Jennifer Fox has been making documentaries for decades, but her latest project is both her first narrative film and her first about her own life. Set to premiere Saturday on HBO, The Tale dramatizes how the writer-director was sexually abused as a young teen — something that the real-life Fox didn’t reckon with until more than 30 years after the fact.
For most of her adult life, Fox remembered her first sexual experience as consensual. She was 13 years old and he was a 40-year-old running coach involved with a horseback-riding program she attended. According to an interview Fox gave to the Los Angeles Times in January, the relationship came into unflattering focus as time passed. At age 45, Fox — who is now 59 — started to re-examine what had happened.
The film, based on a true-life incident, depicts Fox’s mother, played by Ellen Burstyn, discovering a short story Fox wrote for a seventh-grade class in the 1970s. Fox labeled the story fiction and changed the characters’ names, but her mother recognizes truth in its depiction of a teen girl’s relationship with her running coach and the female riding instructor who was supervising her (referred to as “Bill” and “Mrs. G” in the story, respectively).
Fox’s mother confronts her 45-year-old daughter, played by Laura Dern, and Fox re-reads the story, also titled “The Tale.” That’s when she realizes her relationship with her coach wasn’t consensual at all.
The Tale is intimate and upsetting. In scene after wrenching scene, we see Fox piece together her troubled past, recalling multiple versions of the same events, with young actresses of different ages playing her in various flashbacks. We witness painful conversations between mother and daughter about Fox’s abuse. And we get uncomfortable insight into how the 13-year-old was manipulated and abused by her coach, played by Jason Ritter. (A 22-year-old performed as a body double in the sex scenes between the two, taking the place of actress Isabelle Nélisse, who was 11 at the time of filming, according to the Times.)
It’s hard to watch The Tale and consider it anything but a movie about abuse. But that’s not how Fox thinks of the project.
“What I was really interested in was memory and how I had created this story about myself, and the stories that we tell ourselves,” Fox said over the phone. “If I had really taken in that I had been victimized … I couldn’t take it in, and in fact I constructed this hero, which is what you see in the story.”
Mic spoke with Fox about the making of The Tale, what it means to live with trauma and how it feels to release this film in the midst of the #MeToo moment. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Mic: You’ve said publicly that you’re resistant to the idea that making this film was particularly therapeutic because of the subject matter. Still, what has it been like, as a whole, to share a story this personal?
Jennifer Fox: There are a lot of layers about it because, for me, I’ve had the privilege to only make films that I care deeply about. So every film is personal, even if the audience doesn’t know it. And, weirdly, this film is not any different than my other films on that level. When I make a film, even if it’s about somebody else, I’m throwing my body in front of the bus. There’s blood and guts everywhere — that’s just the way I work and, again, I’ve been lucky enough to be able to only make films that I deeply care about.
In that sense, I haven’t found this film particularly different. What I have found hard is that for a character like myself — who spent their life running away from the words “sexual abuse,” who never considered that I was sexually abused — suddenly, in some ways, to be the poster child for sexual abuse forced me to peel another layer back. It’s sort of both things are true: The film is not harder than any other film, and yet, it did take me, again, further in the story in myself.
Could you talk a bit about what you learned about yourself in the process of making this film?
JF: It’s very clear in the film, but one of the surprises when I first used the words “sexual abuse,” when I was 45, making [2006’s Flying: Confessions of a Free Woman], and I met all of these women who had been abused, and their stories sounded like mine, which is why I could finally say, “OK, this wasn’t a relationship, this was abuse. It’s clear now.” But one of the things that I understood about my psychology, and I can’t really explain why because everybody’s different, but for me, as a kid, to be a victim would’ve killed me faster than the abuse itself.
But it doesn’t mean that a part of me wasn’t terribly hurt. And that part of me was something I only began to deal with in my 40s, and of course writing this script is part of trying to understand what happened and what my child self did with this story and what the adult was grappling with.
So, without getting too personal, it just was another layer of facing the hurt of that child that had been so hurt that I could never really deal with, because I would’ve probably ended up unable to get out of bed. I heard somebody say recently, I was at a conference, and they said, “People call rape a death.” And that really struck me because I think that when a child is sexually abused, as I was, a part of them dies, because a part of them is betrayed.
