Amber Tamblyn wasn’t looking for material to turn into her directorial debut when a long-time friend turned her on to Janet Fitch’s “Paint It Black” almost a decade ago. “Amy Poehler gave me the book like ten years ago and said, ‘Oh, you have to read this. It’s so great,'” Tamblyn recently told IndieWire.
Fitch’s novel, published in 2006, is focused on Los Angeles wild child Josie Tyrell, whose carefree existence is thrown into tremendous turmoil when her beloved boyfriend Michael kills himself. Josie’s grieving process is upended by the sudden appearance of Michael’s tough-as-nails mother Meredith, whose jealousy over Michael and Josie’s bond extends even beyond his death. It’s tough, vicious material that entirely hangs between two tough, vicious women. Tamblyn loved it instantly.
“I just had this very instantaneous, cinematic, visceral reaction to the language of the book. I really felt like, ‘Wow. Wouldn’t that make for a great movie, just about the tormented, grief-ridden, inside, interior minds of women?'” Tamblyn said.
“I’ve had people say, ‘Oh, had you been looking for a project to direct for a while, and then found this one?’ It was quite the opposite. It was a complete accident,” she remembered.
For Tamblyn, that “complete accident” eventually turned into a years-long odyssey to bring Fitch’s novel to the big screen, a production process fraught with casting changes, directorial switcheroos and tough editing choices, all of which eventually culminated in the film’s Los Angeles Film Festival premiere last week, incidentally hosted by Poehler herself.
“So much of the time, I think we see movies about women that are either very vapid and just funny on a sort of shallow level, or you see things that are extremely emotional, to the point that you aren’t interested in the psychology behind the emotion,” she said. “To me, the book really read like something I hadn’t maybe seen on screen, at least in a very, very long time. I just sort of instantly knew the movie that I wanted to make out of it.”
But first, Tamblyn had to get the rights to the book from Fitch, who had already been through this whole Hollywood thing back in the early aughts, when her novel “White Oleander” was turned into a large-scale production starring Michelle Pfeiffer and Renee Zellweger.
“As someone who’s an author myself, I can see how terrifying that might be. I think a lot of the reason this project took so long was just, in the beginning, it was trying to get Janet to agree to give me the rights,” Tamblyn said. “I think, rightfully so, she just went, ‘Who is this actress who wants to…? No.'”
Tamblyn didn’t give up on her attempts to reach out to Fitch through the normal channels – she admits her strategy is best likened to “bombarding”– but things only came together after Fitch’s agent had issued a final no. Tamblyn’s touring partner, author Derrick Brown, had just published a new book and its back cover included a sparkling blurb from none other than Janet Fitch. Turns out, Fitch was a longtime fan of Brown’s, and he soon set up a drinks meeting with just the three of them.
“She pretty much shot me down during that drinks evening,” Tamblyn said.
Although Fitch, who has written extensively on her blog about the process of turning “Paint It Black” into a film with Tamblyn, admitted that she was impressed with Tamblyn’s passion, she didn’t change her mind about giving the rights over to her. Which, predictably, didn’t stop Tamblyn from continuing to ask for them.
The pair eventually exchanged email addresses and began a regular correspondence. In 2010, Tamblyn invited Fitch to be her date for the premiere of “127 Hours,” where Tamblyn’s passion (and her dad, fellow actor Russ Tamblyn) finally sealed the deal.
“She was a big fan of my dad, as many women of that generation are, ‘West Side Story’ and things like that,” Tamblyn said. “My dad sort of put the final shine on that evening. My dad’s out smoking a joint on the deck at the premiere. He just had his arm around her, and was flirting with her. Janet’s a cool L.A. lady like that. The next night, I got an email and she just said, ‘I give up. The rights are yours.'”
Tamblyn and her writing partner, Ed Dougherty, set about writing the film’s script, with Tamblyn also planning on producing and starring in the film as Josie. Other casting picks also started taking shape, including Ben Foster as Michael and Tilda Swinton as Meredith.
Tamblyn also lined up a director: Courtney Hunt, who previously directed “Frozen River.” Although Hunt was attached for nearly a year, she and Tamblyn could never quite agree on an approach.
“She really, really loved the story. She’s a very different type of director than [the kind] I became,” Tamblyn said. “She and I really didn’t see eye to eye on some of the major parts of the film, on how it was supposed to be done or how I had written it. It was not in a bad way, just in a way of we just were seeing two different films.”
“It was ultimately Courtney that pulled out of it and said, ‘I think you are missing the point here and the point is that you need to direct this. What are you waiting for?’ I was like, ‘That’s a great question,'” Tamblyn remembered.
“I forget that that’s all I know how to do, is ask permission from men, usually, [for] whether or not I can do something,” she said.
The decision to direct the film opened Tamblyn up creatively, and while she (and Foster and Swinton) eventually moved on from starring in the feature, she found a brand new way to explore what had become her biggest passion project.
