Tamara Jenkins makes warm, funny films out of her own bleak, painful experiences.
In 2007’s “The Savages,” she told the story of an estranged brother and sister (Philip Seymour Hoffman and Laura Linney) who reconcile to take care of their ailing father. Jenkins based the story on her own experience caring for her dying father.
In her new film, “Private Life,” she tells the story of a New York couple (played by Kathryn Hahn and Paul Giamatti) struggling with infertility while trying to keep their marriage intact. Here, Jenkins also drew from real life: when she and her husband — fellow filmmaker Jim Taylor (who is Alexander Payne’s writing partner) — were trying to have a child by any means necessary, including international adoption and in vitro fertilization. They succeeded. Jenkins gave birth to a daughter, now 8.
Somewhere along the way, that harrowing time became the impetus for Jenkins’ next film — her first since she received an Oscar nomination for her “Savages” screenplay.
Like “Savages” (and her film “Slums of Beverly Hills” before it), “Private Life” relishes in the texture of everyday life and lived-in experience. Jenkins doesn’t just want to make her films ring true emotionally. She wants them to look true.
In the case of the East Village-set “Private Life,” she wanted it to actually be shot in the East Village, not just Montreal playing the East Village. She wanted that authenticity. But authenticity costs more.
Eventually, “Private Life” landed in the hands of Netflix, right at a time when the streaming giant is shepherding the projects of important filmmakers — like Jenkins, Alfonso Cuaron, the Coen brothers — to the small screen.
Netflix got her the resources she needed. The flip side is that “Private Life,” which debuted on Netflix on Friday, won’t get much of a theatrical run. On the plus side, the film exists.
Though you won’t be able to see “Private Life” on too many big screens, Jenkins will bring her film to the Dundee this month for a special one-time screening.
She spoke with us ahead of her visit about why she likes to make comedies about life-and-death matters, and why a lived-in texture is so essential to her movies.
Note: The interview was edited for length and clarity.
Omaha World-Herald: In terms of the distribution of movies, so much has changed since you made “The Savages.” It’s a whole different world, right?
Jenkins: I don’t think there was such a thing as streaming then. Plus, I shot on film. So this is the first movie that I’ve shot digitally and the first movie where I was working with a studio that certainly wasn’t an old-fashioned studio, like Fox Searchlight. This is like a new kind of studio, which is a Netflix or an Amazon.
OWH: I read that when the movie was originally at Amazon, the budget maybe wasn’t quite what it needed to be to make the movie you wanted. But Netflix came through later, yes?
Jenkins: Yeah. I mean, Amazon was very nice about putting the film in turnaround and letting us bring it somewhere else. That can sometimes be very sticky, and they were super gracious about that. Then Netflix swooped in and said, “We’ll do that at the price it needs to be at to shoot in New York City.” Which was really important to the movie. I wasn’t willing to shoot it in Montreal, which was pretty much what it would have been with the first budget presented to us. That felt really wrong.
OWH: It has very much that feeling of being exactly where it’s set. Even in the interiors.
Jenkins: Yeah, it’s amazing how texture bleeds through in movies. There’s a ton of interiors, but you can just feel the texture of the city. Even with the extras, what people look like, the sound of it, all of it — it all informs the movie somehow. And all the places, all the restaurants, I was very fixated on getting their New York, the East Village of the characters, getting it really right and the socioeconomic reality of that world: the rent-stabilized apartments, holding onto the city by the skin of your teeth. I really wanted them to feel connected to that place because it really informed who they were.
OWH: As with your previous film (“The Savages”), you found drama and comedy in a story inspired by your own experiences. “Savages” and “Private Life” both have some autobiographical elements to them. Why, as a filmmaker, are you attracted to going back to these experiences, even though they’re not, you know, the most pleasant things to relive?
Jenkins: Why am I gravitating to that subject matter?
Jenkins: In “The Savages,” it was about this elder care situation where a brother and a sister who were estranged grow together to take care of their dying father with dementia. And “Private Life” is about a couple battling their infertility issues. And I guess in both of those situations, they seem like they’re very primal situations. And those situations with death or life or infertility or birth, I think they push human behavior in ways that I’m very interested in looking at. Because it’s difficult terrain, but it makes the characters act in ways I’m interested in looking at. People become stripped of etiquette and what’s appropriate. They’re just acting on such an instinctual level.
OWH: I think both with “The Savages” and “Private Life,” they’re both good films in their own right, but because they are going to these places, you know, making dark comedy out of elder care and infertility, they kind of by default become the definitive films of their respective genres. Because their genres don’t really exist.
Jenkins: (Laughs). Nobody else is going there? Is that what you mean?
Jenkins: Yes, who else is making movies about those things?
OWH: For “Private Life,” I was wondering how you landed on Kathryn Hahn and Paul Giamatti as the couple.
Jenkins: I am the luckiest person on the planet. My casting director read the script. We sat down at a coffee shop, and she said, “Well, the perfect person for this role is Kathryn Hahn.” At that point, I wasn’t that familiar with Kathryn Hahn, and I had to go educate myself quickly and understood immediately what she was talking about. And Paul was somebody I had a crush since before “Sideways,” but I got to know him as a person during “Sideways” because Jim and Alexander made the movie with Paul. In fact, I offered him the role in “The Savages” first. He was the first person I went to. And he passed on it. I remember crying. I was really devastated. But then, of course, I got to work with the great Philip Seymour Hoffman, which worked out pretty well. But when I approached Paul for this movie and told him I was gun-shy because I was so devastated by the first rejection, he told me that that was the first time in his life that anyone offered him a role and then went to Philip Seymour Hoffman.
OWH: It was surprising that Giamatti and Hahn had never been on screen together before. They just feel so natural.
Jenkins: I know, they feel so right. I remember the first meeting we had. When I got them together for the first time, I took a picture of them on my cellphone. It was a few months before we went into production. I set up a dinner for them at Paul’s house and cooked them dinner. When they got together, we went through the script and had a kind of stolen rehearsal that night. And I took a picture of them on the couch in Paul’s apartment. And I held it on my cellphone as a talisman, and I would check in with it as we were leading up to production. Every time I looked at that picture, they just felt like a couple. And I remember thinking, “This isn’t a movie couple. This is a couple couple.” I was excited about the authenticity and believability of them as a couple. It just felt so lived-in.