Interview with ‘The Tale’ writer/director Jennifer Fox


Documentary Filmmaker
talks to Reel Chicago
before her twice
film The Tale
plays tomorrow at
Gene Siskel Film Center

This Saturday, acclaimed writer/director Jennifer Fox’s haunting and fascinating 2018 film based on her real-life experiences, The Tale, will play at a P.A.X.A (Parents Against Child Sex Abuse) event at the Gene Siskel Film Center.

The Tale, which premiered on HBO last year and was nominated for two Emmys (Laura Dern for Outstanding Lead Actress and Outstanding TV Movie) and a Golden Globe (Dern.) It chronicles Fox’s personal and powerful investigation into her own childhood memories of her relationship with her adult riding instructor Mrs. G (played by Elizabeth Debicki and Frances Conroy) and her lover Bill (Jason Ritter/John Heard.)

The film deftly explores how Fox reshaped her own memories in order to protect herself while pushing the boundaries of filmmaking.

When we meet Jennifer (Dern) she is an accomplished documentarian who is engaged (for six years) to fiancé, Martin (Common.) After her mother (Ellen Burstyn) stumbles upon a short story that Jennifer wrote when she was 13, the filmmaker is forced to open up past doors that had been shut for a very long time.

The film takes place in two time periods – the present with Jennifer as an adult and when she was 13 (played by Isabelle Nélisse.)



The Tale hit me on several different levels, especially near the end when Ellen Burstyn, who plays your mother, laments that she should have protected Jennifer. Yes. Unfortunately, the reality is parents can’t be next to their children you know 24/7. And it was truly a different time. Nobody suspected child sexual abuse in the affluent white Jewish suburbs.
What was the catalyst that made you tell your story on film? I’ve always been a storyteller as you know from the film. When I was 13 or 14, I handed the story in as fiction to my English class after the event. I didn’t call it, “abuse.” In my 20s, I tried to write a treatment for a screenplay based on the events and it was crap. So, I just put it away and went on to make my documentaries.
But the story still nagged at you. Ironically, when I was in my 40s, I was making a series called Flying Confessions of a Free Woman, which is an investigation of women and sexual freedom, not abuse or violence. I kept hearing about how every second or third woman has an abuse story. I just was flabbergasted, this is like an epidemic. It didn’t matter the class, the color or the culture. Every time there was a child sexual abuse story, it always sounded like my “relationship” I had when I was 13. And then – BOOM! – a switch went off and I realized “the event” was sexual abuse. I was finally mature enough to handle the idea that I’ve been a victim of manipulation.
So, you began the process of scripting it out? Yes. I started writing on nights and weekends. I had another documentary I was going to do after The Tale called My Reincarnation. So, I didn’t have the space to just devote myself. It took me about four years to write this script.

Fox directs Common and Laura Dern

Was it hard for you to dredge up the old memories? No. I would call it interesting. I see narrative as like a layer cake – at any given moment we might have one hundred narratives that are possibly going on and I basically preferred the good narratives of this event and totally suppressed anything to do with manipulation and abuse. It became this fascinating investigation of, “How did I do that? Why did I do that? Who is that child?” I realized I didn’t even know who this girl was anymore because now I’m an adult and I have crossed over. If she were to meet me today, she would hate me because I would try to stop her from doing these things. She thought she was making choices by spending time with this 40-year-old man. I would try to stop that so then that was this whole realization like of an investigation into the past.
Fox and Elizabeth Debicki

Did the confrontation with Bill (played by Heard) really happen at the end? No. A good 80 to 90 percent of the script is absolutely based on real life events, but the confrontation is not. In order to write the script, I went on a real journey, pushed by my real mother, to meet the real people. The real Mrs. G was very open to meeting me. The real Bill would talk to me on the phone, but he refused to meet me. Not in a refusal way. I mean he’s a smart man. He just always avoided it. He was always out of town. He was always not available. In that gap of trying to work this out, I got so angry that this person wouldn’t talk to me in person. As a journalist, I recorded all the phone interviews. I wrote the confrontation and dialogue based on that anger.

Screen Shot 2019-04-26 at 9.57.06 AM

ALSO READ: 2019 Chicago Film Critics Festival

What was it like casting older and younger versions of you? (Director) Brian DePalma is a friend of mine and was a mentor to me on the film. He said, “You know Jennifer this is a casting nightmare. How are you going to audition two versions of everybody?” But, we had really great casting help with casting director Matthew Maisto. We also had Oren Moverman as a producer. So, we did the best we could in every circumstance.
I think you did an amazing job. Laura Dern was an amazing find and Isabelle Nélisse is ridiculously good. Isabelle was a godsend. We could not have done it without her because she is 50 percent of the movie. She was really hard to find. We were trying to cast someone who would represent me at 13. I was a skinny flat-chested, no hips. I looked like a 9-year-old boy. So, when we looked for a child that could play me, Matthew Maisto did two or three nationwide searches. It took us two years and we were coming up with no one. Everybody now is so much more developed. And also I felt like a lot of kid actors become very “Disney-fied” in that they act, sing and dance, but naturalism is not something that they can easily do.
Congrats that the film is playing at P.A.X.A this weekend. What do you hope the film will accomplish? The goal for this film was always to have a mainstream general audience. HBO has done a beautiful job with that and it’s just been extraordinary and at the same time to do something that’s rarely done with fiction. But, we also have a documentary to use in a social impact campaign, which means that groups and organizations like P.A.X.A, psychological groups and legal groups all over the country and the world are now using it to help discuss topics of child sexual abuse. So, my goal with the film has always been that we start to see child sexual abuse in a more nuanced and complex way and get away from this kind of fake black and white telling. I’m really excited for P.A.X.A to screen it on Saturday at the Gene Siskel Film Center and to have a discussion afterwards.
If you have the opportunity, please check out this dramatic and necessary film and panel tomorrow at 10 AM at The Gene Siskel Film Center. To register for this FREE event click here.

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