Jennifer Fox puts her personal trauma on film in The Tale

The director of the Emmy-nominated film talks changing conversations around child sex abuse, shooting rape scenes and #MeToo's next frontier

The #MeToo movement has helped give many sexual abuse survivors the confidence to tell their stories and speak out against perpetrators.

Of course, filmmakers have been telling such stories in cinema for many years, but this cultural shift is forcing audiences to consider abuse stories with a more critical eye and a heightened sense of the pervasiveness of rape culture.

Into this heightened moment came Jennifer Fox’s The Tale, a fictionalized memoir that premiered at Sundance, landed a deal with HBO and two Emmy nominations, one for outstanding television movie and one for star Laura Dern (her seventh Emmy nod).

Fox has spent 30 years making documentaries, including the 1988 Sundance Grand Jury Prize winner Beirut: The Last Home Movie and the 20-years-in-the-making My Reincarnation. While making the 2006 documentary series Flying: Confessions of a Free Woman, she interviewed women around the world about issues affecting their lives. She began noticing an overwhelming commonality: all of the women had stories of abuse and the stories often echoed an experience from her youth she had never even considered abuse.

That personal revelation forms the basis for her fiction feature debut The Tale. Dern plays Jennifer, a successful documentary filmmaker and film school instructor who realizes in middle age that a “relationship” she had at age 13 with her much older running coach Bill (Jason Ritter) was, in fact, abusive.

Fox recounts the story as Jennifer remembers what happened to her younger self (known as Jenny and played by Isabelle Nélisse). She gradually coming to terms with the realization that not only was something she once described as “so beautiful” actually abusive, but that the wider culture helped lull her into denial.

Though years in the making, The Tale’s release in the midst of #MeToo couldn’t be more auspicious. It intimately chronicles the process of reassessing experiences society encourages us to suppress. It also raises hard questions about parenting and what makes children vulnerable to abuse. (The film’s website includes resources and discussion guides for parents, young adults, educators and men.)

When Fox was in Toronto to attend a special screening of The Tale for TIFF Bell Lightbox members, NOW met up with the filmmaker to talk about the ways The Tale has reverberated through #MeToo conversations since its premiere on HBO in May, and the conversations we still haven’t had.

The Tale challenges filmmakers to dig deeper and go beyond what a documentary subject is saying in an interview. Has making this film changed how you approach your work? Do you think you were missing certain cues before?

In making this film, I realize it was about denial. For someone who has been in search of the truth since I was very young, it’s shocking that I denied this truth. Despite that proclivity to look for the truth, I had missed my own truth. I think I also fall into a very typical category of people who are sexually abused: a lot of people don’t accept it or face it until middle age. And what I understood for myself is that, until I was middle-aged, I really wasn’t strong enough to deal with the dark side of it. And so I had referenced one piece of the narrative, but I didn’t see the other piece.

I hope that people understand that [this film] isn’t about replacing the narrative, it’s about adding another narrative. It’s not that I think the Jenny character – or my child self – was wrong. It’s just that she only told herself a piece of the story and there’s many stories that are true. I do believe that as a child you can love somebody who is abusing you, and you can get something from someone who is abusing you, but that doesn’t stop it from being abuse.

What have you learned about children?

Children are resilient – we hope – but they are also pragmatic. I certainly was a pragmatic child and I was really trying to get what I needed by any means necessary. And I needed attention and I needed love and the price of the ticket was this thing called sex, which I knew nothing about. When I did learn about it I didn’t enjoy it – it was horrible – but I could still make that trade. “You give me that, I’ll give you this. You give me attention, I’ll give this thing that I don’t even know the value of.”

I knew how to trade because that’s what adults do from the time you’re born: “If you’re good, I’ll give you a doll. If you eat your spinach, I’ll give you an ice cream.” Adults create children who know about trade.

You don’t often see this kind of difficult conversation represented in movies. How has the reaction been in terms of media coverage?

What audiences are responding to is that complexity. I hear this all the time: “It’s the first time I feel like what happened to me has been represented. I can now talk about what happened to me because you’ve shown me I’m not alone.”

Even if they haven’t had that kind of experience, a lot of people can relate it to other traumas. The media wants us to see things in black-and-white terms. By doing that, the media excludes people from telling their true stories because you feel like you don’t exist. The Tale allows people to say, “I can tell my story because this person showed me something similar.” Not the same – similar. The press has been so sensitive. With all my work, I’ve been blessed with really good press. But I’ve never seen consistently complex and deep writing as I’ve seen with this film.

Because of the #MeToo movement?

