”
Jenkins noted the laborious process: shopping around for financiers, coming to terms with actors, budgets and having to start and rethink things over once you have all the considerations in place that affect your story.
Naturally “Private Life” comes from a female POV, but rather than make it her personal story, Jenkins learned in the process that it really became the story of three women at three different stages of their lives.
“This movie became this triptych of women at different biological reproductive moments in life,” she said. “Molly’s character is in an empty nest, menopause moment and Katherine was pushing the envelope regarding the end of her fertility and Kayli’s character was bursting with fecundity. I realized it was this evolution of the female experience through a biological reproductive point of view.”
In vitro fertilization (IVF) is tough on any couple, and it has heavy emotional and physical tolls. But rarely has Hollywood given mainstream audiences an authentic peek behind this matter that is often private and seldom spoken about.
“It’s been hinted at in other movies,” Jenkins remarked, “or turned into broad comedy like in ‘Baby Mama.’ It’s been referred to in comedies, but historically there are plenty of stories of couples that can’t conceive like “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf,” Greek mythology, the Bible, but now with reproductive technology it’s different.”
With the film packaged with stars and ready to go, financing kept falling through until Netflix came in and saved the day “They have such incredible films lined up, it’s kind of amazing,” she noted. “They really swooped in and saved us. We had Paul, and Katherine lined up, and it’s so complicated organizing around their schedules, it’s a very tight window so had they not worked so fast we would have lost that window and who knows how long we would have waited to have them come back and recommit.”
The thought of having her film streamed to hundreds of countries around the world was enough to excite her at having Netflix jumping onboard. “Streaming is astonishing; everything is just mutating before our eyes. It’s just shifting. I don’t know where the world is going to end up in many ways; it just feels like it’s changing all the time. I feel like everything is changing, and it has metamorphosized in the short time that I have been involved in the industry.”
Newcomer Kayli Carter, known to most as Sadie Rose in Scott Frank’s “Godless” (also on Netflix) praised the streaming service for giving the movie a voice and platform. “Netflix is becoming such a disruptor in the way studios are doing things. Personally, if this were a studio film I wouldn’t be talking to you, there’s no way they would have cast me. This blurring of the lines is a democratization of film and welcoming everyone; it’s democratizing casting especially, they are taking chances.”
When the script was finally shipped off to Hahn, she just knew it was something she couldn’t turn down, “When I got the script it said, ‘Private Life by Tamara Jenkins,’” she recalled. “I was so excited because I loved ‘The Savages’ so much, but the title could have been about anything, I had no idea it would be about infertility and assisted reproduction. I went in completely blind, and I just fell in love with this couple. With the specificity of this marriage in the same way I love the brother/sister relationship in ‘The Savages,’ I just love her writing, it’s so gorgeous and clear and so specific. When I finished reading it, I thought ‘oh well, now my heart’s going to be broken because I probably won’t get this part’ [laughs].”
She did land the part, but not before meeting up with Jenkins and Giamatti at the filmmaker’s NYC apartment, and suffice to say they hit it off immediately, “She set our dinner, and it was just the easiest, most casual, hilarious meeting. I just felt I knew him forever, we just felt like siblings, only in ways long marriages can. It was set, so perfect and easy and then you added Kayli to the mix, and it was “of course!” It all felt like it fit.”
“Tamara’s integrity as a filmmaker is so high,” Carter said. “[The story is] an embarrassment of riches” that stems from “the way that people speak to one another in the script. Everybody is endowed with such resonance and so clearly coming from somewhere that is very specific to their character.” As a woman, Carter says she rarely finds screenplays this rich in female characters. “It’s almost scary for me to have such a gift of a script like this and I can honestly say, after finishing this, that I read only a single script that I’ve loved as much in the past year and a half since I got to make this movie. As a young woman, I find it frightening not to find a character to grow attached to; it’s slim picking out there.”
Hahn, who gives a heartfelt performance as Rachel, was struck not just by Tamara’s personal experience, but also by the hundreds she read online, so much so that research turned into sheer personal curiosity. She read countless books and devoured YouTube testimonials (positive and negative) of women discussing their fertility and IVF journies.
“Those stories really touched me, most are set to beautiful music, and they just killed me,” she laughed. “The vulnerability, it was just too much to bear. These videos, they would devastate me. So that was the work I did, I would just kind of go home and fall asleep watching these videos, it wasn’t even researching anymore, I was just compelled to bear witness to their stories and watch them over and over again.”
In her research, Jenkins realized so many couples were suffering in silence, and their IVF experience was indeed, private. “It was happening all around me, and there seemed to be a kind of mini-epidemic with people pursuing parenthood through these means,” she said, noting the phenome is more and more widespread given many women and artists trying to launch their career before they have children.
“A lot of writers, journalists, artists waited due to their careers, and when the time came for them to want kids they were up against limitations,” she explained. “It’s also grown so much in the culture; tons of articles, books, journals. I was interested in writing about marriage, a middle-aged marriage and I was trying to look for the perfect metaphor for middle-aged marriage because you’re up against the differences of what your expectations were about life then and what you have now.”
Jenkins, who treats the material with deep humanity, but laced with hilarious ironies, deeply felt moments and genuine emotional suffering says she loves the “shimmer” between comedy and drama. “I aspire for that tone as a filmmaker and writer because I feel like it’s an alive place, that tone,” she remarked. “Kathryn and Paul great actors and they can straddle that thing; not many actors can. Phil Hoffman and Laura Linney had that ability too. It’s a particular actor to be able just to do that.”
Hahn is a little more humble stating that “It’s all in the script. Everything we needed was in the script. You just have to play what Tamara wrote. All I had to do was really listen to Paul. I wanted to do Tamara’s writing right, which feels like you’re a fly on the wall in their bedroom, it almost feels like a documentary.”
With her new film finally available on Netflix now, Jenkins hopes she won’t go a decade between films next time, “I can’t wait another ten years because by the time I make that next movie I’ll need a walker [laughs].”
“Private Life” is available on Netflix now. Bonus: Watch the full New York Film Festival press conference for “Private Life.”