Having created documentaries for over 30 years, director Jennifer Fox decided to turn the magnifying glass around and look into herself. Exposing truths was her speciality – from Tibetan Buddhists to feminism to affairs – but her own relationships needed to be evaluated too. Around 10 years ago, Fox slowly came to an understanding of an episode of her life which reveals itself as powerfully on screen as it did to the director herself. Discovering that her “first relationship” was not as she had tenderly remembered, Fox sees herself change in her mind’s eye from a woman coming-of-age into a barely formed victims – and we travel the journey with her in The Tale. The unravelling history of abuse becomes harrowingly clearer as we read through her school essay, entitled ‘The Tale’: interrogating our concept of memory as she reads and we watch, we see past Jenny (Isabelle Nélisse) change and present Jennifer (Laura Dern) comprehend.
Phenomenally pushing boundaries through her sincere portrayal of the realities of abuse, Fox lays bare these relationships in a way that is intimate but overwhelming relatable. And this is partly due to the timing: amidst the post-Weinstein era of Hollywood, the empowered moments of Time’s Up and the social times of #MeToo, The Tale feels like the voice of cinema we have been waiting for. Whilst Fox has been discovering and telling her story for the past decade, the public release of her narrative now is as needed for us as it is her: we are all listening and finding the words for our tales. We spoke to the director Jennifer Fox about the reality of working on such a personal project, and how it felt to add her moving voice to the powerful dialogue we are finally opening up.
Did you find it a a therapeutic film to make? To physicalise your memories in this way?
Yes definitely, of course. But I’ve been making films a long to time, and for me my art is my path of understanding. All my films, I feel I grow enormously on, even when they’re not about me. That is the pleasure for me of being an artist and why I think we are emotionally privileged. We get to go on these journeys that ultimately are abut investigating the world for ourselves and for others. So absolutely, with The Tale it was therapeutic. As with all films I feel as though I keep growing and changing even after I make them. Talking to people is another exchange, seeing how they react and experienced it too. I don’t make films for small audiences, I’m really interested in audience so I think ‘How do I tell this story in a way that it will reach as many people as possible?’.
Is that partly why you chose to distribute it with HBO?
That was definitely part of it, yeah. So it could reach a lot of people, and also they could be in a more comfortable, intimate and personal setting.
Did you think about that before you’d finished the film?
Absolutely not, it was something I never thought I’d do actually! We went to Sundance thinking that we’d sell it for a theatrical release, and we did get many offers, but what HBO proposed to us made me realise the impact it would have on millions of viewers at home. Theatrical can be dicy, and so I think that the idea that this labour of love, a film that I wanted as many people to see as possible, might die a quiet death. Or go with HBO and have so much muscle behind it. I really thought the film needs that. My ego may appreciate theatrical, but the film wants HBO.
You started the film such a long time ago, but how does it feel to have released your film and told your story now in the post-Weinstein and #MeToo era?
I started the script almost 10 years ago, which was so long before this era. Frankly I was terrified. I felt that the physical scenes were a deal maker or breaker for me, I had to have these scenes or I wouldn’t make the film. As you can imagine I had a lot of fights and a lot of people walked away from the script because of them. So I made this film with my heart in my hands, thinking ‘will anybody watch it?’ ‘Will it get blacklisted?’ I was really worried because we’d had films in the States with less controversy which didn’t go well. Then, accidentally the whole #MeToo movement and Times Up came, and the film came out on the heels of that, and I felt like it really opened up people’s hearts and minds to say: ‘we’re ready’, ‘we’re listening’, ‘we can actually tolerate this’ and to feel that it’s worth going through this journey. I’m really happy that it’s come out at this time.
Can you talk about why you decided to choose your own name?
Choosing my own name for me was the only way I could protect the film. I really thought if critics have a real person they can’t deny what I’ve told. I have to stand up and this is real…
This is your story.
Exactly, and it happened like this. I was really afraid that people would say it’s impossible, that a child can’t love their abuser. That it can’t look like how it looks in The Tale, but it did. For me it was an intellectual decision, so I could take care of the actresses, so I could take care of the work; to make sure that it was me stepping up and putting it into the world with my name to it and in it. I think that’s still true, without my name on it the film could’ve been very criticised.
Where do you feel like The Tale will lead you to next?
I want to make more fiction, my goal is always new languages in art and storytelling. Turning the lens onto the world, and changing it in a way. But I’m actively looking for stories I want to tell right now.
The Tale is available on HBO now and premiered at Sundance London on 31st May.
If you or anyone you know has suffered from domestic abuse you can get help here.