And that was the piece that, at 13, I couldn’t take care of, and actually, couldn’t even face until my mid-forties and am still facing now. I don’t really believe that there’s one day you’re recovered from trauma. I think trauma becomes part of you, and you get better and you heal parts, but there are always pieces of you that are new that you face. And it makes you who you are.
How close is what we see on the screen to what you experienced in your forties, when you really started to grapple with what happened?
JF: It’s very close. Some of the impetuses are fictionalized a bit. It was sort of a perfect storm where I had made this film, Flying, and in the filmmaking I had met all these women, so a piece of Flying did turn out to be about sexual abuse. And then my mother saw the film, recognized my story as well, and then she found “The Tale.” So, I used finding “The Tale” as the impetus, whereas it’s a bit more drawn out in reality. But from that moment, it’s very close to the reality.
It seems like the process of making a narrative film closely mirrored the process of making documentaries. How much did your documentary filmmaking inform the putting together of this script?
JF: A lot, of course. I’m a writer, I’ve written since I was a child, as you know from The Tale; I’ve written poetry and fiction and screenplays all my life.
And in documentary, the editing is like the writing. I didn’t feel out of my element at all writing the script, and it felt like a natural process. Where I think the roads divide quite a bit between documentary [and] fiction is the way you shoot fiction and working with actors. And I was quite aware that I had never worked with actors, so many years before we shot The Tale — starting in about 2011 — I started to do a lot of work with actors to sort of build my chops.
I did several directing programs with actors, and once I had a script or scenes, I started to put them up with actors — [though] not the actors that ended up in the film — and that taught me a lot. I would rewrite after we would put stuff up with local actors because I could see a scene didn’t work. It may be true, but it didn’t work the way it happened in reality, so I’d have to recraft it.
I hope that makes sense. I can give you an example if you want.
Yeah, if you don’t mind.
JF: I had the great fortune of being accepted in a Dutch program called the Binger Lab, which is for developing directors. And they had us put scenes up from my script with actors, and one of the scenes was what I call “The Poetry Scene,” where Jenny is over at Bill’s house and he already, before she came, has a book of poetry sitting on the couch. He wants to show her this poetry. And this is all based on truth — it’s exactly what happened — but in the real event, the real Bill, when he showed me the book of poetry, he sat down and he patted the couch and he said, “You sit by me and you read me this poem,” and he sat with me. It’s a minute detail but the minute you put that up with actors, the audience knows that he’s going to abuse her.
So, we had to rewrite the scene and I had to restage it so that whole scene Bill stays away from her until he brings the blanket and then you know. And he says, “Oh, you’re cold,” and then he sits down with her and looks at her, and then you know. But until that moment you’re not sure because he’s in the kitchen, making dinner and he’s calling out to her. So putting it up with actors really made me see what the difference between what an audience sees and what a child sees. Like, I didn’t know at 13 that him sitting there on the couch, reading poetry, there was anything wrong. But an adult audience sees he’s going to abuse her, scene over.
Even the scenes where Bill’s talking to you about your parents — saying, “Your parents don’t understand you. We can create our own kind of bond” — even then, I personally was like, “This is really inappropriate.”
JF: Oh, absolutely. For me, the film is never about, “Was Jennifer abused?” It’s very possible you know that right at the top, very early. It’s why and how. That kind of behavior is classic grooming behavior, which is, “We know you more than the parents.” Almost everybody who has been abused will tell you, the perpetrator often forms a bond that way.
Putting the movie together — in the writing or the actual filming — were there moments where you felt like, “Oh God, if only this had happened or that had happened, things could’ve turned out differently”?
JF: No, it’s not my character to think like that. Everybody suffers in life. Not everybody is sexually abused, but some people, their parents divorce, they have violence in the family, or someone dies — there’s all sorts of trauma, and I don’t want to rate them at all. My philosophy is that nobody escapes suffering — that’s the nature of human existence. It’s more about what you do with it. Certainly, I’ve struggled with what happened to me and certainly it has hurt me and caused damage, but it’s also made me who I am. So, I don’t even know who I would be without this story and these events, because they so impacted how I see the world and my ability to understand people has been impacted.
I’ve done films all over the world and I can really understand human suffering because — not just in this event, but in other events — I have suffered myself, and it gives me compassion. It doesn’t mean I would want anybody else to go through that, it’s just that I don’t think about, “What if?” What if I wasn’t a short, dark-haired Jewish girl? I mean, my life would be completely different. What if I was blonde and blue-eyed? What if I was born in sub-Saharan Africa and didn’t have enough to eat? We all are born with our lot in life. I don’t think we can compare — I just never imagined what it would be like.
