After she earned an Original Screenplay Oscar nomination for “The Savages” in 2008, along with a Best Actress nomination for star Laura Linney, writer-director Tamara Jenkins looked forward to a smoother run. Instead, it was a decade before she could make her next film, “Private Life,” a Netflix production starring Kathryn Hahn and Paul Giamatti that premieres opening night at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival.
“It took a long time to get the movie made,” Jenkins said. Some of this was her own doing; she and screenwriter husband Jim Taylor (with whom she wrote another Sundance film, “Juliet, Naked”) have a small child, and “I have my own slow demons, in terms of writing.” And then, displaying her own talent for the dry understatement that often informs her own filmmaking voice: “There’s always this delay.”
It’s not the first time this has happened. “The Savages” came nine years after her first feature, the 1998 Fox Searchlight comedy “Slums of Beverly Hills” based on her high school years with her broke single father. It premiered at Sundance and went on to become a cult favorite after a modest summer release. She set up her next film, “The Savages” at Focus Features; there, it became mired in development hell. Searchlight came to the rescue to produce and release the dark comedy starring Linney and Philip Seymour Hoffman. Jenkins premiered the film at Sundance 2007 to a tsunami of praise for its unflinching, hilariously sad look at two siblings caring for their dementia-ridden parent.
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A year later, she had an Oscar nomination. She remembers thinking: “I was nominated for an Oscar. Now people are going to send me the best books, some amazing great property, to adapt. That never happened. I thought that was the next thing.”
Instead, she took two years to write a spec script, which draws from hers and Taylor’s struggles to have a child. “I wasn’t young,” she said. “I was suddenly confronted with the world of assisted reproduction and adoption. We were looking at international adoption, we were doing IVF. I thought, ‘There’s no fucking way I’m writing about this shit.’ But when I emerged from my own soup and looked around at all these people who were having the same fertility dramas, there was a mini-epidemic among all the people I knew.”
Initially, she wrote about a mid-life marriage (she called it “The Middle Ages”) as a biological battle of the sexes. “All of a sudden the world of assisted reproduction and infertility was everywhere around me in the media,” she said. One woman in The New York Times described her IVF experience in a diary (“Motherlode”). “The comments were so crazy and fevered,” Jenkins noticed. “They seemed divisive: ‘Why would you do this? This is wrong.'”
Some of these views ended up “Private Life” as the central couple desperately turn to their beloved niece (breakout Kayli Carter) to see if she would be willing to donate an egg for fertilization; she’s game, but her mother (Molly Shannon) is appalled. In one heartrending scene, the daughter tells her mother she can do what she wants with her body.
“The language of that argument is inverted from those of abortion rights’ not to have a baby,” said Jenkins. “You start really seeing the frayed story of what infertility does to a marriage. It can destroy marriages. They have intense flareups and find some kind of calm afterwards. Ultimately, it’s very hopeful.”
She started to talk with producers; like “The Savages,” she knew it wouldn’t be an easy sell; as she notes: “Dementia and infertility aren’t sexy at pitch meetings.” Amazon Studios did want to make the movie, but Jenkins said it floundered in “vague development.” When she landed Giamatti and Hahn, Amazon gave her a greenlight —and a minuscule budget.
“The same thing happened on frigging ‘Savages,'” she said. “I get these two actors who are going to be amazing together, and they say, ‘You can make that, but the budget is going to be this low.’ Yes, so low you can’t do justice to what you wrote! You’d have to shoot in Montreal. It’s depressing. I felt like I was talking to people who were having a conversation with somebody on the top [one-time studio head Roy Price] who I never met and never talked to. It felt like a game of telephone as I tried to interpret what the people upstairs were thinking, who I was not talking to directly.”
As negotiations dragged on, Amazon greenlit another film — directed by a man, with a much larger budget — that took what would have been her production slot. For Jenkins, it was galling.
“I don’t know if it was my gender, or the subject matter,” she said. “I was walking through those frigging film trucks around the neighborhood where my movie would have taken place. It was really demoralizing, painful. What about this middle-aged woman? The director got $5 million more than I was even asking for.”
While Jenkins refused to name the film, it was Marc Webb’s “The Only Living Boy in New York,” about a college grad who sleeps with his father Jeff Bridges’ mistress, and grossed $624,000 in North America.
Ready to shoot, and scared she was going to lose the window with her actors, she needed a savior willing to make a quick switch; producer Anthony Bregman suggested Netflix. With the clock ticking, she marched around an airport on the phone with Ian Bricke and Matt Levin, who make decisions on lower-budget movies at Netflix.
“We really love your script,” they told her, and one added: “My wife and I just went through this. We adopted, you really nailed it, this craziness, the comedy. I really relate to this.”
“They swooped in and saved the day with not one question,” said Jenkins. “Under a certain number, they were in charge.”
Jenkins emerged from her directing hiatus never having shot on digital before, making a $9 million film for Netflix that will barely screen in theaters. But she got to make her movie, which is a naturalistic, believable portrait of a marriage fractured by a fortyish East Village couple’s infertility. They aren’t rich, they aren’t beautiful, and they reveal the all-too recognizable rhythms of a marriage under duress.
Giamatti and Hahn both attended Yale Drama School, but had never met before. Jenkins arranged to cook dinner at Giamatti’s apartment when they were in town for a read-through. “That was pretty awesome,” said Jenkins. “As soon as the door swung open and they met each other, we were off to the races. They were loving each other. They really connected.”
When she lost the young actress playing the niece at the last minute, casting director Jeanne McCarthy found fresh American drama school grad Kayli Carter in a Mark Rylance play in London. Netflix approved her immediately; she also starred in its western series, “Godless.”
For the first 11 days, the company took over a few floors of an apartment building and shot intense talking-head interiors. Cinematographer Christos Voudouris (“Before Midnight”) shared her understanding “about the casual domestic beauty of the photography,” Jenkins said.“‘Interior bedroom: day, New York City’ doesn’t lend itself to spreading your wings on great white rooms in an apartment, but something in it can be beautiful, in the mundanity and domesticity.”
At least at Sundance, the movie will show on the big screen, and will return for another round of festivals in the fall–it’s Netflix’s way of compensating for its minuscule theatrical footprint. Like “Mudbound,” Netflix will push it for much-deserved awards attention.
In what has become a familiar refrain: “I never intended for it not to be seen on a big screen,” said Jenkins. “It’s a complicated part of the equation for everyone. I wish there was a way to do both: have it shown in cinemas and streamed exclusively. That’s what I’d like.”