Jennifer Fox Was Tired of the ‘Fade to Black’
By Ashley Morton
The director, writer and producer of The Tale speaks to the union of past, present and fantasy in her film.
HBO: When did you first decide you wanted to tell this story as fiction?
Jennifer Fox: I started making films when I was 20 and in the back of my mind, I always wanted to tell this story but didn’t know how. It took until I was a mature woman to feel like I was ready. But weirdly, I always thought it had to be fiction. Because it’s dealing with the ephemeral of memory, and there were no witnesses to speak directly about it, it really had to be enacted and built as fiction.
HBO: The film dips in and out of past, present and fantasy sequences — why structure the story this way?
Jennifer Fox: The reality is I was trying to find a way to express how the mind works, and the stories we tell ourselves to survive. This visual language just evolved out of my imagination: I have this thought and then this, and then I’m in the present at this event. How do we show that? And how do we show how our memories change with new information? It evolved into a storytelling tool to translate these thoughts to the viewer.
HBO: How did your documentary background influence the style of the film?
Jennifer Fox: Visually, I wanted it to not at all look like a documentary. I wanted very static, classic-looking shots. But conceptually, there are moments where Jennifer can’t get answers from anyone in reality so she begins to fantasize that she can interview people from the past. And that is definitely coming from my documentary background.
However, they’re shot in a very ordinary way that should fit into the look of the whole film. I wanted to say that in the mind the present, past and imagination are all one thing, and we move back and forth between them effortlessly. So there’s not a different look for the past or the fantasy scenes.
HBO: Could you talk a little about the casting process?
Jennifer Fox: Brian De Palma, who has been following my work from the beginning, was the one who suggested casting Laura Dern. He said, “She’s got something in her like you, and she’s fierce. She’s the only actress I know who is courageous enough to play this part.”
And frankly, I can’t think of another actor who I would want to play this role. Obviously, I didn’t cast her because she looks like me — we look nothing alike — but she brings this incredible flexibility of craft, and this physicality. She takes on a role in her body. Laura can go from being really true to the script to very deep improvisation.
I gave folders of research material to each of the actors: photos, letters the real people had written me; my diaries if it was for Jenny; interviews if it was for my mother. With Ellen Burstyn, I was looking to cast someone like my mom: strong, smart, but also funny. The interesting thing about Jennifer and Nettie is they are talking about really heavy topics, but it isn’t always heavy when they talk about it. And that’s the normalness of life. They don’t sit around crying about these things, this is a mother and daughter who’ve been looking at these issues and events for years.
HBO: Was it difficult to cast the part of young Jenny?
Jennifer Fox: It was just an impossible role. We saw hundreds of girls, and I couldn’t find anyone who could authentically play that moment of both authority and innocence of a prepubescent girl. I knew Isabelle Nelisse’s older sister, Sophie (who had aged out of the role), and I got in touch with Isabelle’s mom. She said, “I think my daughter is mature enough to handle it.”
HBO: The film does not look away from the sexual experiences. Could you discuss why you wanted to show as much as you did?
Jennifer Fox: When I approached the story, I knew I wanted the physical scenes in. For me it was a deal-breaker — if I couldn’t have those scenes, there wasn’t a film. Now that I’ve made it, I think the reason why I needed them in was I’m so tired of the fade to black, or door closing, in films so the audience can walk away with this vagueness of what happened and fog out the truth of it.
I wanted to show the ordinary horror of it: This is not pleasurable for Jenny as a young girl; this is not fun. In fact, she throws up after every time. We cannot pretend this is a “Lolita moment” of seduction. As uncomfortable as they are to watch, we can no longer turn away from what this really looks like.
HBO: Could you explain how these moments were shot?
Jennifer Fox: Those scenes were highly constructed shot for shot. Jason Ritter (who plays Bill) worked with a 22-year-old body double. Jason and Isabelle were shot apart, on different days, never touching each other at all. Of course Isabelle read the script — she knows what it’s about — but she’s not acting those scenes. She stood in front of a vertical bed with her hair sprayed out, and I asked her act out non-sexual cues, like, “Act like a bee stung you,” “Act like you’ve eaten something sour.” And then, just to make it even safer for her, there was a psychologist, a representative of the Screen Actors Guild, her mother, and even her dog on set, as well as all of the producers to make sure she was OK.
HBO: The end of the movie declares Jenny’s story as the source material for the film. What should this tell the viewer?
Jennifer Fox: When you hear “The Tale” being read in the film, that is the story I wrote at 13, verbatim. I remember it really well, I handed it in as fiction, but it’s a very thinly-veiled reality. It’s really fascinating that my child-self wrote a letter to my future-self about what happened without knowing she was doing it. If I didn’t have that story, I wouldn’t have clear evidence of the event.
It’s the voice of a young girl speaking to the future, and she isn’t weak or passive; she’s a thinking, three-dimensional person. As adults we tend to flatten ourselves, and see our child-selves as mishmashes of nothingness; but there she was speaking with great authority. I really wanted to credit her.
HBO: What do you hope viewers ultimately take away from this film?
Jennifer Fox: First, I hope the audiences go on a journey that moves them emotionally, that surprises them, shocks them, and ultimately makes them come out the other side with something new happening in their mind. And then I really hope the film inspires people to look at their own lives and memories, and how they’ve dealt with trauma and the stories they’ve told themselves, and begin to accept parts they might have split off.
I hope it sparks a whole new conversation about the complexity, nuance, and messiness of abuse, and in doing so helps survivors heal. A child can feel love for someone that hurts them — and both things can be true simultaneously. You don’t have to erase one to say, “This is bad.” I really hope we have a whole new conversation coming out of this film and it allows survivors to speak accurately about what they really feel.