I haven’t read anything where I went, “That writer is phony.” I think they’re afraid to go on automatic pilot because it’s such a critical subject. People are cracked open and writers are cracked open and thinking about their own lives. The number of men who’ve come up to me is extraordinary.

I’ve recently had conversations with gay male friends about consent, looking back at experiences that were not okay but we laughed them off or minimized them at the time.

Thank you for saying that because I think the gay community is another frontier. I was really happy about the whole Kevin Spacey thing blowing up. Like in the African-American or Jewish communities, we don’t talk about our own problems because we’re under assault. And the gay community has been under assault for so many things. I feel that many young gay men who know they’re gay are trying to find their sexuality, but fall into these horrible situations that have been reported to me – basically rape or abuse. And because there was no other way to learn about sexuality, we accepted it. And time’s up. I’m the wrong person to say that for the gay community, but it is the next frontier. Men have to start coming out to say there’s another way to learn about sexuality. I’ve had quite a few men at screenings tell me, “I knew I was gay, and this is not about why I’m gay, but this is how my sexual entree went.” And it was the same as my sexual entree. I’ve heard that a lot.

Laura Dern The Tale.jpg

Courtesy of HBO

Laura Dern earned her seventh Emmy nomination playing a fictionalized version of director Jennifer Fox in The Tale.

There have been a lot of conversations in recent years around rape scenes in movies in terms of point of view. I’ve read you used a body double for the actor playing Jenny, but what was your thinking in terms of your general approach to filming the abuse scenes?

First, I think the most radical thing was I knew there had to be sex scenes. I knew that from the beginning. I knew you weren’t going to have these lead-ups, then they close the door and fade to black. For me, that was a deal-breaker. Frankly, I was scared to death this film would never make it with audiences. That people would walk out. That reviewers would call it pornography. Yet as a survivor, this is the hard thing: I don’t know why exactly I feel this, but intuitively I felt I had to show the horror of it. And it isn’t horror like war – it’s the very ordinary horror of a child being pushed beyond their physical and emotional limits in order to please an adult. A lot of people wanted the language of Bill to be cut out more than the images. “He just can’t say those things.” I got that from everyone.

What was the reasoning?

It’s too grotesque. It’s pornographic. But since a lot of what [the running coach] Bill says in the film is verbatim from memory, for me it was also grotesque, but it’s also about showing how the perpetrator has thought this out and planned it.

The long game he plays blows my mind.

That’s a great way to say it. He was playing me. The scene in which the Bill character comes over and brings out the book of poetry and the blanket and there’s a condom in there shows how he had prepared for that moment. And that’s true: the real Bill pulled out a condom.

Did you remember all those details?

Oh yeah, I remember it all. The fact that it was so planned and manipulated I didn’t grab as a child, but as an adult it’s plain as day.

That’s also why some scenes play differently than the real events because the audience would read them too quickly. The real Bill pulled out the book of poetry, sat on the couch and said “sit here,” and when we did that with actors you know what’s going to happen and you need to cut. I had to rejig the scene so that he stays away from her purposefully and we’re not sure what he’s going for. As a child I didn’t know that, but all of us in the audience would say, “He’s going to abuse her.”

That’s why the film is really fictionalized. There are other reasons, like Louisiana law. The real sex scenes took place in a bedroom, but we shot in Louisiana and under state law you’re not allowed to have a child and an adult sit on the bed together because it’s pornography. So we had to stage the sex scenes on the floor by the fireplace.

Point of view is, of course, very important. A lot of the way it was shot was determined by the use of the body double. And of course the close-ups – there’s a lot of details. You remember the details.

What was it like directing Laura Dern? She had to express a lot of complex emotions in single shots or close-ups.

We had a lot of conversations before we got to set. And we sat with the script and she pointed out things that bothered her. Some scenes we disagreed about. It was very much a dialogue but she has such an ability to bring authenticity.

When we were rehearsing the teaching scenes and she walked in, she wasn’t rehearsing but getting the kids ready. I thought, “Oh my God, that’s me!” I was like, how did she do that? Some of it is casting, some of it is her extraordinary talent and some of it is because I knew the story so well I could say “It’s not that, it’s this.”

Laura, of course, is very political and thought this [story] was horrific and she was angry. As Laura Dern, she would’ve wanted to prosecute him and get him. But that was not the character she was playing. The character wasn’t angry until the very end. There were times that I just had to say, “No that is not this character” and talk to her about what this character, who was based on me, really wanted, which was to understand. Frankly, if it wasn’t my story that would’ve been a harder conversation because she’s famous and I’m not. But it’s my story, so she really listened and understood I was trying to bring out a different point of view.

The Tale is available to stream on TMN GO. | @kevinritchie

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