Tamara Jenkins' "Private Life" is a film that gets the details right. Bowing as one of the 26 films chosen for the main slate of this year's 56th annual New York Film Festival, it zeroes in on a married couple (as played by Katherine Hahn and Paul Giamatti) coping with a neverending infertility struggle and the collapse of their marriage, as they navigate through the world of adoption and assisted reproduction. It features indelibly pertinent performances from Hahn, Giamatti, and newcomer Kayli Carter, the latter who plays the married couple's niece who agrees to be their egg donor. The New York City apartment all three share in the film, as they navigate in and out going to endless doctor's appointments, feels very much like a character of its own. It's in this closed claustrophobic atmosphere that the film tries to squeeze out the inner-kept emotional trauma of the characters.
Fertility is not a subject matter that has been depicted this thoroughly and with this much realism on-screen before and so it is no surprise that a lot of it derived from Jenkins' own private life. "The core emotional experience was my own," says Jenkins, "My husband and I also did international adoption, but I of course also spoke to other people. The domestic adoption story is from a friend of mine, but the emotional core of the movie I understood because I went through my own emotional journey." That, of course, didn't convince her to put all of her personal experience on screen: "Once you start writing, the narrative demands fiction to sort of takeover, and invention does need to fly in, like Kayli and Molly Shannon's characters are pure fiction, but the core of it is something that I know I was interested in exploring in ways I wasn't when I was obviously going through the ordeal myself."
When asked about the roots of this project's beginnings, Jenkins says she found notes on it right after she completed "The Savages." "I noticed that I had scrolled down notes in 2008 sort of immediately following that film, I had notes on a notebook about scenes for this movie and just a month ago I found them and I thought "wow, that's so weird, why did I have them for this long? Then I realized that life just got in the way."
Ever since garnering an Oscar nomination for 2007's "The Savages," we hadn't heard much about writer-director Tamara Jenkins, a singular talent who deserves to be more active in the industry than she is. However, when it comes to her own experiences during this time off, it went by very quickly, as, well, life got in the way. "I had a baby in 2009, both my husband and I are writers, I also taught, I teach at NYU grad film and then the making of "Private Life" probably took close to five years to make. I mean, the writing of it is probably two years and then I have to chip away at it. I mean, every time I write something it takes two years and then getting people on-board to finance it is another year. I mean, when I was ready to hand it in I was ready to shoot it but just because I want to shoot a movie it doesn't mean the world wants to follow my lead. I mean, there's a lot of shopping around to find people that want to finance your movie. Even after you find people that want to finance you have to come to terms on the actors and the budget and then you have to start all over again. All that stuff takes time, but it didn't take me ten years to make, but it probably took me close to 5."
Of course, "Private Life" is very much from a female point of view, and this makes it all the more authentic in that it pours emotional context that can only be delivered through the eyes of a female filmmaker. "When you write you pour yourself into everybody so I do feel like I'm all these characters," Jenkins says, "This movie became this triptych of women at different biological reproductive moments in a life. Molly's character is in an empty nest, menopause moment and Katherine was pushing the envelope in terms of the end of her fertility and Kayli's character was bursting with fecundity. I realized it was this evolution of the female experience through a biological reproductive point of view."
Such a heavy, non-mainstream topic is bound to have studios shuddering at the thought of financing such an endeavor, after all, Hollywood has mostly stayed mute in regards to depicting IVF and other such fertility procedures. "It's been hinted at in other movies" says Jenkins, "or turned into broad comedy like in "Baby Mama." It's been referred to in comedies, but historically there are plenty of stories of couples that can't conceive like "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf," Greek mythology, the Bible, but now with reproductive technology it's different."
However, according to Jenkins, after numerous failed attempts at financing, Netflix came to save the day. "They have such incredible films lined up, it's kind of amazing. They really swooped in and saved us. We had Paul and Katherine lined up and it's so complicated organizing around their schedules, it's a very tight window so had they not worked so fast we would have lost that window and who knows how long we would have waited to have them come back and recommit."
That tight window consisted of what Hahn calls "a significant independent movie shoot" which had "times where it felt a little too rushed. We would have loved to have had more than 30 days."
The thought of having her film streamed to hundreds of countries around the world was enough to excite her at having "Private Life" jump onboard that world, "Streaming is astonishing, everything is just mutating before our eyes. It's just shifting. I don't know where the world is going to end up in many ways, it just feels like it's changing all the time. I feel like everything is changing and it has metamorphosized in the short time that I have been involved in the industry."
Newcomer Kayli Carter, known to most as Sadie Rose in "Godless," is no stranger to TV, and playing the married couple's egg-donor niece in "Private Life" was no different than playing Rose in Scott Frank's series, she says, "the medium between TV and movies is only very slightly different. Overall the intention and the inspiration is all the same, I'm just trying to find a way to tell this person's truth and to dig into them and to really find the parts where they're messy, raw and vulnerable. I'm lucky to have worked with Scott Frank in "Godless," and he always made sure to come up to you and talk to you about the character. I don't see a difference. Netflix is becoming such a disruptor in the way studios are doing things. Personally, if this were a studio film I wouldn't be talking to you, there's no way they would have cast me. This blurring of the lines is a democratization of film and welcoming everyone, it's democratizing casting especially, they are taking chances."
