Following standing ovations at Sundance Film Festival and a premiere on HBO last month, The Tale finally hits UK shores with a showing on Sky Atlantic tonight at 10pm. The Tale is documentarian Jennifer Fox’s first fiction film, yet it’s still a work entrenched in reality, as it recounts the story of Fox’s own childhood sexual abuse and how she re-examines these events in her late 40s.
If you have been affected by any of the issues raised in The Tale, or if you need assistance or support, you can visit thetalemovie.com/get-help-now, or you can contact the Rape Crisis Helpline at www.rapecrisis.org.uk or on 0808 802 9999.
Laura Dern gives a breathtaking, nuanced turn as Jennifer, while Isabelle Nélisse skilfully navigates challenging, hard-hitting terrain with an exceptionally mature performance as Jennifer’s 13-year-old self. Fox employs a compelling narrative device which allows her to directly question people from her past (including her younger self) and explore how we use memories to construct notions of our identity. It’s a powerful, unflinching, timely self-portrait of abuse and its long-lasting effects.
At its UK premiere at Sundance London, we sat down with Jennifer Fox to talk about her narrative decisions, choosing HBO as distributor, and the changes she’s seen in the film industry.
There are so many ways to tell a personal story. Obviously you’re a documentary filmmaker, so I wondered why you felt a feature film was right for this story?
Oh, this had to be fiction because there is no evidence and there is nobody who would talk about the story. So I actually never, ever considered telling this as documentary and even though I only decided to make it in my 40s, I had always thought I will make this story into a fiction film. Remember I started to make films when I was 21, I’ve been doing it a long time. But right through my 20s I always thought I would like to turn this into a film, but it’ll be fiction.
You use a sort of interrogation technique throughout the film where the characters are breaking the fourth wall and talking to the camera. Why did you go down that road?
I didn’t know when I started writing how I would tell the story because, how do you show the mind and the way the mind works? And how do you show memory? I wrote this over a long period of time. When I first wrote it, I wrote it all in the backstory and that was sort of year one because I was making other films. When I looked at that screenplay I was like “Boring”. I wasn’t even interested because it’s abuse 101, it’s so obvious. So I threw it out and I thought I really want to talk about memory and the construction of self and how do we construct our identity? When I did that, I really threw out everything I know about narrative film-making and narrative structure. Then I just said, “How can I show this?” and I started to experiment. But at the same time, I went on a real journey and in the journey there were a lot of roadblocks that I couldn’t figure out from the truth. The real people wouldn’t tell me and my 13-year-old self doesn’t exist anymore. So how do I discover her? How do I discover them when they won’t tell me? So that’s how I began to come up with these devices of interrogating the past through my imagination.
“I didn’t know when I started writing how I would tell the story…”
It’s almost as if you were inviting us into your own memories and navigating things that you yourself didn’t even remember. Was it important for you to say, “I think this is what happened, but I am not entirely sure?”
It wasn’t so much about the facts, because the facts I never forgot. I mean, even Bill’s dialogue is straight photographically from memory, like literally. It wasn’t about the facts, it was about the take on the story and how I actually played it to myself as one way, when, in fact, it was maybe many other ways. It was about shifting the perspective of the narrative and investigating the different shifts of the narrative. The question of truth wasn’t as much there as the telling and about how the mind is protective in what it will tell itself. I didn’t use the words ‘sexual abuse’ until I was 45 and I think of myself as a very honest person; I’m certainly not afraid of facing hard things. I’m known for being someone who faces into the wind, so to speak.
Why was that? Why didn’t you use that phrase until you were 45?
I think when I did finally use it, it was… first of all, I was making this film about women called Flying: Confessions of a Free Woman and the film was not about abuse and it wasn’t about trauma – it was about freedom. Every woman I talked to, every other woman, didn’t matter about class, didn’t matter about colour, didn’t matter where they lived, had an abuse or a rape story. The sexual abuse stories sounded just like my story, except I thought my story was private and personal. I thought it was just me, like literally my own private island so to speak. Suddenly, it was like “Oh my god, this is a universal phenomenon and I live in a world of gender”. Because on another level, there’s a whole other mystery in my life that I kind of denied gender – I’m not a girl because girls don’t get to do anything, I’m just gender neutral. I went to shoot a film in Beirut, Lebanon in the middle of the war and I was 21. You don’t do that when you’re thinking “I’m a girl!” You know what I mean? You just don’t.