“Part of the debilitation of being a former child actress who’s still successful, is that you have a hard time re-framing your brain to hone in on its own power, as far as what your creative potential is,” she said.
“You spend so many years giving in to other people’s visions. I spent a lot of my time with great ideas and being on sets where male directors really were not interested in hearing the ideas of a 21-year-old, or a teenager, or any woman in their mid-twenties,” Tamblyn said. “I think in the 25 years I’ve been acting, I’ve maybe worked with two or three female directors.”
But even though Tamblyn didn’t consistently find an outlet for her creative ideas when faced with less-than-receptive directors, she always brought her own opinions to the work.
“Even if I didn’t express an opinion, I had it, and I never really thought about, ‘Oh, I could do this in an official way. I don’t have to be giving away my creative ideas and thoughts without the credit,'” she said. “That never occurred to me until this project happened.”
For the newly minted director, her first decision was a huge one: Who to cast as Josie Tyrell.
“Because of the slight archness of the film itself, it really did require somebody who has not only dramatic chops, but great comedic timing,” Tamblyn said. Her pick? Her friend Alia Shawkat, who turns in the performance of her career as the bruised (and bruising) Josie Tyrell.
But, as seemed to be par for the course for “Paint It Black,” even that decision came with its own drama.
“I was working in Portland and they cast somebody else and then it didn’t work out with them and, last minute, Amber called me and was like, ‘Yo, dude, I need you now,'” Shawkat told IndieWire. “I landed in LA, got my hair dyed that day and started shooting the next week.”
Tamblyn remembers the story a little differently: “When I auditioned a lot of women to play the role, and I showed a couple of the audition tapes to my husband [David Cross], he was like, ‘That’s your Josie. Look at that. That’s her.’ It was pretty clear to everybody just how much she embodied what the role is.”
Snagging a new Meredith proved to be a little easier, even if the role technically required filling the shoes of Tilda Swinton. Tamblyn cast Janet McTeer, a passionate and talented actress who immediately sparked to the tough material.
“Janet came out of nowhere and came in like a ball of creative fire,” Tamblyn said. “We met in LA, and I’ll never forget it. We were at a hotel and she was laying by the pool in this long kimono with this giant hat, in this gorgeous bathing suit with her tits on display. I was just like, ‘She embodies Meredith immediately.’ Just the sort of sensuality, and the strength, and everything about her.”
“I showed her the lookbook and I did what I did with everybody when I was pitching the movie, which is just to pretty much bombard them with my vision for it, and show them that there was not a single aspect of the film that I had not thought about,” Tamblyn said.
McTeer’s casting also pleased Shawkat. “When I found out she was doing it, I was just like, ‘Well, I’m throwing myself into this without looking,'” she said. “I was so exhausted on that shoot because I was working every day and each scene — it was kind of intense on my body and [McTeer] was just amazing. The minute she enters a room, she’s just so stoic and strong and has so much energy. Any time we had scenes together, she would just wake me up.”
With years of planning and passion already under her belt, actually shooting the film proved to be perhaps the easiest part of the “Paint It Black” experience.
For one thing, she knew exactly what she wanted and how to make it happen. “When it came to her knowing what she wanted, which I think is the most important in any director for me, she definitely had the confidence. She knew the story, she had the passion for it, she was never like, ‘I don’t really know what Josie wants right now.’ She always knew,” Shawkat said.
Tamblyn doesn’t downplay that confidence, but she admits that her directing style was influenced by years of in the trenches acting work.
“I’ve been very fortunate to work with some of the greatest directors, and seeing the difference between great directors and mediocre directors. Danny Boyle, Quentin Tarantino, Wim Wenders, these are people that I’ve been on sets with and I’m blown away by their capacity to not only get the footage that they want, but to run a set, and that is its own art,” Tamblyn said.
Still, for a first-time filmmaker, Tamblyn’s vision was remarkably clear.
“I would only do maybe like two takes, maybe three at the most. As soon as I saw what I wanted, I was done. I didn’t feel an insecurity that I was going to be missing something,” she continued. “I story-boarded this before we even shot the film, so I really knew the movie I was making. There was no, ‘We’ll figure it out on the set.’ There was no questioning the type of movie we were making.”
The film wrapped at the end of 2014, just as Tamblyn was readying to take on tour another passion project, her book “Dark Sparkler,” which put a bit of a wrench in scheduling. But after a protracted editing period, Tamblyn was ready to test-screen the feature.
One attendee of those screenings? Poehler, who unknowingly set Tamblyn on the course to become a full-fledged feature film director so many years ago.
“When it was finally done, I wanted to show it to her. It was a trip for us. We’ve known each other a long time and we’ve both come a long way in our lives and our careers, and it was just kind of an amazing moment that one friend could just give someone a book,” Tamblyn said. “You’re not even thinking about it. She didn’t even give it to me to think about directing, just to read, like a summer read.”
Ten years later, it’s finally time to close that book.
“Paint It Black” premiered at the 2016 Los Angeles Film Festival. It is currently seeking distribution.