When the script was finally shipped off to Hahn, she just knew it was something she couldn't turn down, "When I got the script it said "Private Life by Tamara Jenkins" and I was so excited because I loved "The Savages" so much, but the title could have been about anything, I had no idea it would be about infertility and assisted reproduction. I went in completely blind and I just fell in love with this couple. With the specificity of this marriage in the same way I love the brother/sister relationship in 'The Savages,' I just love her writing, it's so gorgeous and clear and so specific. When I finished reading it I thought 'oh well, now my heart's going to be broken because I probably won't get this part' [laughs]."
She did get the part, but not before meeting up with Jenkins and Giamatti at the filmmaker's NYC apartment, and suffice to say they hit it off immediately, "She set our dinner and it was just the easiest, most casual, hilarious meeting. I just felt I knew him forever, we just felt like siblings, only in ways long marriages can. It was set, so perfect and easy and then you added Kayli to the mix and it was "of course!" It all felt like it fit."
Tamara's integrity as a filmmaker is so high, I'm in awe of the detail and time to set up everything, in terms of the world we walk into, the set, the costumes, she takes care of all of that and all we had to was sit and simmer a actors and show up this beautiful, lived in space. Everything, the details, the smell, it was Richard and Rachels' world, why would you do any resistance when it is just given to you. We just walked into it."
Carter also praises Jenkins, calling the film an "embarrassment of riches from Tamara" that stems from "the way that people speak to one another in the script. Everybody is endowed with such resonance and so clearly coming from somewhere that is very specific to their character." As a woman, Carter says she rarely finds screenplays this rich in female characters, "It's almost scary for me to have such a gift of a script like this and I can honestly say, after finishing this, that I read only a single script that I've loved as much in the past year and a half since I got to make this movie. As a young woman, I find it frightening to not find a character to grow attached to, it's slim picking out there."
There's a universality to the story, as more and more people are becoming open about their problems with fertility, which laid the groundwork for both Hahn and Carter to easily navigate through their research online. Hahn, who gives an indelibly heartfelt performance as Rachel, was struck not just by Tamara's personal experience, but also by the hundreds she read online, so much so that research turned into sheer personal curiosity." My character was, of course, inspired by Tamara's own personal experiences, but I think it was just a jumping off point beyond that. I wouldn't say it was autobiographical but it does stem from her experiences, no doubt. However, then I read a book called "Avalanche: A Love Story," which really affected me. "The Art of Waiting" was another book I read, which was profound. On YouTube, there's a whole world, there are hundreds upon hundreds of women and couples that put up testimonials of their fertility journeys, the positive and negatives outcomes of going through IVF or something close to that. Those stories really touched me, most are set to beautiful music and they just killed me [laughs], the vulnerability, it was just too much to bear. These videos, they would devastate me. So that was the work I did, I would just kind of go home and fall asleep watching these videos, it wasn't even researching anymore, I was just compelled to bear witness to their stories and watch them over and over again."
Carter, on the other hand, went through what she calls a "really solid base of research," skimming through hundreds of blogs from egg donors. It paid off in satisfactory ways, with what the actress says has become a recurrent trend in the Q&A's she's been doing for the film, "we've had these women come up to us say I've done six IVF's and five IUI's and this film really gets it. There was also this other couple that came to us and showed us a picture of their baby who was conceived through IVF. The film had an impact on them and they had never seen anything quite like it before.
Despite the film being partially inspired by her own personal experiences, Jenkins spoke to others and did her own research through written testimonies, "I did realize that it was happening all around me and there seemed to be a kind of mini-epidemic with people pursuing parenthood through these means." she adds that part of it has to do with being a working woman these days, "A lot of writers, journalists, artists that waited due to their careers and when the time came for them to want kids they were up against limitations. It's also so much in the culture. Tons of articles, books, journals. I was interested in writing about marriage, a middle-aged marriage and I was trying to look for the perfect metaphor for middle-aged marriage because you're up against the differences of what your expectations were about life then and what you have now."
Jenkins' casting of Hahn, Giamatti, and Shannon, in pivotal roles was no coincidence either. They all have backgrounds in comedy and the way the lines are delivered in "Private Life" sometimes feels like effortless humor, very much in the way people speak in real-life. Jenkins admits she needed that to convey what she felt on-screen, "I really liked that I had actors with a background in comedy, I just like the shimmer between comedy and drama which is something that I aspire to as a writer and as a filmmaker because I feel like it's a very alive place, that tone. They are great actors and they can straddle that thing, not many actors can. I felt like Phil Hoffman and Laura Linney had that ability too. It's a very specific actor to be able to just do that."