I’m also hoping that the film is bigger than sexual abuse, but more about how we all create stories to survive and how we all deal with trauma differently, and memory can be protective. And not necessarily in a bad way — your memory protects you until you’re ready to deal with some of the other aspects of what really happened.
Before you had this realization in your 40s, was this relationship something you thought about a lot over the decades? Or was it something you put away entirely?
JF: I always thought about it and remembered it. But what I put away was that these two people were still alive. It’s sort of like they just disappeared in a black hole. I never forgot it. Everybody deals with trauma differently — some people blank out trauma. In my case, I remembered it in great detail.
Since you’ve gone through this whole experience — in your 40s revisiting this and understanding it in a new context — has the way that you think about your life changed at all? Have you had to change the story that you tell yourself about yourself?
JF: It certainly has affected the story I tell myself about this event. And that affects everything but I’m sure there are still things I don’t know. We have, in the West, this idea that you “wrap things up” and then you move on, and it’s not really the way I see things. It’s like more of an onion: Down the road, another layer might come up about this and [I’ll] see how it affected my life. It’s not like there’s an endgame where everything’s wrapped up with a little bow.
When you were writing the film and filming it, did you feel like you had to put yourself inside Bill’s perspective? Or Mrs. G’s perspective?
JF: Absolutely. I wanted to, to try to understand, again, why and how. Who were these people? And when I was researching and I spoke to them both, one of my big efforts was to try to understand their [history]. Not that there’s a cause and effect, because sometimes, for perpetrators, there is no obvious cause and effect. They call them, sometimes, “events of happenstance.” A person just has access to a minor and they’re aroused. It’s not necessarily that they’re serial perpetrators, although many are. It’s just there’s not one rule. But there was a way that I really wanted to try to understand them and to get inside their head and I think that’s where the fantasy interviews come into play.
Was it difficult to do that? To try and empathize or put yourself in that perspective? I know you’ve said you felt like you had to do so.
JF: It’s not “had to.” You could’ve made this film completely different and portrayed him as evil. That was not my interest — I was really interested in trying to understand how and why he behaved that way, to the best of my ability. That really was, for my soul, what I wanted to know. So, difficult? I would say no. It was a great opportunity to explore that. I don’t know that I succeeded, because it’s very hard to get inside someone else’s head, and I don’t know a lot about his past. I know some things, but I don’t know a lot.
You’ve talked about how this movie has been in the works for a very long time. How does it feel to have it come out in a moment like this, where issues of sexual abuse and misconduct are being unpacked and discussed in the culture at large?
JF: It was just amazing that, accidentally or [by] providence — we don’t know which — it happened to premiere at exactly the right moment, where the world was ready to actually explore this issue in a more deep and profound and complex way. I think if we had come out a year or two earlier, the film would’ve just gotten panned.
You really think so?
JF: Absolutely. I think it would have been too much.
Considering the sex scenes?
JF: Exactly. I think that because of the moment, people were actually ready to look and ready to face and ready to talk about it as we see they are — they’re responding incredibly. It’s a miracle.
When you’re in these screenings, going to these events, what has the reaction been that audiences are having? What have you seen?
JF: The film got five standing ovations at [the Sundance Film Festival in January] — I have never seen anything like that and I’ve had very successful pieces and very successful films. People also didn’t want to leave the theater. So, we didn’t have people running away like, “Get me out of here.” They wanted to sit and they wanted to feel and I felt almost like what I was doing there was standing up in the room and giving them the space to feel what they needed to feel. It was extraordinary and continues to be extraordinary.
I feel like people are, yes, very emotional and, depending on the person, to different degrees, but it seems to be emotion that they want to have and are ready to have — and, for the most part, find really valuable. I think the film, because it is told from the inside of a child and the inside of an adult woman, allows people to see inside this story in a way they’ve never seen before, and therefore they awake [to] emotions and ideas and thoughts and relate to their life in ways they haven’t before. Because, after all, if it hasn’t happened to you, most people know somebody or have a family member [it has happened to] — it’s very rare that someone isn’t touched by this issue.
The Tale premieres on HBO Saturday at 10 p.m.