Awards Daily TV talks to Jennifer Fox, the writer-director of HBO’s acclaimed The Tale. Fox shares her personal experiences creating this intense fact-based drama.
Writer-director Jennifer Fox began her career as a documentary filmmaker, exploring such complex topics as female socio-political issues and civil war in the Middle East. Yet, her most challenging work to date stems from a source closest to her yet – her own shifting perspectives of a troubled past. HBO’s The Tale stars Laura Dern as Jennifer Fox, a documentarian re-evaluating her memories of childhood sexual abuse. Perhaps as a method of self-preservation, Fox grew up believing a sexual relationship she had in her adolescence with a much older man was a consensual love affair. As the searing film progresses, Fox gradually realizes it was anything but.
Despite her documentary background, Fox tackled the film as her first fictional narrative film. Straddling the two filmmaking styles, The Tale features creative sequences in which “Jennifer” (Dern) interviews key players from her past. This creative decision puts an intriguing spin on the subject matter. It was a choice born out of necessity that influences an exciting career shift into fiction filmmaking.
“I never saw this story as anything but fiction. The real people would never talk directly to me, so there was no way to populate it with reality or with real people. The film was so much about memory and how I constructed it myself over time that it had to be fiction and it had to be acted with actors,” Fox explained. “Plus, as I moved into my 40s, I realized it was time for me to start moving into fiction as a way of expanding my craft. This story felt like a natural extension of that.”
Yet, as she was creating the film, she had no idea how timely it would feel upon release.
The Tale and the #MeToo Movement
Writing, casting, and filming The Tale spanned three years for Jennifer Fox. Yet, when premiering at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival, the film emerged after a tumultuous year that saw many of Hollywood’s biggest stars clouded with allegations of sexual harassment or abuse. What once felt like an intimate and deeply personal story instantly became the personal story of millions.
“It’s just been an extraordinary time that, suddenly, these events that have happened for decades are being faced by society and being appropriately looked at. For the film to come out at this moment is fantastic really,” Fox remarked.
As strong reviews started pouring out of Sundance, critics and audiences alike instantly embraced parallels to recent stories of sexual abuse. It helped open a candid conversation about subject matter generally avoided historically. Star Laura Dern recently spoke of The Tale‘s “restorative justice” at an event in support of the film.
“If the film had come out even a year earlier, I don’t think people would have been ready for how complex and nuanced and difficult this story is,” Fox explained. “Now, in 2018, I think people are ready for it because of the #MeToo movement.”
Entrusting Her Actors with Such a Deeply Personal Tale
Given the intense and intensely personal subject matter, one could imagine Jennifer Fox being trepidatious about entrusting this story to strangers. It wasn’t even of the slightest concern.
“To hand anything over to Laura Dern is just a miracle because what she only brings is something better back to you,” Fox gushed.
The partnership between the writer-director and star ultimately served to enhance the experience of the film. Dern absorbed Fox’s initial screenplay and explored the truth behind each moment. The two actually rewrote many scenes thanks to their collaborative probing and questioning of the material. Fox’s primary role, ultimately, was to protect the authenticity of her story.
“God gave me a cast from Heaven, and I’m grateful in all ways. They’ve shown me a better version of the truth than what I’d written,” Fox said.
Isabelle Nélisse, in particular, proved a particularly amazing find as the young Jenny Fox, age 13. Hailing from Montreal, Nélisse received the pivotal role after a US-based casting search failed to find a young actor with the right balance of innocence and naturalistic acting ability. After reading the script, Nélisse discussed the film and the experience with Fox for two hours over the phone. That conversation proved that she understood the story and wasn’t afraid of the difficult subject matter.
When it came to filming the scenes, she was completely protected from anything resembling an emotionally damaging experience.
“She was never in the same space for the physical scenes with Jason [Ritter]. We played those scenes on a vertical bed. We rehearsed very non-sexual cues with her like ‘act like a bee is stinging you’ or ‘act like a dog is chasing you’ or ‘what if you were eating an ice cream.’ What Isabelle brought to the table that I can take no credit for is that she is a very natural actress. If she doesn’t feel something is real, then she doesn’t play it.”
The scene closing the film shows Jenny Fox claiming [Jason Ritter’s character] actually loved her. Of all the challenging scenes in the film, this proved the most difficult for the young actress. It brought Nélisse to tears.
“Isabelle had to find something authentic in herself to play that scene, and she did,” Fox explained. “She did it beautifully.”
Despite serving as her first outing as a director of fiction, The Tale provided Fox an opportunity to collaborate with actors in a way she never had before. It’s that collaborative nature and search for the truth that helped translate Fox’s memory into a gorgeous and deeply moving television film.
HBO’s The Tale premieres Saturday, May 26, at 10PM.