Funnily enough I see it with younger women today, there’s a way that some women did what I did which is – you put your blinders on and you run and you say, “I can do this”. So anyway, here I am admitting in my 40s that I belong to a larger world in which bad things happen to women and a lot of women. So, in a sense, it was like realising that I couldn’t tolerate the narrative that I was weak. I couldn’t tolerate the narrative that I was a victim. In fact being a victim would have hurt me more than the abuse. So why go there? Now I don’t want to say that I didn’t leave somebody by the road and there’s a part of me that frankly, when I revisited it, was left huddled in a corner crying. But there’s another part of me that was a winner and was a hero and both things are true. I think the film is grappling with all those truths.
“I couldn’t tolerate the narrative that I was a victim.”
You showed the acts of the abuse in a classy way but at the same time you didn’t cut any of it or fade out and I thought that was really brave. Can you tell me why you did that?
Sometimes, you don’t have words. When I was writing the film, and first decided to make a fiction film, I knew those scenes had to be in and that was a deal-breaker. No scenes, no film. For me, if I think of it intellectually, I can then back up and say – classically you fade to black; the door closes. But in fact, nothing about this story is horrific except for those moments. Up until then everything is good and everything after is good because what the child that I was, was getting was attention, love, I felt special, and I was this unattractive, invisible little kid. So what happened in that room was like ordinary horror. It’s also about the exchanges we make for attention and love and many girls do that when they’re on the journey of sexuality. So you see the child making exchanges in which she doesn’t know the price and also paying a price that she doesn’t know the long term effects of.
The other piece is you see the perpetrator Bill thinking that he’s doing a good thing and that’s really important too because I think the perpetrators are not evil they are also stuck – they’re not evil as we think of them. They’re stuck in their own delusions and their own narcissism. They don’t see the child and that the child is not capable of crossing those boundaries at that time. Bill thought he was doing me a good thing, thought I was throwing up because I had the flu, thought he was saving me from young boys because he was being so nice – that’s important. Thought he was taking me on a date and bringing my mother flowers. I mean, think about that.
“HBO was a total surprise when we took it out to Sundance.”
What made HBO the right platform for the film, for you?
You know, HBO was a total surprise when we took it out to Sundance without distribution, except for Germany, which is our co-producing partner. We had a ton of offers but HBO, what they presented to me was like… frankly, I had thought we were going to cinemas. But when I heard HBO’s case, I did a 180 degree turn. The case was this – we know that a film like this, which is very dark, is incredibly risky in the cinema and frankly, could have died a very quick death and so the hopes and dreams of this being seen by millions of people around the world could have gone up in smoke because of my ego wanting to see it in the cinema. HBO offered me millions of viewers, tons of publicity. Basically, a publicity machine internationally and in America beyond which no American distributor could offer me. I thought I have to choose for the film and for the audience and I said yes, basically.
I really did an about-face within one day and I think I was right because millions and millions of people will see this film and talk about this film. And frankly, with this film, as much as I want to see it in the cinema, for some people, it’s better to watch it at home and to take it in more privately. What we’ve done though is put out a website at thetalemovie.com and we’ve offered a free screening guide and are inviting people to watch it with friends, family and co-workers and to talk about it. So, to have that dialogue after screening it is what’s really important to me. Which is what you might get in the cinema, so I want people to have that at home basically.
You have been making films since you were 21. How have you seen the industry change and what’s next?
I come from documentary and documentary is much more gender equal. Women I believe go into documentaries because it’s more manageable – all the things that would classically be female oxymorons: less money, smaller crews, more intimate. So going into fiction for me as this person who didn’t really believe in gender was shocking. To be facing the kind of sexism you see in fiction film-making in America is just… and the fact that I made it through the gauntlet is only because I’m so tough. But what does a young woman do? How do you get there when you’re not as seasoned as I am? But I do think that times are changing. I do think the industry has woken up. I do think this film is so helped by the #MeToo movement and Time’s Up. Because people are actually ready to have this conversation that a year or two ago they were not ready to have. And remember child sexual abuse is one step further than assault on an adult woman. So here we have a moment where people are at least willing to talk, I think we wouldn’t have gotten the reaction we did if the door hadn’t already been opened.
The Tale is currently available to buy on VOD.