From writer/director Jennifer Fox and based on her own true story, The Tale (premiering on HBO on May 26th) chronicles on woman’s personal and powerful investigation into her own childhood memories and how we reshape them, in order to survive. When a short story resurfaces that Jennifer (Laura Dern), who’s now an accomplished documentarian, wrote for school at age 13, she is forced to re-examine her first sexual experience and sets out on a journey to find those people from her past, in an effort to understand the how and why of it all. The film also stars Isabelle Nélisse, Elizabeth Debicki, Jason Ritter, Frances Conroy, John Heard, Common and Ellen Burstyn.
During this 1-on-1 phone interview with Collider, acclaimed documentary filmmaker Jennifer Fox talked about the experience of telling such a personal story, what made HBO the right home for its release, the process of writing the script, casting the older and younger versions of the same character, how delicately they approached the work with Isabelle Nélisse, the hope that this film will open a dialogue about the truth of sexual abuse, where she’d like to take her work next , and her desire to push the boundary of the art of filmmaking.
Collider: I appreciate you talking to me about this movie. This story is so beautifully and sensitively told, and you approach the storytelling in some really interesting ways that I haven’t seen before.
JENNIFER FOX: Thank you! Thanks so much.
What’s it like to tell such a personal story, screen it for audiences, and then get a standing ovation in response, multiple times?
FOX: We struggled so hard to get this film made and done. To get it finished and to have people believe in it, the anxiety was so great, by the time that we got to Sundance. We didn’t know what was gonna happen. For me, it was really surprising. It was just an absolute surprise because I didn’t know if the film was just going to be panned or what. I know it’s a difficult film, and I know that it does things that other films don’t do and that we’ve never seen before, so I was just, quite frankly, almost sick with worry. It’s a blessing. It’s a miracle that the film has been received so well. We just had our tenth standing ovation, after a screening in Pennsylvania. Every single screening has gotten a standing ovation, so it’s pretty extraordinary. I suspect that it represents a moment when people really want to stand up for stories like these and embrace new storytelling and take on a subject that’s been completely taboo.
Presumably, you made this with the thought that it would hit the big screen, so what ultimately made HBO the right home for this story?
FOX: I think about distribution a lot, and I’ve been watching what’s been happening theatrically and how tough it is in America to get people to leave their homes. The films that have been succeeding are lighter, on the independent level. We know that the big films are escapist, but on the independent level, we just have not seen a film this complex, frankly dealing with such dark topics. The darker ones have not gone as far as this, so I was really concerned that this film just wouldn’t draw the audiences, on a topic like this.
Going in, I didn’t think any theatrical distributor could put the weight and the money behind getting it out there. The kind of PR machine that HBO has, with as quickly as HBO can do it, I knew we’d have all of this effort to satisfy my ego. With a theatrical release, so few eyeballs would actually see it. HBO has millions and millions of viewers, who will see it around the world very quickly, and it will be now. I certainly thought we were gonna do theatrical, but I’m a pragmatic person and when we talked to HBO, I decided to make a 180 degree turn because I thought it would be better for the film.
Obviously, this is a story that you’ve been sitting with for a long time because it’s your life. What was the process of writing the script like? Did it happen very quickly, or was it something that you took a lot of time with?
FOX: I think I wanted to be able to dive in, but I was finishing this big series, Flying: Confessions of a Free Woman, and I was already way overdue and committed to finish this other big piece, called My Reincarnation, which I’d been working on for 20 years. It’s a big longitudinal study of a Buddhist father and his son. I had funding to complete it and they were really clicking their heels and saying, “Okay, we’ve waited, and now you’ve gotta do it.” So, I had to work on finishing one film while finishing another film, so I had to hold myself back and work on this script on nights and weekends, as I was finishing these big pieces. It was a slower process. I think writers write, no matter what, whether or not it’s a full-time job. It’s just part of what you do. I always write, but this went through many stages. At first, I wrote the whole narrative of the backstory in 1973. That was year one. And then, I put it aside. When I looked at it again, I was like, “No, I don’t even care about this film because it’s so obviously a horror story. It’s not really what I want to talk about. I want to talk about how I spun the memory of it and how the child self-created this other narrative.” That spawned a whole other process of figuring out how to show memory and show the way the mind works. It was a whole other investigation that went on for a couple of years.