When Tamara Jenkins was first writing “Private Life,” her new Netflix film about a couple (Kathryn Hahn and Paul Giamatti) trying to get pregnant through IVF (in-vitro fertilization), it was called “The Middle Ages.” It’s a title she dropped after seeing the New York Times had a new column using the same name. Feeling forced to abandon the title ended up being a blessing, as it made room for another theme that had been bubbling to the surface during the course of Jenkins’ writing.
“When people conceive a child, it’s private,” Jenkins said in a recent interview with IndieWire. “You’re under blankets. It’s like invisible to the outside world. It’s dark. You’re doing this very private act but, as soon as there’s a problem with it, everything that is usually private becomes a conversation piece.”
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As Jenkins noted, those who decide to adopt children end up having their home inspected and are fingerprinted as a matter of course. If there’s difficulty getting pregnant, one is forced to sit and listen as a group of doctors discuss your genitals. Meanwhile, the topic of IVF seems to illicit acquaintances to share their unfiltered thoughts.
“Then there’s a whole other layer of people’s opinions about it,” said Jenkins. “Sort of like in the movie, even if there’s just a small suggestion of IVF: ‘Oh my god. Why don’t they just adopt?’ Like with the word ‘just’ adopt, as if that’s so easy, but then there’s a very primal reaction that people have about it.”
For Jenkins, who has had her own personal experiences with IVF, allowing the audience to feel what it was like for such a private matter to become publicly scrutinized became a guiding principle. Beyond structuring the narrative in a way where this type of dialogue played a key role, it also factored into how and where she staged the action.
“You’re in these spaces, those waiting rooms, where everyone knows why they’re there,” said Jenkins. “Everyone knows you’re there because there’s something not working and it’s private, but it’s a very public space.”
In “Private Life,” Jenkins utilizes a small, crowded waiting room with a composition that emphasizes the cramped feel. Hahn and Giamatti’s performances emphasize how conscientious they are of being on stage. It’s a feeling that is underlined by the use of sound.
“It’s this weird wide shot that drags on for a while, it’s very uncomfortable and the sound editor put in all this sound of people and I was like, ‘No, no, no, no,'” said Jenkins. “I just wanted to get the sound of those spaces right because people are not chatty. It’s like the sound of a magazine page turning, a murmur between a couple. It just has a really weird kind of hermetic feeling. It’s kind of silent, but people are kind of looking at each other, but they’re not supposed to be. It’s a very unusual soundscape.”
In “Private Life,” Hahn and Giamatti’s characters, Rachel and Richard, often experience setbacks at these various doctors appointments, and then have to grapple with an ensuing wave of emotions while out on the street.
“They’re in such a fragile state and they’re kind of spit out onto a public street,” said Jenkins. “To go from having some doctor between your legs to having cars driving by like [Jenkins mimics cars screeching].”
In one street scene, Rachel and Richard fight over how far they are willing to go to get pregnant. It’s one of Jenkins’ favorite scenes, reciting the dialogue from memory:
“They’re discussing the donor egg thing and she says, ‘I thought we were going to draw the line at science fiction’ and he says, ‘Well, it’s actually not science fiction, they do it with farm animals all the time.’ ‘Well, I’m not a goat, okay? Why don’t you go fuck her?,'” Jenkins recalled. “That whole thing is her becoming really emotionally undone. That kind of very intense private conversation. I guess if it’s a movie that took place in L.A, they’d be having that conversation in their car or the parking lot. It’s so New York.”
Scenes like this went over extremely well with the New York Film Festival crowd last week, but Jenkins knows audiences from all over can understand how the city defines these characters. The couple lives in the East Village, a neighborhood it feels like they’ve aged beyond. As Richard says at one point, “I just don’t want to find myself at a block association meeting trying to prevent the opening of a new bar.”
There’s an aspect of their relationship to the city that speaks to their age, economic class, and how they think of themselves that plays a big role in their story of struggling to have a child.
“This kind of artist class in New York is very specific and it would look different if it was in a different city,” said Jenkins. “So the locations, I was kind of a lunatic about it. What happens in movies is things are done for convenience or because somebody thinks it’s pretty. They’ll be like, ‘Oh, there’s this great restaurant in Brooklyn and blah blah blah.’ I was like, ‘Yeah, but that’s Brooklyn. That’s not going to look right, it’s going to feel different and you’re just putting me there because it’s pretty. I don’t care if it’s pretty, I want it to be right.'”
“Private Life” opened in select theaters and Netflix on October 5.